Evangelical Disability Activist Condemns Brittany Maynard’s “Death-With-Dignity Agenda”

Joni Eareckson Tada

Brittany Maynard was on the cover of People magazine this week under the banner, “My Decision to Die: A Terminal Cancer Patient’s Controversial Choice.”

Coverage of the 29-year-old’s intention to end her life by physician-assisted suicide has elicited a massive media response, much of which tends toward the “controversy” frame. Despite the publicity, her choice remains intensely personal, and she rejects the characterization that she is choosing death. “Cancer is ending my life,” she said. “I am choosing to end it a little sooner and in a lot less pain and suffering.”

In response, Religion News Service features an essay by disability advocate and evangelical radio personality Joni Eareckson Tada. Paralyzed in a diving accident in 1967, Tada is known for her advocacy group, “Joni and Friends,” her books, and her paintings, which she creates by holding a brush between her teeth. Like Maynard, Tada’s life story is marked by pathos, and millions of people have been touched by her struggle.

Her essay, on the other hand, is strikingly accusatory. Under the head, “Joni Eareckson Tada to Brittany Maynard: God Alone Chooses the Day You Die, Not You,” she writes:

I understand [Maynard] may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: 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.

I have not seen anything to indicate that Maynard is devoutly Christian, or that a because-God-says-so argument would appeal to her. But consistent with the controversy frame, this view does represent a “side.”

Tada goes on:

Unfortunately, three countries and five states have now determined that individuals can make these choices for themselves. This is what happens when God is removed: The moral consensus that has guided that society begins to unravel. People in this country have bought into the premise that one really is better off dead than disabled.

Tada changes the subject from terminal illness to disability, ignoring the fact that Maynard is not disabled. She has cancer, and with it, the expectation that she will die a slow and painful death, and soon. That she has found a place humane enough to let her die in comfort and on her own terms is, for Tada, “unfortunate.” Instead, she suggests, Maynard should die as God intended – miserably.

For Tada, Death-with-Dignity laws demonstrate that the entire “moral consensus” of society is “unraveling.” To call this hyperbole is to understate the case. There is simply no reason to believe that mercy for the dying will facilitate moral decay in the society of the living. Such claims are trademarks of the generation of Christian Right-ism in which Tada was raised, but which has already expended most of its rhetorical force on similarly wild claims.

The essay continues in this vein. Tada writes that the choice to end one’s suffering “unravels the cords of compassion that have characterized our nation for so many decades.” It “alienates, separates and dismantles us as a people who truly care for one another.” And far from a private decision made by an adult cognizant of her own needs, Maynard’s decision has made her a tool of other interests. “Proponents of Brittany’s decision are already using her story as a bully pulpit to advance their so-called death-with-dignity agendas.”

It’s hard to read Tada’s piece without recoiling at the jaw-dropping insensitivity, but equally hard to read it without reference to the author’s own fortitude in the face of suffering. We are of course tempted to defer to her on questions of this nature. But such deference depends upon exactly the sort of basic human empathy that she has suspended in her treatment of Maynard.

The obsession with extending life indefinitely, through medications and procedures and without regard for quality, has already condemned too many to deaths that are painful because prolonged. If taking medicine to end one’s life is a violation of God’s rights, then taking medicine to extend one’s life must be an equal-and-opposite violation. Those opposed to physician-assisted suicide, like Tada, often insist that they speak for the Lord and for morality. They certainly do not speak for mercy. I just hope and pray that they are not influencing public policy if and when I am faced with this decision.

  • DKeane123

    I thought gay marriage was going to unravel society?

    Another example of the fact that a Christian’s choices can be the only one that is moral. Waiting for Frank’s reply.

  • phatkhat

    If I recall correctly, Joni Tada herself wanted to commit suicide after her accident. She should be a little more understanding.

    I’ve worked in nursing homes and hospitals, years back, and I’ve heard patients beg for mercy. Beg to be let to pass on. It should be the patient’s choice, and no one else’s.

  • ortcutt

    The belief that we are God’s property is one of the more disturbing aspects of some forms of religion. If Joni Tada wishes to be a slave to her self-conception of what god wants for her, that is her choice, but she ought not to force that choice on the rest of us.

