The God Squad: Medical ethics issue sparks questions

November 12, 2010|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Q: I have a question regarding prolonging life. My mom had a stroke and the doctor insisted she'd have pain without a feeding tube. I don't believe this is true. In any case, do I have a moral obligation to have a feeding tube inserted when there's no chance of improvement?

A: If your mom is dying from the stroke, you don't need to put in a feeding tube. If she's not dying, you do need to put in the tube or risk allowing her to starve.

You face a critical medical and spiritual moment where a line divides prolonging life through clinically-approved therapeutic medical treatments (which is always the religious imperative) vs. authorizing non-therapeutic procedures whose only purpose is to postpone imminent death, which is not only not required but not permitted according to every major religious tradition.


Talk to the doctors until you understand everything you can about your mother's condition, then make the most loving, wise choice you can. God bless you and your mother in this difficult time.

Q: You wrote a very good column recently about medical ethics, but I do have some questions regarding your ideas.

I'm not sure I understand the difference between palliative care — pain management which clearly hastens death — and suicide. I've personally witnessed both of these things with two separate loved ones.

Suicide leaves loved ones with unanswered questions and a lot of guilt. Palliative care, in my opinion, is the same thing, but it's OK because it brings the closure suicide does not. However, if God owns our bodies, as you say, then why is one OK and the other is not?

A: Palliative care aims at making a patient comfortable and free of pain. I was referring only to the use of palliation for dying patients. Such care is not therapy but it is a moral and spiritual good because it eases pain and does not delay death. Suicide, on the other hand, either kills a healthy living person or kills a sick living person who's not about to die. The difference is enormous.

When a person is dying, he or she is beyond therapy but not beyond hope. There's still the religious hope that death is not the end of us; it's not the death of our souls, which live on with God. Suicide is the death of hope when it's the choice of healthy people sunk in despair.

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