A major religious battle is looming. For centuries, Jews and Christians have understood the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” to apply as much to oneself as to others. God alone should be the giver and taker of life. Suicide was a form of murder, and was to be regarded as a sin.
Today this once universal consensus is being challenged. The reason is not that life is seen as any less precious, but that there is an increasingly divergent approach to individuals whose days are full of pain or distress, and who no longer wish to endure such an existence.
When this occurs, should religious principles hold firm and declare that life cannot be ended prematurely; that instead we have to give the utmost care to those concerned and soothe their path as much as possible, saying: God still loves you, even if your body has let you down.
Or is it more religious to allow them to depart a world that cannot offer them anything but suffering and say: if you no longer want to live, why should I insist that you do when it is your life, not mine? Give thanks to God for the gift you enjoyed and gently hand it back.
In response to this dilemma, a book of essays by 17 rabbis, Assisted Dying: Rabbinic Responses, has just been published examining the issue. In a significant departure from the past, rather than simply provide the traditional answer “No”, it offers both permissive and prohibitive stances. Those against point out that this is far from being a new question and cite a famous case in the Talmud — the record of rabbinic discussions compiled in the 5th century. Rabbi Judah is dying a slow and painful death. His disciples are praying for his recovery and their efforts are keeping him alive. But his maid realises that they are just prolonging his suffering, drops a pot so as to momentarily distract them, at which point their prayers cease and his soul departs.
This is taken to indicate that although we can withdraw treatment from a dying person (in this case, ending the life-sustaining prayers), we do not have the right to directly cause death by positively activating it.
Other writers express concern about how assisted dying could alter our perception of life, turning it into a commodity that can be discarded at will, introducing utilitarian criteria and making lives less valuable and more expendable.
There are warnings, too, about the practical consequences that could emerge: how elderly relatives might be susceptible to pressure from selfish relatives to opt for an early death so as not to be a burden on them (or to release their estate).
However, these objections are countered by rabbis who argue that there is nothing holy about pain and nothing sacred about suffering. It is our religious duty not only to alleviate pain with medical treatment and palliative care where possible but to permit assisted dying when people wish it for themselves.
They cite the verse from Ecclesiastes iii, 2: “There is a time to be born and a time to die”, and note that it does not say who chooses that time. We control much of what we do in life, should we not have a say in when it ends?
Moreover, we constantly “play God” in other spheres, cheating death through blood transfusions and heart transplants, so why not also help individuals to let go of life when it is a burden that is no longer desired, particularly if they are terminally ill? They have a right to seek a good death.
Tight regulations will ensure there is no “slippery slope”, as has been proved in Oregon, which permits assisted dying and has not seen any untoward extension of it.
This debate has a hard-edged urgency, as a bill to legalise assisted dying will come before the House of Lords in July.
It is always difficult to pin down the will of God, but what is evident is that many of those listening to it today may hear it differently from those in previous eras.