  • LogicGuru

    But what if one WANTS to prolong live even without ‘dignity.’ I don’t have any problem with people who have other preferences, but I’m afraid that mine–survival as long as possible at all costs–won’t be respected. In the media the beat goes on and on and on for ‘death with dignity.’ That is now the mainstream view, and the only objections seem to be by a minority of fundamentalists who protest on religious grounds because of notions about being in God’s hands or whatever. But that isn’t my objection, or the objection of many people who oppose euthanasia. My concern is that I won’t get what I want.–survival as long as possible at all costs. And sorry I’m selfish: life is of paramount importance and if it impoverishes my family to hell with them.

  • Andre M

    Maybe you need to say his name three times.

  • ecm192

    You are perfectly free not to end your own life, and will be. Further, Death with Dignity law can hardly be considered the majority view – it is on the books in 3 out of 50 the states.

  • Liya

    It will always be yours or your power of attorney decision. It is common and acceptable practice in some Northern European countries, and the least of your concerns should be that someone will coerce you into it.
    There is too much tied to this , legally and otherwise, for that to be one of your worries 😉

  • LogicGuru

    Glad of that. But I’m very cynical. I am pointing out though that when it comes to public opinion and the media the beat goes on and on and on in favor of euthanasia. People who choose to be put down are valorized, admired. Read around, look at popular literature, and the majority view strongly supports euthanasia not merely as an option but as the preferred option. The take is that the debate is between people who think people should get to do what they want to do and religious people who think that they shouldn’t get what they want–the assumption being that what most people do, or should, want is not survival at all costs.

  • Liya

    I am sure you are not that vain to succumb to public pressure 🙂 It will never become something that’s universally applied and used – many want to live as long as possible just like you. Also legally nobody could ever force you.

  • Liya

    Frank, you asleep at the wheel, bud. We are waiting. Set us ‘straight’ ( pardon the pun)

  • Deist1737

    “If taking medicine to end one’s life is a violation of God’s rights, then taking medicine to extend one’s life must be an equal-and-opposite violation.” Great point – thanks!

    One thing this case brings up are all the promises in the Bible to believers. If the Christian Bible is true, Tada would be completely healed as would Maynard. In particular is John 14:12-14 which says that Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.”

    Based on these words and teachings attributed directly to Jesus we see:

    1) it is addressed to believers in Jesus although it may be limited to male believers based on the use of “he” as well as the many misogynistic teachings in the Bible;

    2) believers in Jesus (possibly all believers but definitely all male believers) will be able to do the things the Bible claims Jesus did such as raise people from the dead, feed about five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two small fish, walk on water, etc., plus “greater works than these”;

    3) this promise takes effect when Jesus goes back up into heaven with his father which Christians believe he already did anywhere from the day he came back to life after being crucified as is claimed in Luke and Mark to at least eight days after coming back to life as is claimed in John to “many days” after coming back to life as is claimed in Acts 13:31 to 40 days after coming back to life as is claimed in Acts 1:1-9;

    4) believers can get whatever they ask for in the name of Jesus.

    When we look around us and see sick and suffering people we realize either this, and similar, Bible promises of faith healing, are false or Christians who can help the sick and injured are so cold-hearted they decide not to help them. Our innate God-given reason tells us these Bible promises are false and empty. Especially when we realize that children actually die when their believing parents attempt to heal them based on these dangerous Bible promises ( http://www.deism.com/harrison.htm ).

    It’s amusing and revealing to see Christian clergy who promote faith-healing, such as Pat Robertson, use doctors and hospitals for themselves and their own families.

    Christians should not be critical of Maynard. They should instead, based on their own “holy” book, heal her.

    Progress! Bob Johnson
    http://www.deism.com

  • LogicGuru

    Fair. I do with the media abopted a more fair-and-balanced view and recognized that there were people who wanted to survive as long as possible for selfish rather than religious reasons. You just do not see that view represented. If I’m missing something, show me where. It’s always the enlightened vs. the religious right, people who think people should get what they want vs. people who don’t think human wants are of paramount importance.

  • Liya

    True. Media pushes what sells.

