Joni Eareckson Tada is easily one of the most admired figures in the Christian community.
For the past several decades, the 66-year-old has inspired and encouraged millions of people through her books, films, radio show, paintings, and singing. Her charity, Joni and Friends, has provided hope and aid to disabled people and their families around the world.
Tada has also served on the National Council on Disability and the Disability Advisory Committee to the U.S. State Department, and helped guide evangelism strategies among people with disabilities worldwide as Senior Associate for Disability Concerns for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.
Tada's passion for society's most vulnerable stems from her own experience with suffering. At just 17 years old, the evangelical author, speaker and radio host was paralyzed from the neck down after a freak diving accident in the Chesapeake Bay. Then, in 2015, she overcame a battle with stage III breast cancer after undergoing several years of treatment.
Despite living with chronic pain, Tada maintains a cheerful, engaging personality that calls to mind Romans 5:3-5: "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."
In an exclusive interview with The Gospel Herald, Tada opened up about her deep concern regarding today's "culture of death," her passion for caring for the world's weakest members, and why she believes the church must be at the forefront of protecting life from conception to natural death.
GH: One of the issues you often talk about is physician-assisted suicide. Why are you so passionate about this issue?
JT: Someone once said that 'The health of a civilization depends on how its society treats the elderly, the newborn, the unborn, people with disabilities, the poor, and those who are homeless.' What concerns me is that there is a culture of death that is sweeping this country, and it is turning our society into a people that are fearful of suffering, fearful of pain, and fearful of disability. Those fears are now beginning to create social policy. Five states in the U.S. have legalized assisted suicide, and this means that people with terminal conditions - and even that definition is up for grabs - and handicapping conditions can now 'qualify' for assisted suicide. This is not a healthy society. This is not a healthy culture. When we have a culture of death, it undermines the rights of the weak and infirmed and elderly, and that's what concerns me.
GH: One of the arguments many people raise when advocating for assisted suicide is that it's our moral duty allow terminally ill people to avoid excruciating pain by embracing a timely and dignified death when they want to. What would you say to these people?
JT: I'd say they should. I'd say there is a time for all people to die, and certainly, there are good laws on the books in the United States which provide people the opportunity to die with dignity. There's the Patient's Right of Autonomy Act; you don't have to be put on machines if you don't want to, you don't have to be put on life support if you don't want to. We can deny medical care if we feel that it might be detrimental to our health or if it might prolong our process of dying. People can die with dignity. They can die in a natural capacity without being pushed to that final exit by a lethal injection. We already have good laws on the books which provide people the opportunity to die with dignity. We don't need more laws that assist them in that regard even further with a strong push to the final exit.
GH: I worked for hospice for several years, and oftentimes, patients would be in such excruciating pain at the end of their lives that nurses would have to give them medicine to completely sedate them until they passed away. Where does one draw the line? How can patients live in a dignified way even while they are non-responsive?
JT: First, instead of pouring all of our financial resources in helping people die through physician-assisted suicide, let's pour those resources into developing better pain-management therapies. You do not have to live in intractable pain. The problem is, there are so few doctors who understand good pain management, and there are good therapies which are now still in the research stage. We need to pour more resources into helping people die with dignity and into better palliative care and better pain management.
Second, when people are nonresponsive, I think that's an opportunity for family members to come around and support them through those final days. The critical issue is finding the difference between treatment that will sustain the life that one richly deserves as opposed to treatment that does nothing more than prolong the process of dying. No one should have to have the process of their dying prolonged with needless treatment. That's the challenge, and I think that's a good challenge for people in hospice medicine - to help families ascertain that clear distinction between treatment that will help life, and treatment that does nothing more than prolong the painful process of dying. We don't want that. That takes wisdom. That's why I encourage so many Christians to go into hospice care and palliative care, and also into pain management specialities. We need people who have a true handle on the wisdom of God to help families understand the difference between living and dying.
GH: You wrote a very compelling letter to Brittany Maynard before she chose to end her life by physician-assisted suicide. What words of hope and encouragement would you offer to those in a similar situation?
JT: I think it's important to grieve the loss of your life. I have battled stage 3 cancer and I'm a quadriplegic; I deal daily with chronic pain. There have been many times where I don't feel like life is worth living. But we must remember that no man dies to himself alone, and no man lives to himself alone. All of our decisions impact other people. Sadly, Brittany Maynard's decision to end her life prematurely has impacted people not only in the medical field, but obviously, it has impacted families and individuals all across the United States who now feel that death is a better option to living. When we're in pain, and even when we are dying, there can be ways to pull people together to have good support, to keep oneself out of social isolation. Those last days of one's life can be rich and rewarding times with friends and family members.
I'm all for not prolonging the process of dying, but I believe that Brittany Maynard, not having known Christ as her Savior, missed out on an opportunity for her to perhaps be open to the Gospel of Jesus. I think that people's fundamental fears of pain and suffering and death should not be the basis for social policy. That's what Brittany did; her life situation was such that suddenly, it aroused everybody's fears about, 'Well, what if I get brain cancer? What will I do?'
Immediately, we think that the answer is the option of death. But no, life, even if that life can only be extended one, two, three, days, two weeks, a month, many rich and wonderful things can happen in that time. Especially for people to hear about the good news of Jesus.
GH: How has the church responded to your work and to the plight of the disabled in general?
JT: We've got a long way to go. I think the church is still very strongly advocating a pro-life stance, and so they should. But sometimes, we Christians tend to think that pro-life issues mainly surround a woman's uterus, what happens inside her womb. But to be pro-life is to care not only about what happens to that unborn baby yet in his mother's womb; pro-life perspectives extend to helping that child once that child is born with a disability. So many infants are born with seriously handicapping conditions, and their mothers and fathers take these little children home with these conditions, and suddenly their lives change and they become socially isolated, financially strapped, their patience runs out, they become angry, they're not connected with the mainstream of life.
This is an opportunity to show what a pro-life perspective really means, when we reach out and embrace these mothers, fathers and children with special needs. They should not have to suffer alone. God never intended for us to suffer alone. That's why He created the spiritual community, the Church. The Church needs to extend that pro-life perspective and care not only what happens to that baby in the womb, but what happens once he's born, and once he grows older, and once he becomes an adult - embracing those people with disabilities and their families and the church is a true pro-life stance.
GH: What's next for you?
JT: Lots of things are next - I'm so excited that our ministry at Joni and Friends is working with thousands of churches all across the United States to develop outreaches to people with disabilities and their families. We do this through holding family retreats; this year, we're holding 28 all across the United States and 17 retreats for people with special needs and their families in developing nations. We're taking wheelchairs, over 100,000 of them, to needy and disabled people around the world, fitting children with children with disabilities to pediatric wheelchairs. We're also giving the Bible, giving the Gospel, teaching churches about starting disability ministry in their local congregations. We're helping pastors see, in a developing countries, that cerebral palsy is not a curse from a local witch doctor; that this child is made in the image of God. We're doing exciting work. Also, our internship program; I'm so excited to put out a call to any young students who are thinking of careers in occupational or physical therapy, or hospice, or special education - come and serve with us as an intern and learn about the world of disability. It's an exciting opportunity to practice Christianity with its sleeves rolled up.