The Sad Case of Dan James

In a very “teachable moment” I read in 2008 of the assisted-suicide of Dan James who traveled to Switzerland to kill himself after he suffered a spinal-chord injury while playing rugby in the UK, and I decided to make this the topic of my final assignment for the euthanasia unit in my Bioethics class.

After a bit more research, I found an ardent young Catholic woman who was disabled, Ms. Chelsea Zimmerman, and strongly opinionated on the Dan James case and euthanasia in particular. After contacting her, I had my students write their final writing piece to her – and then students recorded their voices reading their essays to make the communication “more personal.”

In the usual fashion, I would have had students write the traditional academic essay with the teacher as audience. But the communication is so much more meaningful when one writes to an “authentic audience” of one’s peers, teacher, and a person herself in a wheel chair, in addition to anyone else who might stumble across it.

Ms. Zimmerman was a bit nonplussed by the fact some students strongly disagreed with her. In the “echo chamber” effect in orthodox Catholic circles where certain rules and principals are agreed upon, Chelsea might not find much contradiction. In the wider-world, one¬†encounters much contradiction. The operative term is “pluralism.” Get used to it.

I loved the authenticity of this assignment. As opposed to the often artificial drill of academic writing, this is prose written with the purpose of PUBLISHING – of writing for a broad audience that will attend to their voice.

And this is something that happens all too rarely in our schools.

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