Despite the fact that the days between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur are, typically, filled with many last-minute preparations for the fall holy days, this year I felt compelled to set aside time on Tuesday, September 26, to make my way to Beacon Hill, there to offer testimony before the Joint Committee on Health, in favor of Massachusetts 2017 “End of Life Options Act” (H 1194 / S1225) . An overwhelming majority of Americans, and residents of Massachusetts, favor an option at the end of life to end intractable suffering. Such laws already exist in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, California, Colorado and Washington, D.C.
A ballot initiative to establish such a legal option in Massachusetts was narrowly defeated (515 - 49%) in 2012. In 2015, proposed legislation failed to emerge from the Joint Committee on Health. This year’s re-worked proposal seems to stand a better chance of moving to the floor of the legislature for debate and a vote.
September 26 was a day filled with testimony from proponents and opponents of the legislation. When it my turn came to testify I was joined by my esteemed clergy colleagues, Rev. Nell Fields (Waquoit Congregational Church) and Rev. John Gibbons ( First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Bedford, MA).
Here is what I said to members of the committee that day:
“I want to thank the Committee and its Co-Chairs for this opportunity to offer testimony in support of the End of Life Options Act.
My name is Elias Lieberman and I serve as rabbi of Falmouth Jewish Congregation on Cape Cod, a position I have held for the past twenty-seven years. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer testimony today. I have, in the past, served as a hospice chaplain and I bring to this moment decades of experience serving the needs of families as they contend with end-of-life issues. I have been witness to good deaths and bad deaths; I have seen members of my community pass from life serenely and I have watched them endure suffering that none of us would wish for ourselves or anyone we love.
In Jewish tradition, a frequently heard toast is “L’chayim”, a Hebrew expression that means “To life”. In truth, mine is a faith tradition that deems precious the gift of life we are granted. But mine is also a tradition that rejects the notion that there is anything inherently redemptive about suffering.
The wisdom found in the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “there is a time to be born and a time to die.” I have come to believe that there is, sometimes, a time for an individual to make the informed decision to bring his/her suffering to an end with compassionate support and with the protections against abuse incorporated into this proposed legislation.
As a person of faith and as someone who chose a profession in which I am expected to offer guidance and support to those facing the ultimate in existential questions, I believe firmly that terminally ill individuals should be afforded the right to choose to bring about a peaceful death when suffering renders living intolerable.
I believe that life must be infused with meaning and purpose and when it is no longer possible for us to attain either, because of the suffering induced by illness, a compassionate alternative must be available to us, one that lies at the core of this proposed legislation.
I do not presume to speak for all Jews or for Judaism although polls consistently show strong support among Jews for medical aid in dying; I do presume to offer my experience and my convictions gained over the course of my career ministering to the dying and to their loved ones. I urge you to grant the precious gift of autonomy to those whose suffering will be unendurable and for whom a release from a life of suffering would be the greatest of blessings.”
I cannot emphasize enough that this proposed legislation is about providing people with a terminal illness, whose suffering cannot be adequately addressed by palliative care or the supportive ministrations of hospice care, the option of ending their suffering through a self-administered lethal prescription. Evidence from other states with similar laws shows that only about one-third of those who obtain a lethal prescription end up using it. Having the ability to autonomously decide how much suffering is too much, lies at the heart of this legislation and the compassionate option it provides.
I encourage you to learn more about this legislation. This website link will lead you to an organization with which I have been working closely to bring this important end-of-life option to Massachusetts: https://www.compassionandchoices.org/
If you feel as I do that residents of our Commonwealth need and deserve such an option, I encourage you to contact your state representative and senator now!