Thursday, February 03, 2005

My interview with Joni Eareckson Tada: The danger of "Million Dollar Baby"

It concerns me deeply that now we live in a culture which capitalizes on that depression and reinforces to people like myself that "you're better off dead than disabled." That's unfortunate, that's sad, that is evil.--Joni Eareckson Tada

CINDY: An organization called Not Dead Yet has this to say on their website: "Since 1983, many people with disabilities have opposed the assisted suicide and euthanasia movement. Though often described as compassionate, legalized medical killing is really about a deadly double standard for people with severe disabilities, including both conditions that are labeled terminal and those that are not."

Well, nowadays people with disabilities are fighting a battle for their very lives, and it seems assisted suicide and euthanasia are getting some of their best PR from Hollywood movies.

In the movies nominated for Oscars this month, at least three have disturbing elements for people who are pro-life.

And I'm honored today to have as my guest someone who is very qualified to speak to these issues. She is Christian writer and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada. Joni, welcome to the show.

JONI: Well Cindy, thanks for welcoming me, and of course a special good morning to everybody listening there in the Rockford area.

CINDY: Well, I'm so delighted to be able to talk to you, Joni, because I've followed your ministry for so many years, dating back to reading your book and even seeing your movie years ago. It's just an honor and a delight for me to talk with you today.

JONI: Well, thank you also for highlighting some of the comments from the website of "Not Dead Yet." These are a group of disability advocates that serve as watchdogs for many of us in the disability community regarding national issues which threaten the livelihood of people with disabilities like myself, and I'm just grateful that you mentioned them.

CINDY: Well, I was led to their website while doing research for comments about this movie that we're going to talk about later on. I read a really excellent movie review on that site had some great things to say. If people would like to read it, I believe they can go to Not Dead Yet and check that out.

You know, Joni, it seems hard to believe that anyone in the Christian community wouldn't know who you are, but for those who might not...just tell us a little about yourself and your background, and what qualifies you to speak to these issues.

JONI: Cindy, I can hardly believe I'm coming up on 38 years of living life as a quadriplegic. Back in 1967, as a young teenager, I took a reckless dive into some shallow water that crushed my vertebrae and my neck, and that left me floating face down in the water,unable to move, unable to breathe. Thankfully, my sister pulled me up out of the water. They rushed me off to a hospital, where the doctors told me that I would be totally and completely paralyzed from the shoulders down for the rest of my life.

"I begged my friends to aid me in suicide"

I was so depressed, so discouraged...and when I was even brave enough to think about living life sitting in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, without use of my hands, I begged my friends to aid me in suicide. I asked them to bring in their mothers' sleeping pills, their father's razor blades, anything to put me out of my misery. I'm just so glad, Cindy, that there weren't any Jack Kevorkians around 38 years ago when I was in the hospital, because I would have taken advantage back then of the depression and the suicidal despair that I was steeped in.

CINDY: Joni, I get emotional just thinking about what a tragedy that would have been. I know what you suffered in your own life was a tragedy, but when I think about the immense good that you've done for the kingdom in the past 38 years, it just boggles my mind to think that that couldn't have happened if you had decided to go ahead and take your own life.

JONI: I think it underscores, Cindy, that people with severe injuries like mine--It's expected that we need to go through a little depression, my goodness! My problem really wasn't my quadriplegia so much as it was
the clinical depression, and that's what most people with disabilities, when they first get a bad medical report or first are injured, all people with severe injuries go through a time of grief and loss and depression.

Better off dead than disabled?

It concerns me deeply that now we live in a culture which capitalizes on that depression and reinforces to people like myself that "you're better off dead than disabled." That's unfortunate, that's sad, that is evil.

CINDY: I agree totally. And one of the reasons that I wanted to contact you, Joni, is I wanted to get your comments and your insight about a movie that is out right now, that has received huge kudos and acclaim from Hollywood. It's up for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress, and the Golden Globes honored it for various things as well.

Movie "spoiler"

Now, this is going to be a spoiler for people for people who haven't seen "Million Dollar Baby," so let me warn you in advance if you don't want to find out...but the truth is, a lot of people who have seen the movie wish that someone had warned them in advance, and "spoiled" the movie for them so that they would know what they were really getting into.

I've seen the trailer for the movie, and it looks like this inspiring, Rocky-type story about a young woman who becomes a boxer against all odds, and a heartwarming fatherly-daughterly situation between her and her trainer, that sort of thing, And I really thought, "Wow, that looks like a good movie, really inspiring and heartwarming!" It's even been called "Rocky in a sports bra" actually by some people.

