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(photo credit: AP [file])
A government bill - six years in the making - that will allow the terminally ill to die in dignity without being forced to be kept alive by artificial means was passed on its third and final reading by the Knesset plenum on Tuesday in a 22 to three vote, with one abstention.
The legislation was described by Health Minister Dan Naveh as "on the human level one of the most complicated and important ever legislated by the Knesset. It is a great moral achievement for the dying and their families."
At the last moment, Degel Hatorah MK Moshe Gafni tried to weaken the bill by saying that only terminally ill patients who have a month or less to live - instead of the stipulated six months - could be covered by its provisions, but his view was rejected. (To read about how halacha views euthanasia, click here)
A delayed-response timer built into a patient's respirator will be the main solution to the problem of how to let the terminally ill end their lives with dignity.
The recommendations that formed the basis for the bill were prepared by a 58-member public committee of physicians, scientists, medical ethicists, social workers, philosophers, nurses, lawyers, judges and clergymen representing the main religions in Israel.
The committee, which heard testimony and met for two years, was headed by Prof. Avraham Steinberg, an Orthodox rabbi, pediatric neurologist, medical ethicist and winner of the Israel Prize for his encyclopedic work on Jewish medical ethics. "I am very satisfied with the bill. It is very balanced and will offer answers in all situations," he told The Jerusalem Post.
If requested in a living will or by a person chosen to decide on his behalf, a terminally ill patient who is over the age of 17 could ask that his life not be extended by artificial means.
The withholding of nutrition and active euthanasia would not be permitted because they violate Halacha but the legislation - which will come into effect within a year - will allow the halting of ongoing support using the timer device. No longer would families have to turn to a court for specific permission to halt artificial means for keeping terminal patients alive against their will.
The timer - based on the idea of the "Shabbat clock" used in religious Jewish homes to turn electrical devices on and off on Saturday and festivals - would operate for 24 hours at a time and set off a red light or alarm after 12.
The patient or his representative could at any time request an extension, Steinberg explained, but if the dying person were determined not to have his life extended, the timer would turn off the respirator at the end of the cycle.
Living wills, renewable every five years, will be stored by patients on a special national database on the Internet and be accessible at all hospitals. "We expect that most people, especially the elderly and the chronically ill, will want to prepare a living will for any eventuality," he added.
Steinberg said that since the idea of the timer became known abroad, many non-Jewish doctors abroad have expressed interest in it, because medical teams of all views and backgrounds feel uncomfortable turning off a dying patient's respirator and causing his death.
Hospital ethics committees will become statutory committees, not voluntary ones without legal status and palliative care to reduce pain will be an integral part of the process. A national ethics committee could hear appeals in special cases, so lower courts would not have to intervene at all.