Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

In The Culture Of Death

The most precious thing any of us have is our lives.  Just being alive and sentient is an amazing gift from the Creator of the Universe.  It also seems to be the one gift from Him that we take most for granted and often resent that we don't have ultimate control over it.  After all, we don't choose when we are to be born or die. The processes of conception and death occur independently of us and sometimes despite our best efforts and wishes.
Is it any wonder, then, that as society moves away from an awareness of God and sanctity towards a hedonistic, self-centered form of civilization in which personal pleasure is the highest personal goal, that we start to introduce voluntary death into our daily lives.
Abortion, for example, is already commonplace in society, so much so that we don't even think of it in terms of snuffing out a life but rather as a medical procedure done much of the time for convenience.  A human being, DNA and all, is destroyed and we argue instead over "right to choose".
It should therefore not be a shock to anyone that once we've established that a foetus can be killed with impunity that society would then turn its sights on someone else.  As a result we now have the efforts of some to declare that a person with a terminal, painful illness now has a right to demand someone help him die so as to end his suffering.
Recently the province of Quebec moved towards making euthanasia legal there when an "expert" panel recommended allowing mercy killing in certain limited cases.  Of course, they don't call it mercy killing but rather death with dignity, just like we don't call abortion foetus killing.  That doesn't change what it really is though.
Quebec is an interesting place in any case.  Originally a very religious population tightly controlled by the Catholic church, the mainstream went secular decades ago and has defined itself by being anti-religious.  If God says "X" then you can be sure Quebec opinion will be "We hate 'X'".  As a result the province has one of the highest abortion rates in Canada.  Interestingly enough it also tops the list for suicides.  No surprise then that mercy killing is something the population wants.
Now I do not want to gloss over the suffering some with terminal illnesses endure.  I've met patients with Lou  Gehrig's disease who are prisoners in their own bodies.  I've attended to patients racked with the pain of cancer eating into their bones and organs.  I know that there are some horrible diseases out there that don't take life quickly but slowly and painfully over months to years.  I do not claim that this suffering is tolerable or at all desirable.  Even with the best medical care people can still undergo significant difficulties on their final journey.
Years ago as a resident I took part in a discussion on mercy killing and was asked what the Jewish position was.  I pointed out that in Jewish tradition every instant of life has immeasurable value.  In addition life is a gift from God and only He is in a position to take it.  As a result any measures that specifically aim to shorten the lifespan of a person, no matter how much they are in pain, is forbidden and those measures would be considered murder.
Indeed the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch deal with the idea of terminal suffering and how to alleviate or shorten it without violating that rule.  This is a complex subject, not one that can be discussed standing on one foot.
Naturally my statement was met with a rolling of the eyes.  In the view of the secular culture where moral relativism is king anyone saying that they have a non-negotiable red line in their beliefs is automatically an unreasonable fanatic.  But really, without the red line what do we have?
For example, most physicians facing a patient with end-stage cancer who is going to die shortly anyway and is screaming with unbearable pain would not have much of a problem administering just a little too much morphine which would lead to respiratory arrest and death.  But what about a scenario in which the patient's pain is currently controlled but expected to spiral in the next day or two?  The patient knows he will be in agony and doesn't want to suffer.  He wants that injection of morphine now because it's too late.  Is that still okay?  If not, why not?  If the whole point is to minimize suffering then why does the guy rolling on the bed get the shot but not the guy who's going to be?
Heck, why is physical and not psychological pain the main criteria?  A person might, chalilah, receive a diagnosis of inoperable cancer and simply not want to deal with it.  The idea of waking up every day and knowing there is a dark force slowly eating away at his insides is intolerable to him.  Why can't he have the shot to relieve that burden?
To take it to the extreme a few years ago the local paper told the story of an elderly widow who wanted to have an assisted suicide.  She was in great health but was very lonely following the death of her husband and wanted to be with him.  She felt she was quite the candidate based on that.  Even the most dedicated proponents of mercy killing weren't in favour of this but if a competent woman like her reached such a decision why should she be denied the opportunity?
We live in a society in which "dirt" is not allowed.  We don't want to suffer.  We don't want to feel pain.  We don't want to wait more than 5 minutes for that burger we ordered.  We want what we want and we want it now.  The idea of being in pain is justifiably frightening but it is also part of life.  To treat one's existence like one's cell phone, as something that's fine for now but to be disposed of when no longer convenient, speaks to a shocking devaluation of the great gift.
Imagine a society in which mercy killings are as commonplace as foetus killings, where lobby groups fight to prevent anti-euthanasia groups from protesting, where the idea of even questioning the morality of mercy killing leads to screams of outrage.  Once upon a time abortion was a procedure undertaken with great care and caution.  Now it's a form of birth control.  Today we are told that mercy killing would only happen under exceptional circumstances.  Does anyone really believe that as time goes by it won't become easier and easier to get?


