End-of-Life Option Act Draws Jewish Debate

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(Supporters rally for the End-of-Life Option Act.)
Supporters rally for the End-of-Life Option Act. (Justin Silberman)

Betty Kupinsky had always been in control of her life. At least, until an aggressive form of lymphoma had spread throughout her body, leaving her bedridden and waiting for nature to take its course.

It eventually did, but only after six weeks of emotional distress and much suffering.

At the age of 90, Kupinsky had begged her son, Dr. Michael Strauss, to help end her life while she was receiving hospice-level care. But because state law does not allow for such measures, Strauss was unable to help grant his mother’s request.

Motivated by his mother’s death in December 2014, Strauss, a 63-year-old Montgomery County resident, has dedicated much of his time to advocating for the highly debated End-of-Life Option Act.

“Had the [End-of-Life Option Act] been around, she would have ended her life [in] about a few days to a week with the appropriate means,” Strauss said of his mother. “For a small portion who suffer with physical or emotional pain, it’s just a comforting option to have.”

Strauss, a retired internist and current health policy consultant, was one of nearly 200 people who packed a room on Jan. 25 in Annapolis, where advocates rallied for the End-of-Life Option Act. Many wore bright yellow T-shirts from Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization that advocates for end-of-life choice.

Under the bill, which state lawmakers are tackling for the third consecutive year, terminally ill patients with six months or less to live would be allowed to end their lives using a lethal drug prescribed by a doctor.

“Someone else doesn’t know better than I do what my destiny should be,” Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who represents District 13 and is the bill’s lead sponsor, told the JT. “Why should somebody think they know better than I what’s good for me?”

Patients would be required to visit with a doctor multiple times — once in private — and would also have to request the life-ending prescription three times. The doctor would have to decide whether patients have six months or less to live, have the mental capacity to make a sound medical decision and could administer the medication on their own.

Previous legislation failed to garner enough traction to make it out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings in each of the two previous years, but supporters believe more progress has been made since then.

Strauss said a major hurdle was cleared when the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi) voted last fall to alter its position on the issue from opposed to neutral.

While a number of legislators, including Pendergrass, and supporters who back the legislation are Jewish, the community is largely split on the issue.

Prior to the rally for the legislation, Pendergrass told the JT that the legislation is a matter of personal “autonomy” and that people “should have control over their own bodies” without government intervention.

A number of members in the Orthodox Jewish community, however, staunchly oppose the practice of medically assisted suicide, citing the Torah and the Talmud as the deciding factor of when people are born and die.

The Rabbinical Council of America, a group representing more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, recently said it “vehemently protests legalizing any pathway for killing the ill, since society thereby supports and normalizes the act of murder.”

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, said he once again will testify against the bill this year at a public hearing on Feb. 16.

“The concept that someone can go ahead and say, ‘Well, enough is enough,’ that’s not a decision that’s up to you,” Sadwin said. “It’s not our decision to decide when people are born and when they die.”

In the Reform community, meanwhile, some rabbis have softened — or altered — their stance in opposition regarding such legislation.

Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom initially opposed the legislation two years ago but is now netural after hearing “compelling” testimony from those who support it.

“I understand that there are some circumstances in which the provisions of this bill are called for,” said Fink, who added he would need to review the current bill before deciding to throw his support behind it.

Rabbi John Franken of Bolton Street Synagogue said he is “broadly sympathetic” to the concept of the legislation but has yet to form an opinion on the bill itself.

“I think in our Jewish tradition, we need to be really open-minded and look at this issue very carefully,” Franken said. “If there are ways to compassionately help people in the process of dying without robbing them of their dignity, and when it’s an inevitability in an imminent fashion, then I think it really behooves us as Jewish leaders to be open to that.”

Franken, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, said the organization has yet to take a formal position on the subject.

In recent years, the bill has faced resistance from the Baltimore Jewish Council, which adopted its position in 1997 and reaffirmed that view two years ago after a group of rabbis from across the denominational spectrum unanimously agreed to oppose the bill.

Despite that, BJC executive director Howard Libit said his organization is not making the legislation a particularly “high priority” on its agenda this year.

“The decision making of the BJC on issues like these aren’t driven by opinion polls,” Libit said. “In matters with significant life-impacting matters that are deeply rooted in Jewish heritage, we feel like we’re obligated to follow our Jewish spiritual leadership.”

Norma Cohen, a Mount Washington resident and active participant in Compassion & Choices, said she had hoped the BJC would have taken a different approach.

“I’m not looking for [the BJC] to support the bill,” Cohen said. “They’re not going to do that, and I understand that. I don’t expect them to do that. But I think they should either ignore it or they should come out and be neutral about it.”

For some who attended the rally, such as 76-year-old Anne Arundel County resident Ellen Dinerman, there is more at stake than just religious beliefs.

“I think of this as a civil rights issue,” said Dinerman, a volunteer with Compassion & Choices. “It’s my body and my decision. If you have religious beliefs that don’t let you think that way, then don’t choose this option. It’s all about having choice.”

The practice is legal in five states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California and Colorado. Montana has not enacted such a law, but the Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law does not prohibit a physician from honoring a terminally ill patient’s request to end his or her life.

A MedChi poll last year found that 65 percent of Maryland residents support end-of-life measures, and 60 percent of physicians either support it or are neutral on the issue.

“This issue should be between a doctor and his or her patient. Nobody else should be involved,” Strauss said. “That’s how most medical decisions should be.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

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