If I could in any way help to change this law [against assisted suicide], it
would let me die a proud man, a very proud man – Briton Paul Lamb, left almost
totally paralyzed after a car accident
If they had let me die, I would have
missed out on the best, most beautiful years of my life – Israeli ALS sufferer
Rachamim Melamed-Cohen, educator, author and artist
I found my emotions tugged
this way and that by the “right to die” debate, which resurfaces at different
times and in different places as victims of incurable conditions take their
plight to the courts in an attempt to decriminalize assisted
What engaged my interest was reading about the high profile case
of two British men who are currently petitioning the Court of Appeal, seeking
protection from prosecution for people who could help them “end it
Paul Lamb, 57, rendered immobile except for limited movement in one
hand after a car accident 23 years ago, lives on morphine and needs
round-the-clock care. “Martin,” 48, cannot speak or move after a stroke four
years ago and communicates via movements of the head and eyes.
been allowed to take up the legal battle where fellow Briton
left off. Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome, died last year after
refusing food and medication following a court’s dismissal of both his and
It was hard not to be affected by hearing Lamb talk to
the BBC about his life as it is today, and his wish to be released from it
legally at a time of his own choosing, when he felt he could no longer “hang
on.” He speaks simply and with a quiet dignity, and one can imagine him as the
man he was before his accident – pleasant, modest, unassuming, perhaps enjoying
a pint in his local pub after a day’s work.
“The pain is horrendous... I
stay in this room... no desire to go out most of the time... my will’s gone, I
think I’m worn down, worn out... I badly would like to... have that choice, as
and when I choose... to call it a day.... [It] would give me massive peace of
“If I could in any way help to change this law, which is cruel,
it would let me die a proud man, a very proud man.”
IN ALS or amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – nerve cells (neurons)
waste away or die, and can no longer send messages to muscles. The condition
slowly gets worse, eventually causing complete paralysis.
“If I cannot
give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” asked
Canadian ALS victim Sue Rodriguez memorably in a video statement played to
members of parliament more than two decades ago.
Rodriguez’s struggle to
legalize assisted suicide galvanized public debate, but she lost her battle to
change Canadian law. In 1994, she committed suicide with the help of an
Last month, Susan Griffiths, a 72-year-old Winnipeg
woman suffering from multiple systems atrophy, wrote to federal politicians
petitioning for a change in the law regarding assisted suicide. Reports said she
subsequently died with the aid of a physician at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich,
Switzerland, one of the places where some forms of euthanasia or assisted
suicide are legal in certain cases.
ON A whim, I typed “own your life”
into Google and came up with as many as 28,000 hits, in line with the modern
trend toward self-help with the goal of maximum self-realization.
sites I looked at shared a basic message: We need to take responsibility for our
lives and live them in as productive and fulfilling a way as
All well and good. But suppose our bodies betray us and life
becomes an ongoing burden that feels too heavy to bear. Does ownership of our
lives then extend to the right to end them? Jewish law says no, categorically.
It regards human life as sacred and God-given, its value “infinite and beyond
measure” in the words of former UK chief rabbi, the late Lord
Halacha is specific about what doctors may or may not do in
the case of terminally ill patients who are dying: They cannot withhold food,
water or oxygen – the withdrawal of which may be tantamount to murder or suicide
– but they need not artificially prolong life where the patient has previously
stated that he or she declines this. In other words, doctors are not required to
make dying last longer than it naturally would.
Which may be comforting,
but is of no immediate practical help to those living for years with
excruciating, incurable illness.
AGAINST THE bleakness of this picture,
the extraordinarily productive life of Israeli ALS sufferer Dr. Rachamim
Melamed-Cohen, diagnosed with the disease in 1994 at age 57, is a testament to
the human spirit, and to the power of faith.
The author of 10 books on
education, religious faith and poetry – eight of them written during his illness
– Melamed-Cohen is also an accomplished artist, using his eyes alone to activate
a special computer program allowing him free use of Photoshop.
“I feel at
times that God has allowed me to live in order to show the world that even in
such a condition one can continue to be creative and contribute to society,” he
told an interviewer. “The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the
last breath of life. Until the last moment, one has to live and rejoice and give
thanks to the Creator.”
Rushed to the hospital after his breathing
failed, he indicated that no extraordinary measures such as connecting him to a
respirator be taken.
“It was my good fortune that I was hooked up,
anyway,” he said. “I am happy that they didn’t listen to me. I would have missed
out on the best, most beautiful years of my life.
“Before, I didn’t
believe that I have such inner strength. I learned that every human being has
sparks that he can transform into a burning flame.”
READING CASES and
following comments on the topic of assisted suicide, one comes across odd word
coinages such as “mercying” the incurably ill, and chilling phrases such as “the
better and cheaper treatment of death.”
“What is mercy-killing?”
Melamed-Cohen asks. “For whom is the mercy? Is it for the person with an
illness? Or is it for the family, so that they should not have to suffer? For
the medical establishment, to reduce expenditures? For the insurance companies?”
To Melamed-Cohen, mercy means helping others to live, with dignity. “I have been
fighting with senior medical officials and journalists who advocate euthanasia.
I am trying to be a mouthpiece for all those people who want to go on living,
but are subjected to tremendous pressure by an ‘enlightened society.’” Indeed,
one of the concerns voiced by medical professionals and others should assisted
suicide be decriminalized is that people with incurable illnesses, especially
those who are older, will succumb to real or perceived societal pressure to
“cease being a burden.”
IN A thought-provoking Guardian article called
“’Amour’: How can we embrace a film that is so clearly an advert for
euthanasia?” Brandeis University’s Margaret Morganroth, author of Agewise:
Fighting the New Ageism in America, writes of Michael Haneke’s Oscar-winning
movie: “For a film in which a husband murders his wife, Amour has been shown a
lot of love... Amour raises cultural risks in a western world that is already
ageist, and in which stretched medical resources are meted out to older patients
much less generously than to the young.
“Conventional wisdom, that we
should avoid prolonging the final phase of our lives, needs to be reassessed in
the era of longevity.”
Morganroth quotes ethical philosopher Felicia
Nimue- Ackerman: “Many seriously ill people find the ‘morbid phase’ of their
lives well worth prolonging.”
I recall a psychiatrist describing the
sheer power, the elemental force of life, the “fierce will to keep fighting”
even in people who one might surmise would not want to carry on.
of mine described her beloved aunt in the northern part of Israel: “At 87, she
is a Holocaust survivor, always succumbing to one more ailment, then another.
Yet she declares, ‘I’m not willing to give up yet!’” One can only admire this
resilient approach. Yet in entering the inexpressibly arduous and challenging
world of the incurably ill – if only in thought and imagination – it seems to me
that our response to any one individual or group cannot in any way be a
judgmental one. It cannot but be an attitude of respect, even awe – and a
grateful recognition that “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”