But what they don't know is that about two-thirds of the way through the movie it, in essence, becomes a great big commercial for euthanasia, for assisted suicide.

And the rest of the movie deals with the fact of this young woman suffering a terrible blow to the head, and she wants to die. And as I understand it, really the way that it's treated, is very damaging to the prolife community. Why are movies like this so damaging in your eyes, Joni?

"To help a quadriplegic kill herself is not an expression of love"

JONI: Well, they're damaging because we live in a culture that is highly susceptible to these kinds of messages. Our society constantly bombards us with media propaganda and our culture, again, is particularly media-sensitive. We listen, we look to the commercials, we are guided by the movies. And directors and producers in Hollywood, they're not dummies...they make movies to make a political point. In fact, it's happening more now in the last five to ten years than it ever was when I was a kid and saw "The Sound of Music," or "Music Man," or any of those movies that were so popularly entertaining many years ago; no, today, movies are made for a political point.

And what troubles me about the movie you've described, "Million Dollar Baby," starring Clint Eastwood and Hilary Swank, is that it uses this syrupy kind of romanticism to disguise the main premise that, well, that people are better off dead than disabled.

To help a quadriplegic kill herself is not an expression of love, although that is what is underscored in the film; no, to help a quadriplegic kill herself is a demonstration of contempt and fear. And I believe it's dangerous because it reinforces a movie-goer's fundamental fears of disability.

We see this man aid a young injured woman in killing herself, and we think to ourselves, "Well, I wouldn't want to live like that....I wouldn't want to live as a quadriplegic." So, a movie like this influences us and pressures us into believing that a wheelchair is a fate worse than death.

CINDY: Joni, say this movie was not a movie, but it was real, and there was really this young woman, and she really did suffer this terrible blow, and she really did want to die, and you were able to talk to her. What would you have said to her?

JONI: Well, I would tell her that number one, to be depressed is understandable. Sometimes you just want to know that somebody else understand, somebody else empathizes. It's why we've got our ministry at Joni and Friends. We minister to people like this all the time. Most of these people we have a chance to encourage and uplift and inspire, and connect them with good churches.

"Christianity with our sleeves rolled up"

Most of these individuals we have a chance to resource, and provide some financial assistance, or or get them involved in a community service organization that meets the needs of people with disabilities.

But sometimes there are people who don't. This morning... I was writing an e-mail to a woman in Annapolis who is about my age, and she's quadriplegic and she's stuck in a nursing home surrounded by people in their 80's and 90's, and for her it's very depressing. And we are working hard to alert churches in the Annapolis area of this woman's needs.

This is what we need to do as Christians. We need to not only declare the love of Jesus, we need to practice that Christianity with our sleeves rolled up and go visit people such as this young woman.

These are the kind of people who live in the Rockford area....We can make a huge difference in giving hope, encouragement, inspiration, and virtue and courage to face the future. But we've got to do it by being hands of Jesus Christ in the lives of these people.

CINDY: Tell me about Joni and Friends. That's pretty much what your organization is all about, isn't it?

JONI: It is, and you know what, Cindy? In the Chicago area, just east of Chicago, this summer we will hold two fantastic retreats for people affected by disability. This woman in the movie "Million Dollar Baby," somebody like her, that's the kind of people we want to get to our family retreats.

So if you know of somebody in the listening area that you believe is severely disabled and depressed, then please tell them about our family retreat, and work with us in providing some financial assistance to that person to attend our family retreat in the Chicago area. And people can just go on line at and get all the details about what's happening in the greater Chicago area.

CINDY: We will definitely direct people to that site. And Joni, didn't you at one point write a book about euthanasia, is that still available?

JONI: Well, we do have some copies available at our ministry, and people can go online and visit our products page, but unfortunately it's out of print. Euthanasia is not a subject that many people enjoy reading about.

Killing in the name of compassion?

But I just want to say, Cindy, that I am so frustrated that our culture continues to promote the premise that if you love somebody, you're free to kill them, all in the name of compassion.

Our adversary is the devil, and he is a liar, who tries to convince us that our life is not worth living; and he is a murderer, in that he promotes euthanasia. (In fact, we are combatting right now a physician-assisted suicide bill, that is going before our California assembly this spring; we're working in opposition against it.) And he is a deceiver, in that he tries to change the meaning of the word "compassion" to mean three grams of phenobarbitol in the veins. And I believe that the devil is trying to deceive people with this movie, "Million Dollar Baby."

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