Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill
making physician-assisted suicide a federal crime -- and
thereby raised an alarm among those who favor allowing
doctors to help patients end their lives.
For me, the renewed debate brought back the image of a man
who currently lives in Yerushalayim. Once suicidal himself,
he insists that the most wonderful thing that ever happened
to him was his swimming accident, when he became a
His story came to me via a well-known and respected head of a
Yerushalayim yeshiva. The handicapped young man was a
personal acquaintance and had told the rabbi how the first
twenty-odd years of his life were spent cultivating an
athletic physique, honing his muscles to perform at their
optimum -- and how his fateful accident had seemed at the
time to be more devastating than death. A graceful athlete
mere moments earlier, he was now unable to move in any useful
way, barred by an obstinate spinal cord and an army of
rebellious neurons from playing ball or swimming laps, from
eating or going to the bathroom -- even from so much as
scratching an itch -- on his own.
He could not, he discovered, even kill himself without
assistance, which he desperately tried to garner -- but to no
Frustrated by his inability to check out, so to speak, he
began to turn inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed
decisively from a universe of action, he entered one of
If life is indeed now worthless, he wondered with newfound
seriousness, then was running and jumping and swimming and
scratching literal and figurative itches really what defined
its meaning before?
That quandary, and pursuant ones, led the wheelchair-bound
ponderer to contemplate the very meaning of creation itself
and -- to make a long and arduous journey of self-discovery
seem misleadingly trite -- he concluded that the spiritual is
the key to meaningful existence. Where he was then led was to
his forefathers' faith, to Torah.
Most remarkable, though, was his auxiliary and inescapable
realization: that had he not suffered his paralysis, he would
never have thought to consider the things that led him to his
new, cherished, life.
The rather dry issue of states' rights will likely be the
gist of any legal challenge to an eventual federal measure
that will effectively trump state laws permitting physician-
assisted suicide, like the current one in Oregon.
But a more trenchant concept to be included in any
consideration of assisted suicide is "quality of life." Are
some lives, the question essentially goes, to be considered
less valuable, less meaningful, less purposeful and hence
less worthy of society's protection than others?
Legislators and judges facing the issue of assisted suicide
will contemplate many questions, but none of more enormity
than whether American society is ready to define what makes
life worth living, and to act on such definition by allowing
ill and depressed people to enlist the help of doctors to
Men and women in extremis often find themselves facing the
question of life's meaning. Not all of us at the end of our
too-short journeys will experience epiphanies, but all of us
have the potential to be so blessed. And many of us, even if
immobile, in pain and without hope of recovery, might still
engage important matters -- matters like forgiveness,
repentance, acceptance, commitment, love, G-d -- perhaps the
most momentous matters we will ever have considered over the
course of our lives. Cutting such vital engagements short is
no less tragic than ending a pain-free, undiseased, young and
And so as the host of constitutional and moral issues
swirling around the issue of physician-assisted suicide are
weighed in Congressional halls and judicial chambers, the
weighers would do well to contemplate, too, the edifying
story of a once-promising swimmer in Yerushalayim.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is public affairs director of Agudath
Israel of America and the American director of Am Echad.