Joni Eareckson Tada, Experts on Push for Assisted Suicide: ‘This Should Scare Every One of Us’
As California wrestles with physician-assisted suicide, the founder of Joni and Friends — along with policy experts — reveal why these trends are troubling.
On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed an appeal to keep assisted suicide legal in the state. A California euthanasia law has been in the courts since it passed in 2015, and a judge overturned it last week. This action is the latest move in a nationwide advocacy effort for euthanasia.
In recent years, seven U.S. states have legalized assisted suicide. “There are currently over 20 assisted suicide bills in state assemblies,” said Joni Eareckson Tada in an interview from California. She leads the ministry Joni and Friends. “The compassionate cords of our national character are very quickly unraveling.”
Speaking at a Capitol Hill event last week, ethicist Wesley Smith noted how pro-life advocates have long stood against this “inevitable” effort. “The media have been saying this is an unstoppable agenda. Yet in the states, hundreds of attempts at legalization have failed.”
“Despite the fact that George Soros puts tens of millions of dollars each year into this agenda,” continues Smith, “we have, for the most part, been able to prevent it.”
Tada sums up the societal effects she sees growing. “Physician-assisted suicide only alienates, separates and dismantles us as a people who care for one another,” she says.
Vulnerable Lives at Risk
At the Capitol Hill event hosted by the Catholic Information Center, Bobby Schindler addressed the audience. “Things are getting worse with our health care system — how we view those with disabilities, the elderly and so many of the vulnerable people in our midst,” he said.
Brother of the late Terri Schiavo, Schindler serves as president of the nonprofit advocacy group Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. “Hospitals now are in a position of making determinations based on someone’s quality of life,” he observed. “They are empowered to make decisions regardless of the expressed wishes of the patient. This should scare every single one of us.”
In her disability advocacy work, Tada notes the same trends rising. “There is a push to reduce heroic measures and heroic care in the name of cost containment,” she says. “Many people in government and health care are coercing states to consider telling their elderly people: it’s your duty to die.”
Today, Tada says she sees “a whole different health care paradigm than 50 years ago, when I was first injured.” A diving accident in 1967 left the teenage girl paralyzed from the shoulders down. She struggled with loneliness and doubt for years until she says her faith gave her assurance.
In 1979, Tada established the international ministry Joni and Friends near Los Angeles. In addition to humanitarian work, the nonprofit team stays active in public policy advocacy for the disabled. Tada noted recent disturbing events in Oregon, the first U.S. state to legalize assisted suicide.
“An analyst with the Oregon health authority had stated recently that a terminal illness may well be a medical condition which, if left untreated, might result in death within 6 to 8 months,” says Tada. “That no longer means just Stage Four cancer. That means a condition like muscular dystrophy or ALS.”
“People with disabilities and the elderly are very much at risk.”
How Roe v. Wade Led to Assisted Suicide
For Bobby Schindler, pro-life advocacy is also very personal. In 2005, his sister Terri Schiavo died after being denied water and nutrition for two weeks in a Florida medical facility. The incident brought international attention to the ethics of end-of-life care.
“A person experiences immense suffering when they are killed this way,” said Schindler at the event. “Please understand, anything you read out there that says anything contrary to that is not true.”
Wesley Smith, who now serves on the board of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, referred to her tragic story as the “Alamo” of the human dignity movement.
“This was a fully human person with a fully human life,” said Smith. “Today, these practices are being normalized and celebrated. Twenty percent of the people in this country live in places where this is legal. I don’t think social workers, priests or pastors are ready for this discussion.”
Tada points to one court decision as the legal underpinning for assisted suicide. “The common good of all was mortally wounded with the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade,” she says. “It established that the U.S. Constitution has in it an inherent right to privacy. And privacy now translates into a right to kill your own self.”
In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that a “right to die” does not exist in the Constitution. “This issue has been left to the states to debate and legislate,” continues Tada. “Ideally, your personal right to choice should not damage the common good of all people.”
“We’re having such a struggle over this in our culture right now.”
Asking Good Questions, Seeking True Answers
Questions about what the Pope calls a “prevalent culture of death” are being raised even in surprising quarters. Tara Isabella Burton, who covers religion for liberal outlet Vox, recently expressed doubts about the ethics of assisted suicide.
“It fosters a culture where those who are terminally ill, or disabled, might be led to believe that their own lives — or indeed, life for its own sake — is not valued,” she wrote. “Few people would argue that individual liberty is a bad thing. But it’s worth recognizing what we lose when we collectively change our value system to accommodate its supremacy.”
Burton pointed out that liberals need a “secular vocabulary to talk about […] the sanctity of life.” For Tada, she cannot help but go to an ancient source of wisdom for guidance on these complex issues.
“Our choices always impact others, whether for the good or for the bad,” says Tada. “Romans 14:7 says that none of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. Self-determination has its moral limits — though we certainly don’t act like it.”
A voice for the medically vulnerable over decades, Smith is struck by how fast the culture has shifted. A recent Gallup poll noted 73 percent of Americans support euthanasia. The opinion research also noted 55 percent of regular churchgoers believe it should be allowed.
“This is worse than the ‘throwaway culture’ Pope Francis speaks of,” said Smith. “People are being convinced to throw themselves away, told that they are doing right by their families and the cost of health care. It’s insidious.”
These leaders remain hopeful that the tide will turn against assisted suicide laws. The Patients Rights Council notes 20 bills currently active in state legislatures.
“There are a lot of people out there in Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania — I could go on,” says Tada. “It remains to be seen what will happen. Concerned citizens should contact their state representatives and express their views.”
“We’ve seen local leaders respond to their constituents.”