INTERVIEW: by John StylesNews Weekly
Networking key to success: anti-euthanasia activist
, September 8, 2001
Leading US anti-euthanasia campaigner Wesley Smith recently conducted a tour of Australia.
Smith left a successful law practice in 1985 to pursue a career in writing and public advocacy. He has written or co-authored eight books, including four with consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
He was drawn to the issue of euthanasia in 1992 by the tragic suicide of a friend. Research Smith conducted after his friend's death revealed that she appeared to have been influenced by the literature of the Hemlock Society. Smith described that literature as "pro-suicide propaganda" that extolled suicide "as a morally correct and an empowering experience".
Smith wrote an article for Newsweek which he intended to be "a wake-up call about the dangers of the euthanasia movement and the message it sends to weak and vulnerable people". His article generated about 150 letters in response - a few positive, but most from people incensed by his criticism of the pro-death movement.
He was interviewed for News Weekly by John Styles.
John Styles: Considering the response you received to your Newsweek article, it's a wonder you actually took up the cause.Wesley Smith:
I was surprised, because I thought what I wrote was utterly non-controversial. I said that the purpose of organised society is to protect the lives of all citizens, things like that, and our job, when someone is suicidal, is to help him or her through the darkness and not hold their coat while they kill themselves. I thought that was going to be my one contribution to the issue, because I was doing a lot of work with Ralph Nader at the time. But when the hate mail came in, I was rather stunned, I have to admit, because of the vehemence of people - not only calling me names, which is fine, I'm used to that, but the idea that suicide is noble, euthanasia is good, that kind of thing, which rather took me aback. What happened after that was what finally got me moving in this direction that I've been going since 1993.
I read a book by Rita Marker called Deadly Compassion,
the biography of Ann Wicket who was the second wife of Derek Humphry who started the Hemlock Society. Ann Wicket got breast cancer; he deserted her. Interestingly, she turned to Rita Marker, her adversary, for help, which I found tremendously interesting, because it was clear she realised in her heart that Rita Marker cared and her side of the struggle apparently didn't. She became isolated and very depressed. Eventually she committed suicide. Rita Marker wrote a book about her and it also had aspects of the agenda of the euthanasia [movement].
I was so shocked by what I read that I called Rita Marker up and I said, "Look, I've got some talents I think you could make use of - I'm a writer and consumer advocate, I can write amicus briefs, I do good radio and television and I would like to help when I can."
As I kept reading more and learning, I grew increasingly alarmed. I really jumped in deeper and deeper and then I expanded beyond assisted suicide and euthanasia because I became aware of the bioethics agenda - Peter Singer and company - and the idea of dehumanising some humans, making them non-persons, cutting off a lot of treatment, treating human beings as objects, natural resources for the harvest, that kind of thing. And that's where "Culture of Death" came in. So that's the direction I'm heading. I don't regret it for a second. It's difficult sometimes, but I think it's very important work.JS: Do you feel that you're swimming against a cultural current?WS:
Yes, I do. There's no question. But I do believe that, by being creative, there's enough people who don't want to go in that direction [and] that we may be able to prevent it.
One of the things I've been working on in the United States, and I'm talking about it here in Australia, is creating very creative coalitions between people who may disagree about some issues but might agree that we shouldn't allow doctors to become killers, might agree that we shouldn't refuse medical treatment to disabled people because it's expensive.
What I'm urging pro-lifers to do is this: when you're dealing with cloning, for example, be willing to work with people who don't agree with you on abortion. Or, on assisted suicide, be willing to work with people who don't agree with you on abortion when fighting assisted suicide, because there are people out there who probably support abortion and if you tell those people that in order to oppose cloning they also have to oppose abortion, well, chances are they won't oppose cloning. But if you say to them, we will agree to disagree about abortion, let's stop this cloning, then I think you can make some real headway because abortion is such a divisive issue. We've done that very successfully in the USA.
