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Feature Essay

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

BMJ 2021; 374 doi: (Published 09 September 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;374:n2094

Read our coverage of the assisted dying debate

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

Dear Editor

The assertion proffered by Romain and Carey – that religious opposition to doctor-assisted dying “is not largely on theological grounds” and that “nothing in our religious texts opposes” it – is theologically flawed.

The Torah (e.g., Exodus 21:19) obligates us to care for those who are unwell, and the Talmud famously equates the saving of life with the saving of an entire world (Sanhedrin 37a). When faced with such tragic circumstances, Jewish law permits us to pray for a terminally ill patient to die in order to relieve their suffering, for while this expresses a compassionate human response towards others, the responsibility of deciding the moment of death firmly remains a Divine prerogative. God mandates that humans intervene to heal but clearly forbids taking a life (Genesis 9:6, Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17).

The authors state that the “God barrier has long been pushed aside both at the beginning and end of life, with humans acting in lieu of God.” There is no theological comparison between the creation of new life through fertility treatments, the saving and prolonging of life through medical intervention versus the premature active ending of life through doctor-assisted dying, irrespective of the actor’s good intentions.

We do not seek to impose our own view on others, respecting their right to self-determination. Neither do we doubt their compassion. But by attempting to rationalise doctor-assisted dying in theological terms even to relieve suffering, the authors have rooted their own moral anchors outside their faith traditions.

Competing interests: Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman is a member of The Moral and Ethical Advisory Group (MEAG), which provides independent advice to the UK government on moral, ethical and faith considerations on health and social care related issues. He also trains Medical Examiner Officers (MEOs) and speaks at conferences for MEOs. He is writing in a personal capacity. Dr Aryeh Greenberg is an Associate Examiner at the General Medical Council. He is writing in a personal capacity.

27 September 2021
Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman B.Eng M.Sc PhD
Rabbi, New West End Synagogue, London and Jewish Chaplain to the Canary Wharf Multifaith Chaplaincy
Dr Aryeh Greenberg BSc MBBS MRCP(UK) PG Cert(Medical Education), Specialist Registrar in Clinical Oncology, University College Hospital, London
New West End Synagogue, London