Human Dignity

A champion for the rights of the disabled— An interview with Mark Pickup

Mark Pickup, incurably ill and disabled with chronic, progressive multiple sclerosis, has become a voice against euthanasia, physician assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research.

To us at Celebrate Life and American Life League, he is an inspiration— one of those gems in the movement who is so selfless and only concerned with helping in the building of the Culture of Life. We want you to have an opportunity to know more about this brave man who is the very face of those he defends.

Can you give us some background about your struggle with Multiple Sclerosis?

Until 30 years of age, I was healthy, able-bodied, active and athletic. In 1984, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I had the relapsing-remitting kind of MS; it was like a wild, savage roller coaster. My vision was affected and threatened; I have lost my ability to speak on a number of occasions; I have gone incontinent and dirtied myself; I have lost the use of my right arm and hand; I’ve lost sensation, and have crippling fatigue. Most frightening of all, I’ve had cerebral symptoms where my memory and ability to think becomes clouded.

Happily, many of those symptoms abated. With the passage of time, however, I have become progressively less mobile. I spend most of my days in an electric scooter now, and I’m slowly losing the use of the right side of my body. During severe MS attacks, I have been confined to bed. I know there is a good chance I will eventually be bedridden.

At about the two-three year point with MS, my grief was so profound and unimaginable, my sorrow so deep, my heartache so sharp, that my judgment was clouded. Fortunately, I had a family that loved me and lifted me up as somebody of value, even when I doubted my value. My disability has taught me that God is a God of love. He is love and He wants us to be reflectors of His love. He wants to forgive and purify us. He wants everybody to be included within the embrace of the human family.

How did you get involved in the fight against euthanasia?

I was taught by the good example of my parents. The epitaph on my father’s tombstone reads, “He served God and man.”  Those five words sum up his short life of 52 years. My mother worked for 60 years for the Red Cross.

In 1992, a woman named Sue Rodriguez championed the right to assisted suicide all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court. She had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). I remember her sitting in her wheelchair on the steps of the Supreme Court building saying that what she was fighting for was something people with disabilities wanted. Disabled myself, I took offense to this. I did not want assisted suicide nor did anybody I knew with a disability want it.  In protest, I wrote an 18-page position letter that gained me an invitation to appear before a Senate committee in Ottawa studying euthanasia.  In November 1994, I appeared before the committee and spoke of interdependent community. I told the senators that assisted suicide never affects just one person:  It affects everyone around me because acceptance of assisted suicide or euthanasia requires believing the notion there is such a thing as a life unworthy of life.

If there is equality of human life, then all life is worthy of life; all human life must be included in the human community. Humanity stands tallest when it bends down to lift its weakest. There’s something refining and noble in that. God’s image in us comes into clearer focus.

You’ve lectured all over North America.  What are some of the most memorable reactions (good or bad) you’ve received from your audiences?

With Catholic and Protestant evangelical Christians and pro-life groups, the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. With liberal Protestants there is more hostility. This shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, liberal Christianity is often merely secularism expressed with theological terms.

My most hostile audience was in Vancouver, Canada, where I was part of a debate on assisted suicide at the University of British Columbia. The AIDS lobby pushes for legalized assisted suicide and I have found them less than tolerant of other views. Part of the other side was an active member of the local AIDS lobby and homosexual community. Before the debate he actually threatened me! The audience was stacked with homosexual activists, and television cameras were there. Needless to say, the debate was quite raucous. Unfortunately for them, our side won the debate and it was televised across the city. After the event, while we were mingling with the audience, the air was thick with tension. Somebody said to me, “I’d rather be dead than be like you!” Someone else told me, “If this was a different time, we’d leave you at the side of the road.”

What do you say to people who argue in favor of embryonic stem cell research?

For years, I have lived with the fear that my next address may be a nursing home. I have been haunted and taunted by the thought that I may become one of those sad lumps of humanity propped up in a wheelchair, staring out nursing home windows hoping for a visitor. But even in light of those fears, I cannot support embryonic stem cell research. I’d have to look the other way from the reality that my deliverance was gained at the expense of another life. If my life were extended one day at the expense of one other human’s life, it would be an evil beyond measure.

If you could speak personally with Michael J. Fox or Christopher Reeve, what would you say to them? 

I would tell them to read more than the popular press. Other sources of stem cells are just as promising, without destroying human life. Embryonic stem cell therapies will preclude many sick people from benefiting because of ethical objections. Why not promote other stem cell sources so everyone can benefit?

When and why did you start Human Life Matters ministry? What kinds of things does this ministry do?

I founded the ministry last year in response to church ineptitude with disability inclusion. Everywhere I’ve gone, I encounter people hurt by disabilities who are either disenfranchised from their church, or worse, their faith. Quite simply, many churches do not deal well with disability or those impacted by it. The disabled are disproportionately under-represented in most churches. They stay away in droves. (I can only comment about the evangelical community. Perhaps it’s better with Catholic churches.) The Church holds the truth and hope of Jesus Christ. We should be a magnet for people who often feel hopeless.

The objective of HLM is to facilitate, promote and assist churches to develop effective disability ministries that affirm the value and dignity of human life, and be a witness and model to the larger community. We offer a church-needs survey to identify current and future needs for outreach focus to the community. Churches may choose to become involved with one family or as large as serving an entire disability group. Perhaps a church may choose to develop a respite care service to give exhausted families of a disabled member a needed break. Perhaps it is as simple as providing transportation to church, grocery shopping, church services or weekly Bible study.

We have developed a comprehensive church accessibility audit process to make facilities more “user friendly.”  It is one of the best audits I have seen. We are developing training about disability awareness, disability specific needs, etc. I am currently in the process of developing a workshop/seminar module to address grieving the loss of body function, body image and redefining self-image, for people with degenerative conditions.

How did you come up with the idea for the video you produced (“To Be or Not to Be”)? 

My disease is degenerative. My ability to travel to speak against euthanasia consciousness is getting progressively harder. So I committed my message to video in anticipation for the time I can no longer travel. I made sure it was broadcast quality by using a Toronto Christian television production company to meet the standards of television networks like EWTN, Trinity and community cable companies.

What can people do in their local communities—and on a larger level—to fight these evils?

First, pray.  Only God can stem the tide of evil. Stand firm in church teaching about the dignity of all human life. Second, educate others about the marvelous nature and stunning reality of prenatal life. Learn about current palliative care techniques that, among other things, can eliminate virtually all pain. Encourage improved hospice care in your communities. Encourage your churches to expand outreach ministries to the disabled to include them in church life. Let those running for public office know that you expect them to stand up for full protection of human life from conception to natural death. Actively support those candidates who are unequivocally pro-life and actively work to defeat those who are not, or waver.

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About the author

Kristin Giganti

Kristin Giganti is a free-lance writer from Alexandria, Va.