Joni Eareckson Tada to Brittany Maynard: doctor-assisted suicide is neither highly personal nor private
By Dave Andrusko
Joni Eareckson Tada
There are motivational speakers, and motivational speakers, and then there is Joni Eareckson Tada. Although it’s now 14 years, I remember like it was yesterday watching Joni speak to the 2000 convention in Crystal City, Virginia. Few people then or now can talk as Joni can about finding meaning even in the darkest times; about not succumbing when circumstances and, perhaps, many around you “understand” how giving up (suicide) an “understandable response.” is For those who may not know Joni’s story, in 1967 she was severely injured in a diving accident. She has lived—thrived– all these years as a quadriplegic. But those two sentences don’t begin to tell you what she’s been through. Joni is a remarkable woman, a disability rights activist whose ministry “Joni and Friends” has an inspiration to millions for decades. That’s why when Joni wrote to Brittany Maynard, in the form of an essay for Religious News Service, I paid attention. As most of you know, Maynard announced that she will be “assisted” to die November 1. She is simultaneously adamant that she is not committing suicide. As the Orange County Register put it so reassuringly, “She’ll be with her husband, mother, stepfather and best friends. At some point, she will drink a cup of water infused with a physician-prescribed drug and drift into a deep sleep from which she does not plan to wake.” It comes as absolutely no surprise that Compassion & Choices (in a previous life the Hemlock Society) has latched on to beautiful young woman diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor and given only a few months to live. The 29-year-old has already become the lovely “face” of the pro-assisted suicide movement, including on the cover of People Magazine. Maynard told the magazine that there is a six-minute online video that includes interviews with Brittany her mother, Debbie Ziegler, and Dan Diaz, her husband. “In mid-October, Maynard will videotape testimony to be played for California lawmakers and voters at the appropriate time,” Nicole Weisensee Egan wrote. There have been many eloquent, passionate, heart-felt pleas to Ms. Maynard to reconsider. Many, including us, have also tried to impress the wider implications of a glamorized “end” when suicide is already the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Writes San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders Marilyn Golden of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley is concerned that Maynard’s story obscures the larger picture. “For every individual with a happy family who’s not at risk for abuse, there are many other individuals who may be subtly steered toward assisted suicide by their insurance company or pressured by their family.” For every Brittany Maynard, there are others who face serious illnesses — aging, maybe — without Maynard’s extraordinary support system. Golden worries lest “profit-driven managed health care” subtly steer the sick in the direction of — what’s the word? — dignity. Asks palliative care specialist Dr. B.J. Miller, will there still be a place for “people who are sick and beyond their utilitarian function” in this new world of choice? In reprinting Joni’s column, the Washington Post headlined it, “Why Brittany Maynard’s choice to die is not personal or private.” Joni writes Brittany may think her choice is a highly personal and private one, but it is not. Already, her decision has reignited hotly contested debates as to whether physician-assisted suicide should be expanded beyond the five states where it is legal. Proponents of Brittany’s decision are already using her story as a bully pulpit to advance their so-called death-with-dignity agendas. But Joni is a devout Christian, so her plea to Brittany also includes her relationship to God “The journey Brittany — for that matter, all of us — will undertake on the other side of death is the most important venture on which we will ever embark. So it must not be disregarded or brushed aside without thinking twice about the God who alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end. … “If I could spend a few moments with Brittany before she swallows that prescription she has already filled, I would tell her how I have felt the love of Jesus strengthen and comfort me through my own cancer, chronic pain and quadriplegia.” Joni returns repeatedly to the disintegrative impact of doctor-assisted suicide, best caught in this paragraph: “This is no way to strengthen care and nurturing in society; rather, such a decision further unravels the cords of compassion that have characterized our nation for so many decades. A right to privacy is radicalized by physician-assisted suicide — it does not strengthen the common good, but only alienates, separates and dismantles us as a people who truly care for one another.” Nobody, certainly not Joni nor I, would ever minimize the gravity of Ms. Maynard’s medical condition. We would hope, nonetheless, that she would reconsider her decision to make an already terrible tragedy many times worse.