Q: With cancer sufferer Brittany Maynard ending her life at 29, is it time to revise the laws on assisted dying?
Rabbi Alexandra Wright says…
Brittany Maynard, 29, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, was given a few months to live and chose to end her life in Oregon, USA, where assisted suicide is permitted, on 1 November. Here, Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is making its way through the House of Lords before a debate in the Commons.
Should our politicians vote for a law, enabling competent adults to provide individuals with help to end their own life? There is no single Liberal Jewish view on assisted dying. That may be because halachah, which is definitive in its prohibition of anything that hastens death appears at odds with some of the Haggadic literature. The Midrash is compassionate, focusing on the needs of the individual and the ‘injury of continued existence’ – the constant and agonising pain that may beset the dying patient. Those disagreeing with a law change are concerned with its regulation and restrictions. It shouldn’t become the ‘slippery slope’ leading to abuse of vulnerable adults.
Others see it as humane and merciful, giving the person dignity and control over their life – and death. Others recognise that, in some sense, ‘God gives and God takes away’. I have seen people live through the terminal prognosis given to them by doctors and witnessed both carer and cared-for continually nurtured by loving and intimate relationships. In a secular age, the sanctity of human life and the enduring love sustaining purpose should not be so lightly dismissed.
• Alexandra Wright is Senior Rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue
Rabbi Janet Burden says…
Palliative care is wonderful. I was recently privileged to be present at the peaceful death of my mentor, Rabbi Sheila Shulman. She died in her own home, surrounded by people who loved her. Her breathing was facilitated with oxygen and her pain was controlled with drugs. Nonetheless, owing to the nature of my work, I have also been in attendance at a few very painful deaths, deaths in which the person has been overwhelmed by terrible suffering. Sadly, in an extremely small number of cases, pain cannot be alleviated.
I believe strongly that in such a case, when death is inevitable within a short frame, those who are in a position to do so should assist a person who wishes to die to do so with dignity. Based on documented experience from countries with provision for assisted dying, fears of some imagined ‘slippery slope’ in which vulnerable people will be pressured to take their own lives are unfounded. Moreover, the evidence shows that when people are given the means to end their own suffering should it become intolerable, a substantial number choose not to do so.
By addressing the fear of the escalation of pain, the actual pain becomes more bearable. I believe that ‘choosing life’ in some cases might mean fighting off the demon of pointless suffering that robs an individual of their human dignity. The Falconer Bill sets out stringent conditions and safeguards, and I certainly would welcome its passing by Parliament.
• Janet Burden is Rabbi of Ealing Liberal Synagogue
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