Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Feature Essay

There is nothing holy about agony: religious people and leaders support assisted dying too

BMJ 2021; 374 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n2094 (Published 09 September 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;374:n2094

Read our coverage of the assisted dying debate

Rapid Response:

A Response to Rabbi Romain’s and the former Archbishop Carey: There is indeed Biblical and Theological Opposition to Assisted Dying

Dear Editor,

I would like to respond to Rabbi Jonathan Romain’s and the former Archbishop George Carey’s essay, “There is nothing holy about agony: religious people and leaders support assisted dying too” (9 September 2021).

Firstly, the terms employed by Rabbi Romain and former Archbishop Carey serve to empty assisted dying of any connotations other than one of being a professional, medical procedure. Yet, upon more considered thought, there is no reason to medicalise or sanitise assisted dying or even to call it “assisted dying” in the first place as opposed to, say, facilitated murder or suicide. Furthermore, a doctor is not perforce the ideal functionary necessary to carry out assisted suicide or to have the power to vote it in its favour. Since Classical times, a doctor’s primary obligation has been to heal their patients, to “first do no harm,” not to end life, even if such would mean an end to the person’s pain.

However, most deceiving of all is the sweeping, groundless assertion that despite the fact that “there has been such strong opposition to assisted dying by some religious groups. Strangely, it is not largely on theological grounds, because there is nothing in our bibles or prayer books that directly mentions this matter.” On the contrary, even a cursory glance at the Jewish prayer book, for example, reveals a “direct opposition to assisted dying.” One of the very first passages contain within the Jewish prayer book, to be said each day upon waking, is: “God, the life-force you placed within me is pure; you created it, formed it, and breathed it into me. One day you will take it from me. As long as this life-force is within me, I will thank you.” Every comprehensive Jewish prayer book also contains the ancient oral Jewish teaching that “against your will you are born, against your will you live, and against your will you die.”

That does not mean to say that Judaism is a religion devoid of compassion. The prayer book’s many pages are replete with pleas to heal the afflictions of the sick and show mercy to all Creation – to alleviate and not to celebrate suffering. Its prayers, filled with Biblical psalms, recited three times a day by religious Jews, calls on man to feel the pain of others and unwaveringly support the ill and vulnerable. It reads as one emphatic appeal to the supplicant to have empathy with all people on Earth, to “be with them in their suffering.” Furthermore, the bible recognises the reality of human suffering. Several of the most righteous Biblical personalities crumbled under the burden of their troubles and pleaded with God to die (as Moses cried out: “If this is the way you [God] treat me, please kill me!”). Yet even so never was one sanctioned to kill himself; neither was another person granted with the right to assist him to do so. According to Jewish Law, such would be murder as a person’s life – despite the unbearable, torturous agony which may consume it – remains, just as that early morning prayer proclaims, under God’s ownership and not ours. The verse in Genesis, in the opening chapters of the bible, states somewhat wordily, “The blood of your lives [spilled by murder] will I [God] require [i.e. accountability from the murderer]… from the hand of man, from the hand of a person’s brother [namely, even if such murder was mercy-killing, killing one’s ‘brother’], will I require [punishment for taking] the life of man.”

To be sure, end of life treatment in Orthodox Judaism, a legal-system formed and dictated by a vast and complicated mass of Talmudic law, is a delicate and complex area which requires the navigations and rulings of only the most qualified halakhic experts. Additionally, there is nuance in regards to end of life treatment. However, active assisted suicide nevertheless lies beyond the pale (see, for example, the writings of Professor J David Bleich).

In short, there certainly is “biblical and theological opposition” to assisted dying, one just needs to open the prayer book and turn to its very first pages or casually purview the opening chapters of Genesis to find it. I understand Rabbi Romain’s and the former Archbishop’s position and appreciate that it is motivated by genuine compassion for the terminally ill, the result of having personally witnessed the physical pain and crippling distress of those imminently facing an inevitable death. However, if they want to be true to their titles, the least they could do is open a prayer book. They would see that a law to allow assisted dying would be a step too far for many religious groups. They themselves may be unwilling to stand in prayer with the Jewish prayer book – filled with scriptural verses and used for a millennium by the faithful – uttering the refrain, repeated three times a day by Jews, that “God owns all,” including our lives. Yet many religious people still do. Whilst those adherents plead daily that God should ease the pain of the sick and perhaps even that God should end those poor, tormented lives, those same religious people nevertheless accept that we human beings are forbidden “biblically and theologically” from assisting in another’s suicide; that the life-force inside of us is exclusively God’s to take.

Gavriel Cohn

Competing interests: No competing interests

10 September 2021
Gavriel Y Cohn
Jewish Studies Teacher
London