Death by Machine: Israel’s Dangerous Precedent

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Originally appearing at Arutz Sheva – Israel National News

After suffering a stroke last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in a coma. Where once the world followed Sharon’s every political move, medical details now dominate the news. Few believe that Sharon will recover, but no effort has been spared to try and keep him alive.

Yet some would argue that prolonging life in such a manner is cruel. That in fact, ending life in such circumstances would be the more compassionate alternative. Such is the argument put forth by proponents of euthanasia and ironically, it is in Israel that they have had their most recent success.

Late last year, the Knesset signed a new bill into law that somehow manages to approve euthanasia according to Jewish law. While it is forbidden for a person to take another’s life under Jewish law, having a machine do it for you has apparently been deemed kosher. As a parliamentary spokesman put it, “The point was that it is wrong, under Jewish law, for a person’s life to be taken by a person but, for a machine, it is acceptable.”

The machine in question is a special timer attached to patients’ respirators. After 12 hours it sounds an alarm and then at the end of a 24-hour cycle, it turns off the respirator. The alarm would normally be overridden unless certain conditions are met, such as the consent of the (over 17) patient or legal guardian. The patient or guardian can request an extension at any time and living wills are to be kept on file at all hospitals.

The device is similar to the special clocks used by orthodox Jews to turn off electrical devices during the Sabbath. But where one application allows a bypassing of Jewish law that doesn’t harm another human being, the other delves into more troubling territory. One might call it a death timer.

According to Jewish law, suicide is forbidden and while one cannot hasten the death of another person, lessening their pain is encouraged. Both active and passive euthanasia fall under the category of ending life, but there is some leeway in the stipulation that prolonging life through artificial means is discouraged. However, the act of actually turning off respirators or unplugging feeding tubes would entail causing another’s death. But now a machine can do the dirty work for you.

Israeli society has been heading towards legalized euthanasia for some time now. Last year, a Tel Aviv court ruled that a 59-year-old terminally ill patient should be allowed to disconnect from life support machines. The disconnection was supervised by two doctors but the rest of the procedure had to be undertaken privately, in the presence of family members only. The euthanasia device will allow doctors to circumvent such messy complications.

What’s astounding about the Israeli example is the emphasis placed on morality in pursuit of an amoral policy. Israel’s health minister Danny Naveh provided a glimpse into this bizarre mindset when he described the law as “a great moral achievement for the dying and their families.”

The fact that a committee composed of physicians, scientists, medical ethicists, social workers, philosophers, nurses, lawyers, judges and religious leaders somehow saw fit to recommend the bill is similarly disturbing. The committee was headed by Prof. Avraham Steinberg, an Orthodox rabbi, pediatric neurologist, medical ethicist and, according to the Jerusalem Post, “winner of the Israel Prize for his work on Jewish medical ethics.” That someone with this background would consent to such a law certainly does not bode well for the future of medical ethics in Israel.

If there’s any country that should heed the lessons of history when it comes to euthanasia, it’s Israel. After all, Nazi Germany was a sinister example of what can happen to a seemingly civilized society that treads the path of euthanasia. For the Nazis, euthanasia became an obsession, eventually resulting in the belief in eugenics or the achievement of a genetically superior race. Jews, gypsies, gays, communists, German dissenters, and others were experimented on and finally targeted for extermination under the rationale that they were inferior.

Of course, Israel is nothing like Nazi Germany, despite the oft-repeated claims of its enemies. But as a modern society and a leader in the field of medicine, it is as susceptible as any to the ethical pitfalls of euthanasia. If we look to other countries such as the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal and extends to infants and children, the implications become clearer. Belgium has followed suit, while France and Great Britain are not far behind. In the United States, Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law continues to be a test case for the rest of the country.

As far as religious leadership, one must turn mostly to Catholics and other Christians for the defense of “life issues” such as euthanasia. Meanwhile, mainstream Jewish leaders in America act as if euthanasia and abortion are the pillars of Judaism. Groups such as Jews for Life are one of the few exceptions to the rule, not to mention the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which has consistently lobbied against euthanasia and in favor of increased palliative care for the dying.

In legalizing machine-induced euthanasia, Israel is setting a worldwide precedent for the medical establishment. Indeed, doctors in other countries are already expressing an interest in the euthanasia device because it alleviates them of the guilt they might feel in turning off dying patients’ respirators themselves. Now that a machine can do it for them, doctors need no longer be encumbered by the “uncomfortable” feelings surrounding ending patients’ lives.

Israelis have made many contributions to the fields of science, medicine and technology. Do they really want death by machine to be part of this legacy?


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