The private member’s bill that would allow a physician to prescribe a drug that would end a terminal, suffering patient to end his own life, without legal repercussions to the doctor, was passed on Sunday by a majority vote of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.
However, passing the bill in the Knesset will be a struggle due to expected opposition from religious and right-wing opponents.
The bill, proposed by Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, is aimed at terminal patients who are not connected to ventilators and thus cannot ask their doctors to turn them off via a delayed-timer mechanism, which is approved but not yet implemented by an existing law on terminally ill patients. The proposal was supported in the ministerial committee by fellow Yesh Atid MK and Health Minister Yael German.
Shelah said a patient described as “terminal,” according to the law prepared by the public committee headed by Rabbi Prof. Avraham Steinberg, could receive a prescription for a drug that would kill him painlessly.
“It would give him an amount of control over his life without the doctor fearing that he would be legally taking responsibility for his death,” said Shelah, “at a stage when his pain and suffering are unbearable.”
Shelah added that “this is a problem that the society has to cope with, and the need for the bill is growing as life expectancy grows and medical technology [that keeps patients alive] improves.”
Such a law would improve the feeling of the family after it parts from the loved one, said Shelah. “It will put Israel in the forefront of enlightened nations.”
Prof. Avinoam Reches, a senior neurologist at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, who has treated many terminal patients suffering from severe pain and/ or helplessness, told The Jerusalem Post he personally supports the bill. It would enable a number of terminally ill Israelis who were forced to go abroad in order to end their lives to remain in Israel with their families, he said.
Reches, who is chairman of the Israel Medical Association’s ethics bureau, said the IMA body does not oppose the bill but has not taken an official stand.
“The ethics bureau is neutral on it,” he said, “because on such major issues, there has to be a consensus for us to voice our position.”
The existing law on terminal patients is not relevant, he explained, because it deals only with those who are connected to a respirator, and theoretically gives them the option of declaring that they want to die. In such a case, a timer would not renew its operation at a certain moment, perhaps ending in the patient’s death but maybe letting him continue to live if his lungs continue to function.
Such a timer is being tested at Hadassah but has not yet been made available by health authorities. The Steinberg law also sets down the apparatus for living wills and for palliative medicine care for the terminally ill, but these too have not been fully implemented.
Asked whether the Shelah proposal has a chance of being passed, Reches said, “It’s a matter of the existing political constellation.
No one will be forced to do it. If a religiously observant patient does not want to take the drug, it’s OK, but he doesn’t have the right to dictate to others.”
Reches noted that such a law has existed in the US state of Oregon since 1998 and that each year, “only between 100 and 120 prescriptions for such a drug have been issued, with about 60 to 80 actually ending terminal patients’ lives.”