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Maryland’s Jewish community split on end-of-life issue


The issue of allowing terminally ill, mentally competent individuals to choose to end their own lives will be debated once again in the Maryland General Assembly.

While a number of legislators, including the lead sponsor, and advocates who support the option are Jewish, the community is all but united on the issue leading into the start of the legislative session on Jan. 13.

This year’s bill will be called the “End of Life Option Act,” a name change reflecting that some felt the name of last year’s bill, “Death with Dignity” implied that other deaths were undignified. While there is no debate that choosing to end one’s life goes against Halacha, those who support the legislation say it’s about compassion and respect for the ill, and they draw on their Jewish identities in their support.

“It’s not, to me, a matter of being Jewish or not being Jewish. It’s a matter of respecting people to make their own decision at end if life,” said Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-District 13), a Howard County politician and the bill’s lead sponsor. “Do I think that’s a Jewish value? Actually, I do.”

Pendergrass and advocates of the bill were upset with the Baltimore Jewish Council testifying against the bill during last year’s session and at a workgroup meeting in the fall. The BJC plans to revisit the issue when a new bill is introduced. Executive director Art Abramson said he doubts the council would ever support the bill, but it’s possible the organization could step back and not lobby heavily against it.

This year’s bill, modeled partly after California’s law, will be similar to last year’s. It would allow patients with a six-month prognosis to obtain a prescription for a lethal drug from a physician. The patient must be the one making the decision to take to the drug and must be able to take the drug without assistance.

A workgroup convened this fall to make changes to the bill. Some of those proposals include changes to documenting witnesses, requiring that one of two witnesses not be a relative or beneficiary and changes in some other reporting requirements. Other proposals include listing the cause of death as “pharmacologically accelerated imminent natural death” and sponsors want to include a mandatory private consultation between the patient and their doctor to ensure there is no coercion.

Pendergrass said a large number of Jews testified in favor of the bill last session.

“The quote that stays with me and will continue to stay with me, hauntingly, is, ‘Everyone is one bad death away from supporting this bill,’” she recalled hearing.

Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said his organization opposed the proposed law last year and will again this year.

“It’s not going to be the primary item on our legislative agenda, but we would be willing to participate in broad coalitional efforts or testify,” he said. He said the council has a longstanding policy that asserts its position on the upcoming legislation, and that it is consistent with different denominations. He has not heard from Jews who support the legislation, while he doesn’t rule out that they exist.

“These issues are obviously highly emotionally charged and extraordinarily personal and complex, but we still feel [opposing the legislation is] where the Jewish community maintains a pretty strong consensus,” he said.

But Rabbi Rhoda Silverman of Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Owings Mills, said that Jewish perspectives can be updated for the times.

“Judaism values life. The laws that were created that talk about this, extending life and doing anything to pursue to life, could not even imagine the medical technology that we have today, and I don’t believe those rabbis would have made those same decisions as they would have today,” she said. “When somebody is in an unbearable amount of pain and they know where this is going … I feel like the Jewish response should be to allow them to die with dignity. To me there’s no other response.”

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, disagreed.

“We are not in charge of when we live and die, that is something that is decided from upon high,” he said.

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