If there ever was a person who should be rallying for legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide, it would be Joni Eareckson Tada. She has suffered greatly for half a century now. She is a quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair since she was 17. She is now 67. She should be at the front of the marches clamouring for euthanasia rights.
But she is not. In fact, she is at the forefront of campaigning against legalised euthanasia. The author of nearly 50 books has long spoken out against legalised euthanasia. She has spoken about this and written about this countless times, and we need to listen to what she is saying.
And with three notable occurrences taking place right now, it is well worth looking at the reasons she gives for resisting assisted suicide. The first is the very sad news that just today little Charlie Gard has died in the UK. His case has been a shocking one, highlighting the dangers of socialised medicine and the culture of death.
Second, in just over a day, it will be exactly 50 years ago that Joni made that fateful dive into shallow water. She knows more about suffering than most of us ever will. Third, all over the West the pro-death activists are pushing for the legalisation of euthanasia.
Thus we need to hear what someone like Joni has to say about all this. As mentioned, she has spoken about this extensively, and written plenty on it as well. Back in 1992 she released a very important book, When is it Right to Die? Suicide, Euthanasia, Suffering, Mercy (Zondervan).
This book alone offers us more than enough solid reasoning as to why we must promote the pro-life side of things. No one can accuse her of being unaware of, or indifferent to, suffering – lots of suffering, and lengthy bouts of suffering. Fifty years is a long time.
She speaks to those who are also suffering in various ways, and offers them real hope. Again, if anyone should be speaking out about a “right to die,” it is she. But she sees what a selfish and anti-social act this in fact is:
Society is you. Your actions, your decisions matter. What you do or don’t do has a rippling effect on everyone around you. . . . Your self-determination to die has strings attached if it adversely affects the rights of others. That’s why more than half the states in our country have laws against aiding a person in suicide. . . . You may want to exercise a right to die, but you cannot ask a physician, whose duty is to heal, to comply with your wishes or even to make a referral. No person, in the name of self-determination, can oblige a doctor to inject him with orphenadrine when it goes against the physician’s oath to heal.
She continues: “Essentially, rights are moral claims to be recognized by law, not things to be traded. And moral claims have to take into account responsibility, limits on freedom, and ethical standards that reflect the good of the entire community.”
Let me quote from some of her other discussions on this. In 2005 she did an interview on the issue. Here is part of it:
Parliament is presently discussing a proposed euthanasia law for those with terminal illnesses. Why do you believe this is so dangerous for disabled people?
Once you establish by law the right for terminally ill people to end their lives with the assistance of the National Health Service, then the door has been cracked open for other medically-fragile people to want the same right. For now it’s those with cancer. In the future, it may well be those suffering from motor-neuron disease. From there, the care givers of people with Alzheimer’s may campaign for their loved one to be given “aid in dying.”
Do you believe economics factors into a discussion about euthanasia?
Health care costs are skyrocketing, as well as increased spending limits on UK’s National Health Service, decision-makers are beginning to look at the “cost effectiveness” of extending the lives of people who are terminally ill, or even severely disabled. And it’s scary. Privately, some politicians are looking for ways to control the billions of dollars spent on the care of those who are terminally ill or severely debilitated. Those of us in disability advocacy are increasingly concerned that end-of-life decisions will be made based on a person’s “burden” on the health care system. This may eventually put at risk the disabled and the elderly. It is these groups of people who are caught in the middle of this debate….
Some people are asking the question: “If people want to end their lives, don’t they have a right to do so?” What do you say to them?
Exercising a right-to-die is not like choosing Coca Cola over Pepsi. It’s impossible to frame a “desire to die” with legislation. No one can regulate what people do behind the closed doors of their homes, but if terminally ill people lack the psychological wherewithal to commit suicide, is this the kind of shortcoming British society should be helping people compensate for? I don’t think so. It’s the obligation of the state to protect and defend life.
Why do you believe people would ask for a lethal prescription to end their lives?
Most terminally ill people do not want to kill themselves; they want relief of a certain symptom, whether it be relief from pain, from the fear of becoming a burden, or from depression. I’m convinced most terminally ill people don’t want to kill themselves; they want assurance that their pain will be affectively managed, and that they won’t be “left alone” when entering the process of dying. Parliament would do better to provide more funding for research in better pain management, or educating doctors on available pain treatments. And it would be wonderful if more volunteers would help the hospice movement; it would be great if Parliament could provide more help to developing hospice services. This would be a compassionate answer to a terminally ill person’s cry for help. Second Kings 18:32 says, “Choose life and not death!”
