Can I accompany my friend to a suicide clinic

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer gives an Orthodox perspective, and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain a Progressive one, on problems in Jewish life

April 27, 2012

Question: A friend whose parents both died of painful illnesses is suffering a debilitating terminal disease herself and wants to go to the Dignitas clinic to end her life. She has no close relatives and has asked me to go with her. But I feel torn between my own qualms about assisted dying and my duty to her.(Question)

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

This is a very difficult dilemma. Judaism unreservedly opposes suicide and equates it with murder. The act itself is a violation of the sanctity of life and as such it is prohibited in the strongest terms. So strong, in fact, that Jewish law imposed penalties around burial and memorial rites so as to deter would-be suicides.

At least in theory, someone who wilfully commits suicide is buried apart from other graves, no eulogy is given and shivah is not observed. However, the operative word here is "willfully", that is to say someone who committed suicide in a clear and balanced state of mind, a situation the rabbis believed to be highly unlikely. Since no one takes their own life unless they are experiencing acute emotional or mental distress, the penalties are in reality rarely applied.

Are there ever mitigating circumstances under which suicide might be permitted? The Bible relates that the battle-wounded King Saul fell upon his own sword rather than allow himself to be taken alive by the Philistines. Does this not set a precedent? Not necessarily. Just because the Bible relates the story does not mean that it approves of the protagonist's actions. In fact, some rabbis are of the view that King Saul committed a sin by taking his own life.

I have too often seen people spend their last weeks suffering in pain

Other rabbis vindicate the king's action due to extraordinary circumstances related to his role as commander of an entire army. The price of his capture and humiliation would have been total collapse of morale, thus endangering even more lives; so suicide in this case was not just permitted but considered an act of valour. Either way, this story is not seen as an applicable model to justify suicide in most contemporary circumstances.

So where does this leave you? I think that you have an obligation to gently explain to your friend why suicide is wrong from a Jewish ethical standpoint. Maybe deep inside she is frightened of taking such a drastic step and needs you to dissuade her. It might be, however, that she is desperate and absolutely determined to go through with suicide but that she is frightened to die alone.

If that is the case, I don't see how you could abandon her at such a critical moment. You would not be there to "validate" her decision. You would be there to offer a distressed human being some comfort and love in the last moments of their life. Anything less would just be cruel.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Your dilemma is one that we will all have to face more and more, for length of life is not always matched by quality of life.

Until recently, Jews have always assumed that we should prefer the former and hold on to life as much as possible. Thus Judaism regards life as sacred and that it is a sin to end it, be it killing others or yourself. However, it also recognises that there are limits to the pain one can bear and the rabbis developed a compromise, forbidding the active ending of life, but allowing one to desist from extending it (eg through more medication or an operation).

But this formula is increasingly being questioned: what is the point of carrying on if that means carrying on with unbearable suffering, or without any dignity, for months or even years to come?

We could stick to the above compromise, but maybe it is time to rethink, albeit with great care. One of the dangers of allowing assisted dying is that it might lead to abuses and involve the deaths of those vulnerable to pressure by unscrupulous relatives.

However, if strict legal conditions are in place - that a person has to be competent, suffering greatly, no longer helped by palliative care, in a terminal illness and specifically request assisted dying - then maybe the religious response is to permit it rather than insist they carry on in agony.

As a congregational rabbi, I have too often seen people spend their last weeks suffering in pain or sedated into oblivion. The Book of Ecclesiastes declares that "There is a time to be born and a time to die" (3.2), which leaves open the question of who chooses that time, and whether to go for the last moment or the best moment?

So I have every sympathy with your friend - it is only a pity that she has to travel abroad rather than die in peace here. As for your role, if you are adamantly opposed to such a course, then it would be better for her sake and yours to try to find someone else for the journey.

However, accompanying her is more a matter of supporting a dying friend rather than a statement of your own values. So, if you are merely unsure, then it is perfectly valid to maintain your qualms, yet feel you should go with her.

Last updated: 5:26pm, May 24 2012