‘Death with Dignity’

‘Death with Dignity’

Panelists in Franklin Lakes look at physician-assisted suicide

Rabbi Joseph Prouser, left, Christopher dePhillips, Rabbi Jill Hackell, and Ray Lesniak
Rabbi Joseph Prouser, left, Christopher dePhillips, Rabbi Jill Hackell, and Ray Lesniak

On Monday, the New Jersey State Assembly voted to pass a bill allowing what it calls “physician-assisted suicide.” Later that day, the state Senate also approved the bill. Now it will go to Governor Phil Murphy, who said that he will sign the state’s “Death with Dignity” bill. New Jersey therefore will become the eighth state to allow some form of legally sanctioned suicide.

For seven years, Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey has been assembling panels to discuss issues in what he calls the shul’s Moral Literacy series. This week, he and his three panelists will look at the bill and at the moral and halachic implications of doctor-assisted suicide.

Christopher dePhillips, a Republican who was the mayor of Wyckoff, now represents New Jersey’s 40th Assembly district. He’s a lawyer. He’s also opposed to the bill. It’s not a partisan issue, he said; instead, “it’s an issue of conscience.

“I respect the fact that reasonable people can come to different positions. And I’m sympathetic to those who are enduring pain and suffering with a terminal illness. I’ve had people in my own family suffering in that way.”

But the bill says that doctors can prescribe lethal doses of medication to people who will die within six months, and Mr. dePhillips’s own experience has taught him that such prognostications are deeply flawed. “My father had leukemia and lymphoma, and he had a very difficult course of treatment,” he said. At first, his father was told that his illness was chronic and he’d likely live for a long time, but then the diagnosis changed to become far less hopeful, the treatment remained hard to endure, and “he was told at different times during his illness that death was around the corner. One night he was told that he had less than 24 hours to live.

“Another time the doctors told us to prepare for the worst, and that he had much less than six months to live.

“He lived five and a half years after that.”

He has many problems with the bill, Mr. dePhillips said, and he understands that his own story is anecdotal, and it’s just one anecdote at that, and “this might oversimplify it, but many physicians would agree that these opinions are not foolproof, and there are plenty of examples of opinions not being accurate.”

There’s also the question of quality of life, he continued. “People will ask me what my father’s quality of life was. That’s what the whole bill comes down to for them.

“How do you define quality of life? My father had a very difficult course. He had ups and downs. He had some very good moments. He had a significant amount of pain and suffering. He also had three more grandchildren. So how do you assess quality of life?”

And there’s more. “There is also the possibility of abuse,” Mr. dePhillips said. “It is possible that certain patients might feel pressure or duress from family members, and they won’t want to be a burden on them.”

There’s also the risk posed by the tempting presence of narcotics. “I hear people on the other side of the issue say that for some terminally ill patients, just having the prescription at their bedside helps, because it means that they have some choice, but those narcotics could end up in the wrong hands.” It’s like having a loaded gun in the house; most likely the children won’t use it, but…

Ray Lesniak, a Democrat, was in the state Senate from 1983 to 2018; he is from Elizabeth and represented the state’s 20th district. He is the founder of the Lesniak Institute for American Leadership at Kean University, and he fought to abolish the death penalty in the state.

He’s strongly in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

“I come to this from a position of compassion,” Mr. Lesniak said. “I believe that compassionate actions are moral actions. I have seen relatives die in a lot of pain, and I don’t want anyone to impose their beliefs on the threshold level of pain that I or anyone else can endure.”

Rabbi Jill Hackell of the West Clarkstown Jewish Center has an unusual bifocal view of the issue; she’s both a rabbi and a pediatrician, who spent most of her career doing clinical research on developing vaccines against childhood illnesses. Medical ethics are not at all theoretical to her; in fact, she also teaches a course in medical ethics and halacha at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, where she was ordained.

“The approach to physician-assisted suicide really depends on the lens you see it through, because American culture and secular bioethics are all about patient autonomy and personal autonomy — it’s our body, it’s our life, and we have the right to do whatever we want to with it — and the Jewish view is that the ultimate thing is respect for life,” Rabbi Hackell said. “When you look at it through a Jewish lens, you see that suicide is so frowned upon that someone who has committed suicide doesn’t get the traditional rites of burial.” That doesn’t happen in practice, she continued; suicide traditionally is seen as the result of an unbalanced brain, which is an illness that renders sufferers incapable of making rational decisions and therefore blameless.

But the problem — no, a problem — with physician-assisted suicide, as laid out in the state bill, is that someone who wants it “must be in their right mind. They must request it twice, and there can be no question about psychiatric illness.” That means that in order to be allowed to get a doctor’s prescription for a fatal dose of medication, a patient must prove him or herself sane in a way that would preclude standard burial in a Jewish cemetery.

Beyond that, she said, “I am very sympathetic to a person who is in severe pain and whose only out is to end their life, but I am worried on a larger scale in terms of how we as a society respect life.” It’s a slippery slope argument; if we allow this now, what next?

Rabbi Prouser has been public with his opposition to physician-assisted suicide since at least 2015, when he published an op ed about it in the Jewish Standard.

“From a halachic vantage point, this bill undoes all the social progress that the rabbis made over the millennia,” he said. “From my perspective, the immorality of the bill is beyond debate.”

But it will be debated vigorously, both in the outside world and at the panel in Franklin Lakes; these are just a sampling of the arguments that will be offered.

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser

What: Moderates a panel on physician-assisted suicide for the series “Moral Literacy”

When: On Wednesday, April 3, from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, in Franklin Lakes

How much: Free

For more information: Call (201) 560-0200 or to to www.tenjfl.org

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