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The God Squad: Who determines the end of life?

November 15, 2013|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Q: I recently read an article about a man in a hospital who was so incapacitated that his body was useless. Staff disconnected one of the machines that was preventing the man from speaking and asked him if he wanted to continue living like that. He said no and asked them to pull the plug.

The man's family gathered around him and he died shortly afterward. This got me thinking: If your body is useless and you decide not to go on living, is that considered suicide in God's eyes? What would God think was your time for judgment?

— M.

via godsquadquestion@aol.com

A: I study and work in the field of medical ethics. As a congregational rabbi, I also counsel people on end-of-life decisions. On a personal level, my own father died in a hospice after a severe head injury caused by a fall. Your deep and perplexing question reaches me on so many levels.

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For centuries, death took its natural course after healing was no longer possible. This is no longer true. Now we can delay death without promoting healing. We know that religious teachings affirm the sacredness of life, and this leads to full support in most religious traditions for medical treatment to extend life by curing disease or providing remission from diseases that can't be completely cured.

In religious law, a person is simply not permitted to refuse clinically proven life-saving medical treatment. Secular ethics also affirms that it's not rational to throw away one's life when healing is possible.

Many people do consider refusing proven medical therapy based on quality-of-life issues. I once counseled a man facing amputation of a gangrenous leg. He loved folk dancing and initially told me he'd rather die from gangrene than face a life without dancing.

He eventually changed his mind, but if he had decided to refuse the amputation, his act would, indeed, have been suicide. I'm glad he decided for himself that a broken but healthy life was preferable to an impulsive death.

My good friend Tommy (Fr. Tom Hartman) once took me to visit a young man made a quadriplegic by a motorcycle accident. Tommy told me the man had asked Tommy to kill him because he didn't want to live with his new physical limitations and could not kill himself. Tom counseled the man, who went on to create an organization to help older quadriplegics counsel new ones and give them hope to live another day.

Most of the impulsive things we do can be reversed later. Suicide is not one of them. Quality-of-life issues ought never to trump life itself.

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