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Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Shows Collapse of Medical Ethics


NC Family President John L. Rustin speaks with Wesley Smith, Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, for part 2 of our series about the dangers of assisted suicide and the growing success of efforts to legalize it across the United States.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide Shows Collapse of Medical Ethics


INTRODUCTION: This week we’re pleased to bring you Part 2 if an engaging discussion about the dangers of assisted suicide and the growing success of efforts to legalize it across the United States, with Wesley Smith, a lawyer and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. We have included some questions and answers from last week’s discussion in order to provide context for our conversation this week.

JOHN RUSTIN: As we begin our discussion today Wesley, define for us, if you will, assisted suicide and explain how it differs from euthanasia?

WESLEY SMITH: To me it doesn’t differ morally in the sense that what is being done is the intentional ending of the human life, supposedly to eliminate suffering. In other words, eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer. The technical difference is that in ‘assisted suicide,’ as we’re normally using it, a doctor will prescribe a lethal overdose of barbiturates to kill the patient and the patient takes that overdose themselves. In euthanasia, the final act causing death is done by the doctor, or the nurse practitioner in Canada’s case. But they really are the same thing; it’s just a technicality of who does the final act.

JOHN RUSTIN: We are already seeing some of the scenarios come to light that patient advocates warned us about, especially as it relates to patients with acute or terminal illnesses. Is just a natural progression of a philosophy that says it is acceptable for healthcare providers to assist in the death of their patients?

WESLEY SMITH: Yes and it goes hand in hand with the paradigm right now with major containment of costs in healthcare. Oregon, which has legalized assisted suicide, also has explicit healthcare rationing under its Medicaid law. And in 2008, two people, Randy Stroup and Barbara Wagner, were diagnosed with a terminal illness, terminal cancer. Their oncologists prescribed for them chemotherapy, not to cure their cancer but to extend their lives, which is a normal part of cancer care. My dad, when he was dying of colon cancer, had that last shot of chemotherapy and it gave him an extra year of very good living. But in the state of Oregon, the Medicaid administrator sent them a letter specifically saying, “I’m sorry you will not live long enough for us to be willing to pay for your chemotherapy, but we will pay for your assisted suicide.” And Barbara Wagner went public and she said, “My gosh! My state is willing to pay for my death but not my life!” This becomes the neurosis that is afflicting us, when suffering has become such a fear that we’re willing to actually destroy the ethics of healthcare and medicine to make people dead rather than make sure that we care for them in a proper fashion. It’s just an astonishing collapse of medical ethics and an abandonment of people who really are mentally ill.

JOHN RUSTIN: Death obviously is a very deeply emotional and personal issue, but this conversation about legalized suicide and euthanasia is also a matter of public policy with enormous implications for our culture. What are the implications of legalizing assisted suicide from a policy and societal standpoint? In other words, why should it matter to our society as a whole if a terminally ill patient or an elderly individual wants to choose the time and manner of their own death?

WESLEY SMITH: Because you’re basically creating a two-tiered system of a society, where some lives are worth protecting, even from suicide, and some aren’t. And, there’s no reason by the way to think that it will be limited to the terminally ill, why should it be? The ideological premise underlying assisted suicide and euthanasia is this: that killing is an acceptable answer to human suffering. Or, that eliminating the sufferer is an proper response to human suffering. So, why in the world would you limit it to the terminally ill, there are a lot of people who experience far more suffering and for a far longer period of time than the dying. People with disability for example, people with mental illnesses. And, if you take a look at societies in which euthanasia and assisted suicide have been widely accepted by the society, which has not yet happened in the United States, and I’m hoping that shows like this will keep that from happening, but if it ever becomes widely accepted and adopted, it very quickly moves away from the terminally ill to people with much more suffering, or longer-term suffering. Mental illness for example. Mentally ill people, not people who are mentally ill with cancer, but people with mental illness are now euthanized as a treatment for their mental illnesses, killed by psychiatrists in the Netherlands and in Belgium. This has also occurred in Switzerland where they have suicide clinics where people fly from around the world to be made dead. In Belgium they have now conjoined euthanasia of the mentally ill with organ harvesting, and in fact there are supposedly telling doctors, look for people with mental illnesses who want euthanasia because they’re going to have better organs than people with cancer, who may not be suitable organ donors. And I quote in the book Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, medical organ transplant journals who have described in very sterile clinical detail, in very cold clinical detail, the killing of people who were not terminally ill, brought into a hospital in Belgium, euthanized on a table, moved into a surgical suite and their organs harvested and they celebrated because the grafts took well. I looked at the scene for example in one case what was the mental illness, the mental illness was chronic self-harming. So, somebody who self-harms, to treat was to kill them, the ultimate harm. And in Belgium also, they are now permitting joint-euthanasia deaths by elderly couples who may even be healthy now but are worried about future suffering caused by widowhood. So, what happens when you accept killing as an acceptable answer to human suffering, your whole brain-set, your mind-set, your value system, your ethics, turns on its head, and that was once seen as a terrible tragedy, the joint death of elderly people, is celebrated now as death with dignity. It is really a remarkable collapse of everything that is good and decent in healthcare.

