Joni Eareckson Tada on Suicide, Disability and Euthanasia
Part one of an interview with the noted author, radio host and advocate for the disabled.
Last week, the world was stunned by the loss of fashion designer Kate Spade and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain — both to suicide. Many leaders are at a loss for words, or avoid discussing suicide altogether.
One woman who has long shared her own struggles with depression is unafraid to speak up. When she was a teenager, a diving accident left Joni Eareckson Tada paralyzed from the shoulders down. She struggled with thoughts of suicide until a desperate prayer, and the answers she sought, changed her outlook.
Yet few in our culture share her moral clarity. Proposals to legalize assisted suicide have been introduced in 20 states this year. Last week, leaders of the American Medical Association — gathered in Chicago, Illinois — voted not to affirm its existing policy against assisted suicide.
Reached via phone at her headquarters near Los Angeles, Tada spoke about grappling honestly with deep pain and what happens when society devalues the life of people like her. A second part of this interview, covering her insights into living with disability and the ways Christians can help, will appear tomorrow.
When Life is Devalued, the Vulnerable Pay the Price
The Stream: As several states consider legalizing assisted suicide, what do you see is missing in our health care system today?
Tada: Jesus said in Matthew 16, “What good does it do a man if he gains the whole world and yet loses his soul?” Right there, you’ve got a price tag put on a soul: the wealth of the entire world. This is what is missing in health care policy — the incredibly sacred, priceless value of life.
Health care policy in years past used to always err on the side of life and not death. But that’s no longer true. Now it’s all about cost containment. Even the rationing of health care dollars is skewed toward the well-insured and the healthy — not on behalf of the elderly, the medically fragile or people with very severe disabilities.
This is what is missing in health care policy — the incredibly sacred, priceless value of life.
We need health care policy that is morally responsible to its most vulnerable citizens. Bill Federer, president of Amerisearch, recently stated: “The greatness of America is in how it treats its weakest members — the elderly, the infirm, the handicapped, the underprivileged and the unborn.”
We’re doing a poor job of that. We’ve made it a federal right to kill your child in the womb. We are hesitant to insure the underprivileged. When it comes to the elderly, we put upon them the “duty to die.”
Today, the infirm or handicapped just don’t have access to the kind of health care dollars we used to. It’s because of cost containment and the triaging of those dollars by committees who are very interested in cost savings.
America Will Follow Europe
The Stream: As an advocate for people facing disabilities, why does the trend toward euthanasia concern you?
Tada: I don’t think it’s going to be too long until our country will follow suit of Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium — in which you can qualify for physician-assisted death simply by having clinical depression. Or having a disability that you find “unbearable.”
Perhaps a person despairing of his handicapping condition will throw up his arms in despair and put forth an argument challenging the definition of what is a terminal illness. Will U.S. courts decide our ethics?
Fueled by cost containment measures, our broken health care system puts at jeopardy people with disabilities and the elderly.
Practical Ways to be Pro-Life
The Stream: How can we live out the sanctity of life in our personal lives and relationships?
Tada: There are all kinds of ways, my goodness. It breaks my heart to speak of the thousands of young men and women who are now in nursing homes — paraplegics, or who have multiple sclerosis. Their spouse or family cannot or will not embrace them at home. Divorce is so prevalent among special-needs families.
My mother had to place my father in a care facility, but for three years she sold her home and moved to my uncle’s house close to the care facility. Every single day, at eight o’clock in the morning, she showed up and was at that nursing home all day.
She campaigned not only on behalf of my father, but on behalf of many other people up and down that hallway who were not being treated with respect. They were lying on a bedpan for three hours, their sheets soiled. She advocated for change and never forgot them. That’s how we practice the sanctity of life.
Where the rubber meets the road is our personal challenges, particularly with our family members.
I remember giving a lecture at my husband’s social studies class on physician assisted suicide. This was back in the 90’s when California was first entertaining one of its right to die initiatives on the ballot.
I was talking about how change is needed in our society and I was giving some examples. One student raised his hand and said, “Yeah, I think society ought to do something. because my mother is so tired. My little sister has spina bifida and society really needs to do something.”
I said, “Young man, when’s the last time you took your sister with spina bifida to the beach? Or you drove her to the mall? Or you had a picnic with her? Or you sat with her on a Friday night, and let your mother go out with her girlfriends? When’s the last time you did something with your little sister?”
Everybody in the class kind of giggled. I really put him on the spot. I felt bad for that in one respect — but really not too badly.
Unfortunately, we live in such a fragmented society where we just don’t want to get involved. Where the rubber meets the road is our personal challenges, particularly with our family members. Like my mother, be observant of your neighbors, people across the street who are shut-ins or others who are being treated unfairly.
These are the ways we live out the sanctity of life. People with impairments are image-bearers of God, and that gives our lives intrinsic value. Every individual deserves human dignity and respect.
If you are thinking of hurting yourself, or if you are concerned that someone else may be suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).