    However, I don’t think people that want to survive for selfish rather then religious reasons need special recognition. Their rights are not infringed upon. Its like demanding that alongside media fight for “gay rights” there should be also fight for “straight rights”

  • LogicGuru

    I’m not so sure because I am very cynical and suspect that there will be considerable pressure on people whose care is expensive and stressful for relatives, to have themselves put down. Pro-euthanasia, legality aside, is now statistically the dominant view. Moreover there are strong reasons why people would want to have people put down to avoid the stress and expense: it’s us selfish jerks who want to survive who are getting the short end of the stick.

  • phatkhat

    You might change your mind when you get there, you know. Inconceivable as it seems to you now. I know the older I get, the less unthinkable death becomes. I’m still happy to be on the right side of the grass, but if I were like the poor woman I once cared for who had leukemia and her flesh was literally coming off… There ARE worse fates than death.

  • The most telling part of this article is the notice given to the fact that Tada changes the discussion to not imminent death by cancer from terminal illness to disability. There is a huge difference, and it is one that when contemplating death by assisted suicide must be considered. In the states and nations that allow for physician assisted suicide, the patient must pass a variety of mental health and physical exams to determine if they sane enough to make an informed and rational choice and if they are indeed terminal with an illness that will lead to a prolonged and painful end.

    A recent survey of doctors and nurses across this nation found that professionals in the medical field would not submit to practices that would prolong their lives if the actions would not improve their quality of life. Maynard herself has noted that there is nothing that can be done to help her, that she faces incredible pain and debilitation over time, and that while she would rather live, she knows that if she must die, that she would rather do so on her terms and with dignity and respect for life, not begging for death from some stranger.

    Tada has no understanding of the choices this woman is facing because she herself is not terminal. Her handicaps are great, but she has never faced death by the pain of cancer or had to watch her loved ones as they are helpless to assist her and must watch doctors prolong her life in pain. That Ms. Maynard is making such a choice, shows not only a reasoned decision, but one that respects the quality of life she has lived and the quality of life she wants her friends and family to continue to live without her. She is showing great courage at such a young age, and if she believes in a loving God, then He will be there for her when she ends her life.

    Tada assumes to speak for God, but God gave us medications and freewill to either prolong our lives or to end them. He knows our hearts and minds far better than does Ms. Tada, and He understands the difference between dying from a disease caused by man’s own pollution of our world and being disabled and capable of living a long life despite the disability. Perhaps Ms. Tada should trust that God knows what He is doing with Ms. Maynard, and butt her nose out of this discussion.

    Rev. Devon Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    Christmas Valley, OR
    http://www.newworduniversalfellowship.org

  • RetroPam

    If Joni Tada is God’s private voice to every terminally ill patient, then what’s the point in praying?

    I can’t think of anything more appalling, more offensive, than butting into a dying patient’s deathbed, claiming to speak for God when that’s what prayer is supposed to be there for.

  • NelsonRobison

    The situation begs the difference between life prolonging and an end of life decision that is imminent. Ms. Maynard is faced with an imminent life ending disease without any recourse to life prolonging surgery or chemotherapy, while Ms. Erickson-Tada had an injury that changed her life, whether for the better or worse is up for debate.

    When faced with the idea of an extremely painful ending to one’s life, or being able to decide to die with dignity (to be able to comprehend what you’re doing and to choose with a clear mind) this is the crux of the matter. We must remember that dying from a cancer of the brain robs a person of not only dignity but the whole of one’s faculties. While a life altering injury is not cannot be determined to be the same thing as an imminent life ending disease.

    The compassionate and merciful means of helping a person whose life is ending, is to help them end their lives with dignity and to make a clear and conscious choice to end it without the indignity of pain and loss of faculties. We must remember that not all people believe in miracles, not all people believe in a divine intervention, called healing. Which is one reason that most fundamentalists and charismatics believe that no one should be able to choose to end one’s life. Ms. Maynard is among the people who are not believers in miracles and therefore should be able to choose to die with dignity.

  • joeyj1220

    Frank only arrives when it’s a story/discussion on homosexuality. No one thinks about it more and with greater passion than he

  • wjpeace

    This is dreadful. I oppose assisted suicide legislation but “Joni and Friends” religious conservatism plays directly into the hands of Compassion and Choices who cause people with a disability to be religious zealots who want to impose their views on others. The opposition to assisted suicide must be rational, well reasoned and logical. God is not relevant.

