People Magazine cover featuring Brittany Maynard. Photo courtesy of People.
People Magazine cover featuring Brittany Maynard. Photo courtesy of People.

Joni Eareckson Tada is wrong about Brittany Maynard's decision to die

Today’s guest column is written by Sarah Jones, Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The views expressed in this piece belong to Jones and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

People Magazine cover featuring Brittany Maynard. Photo courtesy of People.

People Magazine cover featuring Brittany Maynard. Photo courtesy of People.

Two weeks before I turned 22, a doctor confirmed that my susceptibility to illness and symptoms of chronic pain and fatigue were the result of a very rare and completely incurable genetic red blood cell disease.

It’s called dehydrated hereditary stomatocytosis. My younger brother is the only other person I’ve ever met who also has the condition, and that’s likely how it’s going to be the rest of my life. Aside from the bad luck of faulty genes, my prognosis is generally good, and I’ve largely made my peace with my disease.

The reason I’m bringing it up now? It informs my desire to respond to a piece by Joni Eareckson Tada published on this website on Tuesday.

In her piece, Tada, who was paralyzed in a diving accident in 1967, slams terminally ill Brittany Maynard for her decision to end her suffering by suicide. Maynard, 29 and recently married, has explained quite eloquently that, while hardly ideal, this decision is preferable to the alternative: a slow, agonizing death.

It is a devastating situation. But, in her piece, Tada never offers Maynard her sympathies.

Quite the opposite, in fact. “The saddest part of the story for me, however, is not her prognosis, but her decision to end her life prematurely on Nov. 1 through physician-assisted suicide,” Tada writes.

This statement seems to imply that, in Tada’s world, the real tragedy isn’t that a young woman is terminally ill. It’s that she’s chosen to manage her suffering in a way Tada finds personally offensive.

“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,” Tada adds. “I would tell her that the saddest thing of all would be for her to wake up on the other side of her tombstone only to face a grim, joyless existence not only without life, but without God.”

She concludes by “imploring” Maynard and patients like her “…to take a long, hard look at the consequences of a decision that is so fatal, and worst of all, so final.”

Tada she doesn’t just disregard Maynard’s choices; she ignores her reasoning, too. Maynard’s said repeatedly that she isn’t suicidal, but that didn’t prevent Tada from arguing that her choice should be illegal because “suicidal feelings” experienced by patients with a “chronic disabling condition” often pass.

Of course, Maynard doesn’t have a chronic disabling condition. It is her disease that is fatal and final—but Tada doesn’t acknowledge that once in her article. And this makes a certain kind of sense. If she acknowledged Maynard’s reality, she’d have to admit that she thinks she ought to get a say in how a stranger dies. She has to center someone else’s story around herself in order to argue against the legality of physician-assisted suicide.

But Maynard’s decision isn’t about Joni Eareckson Tada—and it isn’t about me, either. Tada and I are not terminally ill. Neither of us is well positioned to judge Maynard for the awful choice she now faces. We can’t possibly know what it’s like to navigate such an extreme situation.

But here’s what I do know. I know, intimately, that the choices of people with disabilities are already heavily policed. I know that Brittany Maynard is going to die. I can also draw on a modicum of empathy and reach the conclusion that if I were in Maynard’s position, I’d probably make the same choice.

Here’s something else I know, too: That the reactions of other people are sometimes the worst part of a health crisis. If I were dying, I suspect that a sermon from someone who doesn’t understand my situation and would rather use it as an opportunity to evangelize would only contribute to the moment’s misery. It’s one of the reasons I speak so rarely about my own non-fatal condition. It’s dehumanizing to be treated like a political prop, even without the prospect of imminent death.

Tada is obviously entitled to her opinion. But she could do with a dose of empathy.

Sarah Jones. Photo courtesy of Jones.

Sarah Jones. Photo courtesy of Jones.

Sarah Jones is the Communications Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Prior to joining AU, she volunteered for Femin Ijtihad, where she researched Islamic law and women’s rights. She holds a Master of Arts in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy from Goldsmiths, University of London, and tweets at @onesarahjones.

