Select Committee on Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Office of the Chief Rabbi

  1.  The Office of the Chief Rabbi welcomes the opportunity to provide input on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, as it raises fundamental issues about the balance between life and death, which goes to the very heart of the Jewish tradition.

  2.  The Office of the Chief Rabbi is the religious authority of the United Synagogue, and various other communities round the country. In total, it is responsible for over 140 synagogue communities in the UK. The United Synagogue alone is the largest synagogual membership body in the UK, comprising over 30,000 households. The Chief Rabbi also heads a Court ("Beth Din"), which makes rulings and decisions on Jewish legal matters, and provides guidance on moral issues within the framework of Jewish law.

  3.  Jewish tradition places at its centre the sanctity of life, viewing life as a precious gift from God, not something we can dispose of at will. Indeed, the value of human life is absolute and not relative to factors such as age and health. The commandment of the preservation of human life ("Pikuach Nefesh") is a central one in Jewish teaching. Furthermore the Ten Commandments emphasise the prohibition to murder; in addition, there is also a strict prohibition against suicide in the Jewish legal code. Therefore Judaism regards the value of human life as non-negotiable and insists that it cannot be compromised.

  4.  The Bill would enable, in specific circumstances, a terminally ill competent adult to request medical assistance to die. It would therefore introduce a form of euthanasia into UK medical law. Since Judaism regards human life as both absolute and infinite, it considers the deliberate termination of life as prohibited. Hence, in broad terms, Jewish law is opposed to euthanasia whether the physician acts with or without the patient's permission.

  As an eminent authority on Jewish law and ethics, Rabbi J D Bleich has stated, in summarising the Jewish view on euthanasia: "Any positive act designed to hasten the death of the patient is equated with murder in Jewish law, even if the death is hastened only by a matter of moments. No matter how laudable the intentions of the person performing an act of mercy-killing may be, his deed constitutes an act of homicide." (Rabbi J D Bleich—"Judaism and Healing").

  5.   In addition, such legislation would place unfair psychological pressure on ill patients. An ill patient will, in all likelihood, find it difficult to make dispassionate decisions, and may be pressured to terminate his life, feeling that he is a burden to family, friends or society. No one should be placed in a position of having to choose whether to live or die.

  Similarly such legislation would also raise difficult ethical questions for doctors. The traditional role of the doctor is to heal, and where that is not possible, to contain suffering and distress, but permitting a form of euthanasia would leave them to make the ultimate moral decision. Medical professionals have a special and unique role as "partners in creation", but they should not be asked to make decisions that go beyond their capabilities and moral horizons (ie to take action with the purpose of causing death). Furthermore, this legislation would create huge dilemmas for doctors with conscientious objections to euthanasia, whether grounded in religion or not.

  6.   Whilst Judaism prohibits action to deliberately terminate life, it also does recognise the need to relieve a patient's pain and suffering. There are circumstances in which action may be taken to relieve pain and suffering, but this should not be done at the cost of deliberately accelerating death. Even in those cases where the patient is in great distress, there cannot be a premeditated course of action to terminate someone's life. Therefore Judaism cannot purchase relief from pain and misery at the cost of life itself.

  7.  Similarly, whilst action can be taken to relieve pain, no natural means of subsistence may be withdrawn from the patient. Therefore it is prohibited to withhold food or nutrition from terminally ill patients. The subject of withholding certain types of treatment from patients, including forms of medicine and machinery, is more complicated. In any such cases, a competent Rabbinic authority should be consulted to assess the facts on a case-by-case basis.

  8.  Having outlined the traditional Jewish opposition to euthanasia, the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill obviously raises huge concerns. The Office of the Chief Rabbi is opposed to the Bill. The acid test of any society is how it protects and defends the vulnerable, and cares for those in need. Each patient should be assured that whilst everything will be done to minimise pain, life itself will be honoured and never willingly terminated.

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