Arguments Against Medical Aid in Dying: A Faith Leader Reflects

In February, 2021, Rabbi Amswych wrote to New Mexico State Legislators to explain why he supports HB 47. 

 

My name is Rabbi Neil Amswych and I am the Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe, the oldest and largest Jewish community in town.

Rabbi Neil Amswych

I am writing to you regarding HB-47, a difficult and challenging but important bill which I have, over a very long process of reflection, come to support.

In this email, I will present the arguments that people make against this bill and their refutations.

 1) “The power of life and death should only be in God’s hands”: Only someone who refuses any kind of medical intervention can ever make this claim. You cannot go do a doctor or take medication and then say that we should never intervene in God’s plan for our bodies. Moreover, to allow suffering to continue on a person who does not hold by this theology would be cruel in the extreme. Insisting that one particular theological position is the determinant of healthcare is immoral and arrogant in the extreme.

2) “Suffering is a test for people from God and we should not limit that test because then we limit the potential reward”: Only someone who has never taken any kind of pain medication can ever make this claim. Suffering is only a test for people who view it that way. In 1940, Lion Feuchtwanger was quoted in the Paris Gazette as saying that “it is only the strong who are strengthened by suffering; the weak are made weaker.” The 16th century text known as the Shulchan Arukh says that “it is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature…

3) “Stop killing vulnerable people”: No-one is killing anyone. This allows individuals who are already dying to die on their own terms.

4) “Ending one’s own life is wrong”: Some religious people believe that life is a gift from God and therefore to end one’s life prematurely is a rejection of that gift. In that case, the person who believes this should not end their own life. They do not, however, get to determine the ethical code of other people, particularly those who are suffering at the end of their life. Once again, to prolong suffering in others as a result of one particular theological position is immoral and arrogant in the extreme.

5) “The medical community exists to extend people’s lives, not to help them be shortened”: This is also not true. It exists to extend people’s lives wherever possible and appropriate. When it is not possible or appropriate, the role of the medical community is to help the person who is dying to die in comfort.

6) “This will lead to more people dying”: Not true, because the people involved are already dying. This will not increase death at all.

7) “To not put suicide as the cause of death is dishonest”: The person is already dying from a terminal illness. If it were not for that terminal illness, their life would not be coming to an end and none of this bill would be relevant. Therefore, regardless of the final moments of life, the terminal illness is ultimately the cause of death.

8) “We should be encouraging people to seek mental health support instead of ending their lives”: In Oregon, where a similar bill is already in effect, the result was that far more people than before were referred to mental health services after the first consultation with their primary care physician. This bill allows terminally ill people to talk openly with their primary care physician about their struggle, and allows more support as a result. Not all people who went to the pharmacy and picked up the relevant prescription took it. Instead, it gave them choice, just as their body was depriving them of it. To choose is to be human, to be unable to choose is to be a slave. Just giving people the choice of a pain-free way to end their life is a remarkable gift.

9) “Pharmacists should not be put in a position of providing medication which leads to death”: In this bill, no pharmacist is required to fill a medical aid in dying prescription or can be sanctioned or disciplined for choosing to fill a prescription.

I was originally opposed to this bill, but slowly worked through all of my possible objections and realized that none of them had any merit, hence what you see above. In my nearly twenty-year career as a Rabbi, I have had innumerable people on their death beds ask if I could in any way help hasten their end. I have been powerless to do so. By speaking in favor of this bill, I hope to prevent similar suffering for others in the future.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Neil Amswych
Temple Beth Shalom, Santa Fe

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