That kind of coalition has come together and stopped assisted suicide from spreading beyond Oregon. In 1994 we thought it was going to sweep the entire country, but that's when the disability rights folk got engaged because they saw themselves as the targets - and they're right. And they held their noses and agreed to work with pro-lifers, and pro-lifers held their noses and agreed to work with people who disagreed about abortion.
We have actually kept the assisted suicide lawmakers from moving anywhere outside of Oregon.
In 1998 an initiative to legalise assisted suicide lost by 71 to 29 per cent. That's a tremendous achievement in Michigan, which was the home of Jack Kevorkian, the same State where juries wouldn't put him in jail.
And then Maine. In November 2000 we did the same thing - 51 to 49 per cent.
But when Oregon passed its law our coalition didn't exist. That fight was between Catholics and pro-lifers versus secularists and rationalists, and it became an attack on religious belief; that's why I think the law passed.
The other interesting thing is that since 1994 the Supreme Court of the United States said there's no constitutional right to assisted suicide, so there would not be a Roe v Wade
for assisted suicide.
The Florida Supreme Court said that the constitution of that State did not provide in its privacy provisions the right to assisted suicide.
Jack Kevorkian's in prison.
So we've had a lot of success and I really do point to that willingness of people to set aside sometimes bitter differences on abortion to realise that we've got to work together on these other issues; and I'm hoping that in Australia that will begin to happen also.JS: Beyond the so-called élites, wouldn't you say people generally are more conservative on these issues?WS:
I think that there are two cultures. One is the culture of the people which is based on sanctity of life, helping your neighbour, everyday work-a-day activities, family and so forth. And I do believe that the élites, the intelligentsia, have different agendas, have different views and they are, I believe, particularly in bioethics, seeking to impose a foreign ideology upon the United States, Canada, Australia.
You know, we are very similar - as are Western Europe and Britain. The idea that instead of sanctity of life being the basis of our laws in our society - you might call it the "equality of life ethic" that means everyone has equal worth - that we're going to say that those with a higher quality of life have greater moral value than those with a lower quality of life. That's truly frightening. That's a basis for explicit discrimination.
And so when Peter Singer is brought to Princeton University, after saying that parents should have 30 days to keep or kill their children and that animals have equal moral worth to people, and he gets a prestigious bioethics chair and gets an instant tenure, that's cause for great alarm.
And it's time for the people to say, "You know what? We're not going to follow your lead here". I'm trying to bring these issues out of the ivory tower and into the public square.JS: Are you religious?WS:
I don't bring any religious beliefs I have into my work.JS: Philip Nitschke, for example, has rejected the sacred nature of life. He argues that just because somebody believes life to be sacred, he shouldn't be forced to believe life is sacred.WS:
I don't want to force him to believe anything. But I also don't believe that society should be so callous and abandoning that it would allow a suicidal, disturbed teenager to have access to suicide pills. The kind of society Nitschke proposes is akin to a bunch of trees standing next to each other. The kind of society I believe in, regardless of religious faith or non-religious faith, is a force, it's an eco-system. Everybody's connected with each other and we have obligations to each other and rights that come as part of being part of society.
It's a very sterile idea: "Well, I want to die." "Well, O.K. here you go," or, you know, this person is going to be expensive to care for medically so we won't provide that treatment because somebody else has a greater claim to that care because he or she has a better quality of life. If you said that about race, if you said we're not going to treat an Aborigine with the same kind of medical excellence that we're going to treat a non-Aborigine, we'd say, "You, sir, are a racist, you can't do that. That Aborigine deserves the same medical treatment as anybody else." And we'd be right. But to say that we're going to allow other types of people such as disabled people, in particular, to receive less quality care is the same bigotry. It's just a different victim.
We have a human community and the only way we can actively work together is to use human methods to create the most just society we can. I think one can take it as a natural law approach. Someone can take it from the idea of universal equality and not even believe in God and get to that same place. My advocacy is geared toward a secular society. I believe communication has to be where the audience is.
