My father is a man of great courage and strength. Even today, when is in his mid-sixties, he can probably wrestle down me and my three siblings with one hand tied behind his back. This, together with a big scoop of independence, led him to travel over most of the world for the purpose of counselling, planning and running agro-tech businesses with governments and world leaders. My father is very proud of his strength, his independence and his dignity. When still very young, he used to tell us, his children in a forbearing tone: “When I won’t be able to take care of myself, my only cure should be a ‘nine millimetres” (I.e. the width of an Israeli bullet).
On Feb 6 this year, the Supreme Court in Ottawa decided to allow doctors to “assist suicide in specific cases” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/supreme-court-says-yes-to-doctor-assisted-suicide-in-specific-cases-1.2947487). This article is not an answer to their decision. Rather, it is an attempt to contemplate on the following moral and social question: under which circumstances, if at all, is one allowed to take his or someone else’s life?
Normal human beings under normal circumstances, do not debate whether to murder or not. But life is complex. Hence, it is not unnatural to develop, out of intrinsic compassion, an urge to erase one’s pain and suffering in case his harsh fate is deemed as irreversible. Even more so, when there is a clear stated consent, or even an explicit request, by the sufferer her/himself, to end her/his life which he perceives as miserable and unworthy. Such an act is otherwise known as ‘murder out of compassion’, or if you prefer, a ‘realization that one’s death is better for her/him more than the continuation of her/his present state of life’.
At the heart of this ethical debate, we search to understand the following:
Does every individual have an independent ‘human right’ to her/his own life? If such is the case then, consequently, if one gets to a point in which one feels useless, in pain, or a burden to one’s surrounding (physically and emotionally), or if one reaches the unfortunate state of losing her/his reasonable human dignity – Are we allowed, maybe even obligated, to do him/ourselves and/or do society a favor by ending such a form of life?
Or, perhaps, human’s right for life is an absolute one, in a sense that taking one’s life is an unalienable prohibition.
Let’s try to (artificially) separate the answer to philosophical, social, ethical (Jewish) and emotional answers:
Our whole existence has no rational reasoning. We are because we exist. There is no way to legalize or evaluate people’s lives.
The philosopher will answer a question like: ‘what is it worth to maintain the life of a vegetable?` With a counter question: ‘Why shouldn’t I take your life then if it seem to me to be worthless?’
A major social aspect, and one of the fundamental pillars of a healthy society, is the clear realization that a society is based on individuals. Living ones. Ending lives should basically be off limits for the normal survival of any society.
But, one might ask, should we not have any compassion? What of those who cannot endure their physical suffering? Or the emotional and moral suffering inflicted by the deter of dignity?
Such emotional arguments even when benign are dangerous. If the principle of easing ones misery is accepted, the execution of such behavior is debatable to say the least. For how does one draw the line of endurable pain? It is a slippery slope, for “man is thy most awful instrument in working out a pure intent”(Wordsworth). Just seventy years ago, the ruler of a distinguished European country executed, as an “act of humanity(!)” seventy thousand crippled and mentally ill patients who were regarded as lebensunwert i.e worthless miserable lives. His name was, of course, Adolf Hitler.
Our greatness as human beings is derived from the Creator, as it is written: “for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6). No individual owns her/his own life. It is a trust that was given to us regardless of our opinion. Consequently, only God Himself holds the right to retrieve His deposit. Whether we like it or not, this makes complete logical sense. Is it not true that: “against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die.”? (Ethics of the fathers 4:22). Hence, Human’s life, every single moment of it, has an absolute value. It stands above the ‘quality of life’ tag that we so presumptuously attempt to attach on ourselves or on others.
Emotionally, there are personal differences between various cases. From my personal standpoint at this point of my life I, like my father, would prefer death over becoming a dependant burden on both my surroundings and myself. Who can guarantee that I won’t change my mind if, or whenever, I approach such a state?
Yet, in any case, drawing the life of ‘who shall live and who shall die’, is not something for me to decide. Wherewithal, there is no difference if a murder is committed by shooting, beheading or giving one a death potion or a “love shot”.
That being said, as we stated in the beginning, life is complex. Practically, under severe conditions, there are ways to allow the prevention of continuing life support or, on the same line yet less dramatic, to pray for one’s painless death (Shu”a Yo”d 339, Talmud Avoda Zara 18). In case of such extreme circumstances, one should counsel her/his Rabbi.