Life-or-Death Struggle

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Josh_RunyanWhen Brittany Maynard, the woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon so that she could end her life under that state’s “death with dignity” provisions, took her story to the media in the form of YouTube videos, she reignited a debate about the propriety of governments allowing doctors to participate in what many say amounts to suicide.

To be sure, when Maynard took a physician-approved lethal dose of medication on Nov. 1., plenty of people rallied to her defense. She chose to die before her disease robbed her of crucial life functions, they pointed out, thus fulfilling the intent of the “right-to-die” movement: Quality of life needn’t only be measured on this side of the approach to the grave but should also take into account how and when the terminally ill choose to get there.

As you’ll read in this week’s cover story, Judaism traditionally has taken a negative view of anyone, terminally ill or not, taking her life into her own hands. The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements are largely in agreement on this score, arguing with near uniformity that life has value even on the deathbed.

“The Jewish perspective is late life is valuable even if the person doesn’t believe it,” Reform Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana of Portland, Ore., told reporter Simone Ellin.

The corollary to that statement is that just as life came from the Almighty, it isn’t up to human beings to impose their own standards to justify taking it away.

States across the country are currently grappling with whether and how to implement their own “death-with-dignity” laws, with the attention of policymakers, advocates and observers rightly focused on how to mitigate the pain and suffering — both physical and psychological — of the dying. But at the same time, conversations at dinner tables and in communal halls should also focus on how to infuse dignity into life in all its forms and constraints.

The idea that anyone could reach the conclusion that life in its current or future form is not worth living negates the fundamental Jewish concept of teshuva, which although loosely translated as “repentance,” also refers to the idea of self-improvement and perfection. Medications can help mitigate pain, and mental health professionals are constantly struggling to help people reach peace with themselves; religious leaders, likewise, help people achieve peace in their lives.

Fundamentally, to argue whether or not Maynard did the right thing is a foolish argument. She was clearly in pain and chose what she thought was the best way to deal with that suffering. But moving forward, society as a whole should be doing a better job backing the principle that life, any life, has an innate worth that cannot be measured by time or accomplishments.

Just think of what the world would look like if everyone embraced the view that life was worth living in and of itself.

jrunyan@jewishtimes.com

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