Assisted suicide: why now?
Al Pacino sympathetically portrayed Dr. Jack Kevorkian in a recent HBO movie . . .
by Wesley J. Smith
Since 1988, when euthanasia advocates failed to qualify for a legalization initiative on the California ballot, the assisted suicide movement in the United States has gone from a barely noticed fringe movement to a well-funded political machine that threatens Hippocratic medical values and the sanctity/equality of human life.
Consider the disturbing history: In 1994, Oregon legalized assisted suicide (by a 51-49% vote), with the law going into effect in 1997. The movement had a setback in 1997 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a rare unanimous decision, that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide. But in 2008, Washington State legalized Oregon-style assisted suicide by a lopsided 58-42%. Then, last year, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled that assisted suicide was not against the state’s “public policy.”
The euthanasia movement is not resting on its recent laurels. Advocates have filed a lawsuit in Connecticut to legalize assisted suicide by redefinition — on the dubious theory that a doctor who lethally prescribes drugs for use by a terminally ill patient is merely performing “aid in dying,” rather than the legally proscribed assisted suicide. Meanwhile, legislative legalization efforts have been initiated in Hawaii, Arizona, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut — all without success.
A question amidst all of this Sturm und Drang naturally arises: Why now? After all, 100 years ago when people did die in agony from such illnesses as a burst appendix, there was little talk of legalizing euthanasia. But now, when pain and other forms of suffering are readily alleviated and the hospice movement has created truly compassionate methods to care for the dying, suddenly we hear the battle cry “death with dignity” as “the ultimate civil liberty.”
In fighting assisted suicide since 1993, I have often pondered the “why now” question. I’ve found two answers: First, the perceived overriding purpose of society has shifted to the benefit of assisted suicide advocacy, and second, our public policies are driven and defined by a media increasingly addicted to slinging emotional narratives rather than reporting about rational discourse and engaging in principled analysis. Add in a popular culture enamored with social outlaws, and the potential exists for a perfect euthanasia storm.
Social commentator Yuval Levin, a protégé of ethicist Leon Kass, described the new societal zeitgeist in his recent book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy. While not about assisted suicide per se, Levin hit the nail on the head when he described society as no longer being concerned primarily with helping citizens to lead “the virtuous life.” Rather, he wrote, “relief and preservation from disease and pain, from misery and necessity” have “become the defining ends of human action, and therefore of human societies.” In other words, preventing suffering and virtually all difficulty is now paramount. In such a cultural milieu, eliminating suffering easily mutates into eliminating the sufferer.
The prevent-suffering-at-all-costs agenda is harnessed by assisted suicide advocates through publicizing heart-rending stories of seriously ill or disabled patients who want to die. Illustrating how potent this emotional narrative has become, even the ghoulish Jack Kevorkian is being remade into a big softy concerned solely with relieving suffering. Indeed, none other than Al Pacino sympathetically portrayed Kevorkian in the recent HBO movie, You Don’t Know Jack.
Ignored by the script writers and the media, the real Kevorkian was the mirror opposite of compassionate. In his 1993 book Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death, Kevorkian made his ultimate purpose chillingly clear, calling assisted suicide “a first step, an early distasteful professional obligation” toward obtaining a license to engage in human experimentation.
Writing further: “What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish — in a word, obitiatry — as defined earlier.” (“Obitiatry” is the word Kevorkian coined to describe experimenting on people as part of the practice of human euthanasia.) That the media depict Kevorkian as caring rather than self serving tells us how far awry we have been pushed by the collective desperation to avoid suffering by whatever means necessary.
Still, there is good news in spite of the darkening sky: Principle and virtue are not dead. To the consternation of assisted suicide advocates, the sanctity-of-life principle has not yet completely lost its vitality. The vast majority of doctors in Oregon do not assist patient suicides; most of such deaths are facilitated by the advocacy group Compassion and Choices. In Washington, physicians and health corporations — such as the Providence Hospitals — have pushed back against the new law by stating publicly that they will not participate. And despite millions of dollars spent promoting the agenda (financed by the likes of George Soros), assisted suicide has not broken into the mainstream of American law and medical practice.
But they will keep trying. Successful resistance does not require giving up vital principles. Opponents, however, will have to tailor their message of true compassion and care in ways that resonate within the current cultural milieu. Just saying that killing is wrong is no longer enough.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in bioethics and human rights at the Discovery Institute and a lawyer/consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. He is a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.