Jeffrey Spector on the right of the picture, died with 'dignity' according to his family. (Photo credit: Warren Smith)

Jeffrey Spector on the right of the picture, died with ‘dignity’ according to his family. (Photo credit: Warren Smith)

by Stephen Oryszczuk

News that former BBYO president Jeffrey Spector chose to end his life in a Swiss clinic, despite not having a terminal illness, inevitably propels the right-to-die argument onto the Friday night dinner table.

All such debates are good to have, but this one is immensely important, too. We can choose and/or control most aspects of our lives, but we cannot choose to control the ending of those lives, even when they become insufferable. We show more compassion to animals, campaigners say. Is that right? According to halacha, absolutely.

Most Orthodox rabbis tell us that suicide is forbidden, that life and death are in God’s hands.

For most religious Jews, it is as open and shut as that. But there is another view, held by a minority of rabbis and increasingly by secular Jews.

It is that, with certain checks and in certain conditions, people should be allowed to die at home, in their own bed or in their favourite chair, surrounded by their family and doctor.

At the moment, their only option is to die in a foreign clinic, surrounded by strange faces and unfamiliar accents, which family members say can be enormously distressing. Lord Falconer’s private members’ bill, introduced in the House of Lords last year, envisaged people who have mental capacity but less than six months to live being able to end their life at a moment and in a manner of their choosing here in the UK.

Some rabbis support the bill because, as they see it, the person is not choosing whether to end their life or not, but how to manage the process of dying, which – in those circumstances – has already begun.

In the hierarchy of Jewish values, they say, this would be permissible. One influential rabbi who now supports the right to die said this week that when he raised the subject recently, he “expected to be heckled but in fact found I was pushing at an open door… most people want to die peacefully”.

Even if Falconer’s bill had been voted in, Mr Spector would still have had to travel to Switzerland, because the inoperable tumour on his spine would not have killed him.

Yet he knew it would have killed his quality of life. “If I am paralysed and can’t speak, send me to the spirit world,” he said last week, hours before dying. Would we want to do the same? Let the debate begin.