Bioethics expert addresses pro-life conference
A nationally renowned expert on bioethical issues helped illuminate the growing threats to human dignity posed by the culture of death through euthanasia, assisted suicide and other evils at this year’s Bishop’s Pro-Life Banquet and Conference, Sept. 29-30, in Lincoln.
Keynote speaker Wesley Smith, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, is an award-winning author or co-author of 12 books, has been featured in national newspapers and has appeared on network television and radio programs.
As an advocate for human dignity, liberty and equality, Smith aims to reinforce the traditional Western view of human rights and accompanying duties – summed up by the term "human exceptionalism."
The banquet and conference, titled "Life is Worth Living," was held at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln.
The Catholic Voice asked Smith to preview his talk, comment on the ominous trends he sees gaining ground and offer advice on how to fight back.
What bioethical issues or chief threats to human dignity do you plan to discuss at the Bishops’ Pro-Life Banquet and Conference?
I think the biggest problem that we face in terms of threat from bioethics … which is a general belief system that is held by most bioethicists unless they have a modifier in front of their name such as Catholic bioethicist or conservative bioethicist, is the idea that we should reject the sanctity and equality of human life as the basis of healthcare policy and medical ethics and replace it with what is sometimes called a quality-of-life ethic under which some people, those (who are) healthier, those who are younger, those who are more able-bodied, are deemed to have greater value than the elderly, the aged, the profoundly disabled, and that leads to different healthcare policies towards these different groups of patients.
I will be noticing and urging people that we need to keep with the values that were set forth 2,500 years ago in the Hippocratic oath, which did things such as prohibit assisted suicide ... . We need to get back to that approach in healthcare to prevent us from slipping into a utilitarian system, where some receive better care and treatment than others.
How do you see these issues and any other trends that are occurring as undermining human dignity?
When you say that some people have greater value than other people, when you say that some people have a greater claim on our care and our concern than other people, you are establishing an invidious system which would tolerate medical discrimination, perhaps in the form of healthcare rationing, perhaps in the form of a situation sometimes called futile care where doctors are entitled, under certain rules, for example in the law of Texas, to refuse wanted life-sustaining treatment based on the doctor’s perception of the quality of the patient’s life and the cost of care. You open the door to things such as euthanasia and assisted suicide. Creating a system where people are valued differently will lead to oppression and exploitation of those who are deemed to be those less valuable.
What have you discovered to be the most powerful arguments against those trends?
I think the value system of the West, whether one is conservative or liberal politically, really accepts the concept of universal human rights and universal human equality. I think we need to fight any form of discrimination that challenges that, whether it’s based on race, whether it’s based on sex or whether it’s based on physical capacities, physical health or disability. When we point out that by engaging in these utilitarian practices and policies that you’re creating another form of invidious discrimination ... I think people respond ... .
The minute it’s subjective, the minute that we decide that in order to have the highest value you have to have a predicated capacity, then who matters and who doesn’t becomes more of a matter of who has the power to decide and you move into a great potential for discrimination.
Are there any specific things that Catholics can do to fight back?
I think Catholics have a very splendid moral philosophy in terms of healthcare approaches. For example ... the fact that a person has equal rights doesn’t mean that they have to be hooked up to machines and so forth when they’re dying, that at a point when the suffering is greater than the perceived benefit by the patient, not by others but by the patient or the family who are entitled to make the decisions, then life-sustaining treatment or life-extending treatment can be suspended and nature allowed to take its course.
I think Catholics also need to understand that their value systems are not shared by many in an increasingly secular society and, in fact, Catholic hospitals are under threat for following Catholic moral principles in the way they provide for patients. I think it’s really incumbent upon Catholics and all of us to make sure that the Catholic hospitals are allowed to remain Catholic and also that Catholic physicians are allowed to practice medicine according to Catholic precepts.
