My country’s parliament recently passed the first national assisted-suicide legislation in our history. Prompted by the Supreme Court of Canada’s unanimous decision last year to strike down the previous law as unconstitutionally restricting individual rights to life, liberty, and security, Parliament is now arguing over how widely or narrowly to involve Canadian citizens—both patients and health care providers—in assisted suicide.
In Culture of Death, first published in 2000, American lawyer and activist Wesley J. Smith warned that this debate was upon us. A new, updated revision of the book sharpens this warning, drawing on a wide range of cases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, and the bellwether states of Oregon and Washington.
Smith is not an elegant writer—his discussion of truly awful subjects is sometimes interrupted by jarringly flip remarks: “Nobody ever said Terri [Schiavo] would one day get out of bed and tap dance.” And in a discussion that too easily falls prey to amateurish fear-mongering, he sometimes fails to provide citations—and, weirdly, quotes Dutch documents in stilted English translated by Google.
Nonetheless, Smith is generally a clear writer, he has immersed himself in these issues for years, and the portrait he paints is, on the whole, convincing and therefore ghastly. People really are suffering grim and painful deaths over several days by having food and water tubes removed against their will. Depressed and debilitated people really are being pressured into suicide by family members and physicians wanting them out of the way. Comatose or otherwise unresponsive patients really are being treated as vegetables: useful for what can be harvested from them but otherwise having no intrinsic worth and therefore not worth keeping alive.
Smith’s archenemies are secularist “bioethicists” such as Joseph Fletcher, Peter Singer, and Udo Schuklenk, whom he quotes at length—to their own damnation, it seems. He details how, among themselves, these figures discuss with shocking clarity eugenics, organ transplantation from living subjects, death to human beings with insufficiently impressive “quality of life,” transhuman cyborgs, and more—even as they speak in disingenuously soothing weasel words to the general public. Thus Smith gives us advance warning of the ideas shaping the minds of the medical professionals, lawyers, politicians, and jurists making important decisions about your life and mine.
Regrettably, Smith occasionally succumbs to making crudely populist appeals. You can almost hear him asking, “See what those horrible intellectuals and ‘experts’ are up to?” He seems deeply conflicted as to what form of health care administration could improve matters, since he strongly dislikes Obamacare but also rightly scorns corporations deciding ethical issues via HMOs and the like. And while there are genuine parallels between modern bioethics abuses and Nazi atrocities, Smith is apt to take the comparison to hyperbolic lengths.