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When to stop treatments
Jun 29, 2001

Hello, I have advanced AIDS (HIV+ since 1983) and am thinking of the future. My question is: at what point would I be able to stop life-supporting treatments (respirators, CPR, feeding tubes, transfusions, etc.) without it being considered suicide?

These days the body can be kept alive far longer than it would under "natural" circumstances. Perhaps this is useful on some level for the soul, but the toll it takes on the person and loved ones can be enormous. The financial costs alone of long-term hospitalizations and life-extending treatments can be wildly expensive.

I don't wish to put my family through the pain of watching me slowly waste away, nor do I want my husband to shoulder a huge financial burden after my death. I also don't want to spend my last days hooked up to machines.

My mother had throat cancer, a feeding tube, and an unsuccessful tracheostomy. She finally opted to stop the feeding tube. A devout Catholic, she consulted her priest to ensure she wasn't committing suicide. He told her it was all right.

I have a relationship with Jesus, but I am not a Christian, or member of any organized religion. Still, most religions and spiritual paths regard suicide as a waste at best and a sin at worst.

Any help would be appreciated. Thanks, Colleen

Response from Rabbi Sacks-Rosen

Thank you for sharing your heartfelt question. It sounds as if your medical condition may have shifted and you are worried or, perhaps, you are merely trying to consider all the possibilities since you know that right now your health is good. I hope that the latter is closer to the context of your question.

Among the various religious traditions we do not find a single answer or guidance in one specific direction regarding thinking about suicide and which acts might or might not be considered so. Indeed, even within each tradition, we find different voices on such a weighty subject.

Surely all traditions in general support and celebrate life. No tradition sanctions rash, ill-considered acts. This is rather understandable; we might all agree on this.

On the other hand, we all recognize the tremendous difficulties--spiritual, psychological, physical, economic--that suffering often entails. In such contemplation, I would echo the Yiddish adage that "Alle meine sonim--All my worst enemies--should not have to go through such a time."

I actually just finished perusing a just-arrived volume of a professional journal. In it, I read a round-table discussion of whether one could ethically choose not to continue articial hydration or artificial nutrition under some circumstances. Each of the three thinkers offered a different take.

Within Judaism, my tradition, one finds differing voices. However, one could make a general statement that, from a Jewish perspective, we are not obligated to prolong life artificially where there is no known chance of recovery. How this may or may not apply to any one's specific case is not always obvious and should be processed with all important parties--one's close circle of family/friends, one's spiritual adviser/s, one's medical team, et al.

Each person is quite unique. Therefore, it seems to me, our traditions are wise for not trumpeting cliches or promoting a party-line. Rather, the diversity of feelings can be respected--and can be seen as offering a wide gamut of possibilities for any one person within that tradition or framework. Let me be clear: Each person's case--circumstances and feelings--should be treated discretely, separately.

On this basis, then, I offer no answer but a path. That path should consist of seeking out spiritual and/or ethical guidance on this matter from an appropriate, respected, beloved figure/s--whether a clergy person, therapist and/or healer. That person/s input might be discussed within your nexus of close family members and friends, people who you trust to give you appropriate, good feedback.

I wish you well as you ponder and search out your path. May this process bring you resolution and peace. And may you sense God's comforting, caring Presence all along the way.

In any event, with such a wid



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