Micha Berger said...

Is there a halachic source for equating abortion with murder? It's clear that abortion is included under the Noachide ruberic of murder, but then, the 7 mitzvos unfold into many more as it is. But for Jews... abortion is permitted in many cases where the equivalent is not, the punishment (with witnesses, warning, true ordination, a Sanhedrin, etc...) isn't the death penalty, etc... It's prohibited, but not murder.

tesyaa said...

Once upon a time abortion was a procedure undertaken with great care and caution.

Is this assertion backed up by historical research? More importantly, if history were written by women, would this assertion still hold water? Surely you realize that a woman does not need a man's help or knowledge to have an abortion.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Rav Micha, IIRC abortion under halacha does not have the status of murder but rather it's considered harm to the woman's body. Having said that it's obvious that we don't allow a free-for-all because there is a shemetz of taking of a life associated with it, especially since by Bnei Noach it is considered murder.
Tesyaa, abortion has always been a controversial procedure. There is no question that women who absolutely needed the procedure were denied it for ethical, not medical reasons. Having said that the procedure is now treated by many physicians and layfolk as no more controversial than a tonsillectomy. That is very wrong.

Micha Berger said...

I was just trying to stop the conflation of the culture of murder, which includes a willingness to perform murder-like activities (a "shemetz of taking a life" as you put it, or "avaq retzichah" as I called it when discussing on Avodah), and actual murder (retzichah). Abortion is part of that culture, which was your point after all (AIUI), but it's not murder in the halachic sense.

Your sentence "Abortion, for example, is already commonplace in society, so much so that we don't even think of it in terms of snuffing out a life..." is simply an overstatement. (Sanhedrin 72b) Life begins at the emergence of either the majority of the head or in the case of breech, the majority of the body. (Nidah 28a)

Anon1 said...

Whatever we call it, there's an increasing tendency to want to do away with lives (or pre-lives) of others for our own convenience.

Atheodox Jew said...

When I saw the title "Culture of Death", I thought you were going to talk about Jihad and militant Islam, which truly IS a culture of death.

But a teenager who gets an abortion because she feels her life would be ruined otherwise is not "embracing death". A person who's suffering and wants their life to end (whether for physical or psychological reasons) does not "love death". To want to relieve human suffering (either one's own or someone else's) is not being "pro-death" - adaraba it's pro-life!

Now the obvious problem of course is when relief of suffering involves killing. I agree there's a tendency to underplay that killing, and I agree we'd be well served to be very cautious about when we make it legal to kill in order to relieve suffering. But I disagree about characterizing people who are out to relieve suffering as somehow having a love for death, as part of a bloodthirsty "culture of death".

Rather than spend our energies condemning those who get into suffering vs. death dilemmas for choosing the latter, we should devote them to minimizing instances of the dilemma in the first place - e.g. finding new ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy and improving the quality of life for people suffering from debilitating illness.