Comments

  1. Note that Tada’s repugnant piece was not published somewhere like LifeSite News, but right here at the supposedly “moderate” (or is it “progressive?”) RNS. This raises the question of whether there is ultimately any truly useful distinction to be drawn between “fundamentalists” and supposedly more enlightened Christians. When even the enlightened ones are eager to publish obvious bilge like Tada’s salvo (*), we are reminded that “moderate” is a highly relative term, indeed.

    (*) (And then to double down on the initial publication by gloating over what a “bad day” Maynard must be having in yesterday’s Round-Up post by RNS’s editor in chief).

  2. Your use of Tada and empathy in the last paragraph reveals the stark and tragic world of evangelicalism. There is no empathy there – only stern warnings, judgment, empty promises and manipulation of folks like Joni who spout the party line and keep folks happy with her testimony about “victory, power, glory, healing, love and over-coming!” The superman, superwomen, junk that fills evangelical churches these days. Empathy? Are you kidding? There is none in the evangelical world. Thanks for a very fine article.

  3. If we are to believe the Bible that the human race may divided into two groups comprising those who are saved in one, and those who are not in the other (John 5:29), than I see two ways of looking at someone in Maynard’s situation, but I will only comment from the perspective of my having been justified to God by faith alone in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    We should want to embrace suffering as “being much more precious than of gold that perisheth” ( Jas. 1:2, 1 Peter 1:7). And on whether suicide is ever acceptable, we have four occurrences of suicide in the Scriptures, and all of them cast in negative light to the ones committing it. (Judges 9, 1 Samuel 31, 2 Samuel 17:23, Mat. 27:5). Further, there is a commandment against killing, particularly murder, and suicide has no justification in the Scriptures which makes it a type of murder. Finally, there is Hebrews 9:27 which says death is an appointment made by God, who is the one with sovereign right over life, and death, and the resurrection. (Gen. 2:7, Deut 9:24, John 11:25) Suicide is therefore a sin of rebellion against this ordained and sanctioned act of the Almighty God.

    Therefore, a Christian should not commit suicide.

  4. 1) there are at least 7 instances of suicide in the Bible, and none of them are condemned, or associated with any of the matters the writer suggests. No moralizing at all in the Bible on this matter. Tragic? Yes, because life is tragic. But sinful? No! And no reason to move from these sad stories of desperate people and hard times to some kind of a general dogma that “suicide is wrong.” 2) The embrace of suffering, as the writer suggests, has been one of the strangest dogmatic assertions of Roman Catholicism (a tradition in love with suffering), teaching generations of innocent victims to endure their suffering at the hands of cruel masters, women at the hands of abusive husbands, and the sick – in that case, why even bother with doctors. If you’re sick, it’s God’s will; therefore, going to a doctor, or a hospital, is contrary to God’s will. 3) the cold calculations of logic here are just that – cold, cold to the core, cold to the bone. Not a hint here of compassion, sympathy, kindness. No intent on understanding, but only lifting up dogma and a particularly narrow kind at that. If we’re to embrace suffering, It’s not just suffering in general, but suffering for the sake of Christ and the gospel, and that has nothing to do with disease, even if we stretch Paul’s thorn as far as we can – which may have been a chronic condition but not a killing disease. Even Jesus, for crying out loud, heals when he can; he doesn’t tell anyone to put up with it because it’s God’s will. Sorry, but this post fails on all points.

  5. In addition to the aforementioned reasons a Christian should not commit suicide, there is the problem of being unable to confess it and repent of it. That’s a sin you’ll take with you to the Judgment seat of Christ. (1 John 1:9-10)

    Also in addition to the previously mentioned suicides, there are three additional instances of suicide in Scripture, and all are overshadowed by of same shameful reproach of sin, as an example for us not to be like them. Samson, who refused to repent of his adulterous ways and became the play toy of the Israel’s enemies (Judges 16:28-31), Saul’s armor bearer who killed himself after being unable to kill Saul and watched Saul kill himself (1Samuel 31:5), and Zimri who came to a treacherous end after a treacherous ascension, reigning a grand total of seven days.

