What is Reform Judaism's position on allowing terminally ill people who are mentally competent to request medication from doctors to allow them to end their own lives?

Answered by
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Ph.D.

Jewish tradition holds that since life is a gift from God, it is to be cherished until its last moments. We are instructed not to take any actions that may accelerate death. All of us wish to avoid pain and suffering, and none of us wishes to see a loved one in agony. But suffering does not, in and of itself, justify the taking of a human life.

Jewish tradition does not demand that we struggle against illness with all our might until the bitter end. Our duty is to practice medicine, to heal, to save life; and once it becomes clear that our technologies no longer serve what we would define as a reasonably therapeutic purpose, we are permitted to withdraw those treatments, even if in doing so we allow a patient to die sooner than he or she otherwise would have died.

Indeed, since tradition suggests it is forbidden to delay unnecessarily the inevitable and imminent death of a terminal patient, it is arguably our obligation to discontinue these therapies. The struggle to respectfully and carefully make end-of-life decisions for our loved ones and for ourselves is particularly difficult. End of Life Decisions: A Discussion Guide can help structure these conversations within a Jewish context.

Our obligation to heal the sick and to care for them does not include assisting a patient to end his or her life. Judaism has always held that assisted suicide is incompatible with our teachings. Such practices are rife with the potential for tragic abuse and are incompatible with Jewish teaching, as we understand it.