Assisted-suicide case opens debate on Jewish stance

George Delury, the Manhattan freelance editor who helped his severely crippled wife end her life last week, said the couple weighed ethical and religious factors before reaching their final decision.

"What it all comes down to is that there are circumstances where, regardless of the letter of the law, one must go before God alone and let Him be the judge."

But most authorities on bioethical aspects of Jewish law agree that halachah clearly forbids the taking of one's own life — or helping someone do it — even when physical pain or diminished physical capabilities are involved.

Delury, 62, and his late wife, Myrna Lebov, 52, are Jewish; he converted. Delury said they consulted a rabbi, whom he did not identify, four years ago when Lebov's multiple sclerosis began worsening, robbing her of mobility and memory.

Last week, on the eve of July 4, Delury prepared his wife of 22 years a concoction of strawberries, honey and 9,000 milligrams of amitripyline hydrochloride, an anti-depressant. After a final meal of kosher chicken and wine, Lebov sipped the potion through a straw, slipping slowly into unconsciousness. By the next morning, she was dead.

Delury, whom neighbors described as a devoted husband, is charged with second-degree manslaughter. Detectives, according to a newspaper report, were investigating whether he acted on his own to end his wife's life.

Lebov left a hand-written note and a 20-page computer printout suicide note that bore her barely legible signature.

Delury, released on his own recognizance, attended her burial in a New Haven, Conn., cemetery and sat shiva in the couple's Upper West Side apartment.

"Death," Delury says, "is part of God's plan for every life." He plans to write a book about Americans' willingness to let doctors define death.

His action last week, which is likely to become a landmark case testing New York State's law against assisted suicide, falls between the categories of murder and suicide, and is prohibited by halachah, experts say.

"Jewish law would be sympathetic with a person who commits such an act but would not condone the act," said Dr. Fred Rosner, director of the Department of Medicine at the Queens Hospital Center and author of several books about the halachic view of medical issues. "It's a prohibited act. It's shedding blood. No question about it."

Rosner, chairman of the bioethics committee of the New York State Medical Society, said physicians dealing with someone in a terminal, pain-ridden condition typically "tell our patient…we will do everything we can to relieve your suffering."

Assisted suicide, while not considered outright murder according to Jewish law, violates the prohibition of lifnei ivur, (putting a stumbling block before a blind person), says Rabbi J. David Bleich, a law professor and dean at Yeshiva University and authority on bioethical issues.

Rabbinical literature interprets the prohibition as banning an individual from helping a less-knowledgeable person do a forbidden act.

"It's assisting a crime," Bleich said. "The only question is, what is the category?"

Assisted suicide, in terms of talmudic punishments, is "not a capital crime," like murder, Bleich said, but would incur the punishment of lashes.

Suicide by someone like Lebov, who according to newspaper reports was not in the final stages of a terminal illness and could still "contribute to society," should not be condoned, said Rabbi Richard Address, a Reform authority on bioethical issues.

But, said Address, director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' bioethics committee, "I could conceive [circumstances] in which the act could be acceptable."

In this case, "Was [Lebov] at death's door? No. Was her quality of life deteriorating? Yes."

So, "Is [Lebov's assisted suicide] a proper Jewish act?" Address added. "I have trouble affirming that. In Judaism, to premeditatively take another's life is wrong."

While assisted suicide could be sanctioned in some extreme cases, Address said, he opposes states' overturning of current legislation banning the act.

"The danger of waiving this as an answer to everything is that it buys into a culture of death, which is not Jewish."

Address said the Reform rabbinate has not been able to reach a consensus on assisted suicide's compatibility with Jewish law. A two-year debate over a resolution has stalled, he said.

A compromise resolution recommending "compassionate" care for "end of life" patients is likely to be adopted at a national rabbinical conference in Atlanta in November, he said.

Yet the Conservative movement views assisted suicide as completely prohibited, said Rabbi Kassel Abelson of Minneapolis, chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly's committee on Jewish law and standards.

"Halachah is definitely opposed to assisted suicide," Abelson said, adding a Conservative scholar is writing a responsa (ruling) on the issue.

Two Orthodox organizations have taken public stands in recent years on the issue. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in 1992 opposed California Proposition 161, a voter referendum that would support physicians aiding patients who commit suicide.

And Agudath Israel of America this year issued a memorandum opposing the Surrogate Health Care Decision-Making Bill, proposed New York state legislation that would "invest too great a power in the hands of third parties to decide that a patient should be deprived of life-preserving medical treatment."

Assisted suicide, which has drawn national attention because of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's controversial work in Michigan, "is moving up the ladder as it becomes a real social issue," says David Zweibel, Agudah's director of government affairs.

Lebov's suicide will focus more attention on the topic, Zweibel added.

Delury, who would push his wheelchair-bound wife to Sabbath services at Lincoln Square Synagogue a mile away, said the issue has become less abstract for him and his friends.

A woman called him at home this week. "Her husband is dying of bone cancer and is in great pain. She asked me, what [pills] did I use?" he said.

Delury did not reveal his answer.

"People are in pain, emotionally and socially and psychologically. It's wrong for any religion to leave it up to these med-tech priests," he said, referring to doctors.

"They deal with bodies but not with spirits, and what they are doing is hurting people's spirits. We ignore the spirit."