What Does God Have to Do With This?

U.S. lawmakers are trying to use religion to legislate every aspect of our lives, from conception to death. Which goes against everything our nation stands for.

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The death on Saturday of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, has reinvigorated the national debate surrounding physician-assisted suicide. A California native, Maynard had moved to Oregon to access aid in dying, and she spent the last weeks of her life as a public advocate for the right to die. Her visibility and young age seem to have reframed a discussion that usually revolves around the elderly, and to which many voters simply haven’t given much thought. Now, as Peg Sandeen, director of the Death With Dignity National Center, told the Associated Press, “I think on both coasts we’re going to see legislative action.”

Today, voters in North Dakota, Tennessee, and Colorado will vote on Constitutional amendments that could lead to total abortion bans—and potentially, in two cases, to the criminalization of in vitro fertilization and certain forms of birth control. (North Dakota’s and Colorado’s amendments are specifically about granting “personhood” to fertilized eggs.) What do these two issues have in common? God. Specifically, one interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom nearly 80 percent of Americans claim to follow.

According to this line of thinking, both abortion and euthanasia are abhorrent because they put life-and-death decisions in the hands of fallible humans, instead of the almighty. We know this, inasmuch as we know that the most vocal opponents of reproductive rights and aid in dying are usually also vocal about their Christian faith. But somehow, we rarely discuss what this means: that the efforts to secure laws prohibiting these freedoms are essentially religious. As in, the entire argument in favor of restricting people’s access to these choices ultimately hinges on religious beliefs.

It’s as though we’ve forgotten that the laws of this country, according to the first amendment of the Constitution, are not supposed to favor the teachings of a single religion. 

Four months ago, five Roman Catholic male justices on the Supreme Court issued a decision that allows corporations to opt out of laws designed to protect workers, based on the owners’ religious beliefs—never mind whether the employees in question share those beliefs. If that didn’t make folks aware that the separation of church and state is in peril, then I don’t know what will, but I have to hope that at some point, we’ll really start talking about this.

Notice something about the press coverage of right-to-life questions: From the New York Times to USA Today, the first people reporters call to get the anti-assisted dying viewpoint are religious leaders, usually Catholic. Not doctors, scientists, or even disability or eldercare activists. Archbishops. Spokespeople for explicitly religious groups.

The First Amendment protects citizens’ rights to practice any religion, or none, and to vote according to consciences informed by their faith traditions—but it expressly prohibits legislation based on particular religious beliefs. If the ultimate argument against aid in dying is “God prohibits it,” what of those of us who don’t believe in a god, or that god?

I realize there are other arguments to consider. We need better support systems for the disabled, dying, and depressed before we can really call someone’s decision to die freely made. There is great potential for abuse of poorly written laws. I agree with both of those arguments, actually; they just don’t persuade me that the answer is to deny people currently suffering, with no hope of recovery, the opportunity to end their lives on their own terms.

When we have the technology to help someone go slightly earlier to a certain death, skipping over days or weeks of abject misery and uncertainty, there had better be a damned good reason to tell them that as a society we’ve decided it’s better to let them suffer. In other words, that reason has to be better—and more applicable to all Americans—than “Only God can decide when it’s your time” or “There’s always the hope of a miracle.”

What is the non-religious, all-American reason for telling someone terminally ill and in terrible pain that she must continue to suffer? There isn’t one. It all comes down to God’s will and/or the hope of a miracle.

It’s the same with abortion. There is no scientific or secular argument for believing that a fertilized egg has rights that should override the right of a grown woman to control her fertility, or simply to refuse to endure forty weeks of major physical and emotional changes, culminating in what is literally the most pain known to humankind. When we have the technology to prevent it if she so chooses, there is no scientific or secular argument for telling that woman she must continue to suffer.

The laws we have are clear, when we’re talking about two autonomous human beings, with citizenship and Constitutional rights: The state cannot punish one citizen for refusing to put herself in harm’s way to keep another citizen alive, because we recognize there is an enormous, meaningful difference between that and actively killing someone. One is not expected to jump in front of a speeding car to save a stranger—even if they expect they’ll survive it—nor even to donate an organ to save their own child. Many people would choose to do those things, perhaps even joyfully, but as a society, we agree that we cannot compel them to do so, or punish them for asserting their right to protect their own bodily integrity first.

If abortion isn’t murder, then the same reasoning should apply to any legislation regarding it. And every argument that abortion is murder eventually comes back to the religious belief in a soul that arrives some time before birth. There we are again.

Matters of life and death are, and should be, complicated. Any legislation regarding the beginning or end of life should be subject to extreme scrutiny and vigorous debate. But laws that affect 300 million citizens, in a country that expressly prohibits prioritizing one religion over any other, should not be dictated by the personal religious beliefs of some. If there is no non-religious argument for the existence of laws that prohibit grown people from exercising control over their own bodies, what are we even doing discussing them?


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