By Rabbi Daniel Levy
“I have often heard people say that ‘Some rabbis are known as controversial whilst others are not’ … I would prefer to say that there are rabbis who speak out and rabbis who do not.”
(From The Fox, the Foetus and the Fatal Injection)
Rabbi Levy’s book on abortion and euthanasia would appear to be competing in a saturated market, given the abundance of Jewish books on medical ethics (eg the work of Lord Jakobovits or Rabbi David Bleich). Levy explains that his book is not designed to repeat previous halachic discussions, but is a plea for people to see how distorted secular ethics has become, and for Jews to speak out.
He opens by looking at abortion. Taking for granted that Jewish law prohibits virtually all abortion (with specific exceptions), he argues that society is passive when dealing with the fact that 190,000 abortions are performed annually in England and Wales.
This quiescence contrasts with outrage over animal rights. He describes various examples including the actions of a court in protecting an obese dog in comparison to a more lenient ruling over a family’s maltreatment of a child that had led him to become severely obese.
His treatment of euthanasia — an increasingly topical issue — highlights discussions about legislative changes. He neatly summarises the arguments for and against changing the law and shows how the slippery-slope fears expressed by opponents of euthanasia are being borne out in countries where euthanasia is allowed, for example proposals to extend euthanasia to cover non-fatal illnesses, such as mental illness.
The book then proceeds to ask why society has reached the stage it has and discusses the concept of personal autonomy as a highly prized contemporary value. The consequence of this is that people feel free to decide what is best for their bodies — in contrast to the Jewish ethic that recognises that we are not owners of our selves.
If this is the case, then despite recognising the suffering of many dying patients, the act of euthanasia is simply murder, and Levy argues — in his only real halachic discussion — that any doctor carrying out such procedures should be denied honours in the synagogue.
The book is very light on serious discussion around halachah’s approach to abortion and euthanasia and some of the dilemmas that exist; however, Levy points out that this is not his purpose. If so, a recommended further reading list might have been pertinent.
Overall, though, he has succeeded in writing a well-thought-out, topical and tightly written polemic arguing for less passivity in the face of society’s increasing disregard for the value of human life.
Daniel Youngerwood is a GP who teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. The book is available through www.torahethics.net