It’s hard to find matters involving the separation between state and church that aren’t culturally and politically divisive. However, there are a few areas where we can and should expect strong bipartisan support. Medical aid in dying is one of those issues — and there is finally progress being made on this around the country.
Terminally ill adults should not be forced to suffer against their will. Any American who has had a loved one experience hospice care knows the importance of high quality end-of-life care. Sadly, a common hospice experience at the last stages of a terminal illness is terrible quality of life, a total loss of dignity due to reliance on family or medical staff for basic needs, and no future plans other than trying to minimize suffering and awaiting death.
Connecticut resident Kira Phillips recently gave passionate testimony about how her mother, suffering from multiple myeloma, was driven to suicide when her illness became too much to bear.
“She ended her life by shooting herself in the head in our backyard, behind the shed. My dad, her husband of over 40 years, had to find her,” Phillips testified to Connecticut lawmakers earlier this year. “The radiating spinal pain, chronic sickness and nausea and the fear that she endured led to her desperation. People with terminal illness want to live but they cannot.”
Out of options, Phillips’ mother made a tragic but understandable choice. Certainly her awareness of the trauma this brutal way out would inflict on her family must have added to her misery.
It does not have to be this way. Facing a dire final chapter of their life, a competent adult should be permitted to choose a less painful, more dignified end. This simple realization has fueled the movement to legalize medical aid in dying, which the FFRF Action Fund wholeheartedly supports.
In past decades, there were multiple concerns with allowing patients to make this end-of-life decision, some reasonable and some not. But today, after years of well-documented success in several states, there are no remaining reasonable objections. There were legitimate questions, for example, as to whether a disabled or elderly patient might be coerced into an end-of-life decision by unscrupulous caretakers seeking to remove their own burden of caring for the person. Thorough and longstanding safeguards in Oregon and other states have shown that this nightmarish scenario is rare and avoidable, putting this concern to rest.
The most common remaining objection is typically framed in religious terms — the idea that only God should decide when someone dies. But this is a consideration for each individual patient to make, not a basis for state law. A cornerstone of our secular government is the principle that our laws must be based on promoting the common good, never on the personal religious beliefs of lawmakers. With the growing awareness of difficult end-of-life situations, and thanks to effective education on the issue, these religious arguments are increasingly falling on deaf ears.
This year, nine states are considering bills that would legalize medical aid in dying. The FFRF Action Fund supports all of these efforts, including proposals in Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Medical aid in dying is already legal in 10 states — California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — plus the District of Columbia. Vermont took a major step forward recently by removing its residency requirement, meaning qualifying adults in other states can receive their desired end-of-life care in Vermont.
This is not enough, however. Many patients will not be able to reach Vermont or another state offering care to nonresidents. More fundamentally, it is cruel to require a terminally ill patient to travel to another state to receive end-of-life care. Most people would rather remain in their homes at the end of their lives..
In 40 states, terminally ill patients do not currently have the option of a medically aided death at home, even if their physician is able and willing to provide that care. This perpetuates avoidable suffering, for no good reason. These states, including FFRF Action Fund’s home state of Wisconsin, should pass medical aid-in-dying bills immediately. It is, after all, a matter of life and death.
FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.