Having spent the last several years advocating for the rights of critically ill patients in hospitals and other medical facilities all over the world, Chayim Aruchim took to Albany to speak personally with key elected officials about the importance of defeating proposed legislation that would legalize physician assisted suicide in New York State.
Among those in attendance at the March 20th meeting were Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president for community services at Agudath Israel of America, Dr. Daniel Berman, an infectious disease specialist practicing at Montefiore Medical Center, Rabbi Shmuel Blech, a leading Lakewood New Jersey rabbi and a member of the New Jersey State Legislature’s ethics committee, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly’s committee on health, Senator Diane Savino, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, Rabbi Berish Fried, Chayim Aruchim’s New York State project director and Leon Goldenberg, member of the board of trustees, Agudath Israel of America.
After a brief introduction by Rabbi Lefkowitz who stressed the importance of viewing the issue of physician assisted suicide from an intellectual instead of an emotional perspective, Dr. Berman spoke passionately about analyzing the proposed legislation by weighing the associated risks with the expected benefits.
Referencing a study done by the Journal of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Berman explained that there is a significant discrepancy between the preferences of healthy individuals who advocate for death with dignity, and the wishes of those who are living with severe medical issues. According to the study, only 18 percent of doctors and nurses said that they would want to live if they had sustained a debilitating spinal cord injury, while 92 percent of patients with that type of injury said that they would choose to go on living despite their medical challenges.
The lesson is clear, noted Dr. Berman. Physicians often present options for medical treatment based on their own value system instead of considering their patient’s preferences, making it extremely risky to enact legislation that would allow doctors to be influenced by their own views when offering patients medical options.
Enacting legislation that would legalize physician assisted suicide in terminal patients is “a slippery slope,” warned Dr. Berman. Several European countries who originally offered assisted suicide only to terminal patients have now relaxed their criteria, offering euthanasia as a choice to those who are disabled, mentally ill or suffering from non-fatal illnesses. Other alarming trends in the medical world are palliative care specialists who try to convince patients to end their lives and financial incentives being offered for hastening death in certain patients.
Dr. Berman concluded by drawing on his thirty years of experience with patients in end of life scenarios and noting that the risks of assisted suicide far outweigh the intended benefits.
The final presenter of the meeting was Rabbi Blech, who expressed his concerns that legalizing assisted suicide would undermine the sanctity of life while sending a clear message to the disabled and infirm that their lives have no value.
Enacting this legislation would give the vulnerable feelings of hopelessness and uselessness and could even be construed as intellectual intimidation, explained Rabbi Blech. Even more disturbing is the notion that physician assisted suicide supporters appear to be motivated solely by the idea that a life that is less than perfect is not worth living.
“The moral compass, which forever remains steady, is now subject to the strange messages that we have allowed ourselves to communicate,” said Rabbi Blech. “We have unwittingly become the victims of a pervasive cultural sleight of hand. I deeply respect the work that has gone into the preparation of this legislation … but yet cannot say in honesty that the reason for physician assisted suicide is the underlying illness suffered by the patient.”
Rabbi Blech also emphasized that for generations, optimism has been the hallmark of the United States, a quality that has allowed our country to enjoy unparalleled success in a relatively short period of time. Rabbi Blech mentioned several prominent Americans who rose above significant challenges to live remarkable lives; Helen Keller triumphed over multiple handicaps in her lifetime, but if she were living today, death with dignity advocates would likely attempt to persuade her to end her life because of her physical shortcomings.
That same American spirit of positivity was evident during Rabbi Blech’s formative years.
“Challenges were opportunities for growth,” said Rabbi Blech. “This is the message that I received and one that I would like to transmit to my children.”
Dealing with life and death issues brings with it great responsibility, one that should not be taken lightly, advised Rabbi Blech.
“We must proceed with great caution, with the full realization of the enormous consequences that our decision may affect,” said Rabbi Blech.