'Assisted suicide' amounts to a licence to kill

The DPP's guidelines are opposed to Torah values

By Rabbi Daniel Levy, October 1, 2009

The recent clarification by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the question of assisted suicide is closer to the thick than the thin end of the wedge. Gone are the halcyon days when foetuses developed calmly in their mother’s wombs. Gone, too, the peaceful days when old people were respected and treated despite their chronic conditions and the cost this entailed.

It must be unbearable to feel helpless seeing a loved one suffer, and I sympathise deeply with those who find themselves in such a predicament. Nevertheless, as Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks once wrote concerning assisted dying, “… purity of motive has never ensured rightness of outcomes; often it has been the reverse”.

The Torah makes no distinction between killing oneself or taking the life of another; both are deemed murder. But the contemporary Western view seems to be that an individual is free to treat his or her body as he or she wishes. A service is provided for abortion and relatives of those who want to die may help them to do so.

By contrast, the Torah tells us that we do not own our bodies and must treat them with respect in health, illness or death. Much current hospital practice runs counter to Torah values. The Liverpool Care Pathway, for instance, advises the “discontinuation of inappropriate measures”. This can involve active withdrawal of therapeutic medication and even a drip, thereby ensuring that the patient starves to death.

Lamentably, Western society seems to place a higher value on economic productivity than on individual life. So, if people are no longer “productive”, they are perceived to have no value. This is not the Torah way. Life is not a commodity. As the Bishop of Brentwood declared in a 1950s Cambridge Union debate: “Right is right even if nobody’s right. Wrong is wrong even if everybody’s wrong.”

The year after the defeat in the House of Lords of Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying Bill in 2006, I published The Fox, the Foetus and the Fatal Injection in which I predicted that it was only a matter of time before the issue would be revived and assisted dying legalised. Despite the vociferous denials, this is now happening. Just as the Abortion Act has not served as a safeguard for foetuses, so too the current clarification regarding assisted suicide does not safeguard the individual’s right to life. At best, it is illogical and unmanageable, at worst it amounts to a licence to kill. People will terminate their own lives and pressure will be increased upon the old, physically ill and mentally challenged to “alleviate the burden on society”. Moreover, funding for palliative care will diminish. The Jewish community must engage in the ethical and religious debate arising from this issue.

I am confident that the Chief Rabbi will use his maiden speech to address the House of Lords on the crucial moral issues that Britain faces and, above all, on the sanctity of human life.

Make no mistake, the wind of change ushered in by the DPP is paving the way for a typhoon of similar force to that which legalised abortion over 40 years ago.

Rabbi Daniel Levy is the minister of the United Hebrew Congregation, Leeds

Last updated: 2:40pm, October 1 2009