By Dow Marmur
Two years ago, when assisted suicide legislation had been again on the agenda in Canada, I wrote on this page: “My faith teaches that life is God’s gift and, therefore, sacred. For humans to take it away in murder or suicide is criminal and sinful. Despite its claim to compassion, assisted suicide may be of that ilk.”
In view of the current debate around Bill C-14 I’d like to reaffirm my advocacy for effective palliative care in place of one or other version of the bill. I wrote then that “my faith also teaches that as God’s creatures we’re obligated to lighten the burden of others and do our utmost to relieve them of suffering. Palliative care for the terminally ill is of that ilk.”
I’m not alone in this among my colleagues. Statements by two Canadian rabbis as reported in the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) reflect a similar view.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Montreal writes: “Traditional Jewish law is clear and unequivocal: while heroic measures are not always mandated for the dying patient, hastening a person’s death in any way is tantamount to murder, even when it’s viewed by society as a ‘mercy-killing’ or putting the patient out of their misery. “Forcible efforts to keep a person alive or attempts to help an individual to die are manifestations of human efforts to play God. In my tradition that’s called idolatry.”
Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa asserts that “in Jewish law, no one has the ‘right’ to actively take their life.” Though he admits that compassion for the suffering of individuals leads him to agonize over the issue, he too comes down in favour of effective palliative care in the belief that “the proposed Bill C-14 runs diametrically contrary to the hallowed objective of physicians to save and enhance life.”
Rabbi Bulka is one of Canada’s most distinguished exponents of Orthodox Judaism and Rabbi Grushcow is an erudite and articulate member of the Reform movement in North America. Whatever else may divide them, on this issue they speak with one authentic Jewish voice.
Exponents of other faiths seem to agree. Last month the Canadian Jewish News reported on the initiative by representatives of diverse religious traditions calling on those in power “to support a robust, well-resourced, national palliative care strategy and to raise awareness of inadequacies in palliative care.”
With implied fear of human beings playing God in the guise of compassion for those who suffer, the representatives of the different faith groups warned that “assisted dying/suicide must not become a default choice of those struggling with terminal illnesses and that it is a national imperative to enhance access to and the quality of palliative care.”
Significantly, these exponents of traditional religion stressed that they weren’t only speaking on behalf of their communities but sought to articulate a Canadian core value: “Compassion is a fundamental element of Canadian identity that should directly shape Canadian public policy when it comes to end-of-life issues.”
Disability groups are particularly sensitive to it. They firmly and consistently oppose assisted suicide. Readers for whom the pronouncements by exponents of the various religions don’t cut much ice may, however, want to heed the pleas of the disabled in our midst and respond to their legitimate fears that they’ll be the victims of attempts to cut costs in institutions in the name of mercy, perhaps by “encouraging” individuals to agree to be disposed of in order to relieve those around them.
All of us, whether religious or not, must, therefore, unite behind the plea I saw in one of the publications for the disabled: “Keep calm and give hugs, not drugs.”
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every fourth week.