By Joni Eareckson Tada
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. ~JOHN DONNE
For the moment, forget everything you’ve ever heard about right-to-die or right-to-life positions. Put aside the court rulings. Push out of your mind the tug-at-your-heart stories you’ve seen in the movies or read about online.
Now, with no one reading your thoughts, may I ask, “Do you know when it is right to die? For you? For your family?” Please, I realize this may not be a theoretical question for you. You may be one who could write a real-life tug-at-your-heart story. And you may have already made up your mind about how and when you want to die. Whatever your response, I want you to know that your decision matters.
It matters more than you realize.
Let me explain. Since at one time I served on a national council that drafted major civil rights legislation, my husband, Ken, then a high school government teacher, asked me to speak to his classes on the subject of legalizing euthanasia. This was well before California had legalized medically assisted death, but plenty of initiatives were testing the waters. Ken wanted me to talk to his students about the implications of a right-to-die law. The classroom was crowded with kids standing along the back and leaning against the chalkboards covering the walls.
I was surprised by how interested they were as I divulged my despair of earlier days. I admitted my relief that no right-to-die law existed when I was in the hospital and hooked up to machines. I then underscored how critical it was for every student to become informed and involved in shaping society’s response to the problem. Then I added, “What role do you think society should play in helping people decide when it is right to die?”
A few hands went up. I could tell by their answers that they felt society should take action to help hurting and dying people—some students insisting on life no matter how burdensome the treatment, and a few wanting to help by hurrying along the death process.
One student shared how his mother was getting demoralized by the burden of taking care of his sister with developmental delays. He felt society should, in his words, “do something.”
“Like what?” I playfully challenged.
“Like . . . I’m not sure, but society ought to get more involved in the lives of people like my mother.”
I glanced at Ken. He nodded, as if to give the go-ahead to take a free rein with this young man. “May I ask what you have done to get more involved?”
The student smiled and shrugged.
“How have you helped alleviate the burden? Have you taken your sister on an outing lately? Maybe to the beach?” I teased. “Have you offered to do some shopping for your mother? Maybe your mom wouldn’t be so demoralized, maybe she wouldn’t feel so stressed or burdened, if you rolled up your sleeves a little higher to help.”
A couple of his friends by the chalkboard laughed and threw wads of paper at him. “Okay, okay, I see your point,” he chuckled.
I smiled. “My point is this: Society is not a bunch of people way out there who sit around big tables and think up political trends or cultural drifts; society is you. Your actions, your decisions, matter. What you do or don’t do has a ripple effect on everyone around you. And on a smaller scale, your participation can even make a huge difference in what your family decides to do with your sister.”
The classroom fell silent, and I knew the lesson was being driven home. I paused, scanned the face of each student, and closed by saying, “You, my friends, are society.”
Your Point of View Matters
And that’s how much your point of view matters. You may be the one who fiercely advocates pulling the plug, or the one who fights to keep a heart pumping until the bitter end. Whichever it is, you must, in the words of John Donne, know this: no man is an island.
We are such private people. We would like to be able to make a life or death decision in a vacuum or even at an arm’s-length distance from others. But we can’t. Your point of view and how you act on it, let’s say as you lie in bed with a terminal illness, not only matters to you and your family; it matters to a wide network of friends and associates as well. In other words, to society. The cultural drift is channeled by your decision to either pull the plug or hold on to life.
In fact, will you permit me to get personal? If you can, dismiss your real-life circumstances for a moment. Let’s pretend you are in bed with a terminal illness, and doctors say you could live for another six months. Your pain can be effectively managed. And you have an opportunity to make a choice about medical treatment. You can decline treatment if you want—and you even live in a state whose laws permit you to request a medically assisted death. Your family says it’s up to you. I know it’s hard to pretend such an antiseptic situation, devoid of real grief and actual anguish, because distress would play a key role. But given this sterile scenario, what would you do? What would you say?
Are you one who might say, “It’s none of your business. I’ll control how and when I die, and what’s more, I feel no responsibility to society. I’m only responsible to myself and to those I love.”
I hear what you’re saying. But when people maintain that their death is their own business and the business of “those I love,” they do not consider the significance of their decision on the wider circle of life. A decision to cut life short, even if only a few months, does not stop with “those I love,” but affects a whole network of relationships: friends, former colleagues, teachers, distant family members, casual acquaintances, and even nurses and doctors who occasionally stop by your bedside.
Just what effect might your decision have? Your gutsy choice to face suffering head-on forces others around you to sit up and take notice. It’s called strengthening the character of a helping society. When people observe perseverance, endurance, and courage, their moral fiber is reinforced. Conversely, your choice to bow out of life can and does weaken the moral resolve of that same society.
Years after my hospitalization, my mother continued to receive letters from nurses, cafeteria workers, and a family whose daughter had suffered a severe brain injury and had been hooked up to machines two beds away from me in the intensive care unit. My parents made gutsy choices that involved facing suffering head-on. And the decisions they made regarding my care had a lasting impact on these people. And who knows what ripple effects have come from the choices they have made in the years since?