    All this to affirm our previous conclusion, brethren, that a born again follower of our Lord Jesus should never commit suicide, nor advocate for others to sin (Proverbs 31:8), nor assist in the commission of sin (Proverbs 11:21, Eph. 5:7).

  6. Tom, your main error lies in your misunderstanding of who my audience is. It is those who have the born again fear of God and wish to abide faithfully in Him. Sure we should mitigate our sufferings by the provisions made available to us, including such things as prayer and medicine. But we don’t want to cross the line and sin in order to avoid it, but that’s exactly what suicide does. The child of God will rather glory in his infirmities, just like Paul did in his. (2Cor 12:9)

  7. My primary audience is those who’ve “been born again,” too … to help those trapped in fundamentalist categories of thought to shed those shackles and find a more authentic walk with Christ.

    As for Paul, his “infirmity” was a chronic condition – not a terminal disease. Huge difference, wouldn’t you say?

    While you might choose to endure through to the end, it’s helpful to offer sympathy to those who make other choices. It’s perfectly fine, in all Christian regards, to ask for medical help in ending life when medical help cannot “cure” the disease … and as we know, medicine cannot mitigate severe pain without, at the same time, rendering someone virtually stupefied. Lots of folks prefer to end their days in mindfulness.

    Suicide is NEVER a sin! Augustine dreamed that one up, because, especially, males were the property of the king – to end one’s life was equivalent to theft of taxes and potential soldiers.

    Suicide comes in a lot of different versions – but each of them asks for our sympathy, our kindness, our love and acceptance, not condemnation and law.

  8. Well, Tom, your reply and $1.05 would get me a small regular cup of coffee. Everything else is pretty much opinion or half truth that doesn’t jibe with the Word of God, not that you tried to validate any of your thinking with the Word. You also claim “Augustine” as an authority, but the final authority for those called to be saints by faith in Jesus Christ is the truth (John 17:17), because the Bible says there is a way that seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof leads to death. (Pr. 14:12) My Lord has made me the promise that SURELY goodness and mercy SHALL follow me all the days of my life, regardless of whether it is a “chronic” condition or terminal disease, NO difference. (Psalm 23:6) For a Christian to deny his final days shows a lack of faith in that promise, and denies God from displaying these loving attributes to the dying and to his witnesses.

    And yet another reason a Christian should not commit suicide: Such a sin is of the presumptuous premeditated kind, the worst kind in the Christian life. Sin for the born again believers, according to 1 John 1, should be unplanned, unintentional, repented of, and confessed, and forgotten (1 John 3:20-21).

  9. Well, Ted, you sure know a lot of about sin … I think on your fixated on it. It’s a tool for pride and for manipulation. This will be my last comment … I don’t live in your world, and for that, I’m grateful to God. There is so much pain in your life – evident in everything you write. You’re living in a very hard place, a place full of judgment and the terrible burden of having to be absolutely certain how the universe is governed. You’re hard on others, very hard … that kind of hardness comes only from a frightened heart! I hope that something will come along and set your free, so that you can be an ambassador of freedom for others. The freedom of Christ! This is my LAST post in reply to your comments.

  10. Your lack of sophistication on what is suicide and what isn’t is quite problematic. Physician-assisted suicide is a misnomer that NEEDS to leave our language. We should properly refer to it as Aid-In-Dying. You see, Maynard ISN’T suicidal. She doesn’t WANT to die, she is GOING to die, and it will be a really horrible death that even pain medications will eventually fail to aid in. Please refer to this: http://compassionwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Language-Matters.pdf

    With that said, I would imagine you would retort with something along the lines of we are all going to die and God should be in charge of when and how that happens… however if you want to logically take that stance, then you should resist all forms of medicine that prolong life or ease death. If you severe an artery or catch a terrible virus, I hope you refuse all help for treatment, as that is clearly interfering with God’s control over your life. Likewise, if you are on your deathbed and it is horribly painful, I hope you refuse all forms of pain medications, as that interferes with God’s sovereignty again.

