halachah · sermon · social justice

My objections to euthanasia

I try not to broadcast disagreement with the rabbinate, especially when many colleagues are very senior, and I am still a student. It is even more cavalier, then, to express opposition to something advocated by the two Progressive movements, both Liberal and Reform Judaism. This issue, however, has been brewing for some time, and I feel compelled to speak out on it.

I do not agree with the current responsa coming from the movements on euthanasia. In fact, they make me deeply uncomfortable. I know that wading into such a morally complex discussion will undoubtedly upset people. Please know that my position is, almost certainly, a minority one. Please also understand that it is very sincerely and deeply held.

In June of this year, Liberal Judaism became a founding member of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups that campaigns for the rights of terminally ill people to determine how, when and where they die. 

This signaled the movement’s support for euthanasia, or assisted dying: when patients with incurable diseases are legally killed by their doctors. At the time, the decision caused some consternation in the Liberal rabbinate. Only a handful of people had made the decision with very little consultation. Dissidents objected that this was not a morally cut-and-dry decision, but one that needed much more careful thought than had been given. 

Nevertheless, the movement celebrated the media coverage they had received. They proudly displayed their reporting in The Sunday Times, Politics Home, and The Jewish News. Bold stances certainly grab headlines, and this was as bold as they could get.

This week, Reform Judaism took a more measured approach. After a great deal of consultation and discussion, the movement effectively arrived at the decision not to pick a side. Their responsum, published on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle this week, says we “will not campaign either in favour or against efforts to change the law on the issue.” 

Nevertheless, the decision garnered media attention because, for the first time, Reform Judaism promised it would provide pastoral care to patients who did choose to end their lives. In itself, that might not have been newsworthy. Since our founding, we have endeavoured to provide compassionate care to everyone who sought it, regardless of beliefs or life choices. 

It is uncontroversially the right choice that we should support individuals, regardless of our personal beliefs, and stay neutral on the law, when we are so patently divided. It would have been far more surprising if Reform Judaism had announced it was not going to provide pastoral care to terminally ill people. That would have resulted in much greater outrage.

Clearly, the “landmark” decision received the attention it did because it sent a subtle message of support for euthanasia. It suggested, while of course doing everything possible to argue to the contrary, that the movement endorsed such decisions. This responsum was consequently followed up by much media coverage, including an opinion leader in The Times.

The two movements are certainly leading a conversation in this country on assisted dying, but are they leading it in the right direction? I think not. 

This is not because I am in any way a conservative on this issue. In general, Jewish religious law up to this point has stood against the principle of assisted dying. The traditional Jewish response has been that life comes from God, belongs to God, and only God can take it away.

As such, the Mishnah rules that even closing the eyes of a dying person is tantamount to murder. The Shulchan Aruch says that a dying person must be given all the rights of a living one, and the Mapa adds that it is forbidden to do anything to hasten death.

These halachic rulings form the backbone of Orthodox objection to euthanasia. Most Progressive Jews share the Orthodox belief in the sanctity of life. Since at least the 1980s, however, we have had internal debates about what that means and how it should be implemented. Some have argued that, with necessary safeguards, relief of pain should be prioritised over unnecessary prolongation of life. 

As Progressive Jews, we are not bound by the decisions of the past, but seek to draw on them in conjunction with the best medical and moral reasoning of our age. We move with the times.

My objection is not to the abstract principle of euthanasia, but to the political context in which these decisions are being made. We never legislate in a vacuum, but have to consider what we advocate in the context of what is happening in the context of society at large. 

Yes, we can move with the times, but let’s look at where our times are heading. Right now, there is a wholesale assault on the rights and dignity of disabled people. Successive governments going back many decades have vilified disabled people as scroungers, leeching off the state, taking more from society than they give to it. 

With the introduction of fiscal austerity in Britain, the greatest burden fell on disabled people, who had their services, welfare, and jobs cut. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many ministers have made it clear that they see the lives of clinically vulnerable people as disposable. They have shown that they would prefer to prioritise the economy over the lives of people in hospitals and care homes. It is little wonder that some disabled people want to die, when they have been deprived of so much in life.

What message does it send out now if we say that we support assisted suicide? We may have been silent on the great attacks on disabled people’s lives, but, don’t worry, we are liberals, we will let you die. Just to show how caring we are, we’ll let you commit suicide, with support from the very state that has made your life so difficult.

If we are moving with the times, we are moving very much in the wrong direction. Coming out as pro-euthanasia now puts us on the side of those who are currently dehumanising the elderly and disabled. Publicly championing euthanasia is not defending the vulnerable, but attacking them.

Yes, as Progressive Jews, we do advocate choice and personal autonomy. But not all choices should have our enthusiastic support. The actor and disabled rights  activist, Liz Carr, has rightly said that, if someone is going to kill themselves, it is hard to stop them, but “that does not mean when a fellow human being – disabled or abled – expresses the wish to die because their life is shit, that we should agree with them.”

Some disabled people already feel that they are too great a burden on others. This is because we live in a system that reinforces that message: focusing on a person’s ability to be “economically productive” as their sole source of value, rather than loving them unconditionally for the fact of being alive.

That system, and the ideological apparatus around it, tells disabled people that their lives are not worth living. If we join in as cheerleaders for assisted dying, we are sharing the message that we agree with them. No wonder every disabled rights charity in the country opposes euthanasia liberalisation.

If we want to send out the right messages, I suggest we need to go in a different direction entirely. Rather than campaigning on people’s right to die, we should put the weight of our movements on campaigning for the right to live.

That means channelling our energy in campaigning for jobs for disabled people; proper welfare provision; decent and accessible social housing; the restructuring of our cities and public transport networks so that everyone can access them; investment in clubs and societies people can actually reach.

Yes, all of these things cost money. But the way we are going now costs lives.

I want you to know that, whatever you decide to do in life, I will absolutely support you and be there with you. But I will do that because I believe, on a fundamental religious level, that your life is precious and worth living. I believe in making that it is the duty of religious people, and of the government, to make people’s lives on earth as good and fulfilling as they can be.

We should absolutely support people at every stage of their lives, but the build up to someone wanting to die matters far more than enabling them to do it. We ought to assist people to live, not to die.

Shabbat shalom.

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019