First Things 7 November 2014
Those of us who have never experienced severe physical disability have no clue about the depth of suffering it can cause. But NPR’s megastar talk show host Dianne Rehm does, up close and personal. Her husband John had severe and progressive Parkinson’s disease, leading him to suicidal despair. John asked his doctor for assisted suicide. Told that was not possible, he starved himself to death—a process that euthanasia activists call “voluntary stop eating and drinking,” or VSED.
Rehm has responded by promoting the legalization of doctor-prescribed death. A recent profile of her by NBC focused solely on the pro assisted suicide side, giving no voice to those who warn against legalization. In the story’s telling, John’s suicide was necessary. The only question should be how best to get it done.
It is a profound disservice to the gravity of this issue that the media give scandalously short shrift to the many stories of people who find meaning and hope in life even as they grapple with the anguish of profound disabilities. But the stories are not hard to find—if only journalists were as interested in promoting hope as they are assisted suicide.
Take my friend Mark Pickup—a disability rights and pro-life activist. Like most in the disability rights community—both secular and religious—Mark is adamantly anti-assisted suicide, seeing it accurately as a lethal threat “to people like me.”
Mark’s illness hit him suddenly when he was thirty, in the midst of a successful career with the Canadian government. Suddenly, he found himself on what he calls a “roller coaster ride of grief. “ He told me, “One day, I could see, the next I couldn’t. One day, I woke up able to speak, and ended the day only able to froth at the mouth.”
Even worse, he felt like a burden, responsible for his wife’s anguish and that of his two young children. That led to a sense of hopelessness, Mark says, and real thoughts of suicide. But he got through it, with the support of his family and, as he describes it, “the love of God.” Today, at age sixty-one—more than half his life lived in the valley of the shadow of severe disability—Mark is a triplegic, with only his left arm unimpaired, requiring a wheelchair for mobility, often in pain from severe muscle contractions. He has lost his artistic ability, his musical talent, his capacity to care for himself independently.
It might surprise the media to learn, but Mark is happy. He writes the Human Life Matters blog and a regular column for the Western Catholic Reporter, where he focuses primarily on how his suffering—and that of his family—has been mediated by the love of Christ. From a recent column:
The bridge across my river of grief was the cross. Christ was not merely waiting on the other side of the river: He has been with me throughout every leg of my disability journey. He continues to help me redefine and redevelop my life; Christ is helping me understand where, how and why I fit into the world with my new and evolving realities.
“Think of what I would have missed if I had killed myself,” he says, “which I might have done if assisted suicide had been legal; watching my children grow up, the birth of my grandchildren, my increasing faith, the work the Lord has given me to do.”
Similarly, my late friend Robert Salamanca, who I met as a hospice volunteer. Bob wanted to commit suicide after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. This was when Jack Kevorkian was—to much media acclaim—helping people with disabilities and terminal conditions kill themselves. Bob wanted to fly to Michigan to die, but his family disagreed.
Eventually, as he described it to me, “I came out of the fog,” so happy to be alive. Bob spent his final years watching his children grow, investing successfully online to help his family financially, and collecting art. Before he died peacefully in his sleep, Bob wrote an op/ed column for the February 19, 1997 San Francisco Chronicle titled “I Don’t Want a Choice to Die”:
In my view, the pro-euthanasia followers’ posture is a great threat to the foundation upon which all life is based, and that is hope. I exhort everyone: Life is worth living, and life is worth receiving. I know. I live it every day.
By focusing so intensely on promoting suicide among those suffering from illness and disability—while mostly ignoring powerful and uplifting stories of people who manage to thrive in the midst of great pain—the media does society and the suffering a terrible disservice. As Salamanca wrote, “Reporting in the media too often makes us feel like token presences, burdens who are better off dead.”