As I write this column I am anticipating an opportunity on February 20 to mix pleasure with “business”. The pleasure involves seeing a number of friends, current and former members of Falmouth Jewish Congregation, who are now living at Orchard Cove in Canton .
The “business” involves an invitation from Elaine Seidenberg, a past President of FJC who is now an active member of the Orchard Cove community, to address residents on the subject of medical aid in dying (MAiD). This is “business” near and dear to my heart.
As many of you know, I have been an active supporter of MAiD for almost five years. I have testified twice before the Joint Committee on Health of the Massachusetts Legislature when “An Act Relative to End of Life Options” was under consideration but failed to emerge from committee. In January, 2019 the bill was, once again, introduced. This time a record number of co-sponsors in both the House and Senate have signed on.
Eight jurisdictions already allow the practice of MAiD: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, Colorado, California, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Over twenty other states are considering doing the same.
In January our congregation’s Social Justice Committee endorsed unanimously the following statement and sent it on to our Board of Directors, recommending its adoption. The Board voted to do so at its February meeting:
“Medical aid in dying is a practice in which a mentally-capable adult, with a prognosis of six months or less to live, requests from their doctor a prescription for medication that they may self-ingest to bring about a peaceful death.
Recognizing the right of mentally-capable adults to make fundamentally important decisions relating to end-of-life situations, the Falmouth Jewish Congregation endorses medical aid in dying and calls upon the Massachusetts legislature to enact legislation authorizing medical aid in dying in the Commonwealth.”
Why am I engaged with this issue and why have I asked our leadership to lend the name of Falmouth Jewish Congregation to this cause?
My work as a rabbi has exposed me to deaths both good and bad. I know from up-close and personal experience that not all suffering can be effectively treated despite the best efforts of physicians, hospice workers and palliative-care experts. I know that, for some people, the loss of autonomy sometimes occasioned by terminal illness can bring on emotional suffering that cannot be addressed. I know what I would want were I to find myself in the situation this legislation contemplates and I would never deny another the right to make this fundamentally important decision.
I am fully aware of voices in the Jewish community firmly opposed to MAiD. Many Jews believe that our lives belong to God and that we have no right to bring our lives to an end. I acknowledge their belief but I do not share it; nor do I believe that religious beliefs should shape public policy when it comes to the rights of individuals. This is every bit as true for medical aid in dying as I believe it be for abortion rights. The proposed law obligates no one to avail him or herself of MAiD; it would establish the legal right for terminally-ill, mentally-competent adults, under prescribed circumstances and with ample safeguards in place, to choose to end their unacceptable suffering.
Successive national polls reflect enormous support for this concept, crossing religious, political and racial lines. Seven out of 10 Massachusetts voters (71%) support a proposal to allow “mentally competent, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live be able to end their life in a humane and dignified manner, using prescription medications they can self-administer.”
All of us will die. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has noted, that fact is “not a pitch for life insurance, it is a religious truth”. Many of us will face unacceptable suffering as a consequence of a terminal illness. My respect for the autonomy of the individual, my belief that there is nothing ennobling to be found in suffering and my conviction that Judaism calls upon me to manifest compassion for both the living and the dying has made me a staunch supporter of medical aid in dying.
I encourage you to learn more about this subject by visiting the website of Compassion & Choices, the nation’s oldest, largest and most active non-profit working to improve care and expand options for the end of life: www.compassionandchoices.org
If you share my concerns, I urge you to make your voice heard at the Statehouse. Call your Representative and Senator and tell them that you want them to enact medical aid in dying. And if you wish to join me and a growing cadre on Cape Cod to help bring MAiD to Massachusetts, please let me know!