Wesley Smith is optimistic about resisting euthanasia, but only
if pro-lifers get more active

In an exclusive 75-minute interview with The Interim following the day program at the Euthanasia Symposium in London, Ontario, April 28, Wesley Smith outlined what the average person can do to fight euthanasia and bring about a “genuine culture of life.”

Smith, the author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics and an attorney with the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, said pro-lifers must work with other groups including the medical profession, the hospice movement, the disabled, organizations that work with the elderly and anyone else affected by, vulnerable to and concerned with euthanasia, “to first contain euthanasia and then go beyond that and instill a genuine culture of life.”

He noted recent successes in containment, pointing to the fact that no US state has legalized euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide since Oregon voters did so in a referendum vote in 1994. He also noted the US and Canada supreme courts have made decisions curtailing the move toward euthanasia precisely because pro-lifers have been ready to make the case for the humanity of vulnerable persons.

At the same time, the anti-life values of bioethics have gained a foothold in our culture, most notably through hospital ethics committees, academia and governmental bioethics commission. He said while bioethics is increasingly an ideology that makes decisions about which “life is not worthy of life” (quoting the title of a German book published in the 1920s), it has influenced the thinking of the medical community.

He said that although bioethics has been influential, it is not widely discussed in public. That means the public has not (yet) been desensitized and this is an opportunity pro-lifers cannot afford to lose. He said there is still a “yuck” reaction to most of what bioethics advocates, namely the dehumanizing of certain groups of people. Smith predicts that most people’s reaction to the conclusions of bioethics will be similar to their reaction to racism: sheer horror.

“If people see what bioethics is all about, they will be horrified. And there is no more powerful thing than the truth.”

Exposing the truth about bioethics may be the most important job of pro-lifers right now and can be done through our everyday conversations, presentations to local organizations and churches, chatlines, talk radio and letters to the editor.

That brings Smith to his next point. Pro-lifers must educate themselves about these issues. A starting point could his book The Culture of Death (reviewed in The Interim, April 2001) which exhaustively illustrates the harsh truth of the ideology of bioethics. There are also articles, columns, speeches and books by either critics or advocates of bioethics (the latter exposes what they believe in their own words) which are invaluable for both self and public education.

Smith said activists must present both reasoned and emotional arguments against euthanasia, noting the other side has been successful making the most of emotionally convincing “hard cases” such as the “terminally ill who are in constant pain, for which nothing can be done to reverse the condition or relieve the pain.” Smith said “there are next to no such cases,” but says such rhetoric illustrates how emotion can move the debate.

That said, cold hard facts are also persuasive. He noted that people may think differently about euthanasia when they learn about studies indicating patients requesting euthanasia often change their mind and are more often motivated by personal issues such as being a burden on their family rather than a desire for relief from pain. Others areas that the public needs education on include the truth about pain control (especially morphine) what is and is not euthanasia (for instance, that people have the right to refuse medical care), that the conditions of most people can be improved through proper palliative care and that the push for euthanasia is largely economic (that limited resources should not be spent on the dying or terminally ill).

Furthermore, we are called to defend the dignity of all human life and Smith pointed to a simple everyday example. He said when someone comments upon seeing someone in a wheelchair that “I wouldn’t want to live like that,” speak up for the dignity of that person. Such simple messages are necessary to counter the widespread view of people with disabilities as objects of pity instead of real compassion, a view that sometimes leads us to think that they are better off dead.

Smith said people are like rubber bands – pull the band once and it won’t break, but keep on pulling and eventually it will. Likewise, “every five minute conversation we have defending the dignity of every human being goes a long way to eventually convincing a person to oppose euthanasia.”

Pro-lifers should also press their medical professionals on the issue. Even casual conversations will ensure doctors and nurses – they, too, are rubber bands – see opposition to the practice from their patients and it may provide an opportunity to inform about the issue. A specific course of action would be to support doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath and demonstrate a belief in it. Smith said the Oath recognizes that the only obligation the doctor has is to the patient, not society, insurers, or the government, and thus must perform his or her duties in a way that is respectful of that one individual life.

Of course, political activism is also necessary, as has been demonstrated in Maine and Michigan where pro-euthanasia activists were thwarted in their effort to legalize the practice.

Containment is vital because it will be a much more difficult to reverse bad law than to prevent it from happening. But more importantly, it is a good tactic. “Like the Soviet Union and slavery, the euthanasia movement, if contained, will eventually implode.”

After euthanasia has been contained, “we must move forward to a more profound understanding and approach of ‘no them, only us’.” By that Smith means that the ideology of bioethics that separates people into two classes – one worthy of life, one not – must not be anywhere accepted whether it be by hospital ethics committees, medical schools or the public at large.

A genuine culture of life where the sick, disabled, elderly and other vulnerable persons are welcomed a fully appreciated and understood members of society will go a long way to keeping euthanasia at bay. He said pro-lifers must push for better access to proper palliative care and insist people have a right to such care. On a more personal level, he urged people to volunteer at a hospice “and ensure no one dies alone.” Dedicated pro-life involvement could change the perception of hospices as “places where you go and die” to where the needs of people who are dying are attended to. More selfishly, perhaps, Smith, who volunteers at a local hospice in Alameda, California, said the relationships he has had with hospice patients have enriched his life, taught him about compassion and made him a better person.

Other things we must do is watch our language. “No person should ever be called a vegetable.” We must also change our view of death, from a scary and feared ordeal to the understanding that it is a part of life and nothing of which to be ashamed. “We must take death out of the dark corner.”

And lastly, we must remember that we are a social species. “Stop watching TV and get connected with people. Visit the ill. Compassion means to share someone’s suffering. Embracing others means embracing life.”

That may be the trade-off for many, because opposing euthanasia will certainly not be easy. For their efforts pro-lifers must be “willing to be not liked.” Anyone who challenges powerful forces such as the pro-euthanasia movement, who points out errors in thinking and stands up for principles, “will be vigorously opposed. Just don’t give up defending everybody’s equality, the equal right to life, to live.”

He said it is not only possible but likely we will be successful in thwarting efforts to legalize euthanasia, but only if we get involved and use every opportunity that arises to make the case for life. “We will be responsible if euthanasia is or is not legal.”

Wesley Smith will be the keynote speaker at the Campaign Life Coalition Ontario conference in Richmond Hill Oct. 13, 2001.