Dr. Kevorkian vs. Jewish Ethics

Copyright 1998 by Rabbi Jay S. Lapidus

One Sunday night in November, while a group of congregants were studying Jewish beliefs with me, I’m sure that a good portion of the rest of the membership was watching Dr. Kevorkian dispatch a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease on 60 Minutes. I probably would have watched it too.

Dr. Kevorkian’s real death, I would imagine, was duller than the dramatized demise of NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone. There was no background music, no pretty widow, no special effects and no dramatic conflict. Nevertheless, Dr. K. earned higher ratings, got more media attention, got himself arrested yet again, and gave Larry King something else to talk about besides President Clinton’s predicament. 60 Minutes certainly received a nice boost for the November “sweeps.”

“Dr. Death” wants to legalize euthanasia, as it is in the Netherlands. Since its legalization, many Dutch doctors have been more eager to save expenses by terminating a patient rather than going through the trouble of providing palliative and psychological care. In the face of high medical costs, human life is disposable. Apprarently, it is too inconvenient to provide supportive care to certain patients in the Netherlands and in Dr. Kevorkian’s world.

Dr. Kevorkian plans to represent himself at his upcoming trial. That’s a good idea, because his chances of getting convicted will increase, putting one ghoulish narcissist out of circulation.

What about Dr. Kevorkian’s victims, whom he assisted in putting to death in ways similar to how one destroys aged and sick dogs and cats? What kind of psychological and spiritual support had Dr. Kevorkian provided any of his victims? None.

The (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly has a better approach. This is what the Rabbinical Assembly teaches in publications available to you:

“Jewish tradition as understood by Conservative Judaism teaches that life is a blessing and a gift from God. Each human being is valued as created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Whatever the level of our physical and mental abilities, whatever the extent of our dependence on others, each person has intrinsic dignity and value in God’s eyes. Judaism values life and respects our bodies as the creation of God. We have the responsibility to care for ourselves and seek medical treatment needed for our recovery - we owe that to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. In accordance with our tradition’s respect for the life God has given us and its consequent bans on murder and suicide, Judaism rejects any form of active euthanasia (“mercy killing”) or assisted suicide. Within these broad guidelines, decisions may be required about which treatment would best promote recovery and would offer the greatest benefit. Accordingly, each patient may face important choices concerning what mode of treatment he or she feels would be both beneficial and tolerable.”Note, however, that while upholding the preservation of human life, Jewish law does not permit the prolonging of the dying process. There are humane, Jewish alternatives to Dr. Kevorkian. Hospice is one such alternative, providing a multi-disciplinary approach to working with terminally-ill patients. Hospice workers, including doctors, nurses, chaplains and social workers can treat pain and depression. They provide a variety of options for patients and their families to consider.

You can order the complete text of the Rabbinical Assembly’s “Jewish Medical Directives for Health” including a “living will” and a durable power of attorney from the United Synagogue Book Service.

Sooner or later, most of us will be confronted personally by the life and death issues raised by 60 Minutes and the Rabbinical Assembly. Now is the time for you to explore all the moral, humane, Jewish options, before the need arises.

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