Joni Eareckson Tada is one of the most well-known disability rights advocates in the world today. Through her organization, Joni and Friends, she has impacted the lives of thousands of people around the world by helping provide wheelchairs to those in need besides doing so many other things.
As an individual with a disability myself, her story has been an inspiration to me, and I have also been particularly struck by her strong pro-life testimony. As I was writing a few weeks ago about the sickeningly high abortion rates facing children that are prenatally diagnosed with disabilities, I thought it would be interesting to reach out to Joni’s organization to see what her thoughts were on this tragic and lethal situation.
Her organization responded, and Joni has previously written quite a bit on this topic, so please enjoy the below interview largely compiled from her previous writings, including “How to be a Christian in a Brave New World,” copyright 2006, Zondervan.
Thank you Joni Eareckson Tada for coming on Entering the Public Square!
ZS: First of all, how did you originally become interested in the pro-life cause? Was it just a natural outcropping of your Christian faith that grew organically, or was there a particular moment that really opened your eyes to this movement?
JET: For me, it happened after the diving accident that left me permanently paralyzed and drowning in despair, after a cancerous tumor ate away my five-year-old niece’s brain; and after a series of strokes tangled my ninety-year-old father in a web of tubes and machines. Somewhere in those family tragedies, my thinking shifted. I had to find honest-to-goodness reason why quadriplegics like me shouldn’t kill themselves . . . why we shouldn’t “mercifully” cut short my niece’s suffering.
ZS: As a Christian, your worldview naturally influences the positions you take on different policy issues. Are there specific parts of your Christian faith that particularly reinforce your pro-life position such as specific Bible verses or accounts?
JET: Psalm 127 says, “Children are a gift from the Lord”—and that includes ALL children … disabled, unborn, ill, boy or girl. My heart breaks when I see the escalating statistics of not only abortion statistics of unborn children with disabilities, but also the desperate situation of infants with disabilities who quietly disappear under the shadow of infanticide.
ZS: While conducting my own research, I have found many journal articles that document prenatally diagnosed children with disabilities being aborted at sickeningly high rates. Please comment if you could about what this says about society’s attitude towards individuals with disabilities. Why do you think society feels this way?
JET: Our society has a fundamental fear of disability, and we are letting that fear drive everything from laws and policies to the quiet hints in ob-gyn offices that an unborn child is “better off dead than disabled.” Our fixation on perfection is eating away at the human soul.
ZS: Do you see any contradiction between a society that claims to values diversity and equality but then aborts children who would bring diversity into its own homes?
JET: If people walking around can be discriminated against, then believe me, people like me in wheelchairs can be also. And if people with disabilities suffer from discrimination, then Lord help the tiny person in the woman’s womb! But our society doesn’t ascribe an embryo with the mantle of personhood. Life, even that small, is owed all the legal and moral protection that any human life enjoys. Life for a person that tiny – especially that tiny – must be protected against discrimination.
ZS: In light of the situation we find ourselves in, how do we not only support individuals with disabilities in their own lives but also support families who might be thinking about abortion because of a prenatal diagnosis? In short, how do we try to make this better?
JET: Children are our future, yet so many children with disabilities are being robbed of a future because of the staggering rates of abortion in our country and infanticide overseas. We live in a society that does not uphold God’s view of life — and as Christians, we need to be a voice for the voiceless, and “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8). Believers need to become equipped to be advocates for life.
ZS: Finally, as a person with a disability, what is one thing that society needs to understand about your life that would perhaps help them develop a better perspective on the lives of individuals with disabilities?
JET: I wish people would see that a disability can provide the passport into a richer life and deeper happiness that many would ever dream. True, a disability is hard, but it can also powerfully unite a family. It can refine a family’s character and set of values. It can force one to see the joy in simple achievements and pleasures. A disability can foster faith, a deeper prayer life, and a respect for God and his Word. Most of all, it can force us into the arms of the Lord of grace: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9)
Photo used with permission from A. Larry Ross Communications.