The moral abyss where life is measured by quality, not sanctity

January 31, 1996|By Avi Shafran

NEW YORK -- When George Delury, a resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side, helped his ailing wife ingest a fatal dose of poison last summer and then earnestly publicized the fact, the local and national press issued a collective sigh of sympathy for the courageous husband.

Mr. Delury was roundly portrayed as a distraught spouse doing the will of his beloved wife, whose multiple sclerosis had rendered her both increasingly dependent on her spouse and often seriously depressed.

The attempt to legalize ''assisted suicide,'' or euthanasia, is quickly becoming one of the defining causes of our times, support for the idea cutting wide swaths across the political landscape, from the bunkers of the liberal left to the bastions of the libertarian right.

The gleam of 'progress'

The cause has much going for it in our society: the popular conviction that government is best kept out of people's private lives, the laudable goal of alleviating pain, the shimmering gleam of technological ''progress.''

One thing it lacks, though, is the powerful respect for human life that Judaism -- Mr. Delury's professed faith -- demands of its adherents -- and, for that matter, of all people.

Frightening things are threatening that respect for human life. There are countries that effectively sanction suicide and its assistance. Can its active encouragement be far behind?

This brings to mind the notorious ''Dr. Death,'' the Michigan pathologist Jack Kevorkian, who has been assisting total strangers to commit suicide for years. Dr. Kevorkian, who has been colorfully described as ''a kind of composite of the Lone Ranger and the Grim Reaper,'' is crusading to change Michigan law to allow what he does.

A state law was approved in Oregon in 1994 allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for ''dying'' patients. Although it has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, supporters of the law are appealing.

Indeed, the argument has been advanced in legal circles that physician-assisted suicide is not only constitutionally permissible, but that it is constitutionally protected -- making any effort to outlaw the practice constitutionally problematic.

In New York, George Delury notwithstanding, there has been no movement to date to legalize assisted suicide. But cracks in the wall of respect for human life have appeared.

The state assembly, for instance, was presented in 1995 with a ''Surrogate Health Care'' bill that, under certain circumstances, would have authorized parties designated by law to direct the withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining measures -- even nutrition and hydration, and even without evidence that such would have been the patient's own choice, even from a pregnant woman whose unborn child could otherwise be brought to term and live a healthy life. Such legislation already exists in several states.

A 'slippery slope'

Among others, Agudath Israel of America actively opposed the legislation, perceiving parts of it as evidence of a ''dangerous trend'' toward ''the slippery slope leading to the moral abyss where human life is measured by its quality rather than its sanctity.''

And so, it was against the backdrop of much discussion about which lives are worth living that the Delury case splashed itself across the nation's newspapers.

As it happens, the case has evolved into a true cautionary tale, a dire warning about the darker dangers lurking in the issue. For, in stark contrast to the public and press reaction in the immediate aftermath of his wife, Myrna's, death by poison, there were a flurry of accounts taking strong issue with Mr. Delury's description of his wife's incapacity and determination to die.

The Manhattan district attorney's office interviewed relatives of the deceased who drew a picture of an occasionally depressed but otherwise astute woman with a positive attitude toward the life ahead of her, even during what turned out to be her final weeks in this world.

Jewish law, as it happens, does not allow for murder or suicide, even when the life in question belongs to someone in chronic pain or bad spirits or is otherwise of diminished ''quality.'' But even nonobservant observers of the Delury case were shocked to hear the dead woman portrayed as someone who, over the last weeks of her life, was distressed by fears that her husband had raided her disability fund to pay bills.

Mr. Delury even admitted that he may indeed, as one relative charged, have called his wife -- to her face -- a ''burden,'' and that there had been tension in the relationship, although he, he maintained, had been the ''victim.''

Wisdom of the rabbis

Last month a Manhattan grand jury indicted Mr. Delury on charges of second-degree manslaughter. Whether or not he is convicted, one thing can reasonably be concluded, even at this point. It was pithily and impressively put forth shortly after Mr. Delury's admission of his role in his wife's death, in a decidedly secular Jewish periodical, The Forward.

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