Joni Eareckson Tada shares her thoughts on physician-assisted suicide and her experience of healing after breaking her neck in a diving accident.
Recently I was rummaging through some depressing notes I wrote after my diving accident in 1967 when I broke my neck. I had lain in a hospital bed for an entire year. I spent the first six months at the University of Maryland Hospital, then I was placed in a geriatric ward of a state institution. In the ward, I shared a room with five other girls—three were paraplegics, one a quadriplegic like me. It was the lowest point of my life.
My quadriplegic roommate was named Ada. She was a tough-talking girl from West Virginia. She spent most of the day smoking cigarettes. When my roommates and I talked about our plight, Ada would inhale deeply from her cigarette, blow it out and declare that she had no intention of living with a broken neck. She planned to kill herself by smoking as many cigarettes as she could.
My depression manifested itself in a different way: I dictated notes to a friend. One note read: “Why on earth should a person like me be forced to live out such a dreary existence? I pray for some miracle to kill me. I’m afraid to do it myself. I pray someone else will help me do it.”
Culture of death
I wrote that 40 years ago. I’m so relieved that none of my girlfriends responded to my pleas to bring in sleeping pills or their fathers’ razors. I’m relieved that our society back then wasn’t quick to agree with a depressed quadriplegic’s “rational” choice to end her life.
It was a different time. Hospitals did not have “futile care policies” (directives that give a physician the right to overrule a family’s wishes in the medical treatment of a loved one). There were no Jack Kevorkians ready to aid an ill person with a death wish. (Kevorkian, released from prison last year, continues to advocate for the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.) Yet the public united around the moral premise that life is precious—no matter what the condition.
Today, men do what is right in their own eyes (Proverbs 3:7). Oregon has made it legal for physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill people, and similar efforts are ongoing in other states. In California, supporters of physician-assisted suicide repeatedly push legislation to make it legal. If that legislation is passed, doctors would be able to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill people so they could kill themselves.
Right-to-die advocates insist that, if legal, physician-assisted suicide would be available only to people in the final stages of a terminal illness. But those of us with disabilities know how easy it would be to expand the definition of a terminal illness. Laws allowing physician-assisted suicide become an invitation for individuals with neuromuscular diseases or other painful chronic conditions to challenge the definition of terminal illness.
For example, Switzerland’s highest court recently announced that a psychiatric disability can be just as “unbearable” as a physical disability, and therefore people suffering with such conditions should be able to seek a doctor’s help in killing themselves. Robert and Jennifer Stokes died in Switzerland three years ago by swallowing lethal doses of drugs. Mr. Stokes reportedly had epilepsy while Mrs. Stokes, 53, had diabetes and back problems. Neither was terminally ill. When you read the brochures and web sites of pro-assisted-suicide organizations, the word compassion is in every other paragraph. In California, right-to-die advocates tried unsuccessfully to change the term assisted suicide in the bill to assisted death (suicide sounds too harsh). Society is buying into the deadly premise that one is better off dead than disabled.
Cry for help
The facts show that most people with disabilities and terminal illnesses do not want to die. Rather, they simply want relief from pain, freedom from the fear of being abandoned or help in relieving their depression. Simply put, they long for hope. And Christians have the message of hope that can change the mind and heart of a severely depressed person with a terminal illness. We need to focus our efforts on helping people live with purpose, in comfort and among community.
If physician-assisted suicide had been legal when Ada was in the hospital, she could have been a candidate. True, she would have had to endure the two-week waiting period under such laws, but it takes a lot longer than that for someone like Ada to recover from depression. Research overwhelmingly shows that people with new disabilities often initially experience suicidal feelings, but later they adapt and find great satisfaction in their lives.
This was true of Ada. Several years after she was released from that institution, Ada’s life took a dramatic turn. She was still a quadriplegic, but someone introduced her to Jesus Christ. One of the first things she did was quit smoking. Ada decided her life really was worth living. (Unfortunately, she died several years later from lung cancer.)
A time to build
If Ada were alive today, I believe she would ask for your help in not giving someone like her a special right to die. Most of all, she would ask you not to be swayed by the messages in our culture that make physician-assisted suicide sound so appealing, so compassionate and reasonable.
We need to treat people not as things but as individuals with inherent worth and dignity, whether they are disabled, ill or elderly. As the moral fabric of our society wears thin, no one is in jeopardy more than those who are too weak, depressed or small to defend themselves. On their behalf, I ask you to be strong and courageous in the battle against legalizing physician-assisted suicide. People like Ada and me need you.
A diving accident in 1967 left Joni a quadriplegic. Unable to use her hands, she spent months learning how to paint with a brush between her teeth. Today, her artwork is sought after and collected. Joni Eareckson Tada is CEO and founder of the Joni and Friends International Disability Center in Agoura Hills, California. Visit her at www.joniandfriends.org.
From the January 2008 Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2008, Joni Eareckson Tada. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.