For better or for worse, I am convinced we live in a post-Christian world. At one time churches could come in and say, "This is wrong," and have the chance to have real influence. Those days are quickly fading. And it seems to me that even people who have a religious approach to their advocacy need to be able to express those ideas in secular ways, because they are just as strong. I believe you can say "universal equality" or "natural law" and you can have the same destination, the same idea, and it will appeal to different people. If I'm wrong, we'll find out. But that is what I am certainly striving to do.
Here's what I detected from observing the abortion fight. The pro-life movement in the United States has a spot, past which they cannot go. And that spot is where religion ends and secularism begins. The pro-life movement in the United States is explicitly religious and makes religious appeals. That is both its strength and its weakness. It is its strength because it keeps people vitally committed and I feel that it's astonishing, considering the demonisation that occurs against them. That it's still a coherent force is quite remarkable. But there is a limit past which people can't hear. The people who are not Christian - Catholic or fundamentalist Christian - will listen to what pro-lifers will say at a pro-life convention and not take anything from it if they don't believe in God. And yet there are atheists who are pro-life, and it seems to me that the pro-life movement, if it wants to succeed better than it has, needs to find ways to reach out to people past that natural line that it finds itself in. I stay out of abortion because I want to be able to talk to people who both are pro-life and who are pro-choice. I am creating bridges between those two camps.JS: But don't some of the same arguments apply to both debates?WS:
That's why the stem cell research I find very interesting. In my country Roe v Wade
, which legalised abortion, said we don't know when a person is. And when we contrast the rights of the unborn child versus the rights of the mother to personal autonomy, we're willing to decide that the woman has the right to decide what to do with her own body. Whether one agrees or disagrees, that's what the court said.
Then the stem cell thing came along. The argument often was the old abortion debate, and the point I kept making in my writing on the stem cell debate was that abortion had nothing to do with it. The politics of abortion did. But abortion per se
had nothing to do with it because you did not have a woman who did not want to use her body to gestate and give birth in the stem cell issue. No law was trying to force a woman to do anything. And so instead you came face to face with whether human life has value simply because it's human. And that, I think, is the most important issue we face in our culture.
If the answer is no, then some humans are going to end up being a natural resource to be exploited as property. If the answer is yes (whether it's because to answer otherwise leads to terrible consequences, or whether it's because to answer otherwise is a violation of God's law, or whether to answer otherwise is to destroy the foundation of Western civilisation for the last 2,000 years) then we have to recognise that we are treading on very thin ice. And that's why I think President Bush, who was completely isolated politically, made the most pro-sanctity-of-life decision he could make and hope to have it stick politically.JS: Some say he has opened the door. As one US columnist quipped, "Read my lips, no new killing".WS:
I understand why people are upset, but I think here's what would have happened had he gone their way. You already had 61 senators from the United States Senate vowing to go in the other direction. You already had 260 members of the House of Representatives. He could have made the right decision and been overturned and then you would have had a complete disaster.
Instead, what he did was say we're not going to fund federally any research from newly destroyed embryos, but existing stem cell lines that are not embryos now, we will fund. Plus, he wants to ban all cloning. He wants to do other things - he wants to add to research for adult stem cells. That to me is a defensible position. Now that's the difference between having pure principle and sometimes having to take a political calculation.
I think Bush took 80 per cent and may be able to hold it, where I think if he'd gone for the 100 per cent right thing to do I don't think he could have held it. Now, I could be wrong and I completely respect my colleagues, who I worked with in arguing that case, for being upset. It's like during the slavery debate in my country, you had the William Lloyd Garrisons, the pure abolitionists, and you had the Abraham Lincolns who were more political abolitionists. And I think both have their place.
So I was pleased, because Bush did make a statement that he didn't want to have foetal farms. I think he made a powerful statement that we should not use human life as a crop ripe for the harvest.