When is it Right to Die?

Suicide, Euthanasia, Suffering, Mercy

Joni Eareckson Tada

Since a diving accident 25 years ago, Joni Eareckson Tada has lived as a quadriplegic. Sometimes her depression seemed as paralyzing as her spinal cord injury. When is it Right to Die? not only draws on her own experience with disability and despair but also looks at the lives of others in pain.

Her book, which focuses on euthanasia and suicide, has a clear faith base but doesn’t offer pat answers. She knows the issues are complex:

“What is extraordinary care for some folks is ordinary care for others…treatment that significantly sustains life in a beneficial way is ordinary. Treatment that merely postpones or prolongs the act of dying could be considered extraordinary. When I look at my debilitated friends who are on respirators, dialysis machines, or iron lungs, it’s clear such assistive devices are very ordinary treatment.

“But a respirator, or a dialysis machine, or even extensive surgery could easily be considered extraordinary or burdensome treatment on others. Assistive devices in some cases could be uncomfortable, costly, and result in no significant life benefits.

“Radical amputation may be considered ordinary procedure on a seventeen-year-old diabetic girl, but on a ninety-year-old man struggling with diabetes it may be futile and burdensome.

“Helpful information is not enough. No one comes out of despair alive without a caring friend on the other side…answers most often come in the form of people rather than sentences…You cannot, you must not suffer alone. It matters to the point of life and death.”

We need to have the kind of love “that has its sleeves rolled up.” After Tada’s accident one high school friend gave up a semester of college to stick by her bedside. The mother of another classmate dropped in each week with home baking; a young boy came regularly with a guitar. “I found their company much more satisfying than any escape hatch.

“People connected with me from one healing moment to the next until I had finally surfaced out of my suicidal despair. I look back into the fog of that funereal depression and realized that I hadn’t found answers so much as I had found friends.”

Tada argues that death is not a private decision; it affects a wider circle than even one’s loved ones:

“Your gutsy choice to face suffering head-on forces others around you to sit up and take note. It’s called strengthening the character of a helping society. When people observe perseverance, endurance and courage, their moral fibre is reinforced. Conversely, your choice to bow out of life can and does weaken the moral resolve of that same society.”

Tada uses former American Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop’s definition of dying: “Dying begins when a person rapidly and irreversibly deteriorates, a person for whom death is imminent, a person who is beyond reasonable hope of recovery.”

The International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force says that true imminent death spans a period of days, perhaps hours. (However courts now talk of months!) This would be the time to remove the intravenous solution and avoid heroic measures but one would still give water to mouth and moisten lips.

Motive is all important. Pain killers with the intent to kill the pain are fair; pain killers to kill the patient are not.

Tada encourages a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care rather than a living will. “Do you want to be represented by a piece of paper or a person? When you sign a living will, you give up rights and control to any doctor who happens to be on the scene to decipher it…I want a person to speak for me. A person, unlike a living will is flexible and can be responsive to the circumstances…Neither living wills nor designated health proxies are perfect answers to the dilemma of dying but of the two, the power of attorney holds sway.”

Tada may not have much grasp in her hands these days but her grasp of scripture is stunning. She holds on to it and God holds on to her. His words comfort and encourage her in the grimmest of circumstances. They ring true when spoken by one who has been challenged to keep on living yet who knows there will be a time to die.

As Everett Koop, says in his afterward, “There is a difference between helping a person live all the life he is entitled to and prolonging the act of dying.” When is it Right to Die? will help clarify that distinction.