When Tom Manger stood up to testify in support of the End of Life Options Act in Sacramento, he spoke on behalf of all religiously unaffiliated Californians who share his belief in the right of “each individual to face their inevitable death on their own terms—without interference from others.”
“Without interference from others.”
It is unthinkable that the conditions of one’s death, one of the most deeply personal moments in one’s life and the lives of their families, might be influenced by the personal beliefs and ideologies of strangers. But this is the reality confronted by those tragically faced with terminal illnesses in all but five states.
Why do religiously unaffiliated Americans care about death with dignity? What motivated Tom to make a trip to the California state capitol just to testify in support of the End of Life Options Act?
With some issues, like climate change, the religiously unaffiliated rally behind the conviction that science and research should triumph over myths and misinformation. With other issues, like government endorsement of religion, our community unites to protect the constitutional separation of church and state for the benefit of all faiths and none. Death with dignity is a unique issue that speaks to both aspects of our core values, as opponents are both driven by faulty evidence and religious dogma. We strongly believe that laws and policies that impact all Americans must be religiously and dogmatically neutral, based upon science, evidence, and reason, not ideology.
Opposition Arguments Hold No Water
Some opponents of end of life choice claim that death with dignity laws leave vulnerable individuals open to abuses and coercion, and will lead mentally ill people to commit suicide. With the built-in protections of Oregon’s death with dignity law in place for more than 17 years without a single report of coercion, these claims simply don’t hold any water.
Other opponents to death with dignity cite the religious tenet of the sanctity of life. One’s preferences for the condition of his or her own death are based on deeply, sincerely held beliefs and values. These beliefs are just as valid and sincere as others’ religious beliefs and should be treated respectfully with equal standing before the law. It is wrong and unconstitutional to allow the religious beliefs of some to trump the personal, nonreligious beliefs of others.
Speaking to Humanist Values
The letter of the law is not the only reason why this issue touches the religiously unaffiliated community so deeply. The right to compassionate end of life options speaks to the humanist values of dignity, autonomy, and freedom of the individual. Editor in Chief of The Humanist magazine, Jennifer Bardi, eloquently wrote in her letter from the editor on December 22, 2014, “when suffering becomes unbearable and treatment to alleviate that suffering fails or doesn’t exist, it seems the humanist philosophy must support an individual’s right to choose to end his or her life.” The Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Secular Coalition’s member organization, the Center for Inquiry, explicitly endorses the right to die with dignity in its Affirmation of Humanist Principles.
For many secular activists, this issue touches them personally. Janice Rael, Co-Chair of the Secular Coalition for New Jersey, experienced firsthand the suffering families endure when their loved ones go to desperate lengths to end their lives when there is no compassionate alternative. “My uncle shot himself rather than endure one more day with colon cancer…all because the law wouldn’t let his doctor prescribe him medication to choose a dignified death.” Her personal experience has motivated her to work tirelessly for the passage of the Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Act in New Jersey.
Death with dignity evokes our desire to empower the individual to take control over their own life, free of the burden to prove one’s worth to a supernatural being in order to gain access to a better life after death. At the same time, with this freedom comes a great responsibility to our fellow human beings and to the world we inherited. The tragic stories of people who die a wretched death despite their wishes to die with dignity compel the religiously unaffiliated to act, both out of compassion for the dignity of others and our innate desire to defend individual freedom.
Religious Values vs. Suffering
For the religiously unaffiliated, it comes down to this: will the religious values and personal beliefs of some be imposed on all Americans? Will religiously-based arguments be permissible in a secular debate concerning compassionate options for people who are suffering?
Our answer is no. The Secular Coalition for America, our 17 member organizations, and the 23 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated will stand firmly behind the death with dignity movement and support efforts throughout the country to bring end of life choice to all Americans. We will do so for the sake of individual dignity and to defend the constitutional separation of church and state.
By Sarah Levin
About the Author
Sarah is the Legislative Associate at the Secular Coalition for America, where she oversees the Secular Coalition’s state chapter program. She is passionate about the constitutional separation of church and state and grassroots organizing. Sarah graduated from American University cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies. Follow the Secular Coalition for America on Twitter @seculardotorg.