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What is the Jewish view on euthanasia?

Despite the advent of rapid advances in technology, the concept of euthanasia is not a new one to Judaism. Judaism recognises the pain suffered by the dying individual and its effects on the family. However, the Jewish faith has always strongly reacted against the compromising of a person’s right to live, even in the face of extreme desperation when it may appear to them that life holds no meaning. Judaism firmly believes that only G-d has the right to extinguish life. In religious morality, the body is essentially the property of G-d, and one has no right to decide the fate of one’s own body. Judaism has always taught that life, no less than death, is involuntary. Only the Creator, who bestows the gift of life, may take away that life, even when it has become a burden rather than a blessing.

No distinction can be made between one person and another when the issue is right to life. Age, colour, sex, and physical disability are not of any consideration in this matter, as human life cannot be relativised.

However, impediments to a natural death can be removed, firstly ascertaining that the conditions for doing so are properly considered. Rabbi Apple of the Great Synagogue in Sydney writes that, “Among rabbinic ethicists, Rav Moshe Feinstein holds that when a patient is gripped by unbearable pain and suffering, nature should be allowed to take its course. Thus when a patient is on a respirator and the machine is temporarily removed for servicing, if the patient shows no sign of life the machine need not be restored.”

But the concept of euthanasia in Judaism is still more problematic. Is a physician required to prolong the dying process through every available means possible for as long as possible? In Halachic literature it is written that a gosses, a 'dying patient', according to many rabbinic authorities, does not require the use of all available means to prolong life, or for that matter, prolong the process of dying. A gosses has been defined as a person who will die within seventy two hours. Yet modern technology has allowed the person to be kept alive for far longer than seventy-two hours. Thus the development of technology has complicated the issue, for how do we know when to remove the treatment that may artificially be withholding the individual from death?

Rabbi Apple cites Moses Isserles on the topic, “If there is something which inhibits the soul’s departure, such as a nearby noise of knocking like wood-chopping, or if there is salt on the patient’s tongue and these hinder the soul’s departure, then it is permitted to remove them from there because this does not entail a (positive) act but only the removal of an impediment to death.”

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