As the House of Lords prepares to debate the new Bill to legalise assisted suicide there may be speculation about what the Jewish position might be on this contentious question, or indeed if a fixed position exists at all.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia, often referred to as “assisted dying”, are issues about which people feel strongly on both sides of this debate, informed sometimes by personal experience as well as by strongly-held moral convictions.
Sometimes it is difficult to predict where people might stand on the Assisted Dying Bill of Baroness Meacher as religious affiliation is not always a sure guide.
It is significant nonetheless that there is a settled Jewish position on this question and it was articulated with great insight by the late Lord Sacks when an almost identical Bill was introduced into Parliament some six years ago.
The former Chief Rabbi was crystal clear in his opinion that “the Jewish tradition, going back many centuries, is strongly opposed to such acts”.
“Life is sacred,” he wrote in the Times ahead of a parliamentary debate. “It is God’s gift, not ours. It is the physician’s responsibility to heal, not harm, even if the patient requests it. Despite Judaism’s strong emphasis on human choice, free will and personal responsibility, we believe there are certain things we may not do, even out of great compassion.”
The chief danger of legalising assisted suicide, he continued, “is the de-consecration of life”, adding that “the history of societies that have sanctioned euthanasia in the past is not an encouraging one”.
Indeed, we do not have to cast our minds back too far to understand that we, of all people, know how the high ideals of medicine can all too easily be subverted. We must always guard against the laws of unintended consequences and treat with extreme caution proposals which can be used to target the vulnerable. All of us, after all, are vulnerable at times in our lives and we have once more become conscious of our vulnerability as a minority at a time when anti-Semitism is again ascendant.
We must never lose sight of the fact that the divine injunction, “You shall not kill”, has a deeply benign purpose, that it has favoured the development of a civilisations which protect the most vulnerable; that it has inspired the foundations of hospitals and hospices and that it continues to inspire people to the most outstanding commitments of care and compassion for the sick and the suffering.
To introduce a law to ask those in our medical and nursing professions to kill instead of care would be to remove a long-standing legal shield from the sick, the aged and those nearing the end of their lives.
I cannot imagine Lord Sacks would have changed his mind about assisted suicide an iota, and this is no not only because of his religious convictions.
His opposition would have been philosophical too. He would have understood lucidly that the idea of assisted suicide has gained traction and popularity beyond its historical eugenicist support base largely because of the prevailing ideology of absolute autonomy, which he personally abhorred.
His great final book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, was essentially a tract against this ideology, a heartfelt appeal for the restoration of the primacy of the “We” into the social life of the nation over the all-consuming and self-centred “I”, which he believed was at the root of endemic family breakdown and markets operating without morals, among other evils.
Yet nothing embodies the ideology of absolute autonomy, of unbridled individualism, quite like assisted suicide and euthanasia. What the Meacher Bill demands is that we dispense with laws and medical ethical traditions which have protected the weak, the vulnerable, the elderly and the disabled for millennia to fulfil the personal desires of a small number of people who wish to take their own lives or assist in the deaths of others.
It is significant that Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, the professor of palliative medicine who is leading the fight against the Meacher Bill in the Lords, is convinced that the safeguards in the Bill will prove effectively meaningless.
Restricting assisted suicide to people who have a prognosis of six months life remaining is to try to legislate around “a vague guess”, she explains, suggesting it would be equally unrealistic to expect doctors to “detect coercion, abuse or exploitation and assess impairments of mental capacity”, as the Bill demands.
Earlier this week, Conservative politicians in both Houses received a powerful letter jointly signed by Devizes MP Danny Kruger, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dying Well, and by Michael Howard, the former chair of Hospice UK who now sits in the second chamber as Lord Howard of Lympne.
It was reassuring not only in its clarity about the dangers inherent in the Meacher Bill and the need to protect vulnerable people from those who see them as a burden, or their deaths an expedient way to either save or make money, but also because it offered a vision of a better way of addressing the question of human suffering which Baroness Finlay knows well.
They advocated greater investment in palliative care so that all people might have the serene and pain-free natural deaths they deserve.
“Rather than changing the law to allow the prescription of lethal drugs, we should be putting all our energies into improving access to the best possible care,” they wrote.
“We very much hope you will agree with us that the future need not be widespread euthanasia of the elderly and disabled. The future should be high quality, compassionate, dignified care for all.”
This is surely the position more in keeping with the finest traditions of Judaism. It represents an expression of community, of mutual support, of help for the weakest, of inter-generational solidarity and a healthy concern for the common good. To my mind, there is surely only one side of this debate which, in good conscience, we can take.