In a recent segment on his 700 Club television show, religious showman and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson suggested that it would be acceptable for a person to divorce his or her spouse who has Alzheimer’s because the disease is “a kind of death”. When asked by his co-host about wedding vows that include a promise to continue through sickness and health, “til death do us part,” Robertson suggested that since Alzheimer’s is a “kind of death” it’s an acceptable circumstance for people to divorce (this so long as “she [sic] has custodial care and somebody looking after her [sic]”).
Robertson is well know for his off the wall comments blaming natural disasters on “sinful” segments of society and his conservative political views. This latest statement is completely off the wall, even by Robertson’s standards. There are several questions I’d like to ask Robertson about this. First, since Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, does this standard equally apply to dementia as a whole? What about other mental disorders such as bipolar disorder or multiple personalities disorder? Severe depression can have an immense effect on an individual’s personality. Just where would Robertson draw the line for mental illnesses for justifying divorce?
Robertson calls this a “kind of death,” but this is a subjective analysis. Anyone who has dealt with Alzheimer’s in his or her family can attest to the fact that Alzheimer’s is indeed “a kind of death.” It’s slowly watching that person go away while you can do nothing about it. But what about a terminal illness where a person is only given 6 or 12 months to live? While a shorter term than Alzheimer’s often is, it’s no less a “kind of death”. Why couldn’t the spouse of a person with any terminal illness not leave while providing “custodial care and somebody looking after” their ill spouse?
I’m reminded of the Terri Schiavo case a few years ago. That would be a case where I could at least see a legitimate case for what Robertson is suggesting. But the difference is that Terri Schiavo was not suffering from an “illness” but was in a permanent vegetative state. The complexities of that case are much greater than a person with Alzheimer’s, so I don’t think the two are analogous.
I’m not suggesting no one should ever get divorced. There are times when it is certainly advisable. This doesn’t mean it’s good but there are situations that warrant divorce (e.g. an abusive relationship). However, if we are to take the marriage vows seriously, then “in sickness and in health” must mean “in sickness and in health” not “in sickness (unless you’re just too far gone) or in health.”