Killing in the Name of “Dignity”

In 1948, Nazi genocide and barbarism were front and center on the world arena. So were Nazi medical crimes, prompting the General Assembly of the World Medical Association at Geneva to create a “Physician’s Oath” declaring a doctor’s dedication to the humanitarian goals of medicine.

Although it was amended several times in ensuing years, it has a physician state solemnly that “I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability… or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient” and “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life.”

Unfortunately, that sentiment is quickly becoming old-fashioned, as laws expressly permitting physician-assisted suicide have been enacted in several states — California, Oregon and Vermont. Montana’s Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law does not prohibit doctors from prescribing lethal doses of drugs to some of their patients who request it.

And now, as of last week, the D.C. Council has climbed onto the euthanasia bandwagon, by giving preliminary approval, by an 11-2 vote, to a bill that would permit doctors to help “terminally ill” patients take their lives, as long as two doctors were consulted, two witnesses attest to the patient’s decision and the patient ingests the drug himself.

The recent vote in favor of the D.C. “Death with Dignity Act” is particularly noteworthy in that it involved a jurisdiction whose population is disproportionately African-American, a demographic that suffered abuses at the hands of the medical establishment in the past and is generally, and rightfully, wary of being steered in wrong directions by doctors.

Leona Redmond, a Washington resident who has organized seniors against the legislation, said “We believe in life until natural death and that there is a racist component to [the legislation].”

Whether or not that is true, the “Death with Dignity Act” is indisputably another step on the contemporary march to devalue human life.

A similar New Jersey bill, the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act,” passed the State Assembly last month, last week was voted out of committee, and is now headed for a full Senate debate and vote.

It is vital that New Jersey residents apprise their local representatives, and Governor Christie, of their strongly held feelings on the matter.

Some European countries have established a very dangerous precedent for America. In Switzerland, the organization Dignitas can arrange for a patient to be dead within a week. In the Netherlands, while a 15-year-old needs parental consent to enlist a doctor’s help in killing himself, if he waits until he’s 16, he needs only to “involve” his parents in his decision, but not receive their approval. And emotional pain is sufficient legal justification to assist in a suicide. What is more, if a Dutch doctor chooses to “terminally sedate” patients in pain without the consent of the patient or family members, “it doesn’t need to be reported.”

There are “practical” concerns about euthanasia laws, especially the possibility, or even likelihood, that the attitude they promote will embolden people to act as “angels of mercy” and kill incapacitated patients for their own benefit.

Although she has not yet stood trial and so her alleged motivations aren’t known, Canadian nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was arraigned mere days ago on charges of first- degree murder for allegedly poisoning eight patients in her care over the years 2007-2014. She is only the latest of a long string of health- care personnel in North America and Europe who undertook to end incapacitated people’s lives.

But a more fundamental issue underlying doctor-assisted suicide is the concept of “quality of life.” Are some lives, the question essentially goes, to be considered less valuable, less meaningful, less purposeful and hence less worthy of society’s protection than others?

Judaism has a countercultural stance here. We believe that there is immeasurable value in human life itself — even in its minutes and seconds, and even when it is fettered by infirmity, immobility or depression.

Being confined to a hospital or nursing home bed might make some people feel their lives have no meaning. But believing Jews know that some of the most important accomplishments in any life need not entail mobility. Things like teshuvah, mechilah, kabbalas yissurim, ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisrael are among the most momentous matters we will ever have considered.

Tragically, larger society is slouching in a very different direction, toward a stance like that of Peter Singer, the famed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s “Center for Human Values,” who has proposed the termination (even without niceties like consent) of what he calls “miserable beings” — people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure and, thus, meaning.

The elderly and diseased are increasing in number. Modern medicine has increased longevity. Add skyrocketing insurance costs and the resultant fiscal crisis in health care, and life runs the risk of becoming less a holy, divine gift than… a commodity.

Avraham Avinu was the “Ivri,” the “other sider.” He stood apart from a world that wallowed in paganism and immorality.

In the midst of a culture that perceives “progress” in devaluing human life, we too find ourselves “on the other side.”