OPINION: by David FreilichNews Weekly
Patient ruling creates moral, ethical impasse
, September 5, 2009
In common law, if I were to see another human being drowning, I would have no legal obligation to save that person. I am not my brother's keeper.
This is not the case in Jewish law. The Bible specifically states (Leviticus 19:16) "You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour."
If a person stands idly by and allows another to die without offering help, they are guilty of transgressing this precept.
The dilemma society is facing at the moment, with the request of Perth quadriplegic Christian Rossiter to have his feeding tubes removed in order to expedite his death, invites this analogy. Arguably, removing Mr Rossiter's feeding tubes transgresses this biblical prohibition.
Furthermore, a person's life and body are not their own property to do with as they wish.
Visiting professor of law at Yeshiva University Cardozo Law School, Rabbi J. David Bleich, maintains that "one's personal privilege and responsibility with regard to the human body and human life are similar to the privilege and responsibility of a bailee with regard to bailment with which he or she has been entrusted".
In other words, we are the custodians of a body that God has given us and therefore have a duty to safeguard and preserve it and to return it to its rightful owner when the time comes.
This reflects the biblical injunction (Deut. 4:15) "Take care of your life". Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the foremost rabbinic authorities in the 20th century, was asked whether one should forcibly feed a terminally ill person intravenously.
In his responsum to the doctors he wrote that one must give oxygen to a terminally ill patient even though no cure would result, because it eases the sick person's suffering. Inability to breathe is tremendously painful and oxygen relieves this suffering.
Therefore, asked whether we must intravenously feed a terminally ill patient who is unable to eat normally, in order to extend his lifespan even though apparently prolonging his suffering, Rabbi Feinstein stated clearly that we must feed that patient food, for food surely strengthens the patient, despite the fact that neither the patient nor his or her attendant is aware of this effect.
In Christian Rossiter's case we are not talking about a terminally ill patient, so how much more so does this situation apply to him?
Neither can the situation of the removal of a respirator from a patient who is being kept alive by it be compared to the removal of nutrition from such a patient.
Food is necessary for every living creature whether healthy or ill, whether in pain, or not. Despite this, one should never compel a sane adult to eat by employing physical force.Responsibility
Certainly, when a patient feels that eating is harmful to him or her, that patient should not be coerced, even when the physician says that food is necessary and beneficial. However, we have a responsibility to influence the patient to comply with the doctor's orders. If the patient refuses, we can do nothing.
In the eyes of Judaism, life with suffering in many cases is preferred to termination of life and with it the elimination of suffering.
Life accompanied by pain may be preferable to death. We cannot determine, particularly if we are seriously ill, nor can anyone else determine, whether our life has quality or not.
Even when the life of a person on their deathbed seems to be devoid of benefit, meaning or purpose, that person retains unique human value through the role they play in providing an opportunity for the expression of love and compassion by others.
Human life represents a purpose in and of itself. Sheer human existence is endowed with infinite moral value.
Many in Western society may not agree with these views as expressed by Rabbi Bleich. As reported in The West Australian
last week, 80 per cent of West Australians are in favour of granting Christian Rossiter's request.
I have sympathy for this view. I believe it is motivated by compassion and empathy. But compassion and empathy must be combined with careful ethical consideration and social responsibility.
Even if the courts and secular ethicists sanction the withholding or withdrawal of fluids and nutrition from the terminally ill and from chronic vegetative state patients, what is legally and socially acceptable is not always moral or ethical.
If the patient or family are given the legal right to starve or dehydrate the patient to death, this does not mean that starvation and/or dehydration is morally right.
If the WA Supreme Court sanctions the withholding or the withdrawing of fluids and nutrition from Christian Rossiter, of course this is to be respected and adhered to, as the law of the land is the law. It does not, however, mean that this view is sanctioned on High.
Modern attitudes towards life have so indoctrinated our society with the concept of the quality of life that a life of suffering is automatically considered meaningless and worthless.
A dying patient in a hospital, helpless and suffering... How can this life possibly have meaning? And if it doesn't, why bother to preserve it?
According to Judaism, however, life always has intrinsic value. Every soul was sent down to this world for a specific amount of time and purpose.
Therefore every additional moment that that soul spends in this world is infinitely precious.Rabbi David Freilich is the Chief Rabbi of Western Australia. This article first appeared in The West Australian, August 18, 2009.