Euthanasia: A Jewish View

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As might be expected, rabbinic authorities express a range of opinions on these matters. Orthodox rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, for example, does not allow the withholding or withdrawing of any sort of therapy, but he does allow the administration of pain medication, even if that medication could potentially have adverse affects. Conservative rabbi Avraham Reisner permits the withholding of medication and the withdrawal of artificial respiration, but not the withdrawal of artificial hydration and nutrition, such as intravenous and tubal feeding.

jewish bioethics quizElliot Dorff, another Conservative rabbi, allows the withholding of artificial hydration and nutrition as well. In general, Dorff's views on euthanasia are of particular interest, because he believes that the goses category is not the most precise legal concept to apply in end-of-life cases. Dorff, in accordance with Jewish bioethicist Daniel Sinclair, suggests that the concept of terefah is more appropriate. A goses is someone who is in the last hours of life, while a terefah is someone who has an incurable disease, but who may still live for a long time.

Sinclair notes that Maimonides exempted the killer of a terefah from liability, because the murdered person was "already dead." Reform rabbi Peter Knobel sums up how this affects the distinction between a goses and terefah: "The fundamental concept in the definition of a human terefah is, therefore, the inevitability of death in contrast to the goses who is alive in every respect." Ascribing the status of terefah to terminally ill patients allows Sinclair and Dorff to arrive at more lenient positions about euthanasia.

All of the positions just noted apply to passive euthanasia only. Recently, however, some liberal thinkers have questioned the traditional prohibition against active euthanasia as well. Knobel suggests that in certain cases where the pain experienced by a terminally ill patient diminishes her ability to live in the image of God, euthanasia may be permitted, even praiseworthy. In cases of extreme suffering, writes Knobel, "Active euthanasia is permitted when the person has waived his/her right not to be killed and it is consistent with the person's biography."

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