Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 7, 2006

Keep personal faith out of public policy

Once again, I find myself disagreeing with the arguments fellow columnist Bonnie Evans makes to support a position. This time, the topic is physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The Supreme Court recently upheld Oregon’s law, used by 200 terminally ill patients since 1997 to end their lives.

I laud Evans’ years of valuable work with hospice patients. I agree that many, even most, hospice patients have valuable contributions to make to their families and communities.

But I don’t think that means that the option of physician-assisted suicide should be taken away from all terminally ill patients. I respect each person’s right to make up his or her own mind on when the pain and suffering of a terminal illness outweighs other considerations.

What troubles me most about Evans’ recent column is that she tries to support her opposition to physician-assisted suicide for everyone on the basis that it violates her personal faith. The logic underlying her argument is that if Evans’ personal faith says something, her faith’s position should be the law that we all follow. Let’s call it the faith-should-be-law argument.

I have no problem with Evans asserting her personal faith as a valid line of reasoning for her own personal decision about whether she would ever seek physician-assisted suicide.

I have grave issues with her, or anyone, using personal faith to justify public policy.

The problem is that Evans’ personal faith can tell her one thing on a particular issue, while another person’s faith can say something else. Whose personal faith do we enact into law?

Some people’s faith says that modern medicine is to be shunned. Based on the faith-should-be-law argument, we should shutter hospitals and outlaw doctors and nurses.

It seems to me that the logical and constitutional position is to ask that those who don’t believe in modern medicine to avoid it, but to let those of us who want to use it do so.

Some people’s faith says that modern technology is to be shunned. Based on the faith-should-be-law argument, we should close close factories of every kind, junk our planes, trains, ships and automobiles, and lose our buttons, disposals, vacuum cleaners and combines.

It seems to me that the logical and constitutional position is that those who think technology is sinful should not use it, but let the rest of us who have different beliefs keep the economy humming with our technological wonders.

Some people’s faith says that psychiatric drugs are evil. Based on the faith-should-be-law argument, we should ban Ritalin, Prozac, Lithium, and scores of other drugs that have helped millions of people.

It seems to me that the logical and constitutional position is that those whose faith tells them that psychiatric drugs are evil should not take them, but those of us who believe differently should be able to get them if we need them.

I can hear some people complaining: Those are fringe faiths. Although I don’t know how you can objectively judge one faith to be better than another, for the sake of argument, let’s look at some mainstream faiths.

The Catholic Church opposes birth control, so according to the faith-should-be-law argument, birth control should be banned for everyone. It also opposes the death penalty, so that should be abolished, following the faith-should-be-law argument. Jewish law prescribes a strict kosher diet, so we should all be required to follow it, under the faith-should-be-law argument. Many Protestant faiths oppose dancing, playing cards, drinking alcohol and gambling; let’s make them all illegal, according to the faith-should-be-law argument.

Don’t like all of those consequences of basing our laws on personal faith? Me either. This is why America’s founding fathers established a secular government and created a separation of church and state. We base our laws on our Constitution alone.

The rioting in the Muslim world over an editorial cartoon by non-Muslims that violates Islam’s ban on depictions of the prophet Mohammed is just the latest example offered by that region of the dangers of basing laws and government on personal faith.

Evans is perfectly justified in using her personal faith to justify her own personal decisions when it comes to physician-assisted suicide.

But for those who have different personal faiths, who come to different decisions about their own lives and bodies, Evans’ personal faith is of no relevance. Instead, it is utterly American to give those who opt for physician-assisted suicide, to paraphrase one protest sign, liberty at their deaths.



  1. […] decides when people should die — have no place in establishing public policy, I’ve always wondered why these people don’t claim that patients and the medical establishment are […]

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