If you believe your decision is private and independent, think again. Your choice to speed up the dying process is like playing a delicate game of pick-up sticks. You carefully lift a stick, hoping not to disturb the intricate web. But just when you think you’ve succeeded, your independent action ends up jiggling the fragile balance and sending other sticks rolling.
And as the apostle Paul writes in Romans 14:7, “None of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.”
You Have Your Rights . . . Sort Of
“But I have a right to decide what’s best for me,” you may say. “I’m entitled to exercise my independence. It’s fundamental to what this country is all about. Even the courts recognize my autonomy as a patient.”
True, because you are a mentally competent person, the judge would probably bang the gavel in your favor. Like you said, you have rights, and you may end up literally dying for them.
But like all other liberties, your choice is not absolute—no ifs, ands, or buts. Your self-determination to die has strings attached if it adversely affects the rights of others. That’s why more than half the states in our country have laws against aiding a person in suicide. Even states that have legalized physician-assisted suicide still have laws against just anyone assisting. And also, these laws insist—though not always followed in practice—that the patient be in the final six months of a terminal illness and be able to make the final action that brings about their death. Why all the legal safeguards? Think it through: if everybody ended their life as a solution to problems, the very fabric of our society would ultimately unravel, and with it all the other individual rights we enjoy.
Yes, you have a glistening right of privacy, as long as it does not overshadow the rights of others. But legalized euthanasia can seriously infringe on the rights of many physicians. You might want to exercise a right to die, but do you have the right to ask a physician, whose duty is to heal, to comply with your wishes or even to make a referral? No person, in the name of self-determination, should be able to oblige a doctor to prescribe a fatal dose when it goes against the physician’s oath to “do no harm.” Yet already we have seen lawsuits against doctors who refuse to assist in hastening a patient’s death. Or again, in death with dignity acts, there is no requirement that next of kin be notified before a person follows through on his or her plan to hasten death. Shouldn’t parents, a spouse, or children have the right to know before their loved one is beyond their reach?
But wait, it sounds a little like we’re trading baseball cards here.
Like, “My rights are more valuable than yours!”
“Oh, yeah? Well, my one right is worth more than your three combined!”
Our rights are not things that can be exchanged, bargained over, or transferred like property. Essentially, rights are moral claims to be recognized by law, not things to be traded. And moral claims have to take into account responsibility, limits on freedom, and ethical standards that reflect the good of the entire community.
When we clamor about the sanctity of our individual rights, we may be reinforcing an all-too-human failing, namely, the tendency to place ourselves at the center of the moral universe. If taken to the extreme, clamor over individual rights can lead to one indignation after another about the inherent limitations of society, and we will never be satisfied.
The fact is, true rights are based in God’s moral law. Proverbs 31:8–9 reads, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” But take God out of the picture, and rights become nothing more than people’s willful determinations dressed up in the language of “rights” to give them a showy kind of dignity. Then the exercise of rights becomes nothing more than a national competition between who is more victimized than whom.
As I shared in my husband’s government class, “You, my friend, are society.” So welcome to the club of community, and even though some may try to drown out other styles of discourse with shouts about personal rights, the community may have a thing or two to say, and it may say it a lot louder. After all, community can only progress when its individuals exercise higher moral choices, and community is sacrificed when individuals choose with only themselves in mind.
Taken from When Is It Right To Die? A Comforting and Surprising Look at Death and Dying by Joni Eareckson Tada. Click to learn more about this title.
More and more people who are terminally ill are choosing assisted suicide. When is it Right to Die? offers a different path with alternatives of hope, compassion, and death with real dignity. Joni Eareckson Tada knows what it means to wrestle with this issue and to wish for a painless solution. For the last 50 years she has been confined to a wheelchair and struggled against her own paralysis. And she sat by the bedside of her dying father, thinking, So much suffering, why not end it all quickly, painlessly?
The terminally ill, the elderly, the disabled, the depressed and suicidal, can all be swept up into this movement of self-deliverance. Skip the suffering. Put a quick end to merciless pain and mental anguish. These are tempting enticements to the hurting. Joni doesn’t give pat answers. Instead, she gives warm comfort from God and practical help to meet the realities for those facing death.
When Is It Right to Die tells the stories of families who have wrestled with end-of-life questions. Behind every right-to-die situation is a family. A family like yours. In her warm, personal way, Joni takes the reader into the lives of families and lets them speak about assisted suicide. What they say is surprising.
Whether you have a dying family member, facing moral and medical choices, or struggling with a chronic condition that feels overwhelming, this book will help you find practical encouragement and biblical advice to help you make difficult decisions.
Joni Eareckson Tada knows the struggle of dealing with daily pain and suffering since a diving accident in 1967 left her paralyzed from the neck down. She is the CEO of Joni and Friends, an organization that accelerates Christian outreach in the disability community, provides practical support and spiritual help to special-needs families worldwide, and equips thousands of churches in developing disability ministry. Joni is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Joni (her autobiography), When God Weeps, Diamonds in the Dust, and A Spectacle of Glory. Joni and her husband, Ken, have been married for 35 years. For more information on Joni and Friends, visit www.joniandfriends.org.