March 31, 2005
Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill
When my friend, Debra, learned that a young man she knew had been in a tragic accident and was comatose, she went to the hospital to visit him every day for three months. No one knew if the man would emerge from his deep, distant sleep, but Debra believed that he would.
During her daily visits, she recited Tehillim (psalms) aloud to him. She believed, as nearly all religious Jews do, in the spiritual and healing power inherent in these psalms, compiled by King David more than 2,000 years ago.
Eventually, Debra's prayers were answered, and the man awoke from his coma. When he first saw Debra, he told her that he had heard every one of the Tehillim she had recited, and that it had helped him recover.
This man had been beyond the reach of medical technology, but he had not been beyond the reach of a spiritual connection made by a loving friend. She knew that even a person who is severely ill, perhaps irreversibly, has a nefesh, a living soul. Who can judge what meaning and fulfillment that soul receives from hearing the voice, feeling the touch or receiving the heartfelt prayers of those around them?
Most people believe that while there's life, there's hope. But in a frightening trend, lawmakers and "intellectuals" in the United States and Europe have decided to eliminate both possibilities for the dramatically ill or infirm. Three years ago, the Dutch Parliament officially legalized euthanasia for adults who requested it, and it is legal in the state of Oregon.
But Groningen University Hospital in The Netherlands has taken the horrifying step in recent months of allowing its doctors to euthanize children under the age of 12 if doctors believe their suffering is "intolerable" or if they have an incurable illness. Legal investigations have determined the medical decisions were appropriate. While this had already been common practice for many years in The Netherlands, giving it legal sanction is chilling.
When a society condones killing patients whose medical cases are deemed hopeless, it discounts the value and the purpose of the soul, and negates the guiding hand of Hashem in our lives. It expresses a belief that people are valued only in utilitarian terms: Once they become too much of a drag on resources or create hardship for family members, it's time to give them a lethal injection.
This idea is not unique to Europe. Peter Singer, head of Princeton University's ironically named Center for Human Values, has long advocated the disposability of disabled or unwanted babies. People like Singer and the bureaucrats from Groningen University Hospital see no transcendent spark, nothing of the divine, in the human being. They see no reason to put up with the mess, expense and emotional havoc wrought by an inconveniently ill relative.
Judaism teaches that every second of a person's life is precious, filled with potential, even for the severely ill. Each time Debra recited psalms for that comatose man, his spirit revived, and eventually his body followed suit.
Even when a person's medical situation is hopeless, the energy, love and prayers given to that person by family, friends and caregivers has enormous spiritual value. Three years ago, I watched in agony as my mother lay dying from cancer. Barring an open miracle, her situation was irreversible.
But when she could do nothing for herself any longer, she still revealed a spiritual awareness, even calling out to my father to tell him she was coming to him soon. He had died years earlier.
And what about the value of my sitting at her bedside, tending to her needs with the bottomless love and tenderness that I felt for her? At that point, with my mother's pain palliated, the most intense pain belonged to my sister and me -- the people who loved her most in this world. I believe there was enormous value in the circle of giving that took place in my mother's dying days, and I believe that at some level her spirit benefited from our ministrations.
Many people in similar circumstances have found that the expressions of love, forgiveness, compassion, acceptance and faith that are shared during these painful times often become some of the most meaningful and defining moments of a lifetime.
As a result of the Gronigen protocols, countless Dutch citizens will no longer have the opportunity for these transcendent moments. The seriously ill or infirm will not have the chance to benefit from a potential medical breakthrough, a miracle or even the love of those closest to them.
Isn't it obvious that, sooner or later, others who are a little too disabled or imperfect will also be deemed disposable? In this awful, cruel and brave new world, only the fittest will survive. For the sake of our humanity, we must fight to protect the sanctity of the living.
Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of two humor books. Her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.