Thank you for joining us for Lesson One of Medicine and Morals: Choosing Life. The central theme of our lesson was the nature of our obligation to seek healing. To what degree are we obligated to preserve our own health, and what discretion do we have in regards to our decisions regarding medical care?
We began by considering the ethical foundation of seeking medical care. Unlike some other faith traditions that have seen the pursuit of medical care as interference with G-d’s plan, Judaism sees the pursuit of medical care as fully consonant with our faith in G-d. As humans, we are empowered by G-d to partner with Him in perfecting an imperfect world. Thus, intervening with nature to heal the sick is no different than fertilizing soil or planting a field. Medical intervention is wholly compatible with our belief that G-d is the true healer, and while prayer and spiritual pursuits are appropriate and important responses to illness, they in no way preclude the responsibility to seek appropriate medical care.
When a patient is terminally ill, there is an obligation to seek out treatment that is successful more than 50% of the time, in spite of the fact that that the treatment may not always be successful and may involve certain risks.
Patients, however, sometimes refuse to undergo treatment. A major underpinning of secular medical ethics is the right of autonomy, and so long as patients clearly understand the implications of their choices, patients may not be compelled to undergo treatment. Their life is considered their own business, and they may not be pressured into following the doctor’s recommendation, no matter how ill-advised the doctors find their choices.
Practically speaking, Jewish law rarely allows people to compel others to accept treatment. It allows forcible intervention only if the patient is critically ill, the treatment is accepted by all doctors at that location as proven to cure and is not risky, persuasion is impossible, and the use of coercion will not itself precipitate death. Yet unlike the secular position, Judaism is not neutral to the choice of patients, and even when coercion may not be applicable there may be an obligation to seek out available medical care.
Looking forward to seeing you next week, when we will discuss the ethics of organ transplant.