As Canada expands its euthanasia program, what does biblical tradition say about it?

Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did Hashem make man.

Genesis

9:

6

(the israel bible)

November 13, 2022

5 min read

In a controversial move, Canada is expanding its government-funded euthanasia program to include the mentally ill. At the same time, parliamentarians in Scotland are being petitioned to incorporate a “suicide pod” that would allow people to autonomously end their lives. While governments and medical authorities debate the ethics, rabbis agree that Jewish law states unequivocally that under any condition, ending a life is murder. 

“No person can be the master over life; not his own and certainly not someone else’s,” Rabbi Moshe Avraham Halperin from the Science and Technology Torah Law Institute said.

Canada’s voluntary euthanasia program called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) became legal in 2016. The program is part of Canada’s healthcare system. To receive euthanasia, patients experiencing intolerable suffering must sign a written request expressing their wish to end their life. In 2021, more than 10,000 people chose euthanasia, an increase of over 32% from the previous year, accounting for 3.3% of all deaths in Canada. 

According to the latest report on Medical Assistance in Dying from Health Canada, 17.3% of people also cited “isolation or loneliness” as a reason for wanting to die. In 35.7% of cases, patients believed that they were a “burden on family, friends or caregivers”.

The law has been amended to make the program available to people whose death is not medically foreseeable. It was also amended to include those with dementia who may not be able to understand the implications of their decision. The decision to access medically assisted suicide will also be for people whose only medical ailment is a mental issue. This amendment will go into effect next year. 

This addendum has been cited as being morally ambiguous. Last month, Amir Farsoud, who lives in St Catharines, applied for euthanasia, citing back pain as the leading health condition. But his main motivation for the request was fear of homelessness. Farsoud depends on social assistance and lives in a shared-rooming house that has been placed on the market by its owner. He says he can’t find affordable accommodation. 

“I don’t want to die but I don’t want to be homeless more than I don’t want to die,” he told BioEdge. “I know, in my present health condition, I wouldn’t survive it anyway. It wouldn’t be at all dignified waiting, so if that becomes my two options, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.”

In 2019, Alan Nichols, a 61-year-old man who was depressive and reportedly suicidal, submitted a request to be euthanized, listing hearing loss as the health condition leading to his request, according to a report by the Associated Press. His request was carried out despite questions about his mental ability to understand the implications.

In the Netherlands, where a quarter of all deaths are now carried out by assisted suicide, euthanasia is utilized for babies under one year of age with “severe deformations” and “very grave… medical syndromes”. Physicians in Canada are lobbying for the healthcare system to adopt this policy. 

Euthanasia, where doctors use drugs to kill patients, is legal in seven countries — Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain — plus several states in Australia. Other nations, including several U.S. states, permit assisted suicide — in which patients take the lethal drug themselves, typically in a drink prescribed by a doctor.

All countries that have legalized euthanasia have government-funded universal health care

But euthanasia services are expanding. Dr. Philip Nitschke, a Swiss physician who founded the pro-euthanasia group Exit International, recently petitioned members of the Scottish government to adopt using 3-D printed pods for assisted suicide. The ‘Sarco pods’ would allow users to be locked in an airtight chamber which is then filled with nitrogen gas rendering them unconscious in a minute and dead within ten minutes. The user would push a button to release the gas but the pod also features an emergency stop button and an escape hatch. 

Though the Canadian program is described as “Dying With Dignity”, the government has a financial interest in promoting medically assisted suicide. According to a study published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, doctor-assisted death could lower annual healthcare spending across the nation by between $34.7 million and $136.8 million. 

This economic interest is creating moral dilemmas. Roger Foley, a 47-year-old man suffering from cerebellar ataxia, a disease that attacks the brain and muscles, claims that medical staff at Victoria Hospital, a primarily government-funded center in Ontario, have been encouraging him to take part in the MAiD program. Foley has been bedridden for six years and needs continual assistance in order to eat, wash and sit up.

“They asked if I want an assisted death,” Foley told the NY Post. “I don’t. I was told that I would be charged $1,800 per day [for hospital care]. I have $2 million worth of bills. Nurses here told me that I should end my life. That shocked me.”

Foley has brought a lawsuit against the hospital based on these claims. 

Assisted suicides are prohibited by the Noahide Law which prohibits the spilling of blood. This is based on a verse in Genesis.

Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did Hashem make man. Genesis 9:6

Rabbi Halperin whose Science and Technology Torah Law Institute investigates modern technology within a religious Jewish framework, explained how Jewish law relates to euthanasia. 

“In Judaism, there is no difference between morality and Torah law,” Rabbi Halperin said. “What others call morality is how Jews serve God. This especially includes difficult life and death decisions, what we call the sanctity of life. Life is holy, the holiest thing in the world, because it is through life that we serve God.”

Rabbi Halperin explained that the decision to end life was not in the purview of humans.

“Life belongs to God and He is the only one who decides when it begins and when it ends,” he remarked. “So even a person who is in a vegetative state, his soul being in the world increases the Glory of Heaven that is in the world.”

The rabbi explained that by choosing to take a life, man is not only “playing God but is actually usurping the kingship of God.”

“Morality that is not based in the Torah is selective, placing Man at the top, in the decision-making role,” Rabbi Halperin said. “A person can destroy his own property or tell someone else to destroy it because it is his property to do with as he chooses. In selective morality, if a man chooses to end his life, since it is his life, he is within his right to do so.”

“But if you believe that the essence of life is the soul that was placed there by God, and that belongs to him, is part of him, then taking life is the worst crime possible.”

Rabbi Halperin explained that Jewish law was clear on this issue with no gray areas.

“It is absolutely forbidden under any condition to remove someone from life-saving measures, even if he is suffering, even if he requests it,” he said. “Similarly, it is forbidden to withhold normal treatment, or food and water, and medicine, that will extend his life. These things are murder, plain and simple. You can pray for his suffering to end but you cannot actively end it.”

“If a person has a chance to live after resuscitation or CPR, even if he will be disabled, then every effort must be made to lengthen his life,” he further said. “But if there is no chance for him to return to life, if he will for sure never return to consciousness, then there is no necessity to resuscitate the person.”

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