  • Thank you, Rev. Noll. You’re so right. Tada’s situation is night-and-day different from Maynard’s. But in Tada’s inhumane judgement, speaking (if she says so herself) for her god, there’s only one way to handle any situation, and by wild coincidence she just so happens to know what that way is and be doing it herself. Aren’t we all lucky she’s willing to share her wisdom with us! In reality, a cancer death is about the worst way possible there is to die. I watched my mother die from it, and her last hours were not heroic or gooey with symbolism and reward. She was in agony and terrified. It was horrific. And that’s what Tada would happily try to force Brittany Maynard to accept.

    I find a death from brain cancer to be the obscenity here, not that Maynard is being allowed the choice of how she handles that death. It’s just chilling and creepy that Tada thinks it’s totes fine to strong-arm and try to shame a total stranger into following this life plan she thinks her god endorses, but doesn’t care even a single bit about the suffering her strong-arming will produce in Maynard’s very real life. The worst evil there is comes from someone who thinks he or she is doing that deed for another person’s own good.

    And I do notice that Tada seems quite happy to avail herself of modern miracles like wheelchairs and whatnot, but draws the line at choosing to die with dignity. The only moral choice is Tada’s moral choice, to borrow the phrase. Thank you for speaking out against this awful, awful person and her one-person crusade to destroy a total stranger’s last days on this planet.

  • Serai 1

    Gods, what a cruel, nasty way to look at one person’s decision to live her life autonomously. Lady, YOU have no right whatsoever to tell this woman what to do with herself. “May be” in pain? Who the hell are you to take that sneering tone? It’s incredibly ironic how condescending some of these activist types can be. They embody exactly the attitudes they complain about coming from others.

  • Serai 1

    To me, she seems to think others are HER property, not God’s. SHE gets to tell them what to do. A just and loving god will probably look at Maynard’s decision and say, “Yeah, I get that. Come on home, honey; it’s okay. We got your room all made up for you.”

  • Serai 1

    I noticed that right away. The false equivalence is staggering. Maynard’s situation has absolutely nothing to do with what Tana advocates about. She’s just using the woman as a convenient talking point, with no compassion whatsoever for someone who is going to be dead – really DEAD, not handicapped – in just a month. A decent person would have the grace to shut up and not spew this condescending garbage. Find some other case to get on your high horse about, lady – preferably one that actually pertains to what you’re on about.

  • Serai 1

    I’m always amazed at these evangelicals and fundies who dare to speak for their god. It would never occur to me to declare that I know what my goddess thinks on any subject, book or no book. It’s just so incredibly arrogant. The Greeks had a word for that – “hubris” – and good reason to make it the greatest sin they knew. The gods tend to frown mightily on anyone with the chutzpah to tell them what they’re thinking.

  • Serai 1

    Are you kidding? Doctors and hospitals have to be bullied and threatened with serious legal action to get them NOT to do everything to keep you alive. You’ve nothing to worry about there – they’re far too terrified of litigation to pull the plug without extreme effort on the part of any family or friends. So remember that if/when you’re dying by inches for months in extreme pain, unable and physically prevented from being set free. I hope it brings you comfort to know that the people who are supposed to be caring for you are subjecting to hideous torture all for the sake of “life”.

  • Serai 1

    The majority? Sounds to me like you’re seeing what you want to see. If someone wants to die, that is absolutely their right – everyone’s life is his own. If you want to hang on by your fingernails, bankrupting your family and ruining their future, have at it. Me, I’ve got my DNR all ready, and have told my family NO EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES. When I go, I go, off the the Summerland, and they don’t have to worry about losing the house and everything they own.

  • Serai 1

    So why do you oppose it? What right have you to tell people how their ends should come?