    This grotesque stance by evangelicals, when followed to their logical conclusions, are absurd in the modern world where people do not need to suffer like it is the Middle Ages again. Let Maynard have her dignity in death, and if you are going to protest it, then follow your own damned logic.

    Also recommended: the documentary How To Die In Oregon.

  11. “Please refer to this: http://compassionwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Language-Matters.pdf

    My thoughts turned immediately to Colossians 2:8 as I read your reference. I see the use of semantics guided by flawed human wisdom to rationalize killing from a culture in love with sin and death. Maybe you should take a look through Foxes Book of Martyrs sometime to see what a healthy Christ-honoring death looks like compared to the man-centered link you’ve provided. Foxe’s is in the public domain so you should be able to find it easily online and w/o copyright.

    “…however if you want to logically take that stance, then you should resist all forms of medicine that prolong life…”

    Not so. The Bible says “the wages of sin is death”. (Romans 6:23) Christians should resist sin to the bittersweet end. (Hebrews 12:4).

    “Likewise, if you are on your deathbed and it is horribly painful, I hope you refuse all forms of pain medications,…”

    One might expect such cold sentiment from a physician-assisted-murder advocate.

    “…as that interferes with God’s sovereignty again”

    Nope, 1 Timothy 5:23 says painkilling medicine is approved by the great physician himself.

    Likewise recommended: The Attributes of God by AW Pink, Chapter 12, The Patience of God.

  12. Absolutely appreciate your comment. For any person who has witnessed the progression of glioblastoma and the decline of someone suffering with the horrible disease, there has to be some sort of ultimate understanding and empathy. I am a retired nurse who has seen the devastating effects first hand. I also suffer from chronic pain, debilitating migraines, and disability and very much support a persons right to choose physician assisted euthanasia. If I could, I would hold the hand, in support, commpasion, love, and empathy those facing such devastating life and death choices. Without one second of judgement!! The choice is their own. My heart goes out to anyone with such a devastating illness that they know only death is a choice. My hope for them, is that they make peace with that choice and ignore all of the harsh opponents and ultimately come to view their death, by whatever means they choose, as a good thing for them.

  13. Angie, beautifully said … your heart of gold shaped in the fires of caring … may others offer the same level of care to you, too.

  14. Please do SOME research on Joni Tada before criticizing her. She’s had breast cancer, is not in the best of health and her long-term life expectancy isn’t great. She’s one of the longer-lived quads around. Many don’t last into their 60s as she has, so she’s known for years that she’s one infection away from death. Click on PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly’s interview with Tada when she wasn’t sure she was going to make it through cancer: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2013/06/07/october-26-2012-joni-eareckson-tada-extended-interview/13586/ before you trash her.

  15. Julia, no one is questioning Joni Tada’s character. The question here is her Christian world view (one of many available), and her willingness to condemn Brittany Maynard for her decision. I’m grateful that Joni has made it this far in an otherwise very difficult circumstance. But having followed her “celebrity status” among evangelicals, I find her world view lacking in compassion, and in this case, missing the distinction between a chronic condition and a terminal one. She makes a common evangelical error: universalizing her story!

  16. Ted,
    This bit about having to repent before death is nonsense. What if you commit a sinful act (there are many which we are not conscious at the time we are commiting it) before you repent of it? Will you go to Hell? We are either born again or we are not. Jesus has forgiven all sins, past, present and future to those who belong to Him.
    In response to suicide not allowing one to ask for forgiveness, how about a guy shoots himself in the head or wherever else and death is not instantaneous. The guy asks God to forgive him as he is bleeding out. What then?
    Your comment about someone else’s comment and $1.05 for coffee was very unChristlike and I hope you repent lest a sudden accident befall you and you be sent to Hell. NOT! I will pray that you are truly born again. The Bible says the 2 greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and love everyone the way you love yourself.

  17. Unfortunately, Joni Eareckson Tada LOVES the spotlight, and loves talking about herSELF. And when other Christians rebuke her for her multiple affiliations with false teachers/false teachings (Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Greg Laurie, John MacArthur), she spams and blocks them.

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