Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, November 18, 1999

Jewish views on
physician-aided death

LEADERS of the Jewish faith no longer are united against doctor-assisted death. Traditional Jewish scripture and teaching were opposed, but there has been a rethinking of the issue by some within the faith.

Here in Hawaii, Rabbi Stephen F. Barack joined the 11-7 majority on Governor Cayetano's Blue Ribbon Panel on Living and Dying With Dignity in supporting an even broader policy for physician-assisted death than that legalized in Oregon in 1997.

It would extend beyond terminally ill people to those with bodily illness that is intractable and unbearable. It would permit active physician assistance, such as might be required by stroke victims, whereas the Oregon law requires self-administration of a lethal potion.

Both the Oregon law and the Hawaii recommendation require extensive screening before any permission is given. The Hawaii panel added a unanimous recommendation against involuntary euthanasia. Congress is trying to veto assisted suicide on a national basis, but the U.S. Supreme Court suggested it be worked out "in the laboratory of the states."

I served on Governor Cayetano's panel and was immensely impressed by the respect we people of diverse views maintained for each other. For that I credit primarily our chairman, Hideto Kono, a person of great diplomacy. Our religious representatives included a rabbi and a Buddhist bishop for assisted death, a Catholic nun and a United Church of Christ minister opposed.

I estimate that half our members were undecided on assisted death when our deliberations started though eight of us, me included, had fairly strong opinions already -- five pros and three cons.

Rabbi Barack seemed to me to have wrestled with himself over his final vote more than any other member. It is his own position, he stresses, but he has not heard criticism of it from any members of the 125-family congregation of Temple Bet Shalom in Hawaii Kai.

Rabbi Avi Magid of the larger Temple Emanu-El congregation (300 families) on Pali Highway supports more personal autonomy on this issue but has not yet taken a position on the blue-ribbon panel proposal.

Rabbi Barack thinks the historical Jewish opposition to assisted death must be re-examined in the light of the new realities of today.

The bottom line is that he now believes that every Jew should be allowed to make up his own mind. He personally decided to support the recommendation of the governor's panel.

He and I both believe the number of approved assisted suicides will be few. Oregon had only 15 such deaths in 1998, the first full year its law was in effect, even though it has nearly three times Hawaii's population.

We see the existence of such an option as a mental comfort for many people who won't use it. A by-product of the Oregon debates was an increase in hospice usage to more than 30 percent of all deaths versus only 19.5 percent here.

Hospice emphasis on mental and physical comfort is all many suffering people need. However, even an American hospice founder now believes there is a small niche for assisted death in a compassionate society.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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