NRL News

A Human Rights Bioethics

by | Jul 2, 2013

By Dave Andrusko

Culture_of_DeathEditor’s note. This story appeared in the April 2001 edition of National Right to Life News, talking initially about the specifics of the upcoming annual NRLC conference. The story then segued into a discussion of bioethicist Wesley Smith’s then new book, “Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America,” where we will pick it up. Wesley spoke last week at NRLC’s 2013 annual conference and we have run stories he has written specifically for National Right to Life News as well as reprints of many of his t terrific columns. His great insights make this review a natural for our year-long “Roe at 40” series where we bring you some of the best stories going all the way back to 1973. Please share this review using your social networks.

“There is one view of bioethics which says that it should somehow work to bring social harmony and peace. To that my response is, Who says so? It seems to me that bioethics, to be serious, has to ask hard, even nasty questions. If that leads to peace, fine. If it doesn’t, that is also fine.” — Daniel Callahan, November/ December 1993 Hastings Center Report Special Supplement

“Once you breach the firewall of Hippocratic morality only bad things can happen.” — Dr. Michael Franzblau, American physician and Nazi hunter

“Our culture is fast devolving into one in which killing is beneficent, suicide rational, natural death is undignified, and caring properly and compassionately for people who are elderly, prematurely born, disabled, despairing, or dying is a burden that wastes emotional and financial resources. Indeed, it is alarming how far the [bioethics] movement has already pushed medical ethics away from the ideals and beliefs that most people count on to protect them when they or a loved one grows seriously ill or disabled.” — Wesley J. Smith, Culture of Death

Wesley J. Smith

Wesley J. Smith

…Wesley Smith’s wide-ranging writings have appeared in many publications, including NRL News. Besides being very smart, Mr. Smith, a lawyer by training, is a gifted craftsman. His sharp-edged critiques cut like a scythe through the dehumanizing rhetoric which is the first language of America’s new secular priesthood: the professional bioethicist.

His new book, “Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America,” will be formally reviewed next month. I would like to use this space to take a more casual look at this provocative, must-read book.

Smith traces the triumphant arc of what he describes as a “medical intelligentsia” – – “moral philosophers, academics, lawyers, physicians” who make up what we commonly call bioethicists. To be sure, there is your run-of-the-mill bioethicist who in some ways reminds you of 19th century lawyers: anyone who hangs up a shingle qualifies for this ill-defined specialty. But that’s not whom Smith is concerned with in his book.

Rather, Smith focuses on a subset, a small cadre, an elite society within the brotherhood. Most of their names mean nothing to you and me, other than the infamous Peter Singer, now the first full-time professor of bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human[!] Values. (John Leo once said of him, “As a thinker, Peter Singer is consistent, clear, and as subtle as a tank rolling over a wheelchair.”)

But this small coterie are the ones who pop up at high-powered conventions, testify at legislative hearings, take the stand at pivotal withdrawal-of-treatment cases, and constantly look for new communities of vulnerable people in whose midst to plant the not-everyone-who-is-human-is-a-person flag. It is this handful of men (they are almost all men) who have insisted that bioethicists be the final court of appeal in matters of life and death.

Why are they so incredibly dangerous? The answer is actually quite simple. With the exception of the rare dissenter, they don’t think like we do. It is a point of pride to them that nothing is self-evidently true, no matter how deeply a part of our tradition, no matter how crucial a buttress to protect us from our worst instincts.

In the 1993 essay from which I quoted at the beginning, bio-ethicist extraordinaire Daniel Callahan wrote about “Why America Accepted Bioethics.” For our purposes today, what is most revealing is how Callahan believed that bioethics took a “middle course” between Joseph Fletcher (whose world view Smith aptly describes as “paradoxically anarchic and totalitarian”) and religion.

In a keen moment of semi-candor, Callahan tells us, “The first thing that…bioethics had to do–though I don’t believe anyone set this as a conscious agenda–was to push religion aside.” And while there are surely bioethicists who are believers, when it comes to public policy, to invoke “God-talk” is bad manners, akin to chewing your nails in public.

Smith helps us see why this antipathy (and it has become nothing less) is crucial. If one believes that people are of inestimable worth simply because they are–that it is preposterous to believe that some but not all human beings are also legal “persons”–it is very difficult to wander off into the bizarre rabbit trails on which you find so many bioethicists hopping.

As individuals, some bioethicists are rumbling down the slippery slope faster than others. But the trajectory is so steep that, eventually, even those who would like to establish a foothill will fall–to the lethal detriment of the medically vulnerable.

Smith shows us how this relentless secular (and in my view essentially amoral) elite reduces humanity to “organisms” and “biological matter.” Since we have no special claim to an exalted status–we’re just one of the animals in the jungle–bioethicists spend most of their days hunting for the kind of formula which just happens to turn more and more people into natural resources.

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With rare exceptions, they separate the wheat (personhood) from the chaff (“beings”) on the basis of cognitive capacity. That explains why newborns, disabled people of all ages, those who have suffered brain injuries, and especially the elderly who have Alzheimer’s are in the bioethicists’ cross hairs.

In an ideology that worships at the altar of rationality and self-consciousness, animals can be “persons” and Down syndrome babies disposable refuse. If you are weak and vulnerable, counting on the kindness of these strangers is a losing proposition.

Let me conclude with this.

For now, the view that it is better to die than to live cognitively disabled has won out in almost all courts, most legislatures, and most certainly the overwhelmingly majority of hospitals. But it is Smith’s contention that as difficult an uphill struggle as we obviously face, the battle is by no means permanently lost if the ingredients that are needed to create a competing “human rights bioethics” can be assembled.

Smith is a passionate believer in the essential goodness of most Americans. While words and ideas such as sacrifice, sharing burdens, selflessness, (as well as an acceptance that vulnerability is a fact of life) is literally unintelligible gibberish to the bioethics elite, it is the mother language of most of the rest of us.

The debate on the table is as fundamental as it gets: to whom are we morally obligated? Is that circle confined to the precocious and the Mensa wannabes? Or is our responsibility much wider, extending most especially to the weakest among us?

Perhaps another lawyer posed the question best when he asked, “Who, then, is my neighbor?” Let us hope our answer mirrors the actions prescribed in the truly human answer he received so very long ago.

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Categories: Bioethics