Joni Eareckson Tada: When Is It Right to Die?

By Joni Eareckson Tada   •   June 7, 2019   •   Topics: , , ,

Recently, Joni Eareckson Tada underwent treatment for reoccurring cancer. She was also hospitalized for two weeks due to pneumonia and related lung disease. Upon her release, she had this to say: “Yes, my body may be wasting away, but inwardly I am being renewed day by day. Every day is packed with purpose, as well as a mission to accomplish.” She told Decision: “I am back at Joni and Friends and am excited about championing the cause for life!” In this article, she urges Christians to get involved in the fight against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Fifty years ago, when I broke my neck in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic overnight, I fell into deep despair. Facing life in a wheelchair without use of my arms? Languishing in a hospital for nearly two years? I wanted to end it all. I begged my high school friends to bring in their mothers’ pills or their fathers’ razors. When my friends refused, I would violently jerk my head back and forth on my pillow, hoping to break my neck at a higher place and thus kill myself. 

It’s a good thing I never succeeded because now, five decades later, I am content in my wheelchair. But what if I weren’t? What if I were still in despair? I could still get my death wish. In several countries I could qualify for physician-assisted suicide, and the U.S. may not be far behind. 

In seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia, assisted-suicide is now legal, and any one of those states could expand the meaning of terminal illness. All it would take would be a court decision that modifies its definition, such as happened in Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In Europe, multiple sclerosis and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) are viewed as terminal. Will the U.S. one day provide assisted suicide to people with severe spinal injuries like mine?

How did we come to this point? Why does our society on one hand celebrate the rights of the elderly and people with disabilities and on the other hand imply that “people are better off dead than disabled?” And it’s not just people with chronic conditions.

Our broken and profit-driven health care system is already placing undue pressure on the medically fragile. There are constant calls to reduce heroic measures or late-life care in the name of cost containment. Some leaders in government are coercing these people to consider it their duty to die. In Oregon, California, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Washington and Hawaii—states where doctor-assisted death is legal—euthanasia is positioned as an end-of-life treatment option.

Why the constant push to legalize physician-assisted suicide? Simply put, we are afraid of suffering. We are afraid of being left alone or burdening others with our afflictions. These fears are reflected in a June 2017 Gallup poll, which shows that 73 percent of Americans support euthanasia. When you couple these fears with an entitlement attitude, people are convinced they have a right to arrange the timing of their own death.

Fueling this movement is one’s cherished “right to privacy,” which was affirmed in the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Ever since then, we keep dressing up our willful determinations by labeling them personal rights. When this happens, the exercise of rights becomes nothing more than a national competition over who is more victimized than who, and we are no longer interested in the common good of all people, but only in getting our way. We want government to protect what we feel is our personal right to die. 

But is it the government’s responsibility to help sick or elderly people kill themselves? No. The role of government is to protect the weak, seniors and the medically fragile. A healthy society will always balance personal rights against the common good, but government-sanctioned suicide unravels the compassionate cords of our nation’s character. Bill Federer, president of Amerisearch, a company dedicated to researching America’s heritage, states: “The greatness of America is in how it treats its weakest members: the elderly, the infirmed, the handicapped, the underprivileged, the unborn.”  

Do we want to help people die a good death? Then, if intractable pain is the issue, let’s pour more research dollars into better pain management. If fear is the issue, let’s surround people with true spiritual community. Most of all, we can help terminally ill people understand what faces them on the other side of their tombstone. Jesus is the only One who conquered the grave and opened the path to life eternal. How awful if people choose three grams of phenobarbital in their veins, only to face a Christ-less eternity! 

Christians must get engaged in this battle. First, by facing a disturbing fact: in that same June 2017 Gallup poll, 42 percent of churchgoers agree that doctors should be allowed to assist terminally ill people in suicide. In other words, followers of Christ are buying into the allure of assisted suicide. Yes, we have fears of suffering! 

But God’s Word helps us combat fear. When we are suffering, we can be comforted by the fact that the Bible is filled with insights on the virtue of trusting the Man of Sorrows acquainted with our grief. Besides, the sixth commandment, in Exodus 20:13, says, “You shall not murder” (this logically includes self-murder). God knows our weak frame, and He states in Job 14:5, “A person’s days are determined; [the Lord has] decreed the number of his months and [has] set limits he cannot exceed.” He will take care of us to the end, tenderly shepherding us beyond our tombstone into a life filled with joy and no suffering. 

So, get involved. Right now, 21 states are considering assisted-suicide laws in their state assemblies. Find out if your state is numbered among them, then spread the word. Tell people there are good laws throughout the U.S. that already help people die with dignity—laws that provide advanced pain management, as well as grant a patient the right to refuse treatment. And be alert if a right to die bill is introduced into your state assembly. The lives of thousands are at stake, so “speak up for … the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8). 

Thankfully, when I was in the hospital, Christian friends surrounded my bed and ascribed positive value to my pain. They prayed for me and lifted me out of social isolation. Christians helped my parents financially when insurance failed us. Christ-followers cast a vision for me when I was too weak to envision success myself. They were the hands of Jesus that led me “through the valley of the shadow of death.” 

Yes, as an aging quadriplegic, I know there are tough days ahead for me, but hope in Christ will see me through until the Lord calls me home. After all, Jesus is the One who makes life worth living, even to the end.  ©2018 Joni Eareckson Tada

Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.

Joni Eareckson Tada, founder and CEO of Joni and Friends, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Her bestselling autobiography, Joni, and the feature film of the same name, produced by BGEA’s World Wide Pictures, introduced her story around the world.