On its official website, the state of New Jersey proclaims that “Suicide is a serious public health problem that causes pain, suffering, and can have a profound effect on the entire community,” and “remains a priority area to combat within the state.” The state has also announced a plan to prevent suicides in the state’s prisons, with Acting Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks stating that “One suicide is too many.”
And yet, at the same time, the Garden State has acted to facilitate its residents’ ability to take their own lives, with its “Medical Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act,” now cleared by the state Supreme Court to take effect.
The act, which was signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy back in April, had been challenged in New Jersey State Superior Court by Bergen County geriatric physician Dr. Yosef Glassman, an Orthodox Jew.
Last week, however, a stay of the law that had resulted from Dr. Glassman’s challenge was revoked by a state appeals court, and the state Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to that move.
Dr. Glassman had contended, and continues to contend, that abiding by the law — which, while it would not require him to directly assist a suicide, would require him to facilitate a patient’s plan to kill himself by sharing the patient’s records with a willing doctor — violated both his religious and medical ethical consciences.
The appeals court maintained that Dr. Glassman lacked standing to assert his claims on behalf of other doctors, patients or interested family members. And that his challenge “ignores… his already existing obligation under relevant regulations to provide a patient with his or her medical records.”
And so, New Jersey has become the seventh state allowing physician-assisted suicide. (Maine enacted a similar law in June, becoming the eighth.)
To many people, the law may not seem outrageous. A patient must be mentally “capable” and terminally ill, and voluntarily express a wish to die. Two doctors must then sign off on the request for life-ending drugs, and the patient is required to administer the drug to himself.
But the dark side of the law, and all such laws, should be readily apparent to anyone thinking beyond its superficial safeguards.
As Torah Jews, we are cognizant of the fact that every moment of life is priceless, and that as creations that must be subservient to our Creator, no mortal has the right to shorten his own life.
While this fundamental truth suffices to prove why assisted suicide laws are immoral, there are additional arguments that ought to convince even those in the secular world.
For one thing, what sort of condition — other than life itself — is to be considered “terminal”? The law defines a terminal illness as one that doctors think will result in death within six months. Might doctors’ predictions conceivably be wrong? Have they not in fact been so on many occasions? And why limit endorsement of assisted suicide to a six-month prognosis? Might it not be “reasonably” extended, and the law amended accordingly, to a month longer? Or to a year, or two…?
And why only fatal illness? Aren’t there other experiences within the human condition equally painful or challenging or depressing?
The proverbial slippery slope is particularly slick here, as the example of other countries have shown.
Some have already expanded the criteria for who qualifies for physician-assisted suicide. A recent case in the Netherlands involved a physically healthy teenage girl whose parents and doctors allowed her to commit suicide by starvation and dehydration because she believed she was unable to recover from a personal trauma. Canada’s parliament is considering applying its assisted suicide law to cases where the only medical condition is mental illness.
In Belgium, although the country’s law permits euthanasia only with a patient’s consent, many hundreds of cases have been catalogued where a patient has been killed by a doctor without any such consent. And there is no age limit in that country for helping patients end their lives. Children as young as nine have been assisted in doing so.
What is more, the elderly and ill are increasing in number. 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 mere commodity. The legalization of physician-assisted suicide can only create incentives for financially hard-pressed hospitals and insurance companies to subtly promote the ending of lives as a reasonable cutter of costs.
It also puts pressure on patients to relieve their beloved family members of the “burden” of caring for them or paying for their care.
Famed Princeton University Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer, who has proposed the termination (even without niceties like consent) of what he calls “miserable beings” — people whose lives he deems devoid of pleasure — was once asked what idea, value or institution the world takes for granted today he thinks may disappear in coming decades. He responded: “the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.”
He may see that erosion as something positive. We as Torah-faithful Jews know otherwise. Unfortunately, contemporary society, with New Jersey law the latest piece of evidence, seems to be fulfilling his prediction, chalilah.