Audacious Autonomy: A Sign of The Time?

Recently, Gov. Brown of California signed into law that states’ choice in dying law. California now joins several other states in allowing terminal patients to choose the course of their life. There are a series of restrictions and constraints. As we have mentioned, other states have similar bills pending. My own state of New Jersey has a bill that has passed the lower house last Fall and is scheduled, according to latest communications, to be read into state Senate for a vote in the very near future. The state polls favor the passage of such a bill. I have written in favor of the bill.

This issue points to a larger issue that needs to be kept on the front burner of family issues.

The on-going discussion on the need for families to create a plan for end of life decisions and care plans continues to be important. These bills, which re-inforce the value of a person’s ability to choose, speak to the cultural change now taking place. Boomers are desirous to exert more control of our life, even as that life ebbs. This issue is often discussed in the media as “assisted suicide”. I suggest that this is not a valid term, It really is a “choice in dying” bill, it places the responsibility of choice on the individual and the family–where it belongs. It opens the door for the necessity for families to discuss what people wish.

Jewish tradition would seem to stand against such legislation. There are varying points of view: the tradition which holds that we are creations of God and that our lives are not ours to do with what we wish; versus the texts that celebrate the value of choice and free will. However, if you take a look at recent articles and columns, I suggest that you can make the case that we have a change in attitude. Two decades ago the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution at their Biennial on Comfort Care, calling for more education on these issues, in favor of hospice care and palliative care. In a 1990’s article from “Tradition”, the quarterly journal of the modern Orthodox community, the issue of “quality of life” was raised as a major consideration in end of life decision making. Response (question and answers to scholars on specific issues) literature also introduced issues of “double effect” within Jewish tradition. All of this can be seen as a movement to take in to account the impact of medical technology and individual autonomy on decision making.The mood of Jewish tradition sees no value on excessive pain and suffering.

This discussion needs to continue in our congregations and agencies. We favor the creation of annual education programs that address this issue, making use of resources and texts that allow for people to examine their wishes in light of tradition. This is just the beginning of a larger–and much needed discussion. We urge you to bring this conversation to your congregation, and your family.

Rabbi Richard F. Address

1 Comment

  1. Comment from Ag Herman, Loss & Transitions:
    I believe that my loved ones who have died and left me behind, made the choice to fade into
    forever. There seemed to me that that choice involved: to fight or not to fight when stamina and resilience have disappeared and pain has taken over. Many folks choose death, more than we understand.
    I remember when I lost Dad, Mother’s dearly loved partner, my cherished Father; I also clearly recall the morning my own beloved man turned away and died. I remember when my wonderful, beloved son slipped his hand from mine. They were monumental, daunting transitions; my life was changed forever each time. I knew, in my heart, that their pain was gone, their dilemma was resolved and I would miss them always.
    When I lost Dad, Mother did not give me much opportunity or time to mourn, to make peace with my great sorrow. She quickly followed him. I grieved for my parents together, just as they chose to live; they were deeply in love! They frequently spoke of being together in death.
    It was difficult for me to accept that my parents were no longer at my beck and call; they disappeared, died within two months of each other. Mother apologized for following Dad so quickly; she said that he needed her. I understood that she needed to go to him. Wherever that was, I knew they had a pact and they were determined to go there together. The time between September and November was like a fleeting moment.
    In that quick moment, I lost my ballast and my guide. My Mother’s good sense guided and supported the big decisions I made. My Dad’s consistent wisdom, his adoration-no-matter-what built the foundation for my sure-footed confidence. Many
    years later my son quietly died, one is not supposed to lose a child, ever! A piece of me went with Jeff.
    Finally, the greatest love of my life also slipped away with little fanfare. When my beloved had enough of illness he followed my parents and our son. My life changed once again. My husband of 63 years had taken Mother’s place as my guide, Dad’s place as my ballast, Jeff’s place as my friend. All those years my sweetheart gave me balance, sensible wisdom and love without limitation. When he joined my parents and son in forever, I was for the first time alone, really alone! I was alone without guided wisdom, fine judgment and a special love, the biggest of life’s transitions had occurred. The transition that takes place at times of great loss is bigger than graduation, first job and even marriage and children. Great loss translates into alone, that means responsibility with a capital “R”, responsibility for self and frequently for others. Death brings a humongous transition: life-changing responsibility becomes “you are really on your own now!” My Mother prepared me for this without even knowing.

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