JOHN RUSTIN: OK. Wesley, of the states that have legalized assisted suicide at the ballot box, what is it about this issue that has garnered support from the voters, and a majority of voters in those states, and how would you counsel those pro-life citizens in North Carolina who are concerned about this issue coming here? Certainly we’ve had bills introduced in the General Assembly to legalize assisted suicide, and fortunately they have not moved very far, if at all, but how would you counsel them to not only be on guard but to take action to address these issues and head them off at the pass?

WESLEY SMITH: I think it’s very important for pro-lifers to work in coalition with people who don’t agree with them on abortion. There is a very powerful and robust coalition that works against legalizing assisted suicide. It includes of course pro-lifers, the Catholic Church, but also people like disability rights activists who may be the most important of all in terms of fighting these agendas because they can appeal to people who consider themselves secular, they can appeal, and do appeal to people who consider themselves politically liberal, and since most disability rights activists are liberal politically, they are secular in their approach, they are not pro-life on abortion, but they’re dead set against assisted suicide because they know that they are the targets. The medical establishment mostly opposes assisted suicide because they see it as a violation of medical ethics. Advocates for the poor, people of color, the civil rights communities are very much against legalizing assisted suicide because their constituents have enough trouble getting access to proper medical care, the last thing they need is access to assisted suicide when they may not be able to get the kind of care that would make people not want to commit assisted suicide. So that kind of coalition which will have different opinions on things like abortion, which may have different opinions on who should have been elected president in this recent election, can and does stop assisted suicide including in elections, because even though we’ve had three states legalize assisted suicide by elections, far more have actually rejected assisted suicide by elections. The most recent example was in Massachusetts in 2012, where that kind of coalition I discussed rejected assisted suicide. And Massachusetts is not the Bible belt. You saw it rejected in Maine, you saw it rejected in Michigan, so you’ve seen these elections go against assisted suicide when that coalition is allowed to function properly, and when it is less robust, and of course the media is very bias on this issue, and increasingly so, when the message doesn’t get out that it is OK for liberals to vote “No,” that the only people who oppose assisted suicide are religious conservatives, which is the media meme even though it’s not true, then it tends to win because there are not enough religious conservatives in most states, I don’t know about North Carolina, but most states to stop something like that. So that coalition is really crucial and it’s important because, because in my view opposing assisted suicide is a liberal issue. If Liberalism is about protecting the weak and vulnerable, then what could be more important than not legalizing assisted suicide.

JOHN RUSTIN: Absolutely, you’re absolutely correct about that. And that is something that I think it’s important for our listeners to understand that this is an issue that brings a lot of people together who may not necessary see eye-to-eye on other matters, but certainly do so here. And that’s something that we definitely need to work towards in North Carolina because this issue will be facing us more and more in the future.

WESLEY SMITH: And if I might, the pro-life community in North Carolina should make these connections right now with the disability rights community, with the civil rights community, people of color and so forth, so that when the crisis comes those relationships will already exist.

JOHN RUSTIN: Absolutely, and that’s a great admonition for us. Unfortunately Wesley, our time has flown by, it’s been a great discussion, but we are nearly out of time. Before we go I do want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to get more information about your books, about your other resources, and about the Discovery Institute.

WESLEY SMITH: Oh, thanks very much. My books are all available either in bookstores, they’re either going to be in the stores or they’re available by special order, certainly has them, Barnes and Noble online certainly has them, I Tweet, I do a lot of writing in terms of I blog at The Corner on National Review, I’m a blogger for National Review, I write for First Things every other Friday, and if anybody’s interested in what I write befriend me on Facebook or go to my Twitter, @forcedexit, start following me @forcedexit, and everything I write I put it on Twitter so people can find it. The Discovery Institute is and the Center on Human Expectionalism can be found there. The book, Culture of Death: the Age of Do-Harm Medicine gets into this stuff, plus much more that we could describe, how doctors are trying to be able to force, some bioethicists in particular, are trying to be able to force people in ICU off of wanted life-sustaining treatment, something called Futile Care Theory. How we need to change Hospice so that people can be in Hospice not just in terms of a refusing medical treatment, but also if they want that last ditch effort of chemotherapy, they can receive and still receive Hospice, which currently isn’t the law. So, there’s a lot to discuss about these issues, and people need to be aware that when they go into the hospital it is possible, I’m not saying it will happen, but it could happen, that they find themselves in an adversarial situation if doctors or bioethicists at the hospital don’t want to treat grandma for her stroke, and want to put her into just palliative care even though she might not be terminally ill. So, there’s a lot to be aware of and to consider.

JOHN RUSTIN: And I’m sure we will be discussing these issues more in the future without a doubt.

WESLEY SMITH: And by the way, pastors need to be aware that if one of their parishioners comes into their study and says, “You know pastor, grandma just had a stroke, it looks like she may not be able to regain the ability to do much in terms of her physicality and we’re being told to pull the plug, and we don’t want to pull the plug.” Pastors, sometimes I hear from people pastors, “Well that can’t be true,” well it can be true. And I think the people who may need to read some of this material most are pastors so that they’re aware of what their parishioners might face when they come through that door and say, “Listen, I’ve got a problem I’m having with the hospital.”

JOHN RUSTIN: Right, right. Let me repeat that website again for the Discovery Institute, it’s simply, again And with that Wesley Smith, I want to thank you so much for being with us again on Family Policy Matters and for your incredibly important work defending human life, and the dignity and value of every human being. We’re so grateful for all that you do and appreciate you taking time to be with us on Family Policy Matters.

WESLEY SMITH: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

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