The Abrahamic Faiths Joint Statement on Euthanasia

Representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths gathered at the Vatican on October 28, 2019 to sign a joint statement condemning all forms of euthanasia.

As reported by Vatican News service, the person behind the declaration is Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, co-president of the Israeli National Council on Bioethics. Rabbi Steinberg proposed the idea to Pope Francis, who entrusted the initiative to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life. Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Academy, coordinated a mixed inter-faith group to draft the declaration. The signatories included Archbishop Paglia, representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia, representatives of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, David Rosen for the American Jewish Committee, and Samsul Anwar from the Indonesian Muhammadiyah, an Islamic social and cultural association.

Marsudi Syuhud, secretary general of the influential Islamic association Nahdlatul Ulama, offered his strong support as well, declaring: “Protecting life is one of the purposes of Islamic law, that’s why we don’t stop protecting life until the end of our life.” 

Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, chairman of the United Arab Emirates Fatwa Council, noted the historic significance of the event: “Our meeting today represents a new step in the course of joint religious action. It is the first time heavenly religions have come together to assert their agreement on core values and assets.”

Reporting on the event was provided by Crux NewsThe Times of Israel, and The UAE National.

It is particularly significant that the statement does not limit itself to rejecting euthanasia. Rather it takes up related issues on which broad agreement is to be found among the three faiths. 

First, it takes a firm “no exceptions” stance in clear and unambiguous language against “any form of euthanasia – that is the direct, deliberate and intentional act of taking life – as well as physician assisted suicide – that is the direct, deliberate and intentional support of committing suicide – because they fundamentally contradict the inalienable value of human life, and therefore are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong, and should be forbidden without exceptions.”

Second, it affirms that health care workers must not be coerced into assisting in intentionally causing death, directly or indirectly, including so-called “assisted suicide.” It demands that even where the dismal practice has found legal sanction, moral objection to cooperation with it falls “into the category of conscientious objection that should be universally respected.” 

Most encouraging is the strong emphasis on access to palliative care.

Palliative care services, provided by an organized and highly structured system for delivering care, are critical for realizing the most ancient mission of medicine: “to care even when there is no cure.” We encourage professionals and students to specialize in this field of medicine. 

Palliative care is a great mission of mercy. The clear recognition that it is essential health care is a sure sign that inter-religious dialogue can and does yield important fruit. 

Euthanasie en Français (Euthanasia in French): The Dramatic Case of Vincent Lambert & the Case for Advance Directives

The heartbreaking case of Vincent Lambert has produced a consequential plea for urgent action by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.    This unexpected yet welcome development is the latest chapter in a French version of the Terry Schiavo case that riveted national attention in the United States in 2005. 

Vincent Lambert, 42, was critically injured in a motorcycle accident in 2008.  He sustained severe brain damage and has been diagnosed as being in persistent vegetative state (PVS), a condition that presumes no self-awareness and no conscious response to external stimuli. He requires assisted nutrition and hydration (ANH) in order to survive but he does not require a ventilator. 

Adding to the tragic circumstances is an intra-family dispute that pits his wife and some siblings against his parents and other siblings. The former want ANH withdrawn, asserting that he would not want it. The later insist that euthanasia must be rejected and ANH provided. The conflict is possible because Vincent never prepared what L.I.F.E. provides: an advance medical directive, or an appointment of health care representative. Even our short form directive would eliminate doubt as to the patient’s wishes and provide the necessary foundation to protect life. 

PVS is not a terminal illness. Nor is it a state of permanently unconscious. Patients in PVS experience waking and sleeping cycles, typically do not require a ventilator, and frequently open and close their eyes. Disputes and uncertainty persist as to the precise nature of the condition as well as the accuracy of diagnosis. But what is undisputed is that PVS is not a terminal condition. 

A 2016 French law applicable to terminally ill patients allows physicians to withdraw life sustaining treatment – including ANH – in purportedly hopeless cases while administering powerful sedatives until the patient dies from the lack of food and fluids. 

The European Court of Human Rights and France’s top administrative body had upheld the doctors’ earlier decision to stop Lambert’s life support. His parents filed a petition with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, according to news reports, a French court ordered that his feeding be resumed until the UN body resolves the petition filed in that forum.

In the media storm that surrounds the case there has emerged a strong statement from the Vatican. Consistent with a statement from Pope John Paul II in 2004 and a ruling on the issues from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2007 [link is in the bioethics library], the most recent Vatican statement affirms the essential norm that ANH is ordinary and proportionate care that must be provided to a PVS patient “as long as the person is able to receive nutrition and hydration, provided this does not cause intolerable suffering or prove damaging to the patient.”  It continues by stating that its “suspension … represents … a form of abandonment” and describes ANH in the specific context as “an inescapable duty.”