  • In that they aren’t dissimilar from humans ourselves. One thing I like about pagan worldviews is the way the deities in them tend to be so remarkably human. They can be talked to and persuaded, tricked and cajoled, cherished and argued with–and don’t tend to punish people for feeling a certain way as long as they behave themselves, sorta like the US government doesn’t care if you love or hate it as long as you pay your taxes and don’t commit any crimes. Heck, those gods can even pass for human if they like. Christianity’s god was a lot like that in the earliest writings in the Old Testament (my friend has been blogging these at A Pasta Sea–really neat and mind-blowing stuff). The religion lost something inestimable when it decided to go with an omnimax god. Thank you for reminding me of the great sin of hubris. A pity the Christian god seems to be so quiet lately; I don’t imagine he’d be all that pleased by how humans keep speaking for him.

  • ortcutt

    No, she seems to be quite specific about it. “God who alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end.” Of course, there are a lot of people around the world who think they know exactly what God wants and are willing to carry it out. ISIS is an extreme example, but more mundane examples such as this Joni Tada are ubiquitous. “I don’t think you should decide where life begins or ends” doesn’t have the totalizing effect of “God alone has the right to decide when you life should begin and end.”

  • LogicGuru

    Please understand, I live in a bubble—Academia. I don’t know anyone who thinks there’s anything wrong with same-sex relations or any of the conservative shibboleths—or ever has. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t support the legalization of marijuana. I don’t know anyone who votes Republican—or, at least, admits to it. Most people I know are not religious believers and view religious belief as, at best, peculiar. Etc. And most people I know support voluntary active euthanasia.

    I sometimes forget that I live in a bubble, but in my world a whole range of beliefs that are probably minority views and practices that are socially unacceptable elsewhere are the norm.

  • Time Out

    This countdown of the moments to her death must be agonizing for her family and for Maynard herself. Having it actually scheduled creates such pathos. I feel so sorry for her. My brain tumor will kill me, too, if something else doesn’t get me first. It’s inoperable. It’s inexplicably growing very slowly for now; hopefully I still have some years to go. I have declined radiation because I don’t want to lose myself. But I can see myself asking, if not to die on schedule, maybe asking for a drug-induced coma so I can sleep til then.

  • D. Purves

    It is too bad that Mr. Miller did not give Joni’s full comments, but took them out of context, twisting them to push his own agenda. Joni is a very compassionate person who is reaching out to Brittany, not condemning her. I would encourage your readers to find the full article and comments spoken by Joni and then decide for yourselves who is judging who.

  • NewsChaser

    I am a Christian and I do think Eric makes a interesting point: “If taking medicine to end one’s life is a violation of God’s rights, then taking medicine to extend one’s life must be an equal-and-opposite violation.”

    I feel empathy for Brittany (her family) and others like her. Brittany’s situation is/was terrible and I am sure she was suffering immensely so I can understand why she wanted to do what she did.

  • Kemosahbee

    I never cease to be amazed at this very basic contradiction of believers in God (of which I am one):
    God gave humankind free will and arguably one of our charges is to be as ‘god-like’ as we can be while in this world; then why can’t humankind give humankind free will?
    Somewhat of a rhetorical question for sure…

  • sensible

    I simply can not believe in a God that would prefer to see us suffer immeasurably. It does make any sense and makes God out to be a pretty horrible thing. It’s views like these that are causing God to be removed.

  • Spiritoftruth

    A man recent whom was diagnosed with cancer having had many seizures, by his faith a miracle came the doctors felt he had no hope but behold his cancer vanished, he was a man of faith had done many good things for people prayed daily and others of faith prayed for him also behold it was answered.

    A atheist shall never have a prayer answered nor those praying for them if no faith is present nothing can be done on their behalf it is the law of the universe. Now I am a spirit from Heaven if you believe me or not is irrelevant. I will tell you the soul whom this article is about is now in hades trapped suffering far greater than they would have had to endure if had of let life take it course. Therefore those of ye whom think you can decide death and avoid suffering do not understand the universe you are in, you are the unwise and lack the intelligence to comprehend the meaning discovered by even your renowned scientist Albert Einstein when he said energy can not be created or destroyed. Your body is energy what do you think happens after die the energy conforms to a new form this is known as soul, you can not cease to exist even by your own findings.

  • Spiritoftruth

    difference is she did not, those whom think it ok to end your life if you do it will only see torment worse than here. It is the universal laws not Gods will nothing can be done for them for a time if make that choice. This is why mankind was warned by the prophets even Christ himself.