While the pro-death activists deny that there is any such thing as a slippery slope after we legalise euthanasia, there most certainly is. Belgium is a real case in point here, and when they recently declared that even children could be euthanased, we saw that the so-called safeguards in the legislation mean nothing. Joni spoke about this:
She made the comments ahead of the King of Belgium signing the controversial Bill into law earlier this month. It allows euthanasia for terminally ill children of all ages. Tada highlighted the UN convention on the rights of the child which says a disabled child should receive special care.
She said, “that’s our global mandate to safeguard children, so what do we feel special treatment is: to allow a child to die? Is that special treatment?” Tada explained that “we must not let compassion be redefined in such a manner”.
She commented, “what is so sad is that I’m sure the Belgian parliament would agree that minors should not have access to alcohol, should not have access to pornography, should not have access to tobacco, but yet minors for some reason they feel should have access to three grams of phenobarbitone in their veins – it just doesn’t make sense”.
The child euthanasia Bill became law in Belgium despite widespread opposition, including a 200,000-strong Europe-wide petition which was delivered to King Philippe urging him not to back the legislation.
And most recently she did a lengthy interview highlighting 50 years of her disability. She says:
You’ve vocally opposed assisted suicide laws, including in your home state of California, noting that laws of this kind expose “a fundamental fear of pain and disability.” How do you see this fear impact the way we as a culture respond to those with debilitating illness, chronic suffering, or disability?
People have a fear of pain. People have a fear of dying. Fear is what has driven the legalization of euthanasia—but fear should never ever be the foundation for social policy. It should not be society’s role to help people end their lives.
Most people, when they are at the end stages of life, are afraid of pain, they’re afraid of abandonment, they’re afraid of isolation, they don’t want to be a burden to their families. But all these issues can be addressed. They are problems that have solutions—like better pain management, better support services, better family counseling. Let’s pour resources into making it easier for people to live and not to die.
Compassion is often a motivating factor for those who favor physician-assisted suicide—including Christians who support it. In your view, how should Christians rightly understand and express compassion toward those who are suffering?
The first thing Christians ought to do before they even work on compassion is get a biblical view on suffering. Most Christians would rather escape, avoid it, drug it, medicate it, divorce it, institutionalize it—do anything but live with it.
We need to embrace the God who is found in suffering. He is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He’s the Lord who was impaled on a cross. We’d rather Jesus be mild-mannered and mild-tempered, and we’d rather listen to him preach about lilies in a field of flowers. We don’t want to go down that hard path of Calvary. But once we do, I think then we can gain compassion. Because compassion means “with suffering.” Christian compassion means suffering with the sufferings of Christ.
I know this: Compassion is not three grams of phenobarbital in the veins of someone who feels like ending their life. Compassion is journeying alongside that person who is despairing and ascribing positive meaning to their pain, bringing them up out of social isolation, journeying with them, and helping them resolve their issues.
And she spoke about little Charlie Gard as well, just before his passing:
Of the Charlie Gard case in England, you’ve said the hospital’s initial decision to remove life support against his parents’ wishes “only reinforces the ‘better off dead than disabled’ mentality that, as of late, is being fueled by cost considerations in hospitals.” Where do you see this mentality, and why is it so dangerous?
It’s dangerous because of the very low life value we put on people with severe chronic conditions—people who use up a great many healthcare resources. In an economy where healthcare dollars are very scarce, the triaging of healthcare resources will be skewed in favor of the strong and not the weak. I see this even now in some of my friends who are quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent. They’re having a harder time getting the kind of healthcare that they need.
Our economy is so focused on cost-effectiveness and return on investment. We live in an entitlement culture where cost-benefit analysis is preeminent. And who suffers in such a society? It’s the elderly. It’s newborns with multiple disabilities. It’s those in comas. It’s people with chronic medical conditions. That’s why I think that this whole issue is so critical right now for the church.
The debate continues to rage over this contentious issue. Those in favour of the state-sanctioned killing of patients will of course appeal to emotive stories. We do not discount such tales of suffering, but we must balance them with other stories – stories of those who have suffered greatly and for very long periods of time, but who have resisted the siren call of legalised killing.
Joni Eareckson Tada is one such person. Her story deserves to be told, and heard, and shared widely.