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.
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 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.