I will be talking in Nebraska about medical conscience threats, that is, threats that are beginning to loom as dark clouds on the horizon that would potentially force Catholic doctors and Catholic nurses to engage in things such as assisted suicide, where it’s legal, or abortion and these kinds of things. The Catholic circumstance in society today is both, I think, as a light shining about a proper approach to healthcare as well as under direct threat to certain utilitarian impulses.
How do you see assisted suicide and Roe v. Wade being related?
That’s an interesting question. Back when Roe v. Wade was passed and the abortion issue was white-hot, I wasn’t involved in any of these issues. As I recall, and as I have read since, pro-lifers, people who were opposing abortion, said that if you go along this field eventually, once abortion is widely accepted, it will move to euthanasia and assisted suicide. They were called alarmists and they were told they were making things up and trying to scare people – we would never go there. Well, abortion became ubiquitous and indeed we have gone precisely where the pro-lifers of that era in the ’70s and ’80s warned we would, because of accepting the value system of abortion.
Now that being said, there are a lot of people who are not pro-life on abortion who believe in the law as it currently exists, who are also against assisted suicide, so one might not support the pro-life cause on abortion but still get on board to say, "No, we can’t go down the assisted suicide route because it will target the weak and vulnerable and lead to killing as a means of cost containment and so forth." A good example of that mindset are the disability rights activists. Disability rights activists, I think, have done perhaps more than any other group in alliance with the Catholic Church and pro-life groups and medical professional associations to prevent assisted suicide from spreading widely across the country. The disability rights folks tend to be pro-choice on abortion, they tend to be very secular in their outlook, they tend to be very liberal politically, but they said, "This assisted suicide movement and euthanasia movement targets us. We are the targets of this agenda and we will not be killed because we are perceived to have a life not worth living."
Groups like Not Dead Yet have worked very hard to prevent the legalization of assisted suicide side by side with pro-lifers, side by side with the Catholic Church, even though this alliance disagrees perhaps on other issues. While I think there is some truth and wisdom behind the idea that the abortion mindset let some people, in fact people who are pro assisted suicide, make the argument, "Well, if you believe in abortion rights you have to believe in choice on assisted suicide." The warning of pro-lifers was accurate, but again we do not want people to think that in order to oppose assisted suicide they also have to oppose abortion, because if you do that there’ll be people who instead of opposing abortion will support assisted suicide.
I think these are issues that need to be kept discreet, even though there is a potential connection there, and allow people to understand, where they can, why the intrinsic dignity of human life matters, and if it’s on the assisted suicide spot, then welcome them in.
The organization with which you’re affiliated, The Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, has as its stated mission to affirm and uphold the intrinsic nature of human dignity, liberty and equality. Can you elaborate on how your organization works toward those ends?
We advocate for human exceptionalism and that’s a term I don’t think I coined – it’s possible that I did – but that I’m really trying to popularize because I think it represents something that we need to think very seriously about in this day and age of utilitarian thinking and of challenges and threats to the intrinsic dignity of human life.
Human exceptionalism has two sides to the coin. The first we’ve been discussing this entire interview, which is the intrinsic, equal, objective dignity of all human beings. The second is that human beings alone are a moral species, therefore we alone have duties and therefore we have duties to ourselves, we have duties to each other to treat each other properly, to honor equality, to mitigate suffering, to show true compassion, which means to suffer with, to help our brothers and sisters when they’re in distress.
We also have duties to animals, to treat them humanely, which isn’t the same thing as saying, as the animal rights movement does, that human beings and animals have equal worth because both can feel pain. We have duties to the environment, to treat it properly and to try to make sure that when we make a mess we clean it up, which again, isn’t the same thing as radical environmentalists who say that nature should have human-style rights.
What we do at The Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism is try to point out that in a wide variety of areas, whether it’s assisted suicide, euthanasia, bioethics, radical animal rights, radical environmentalism, there are threats to the concept of unique human life, unique human dignity and also that when we hold that human beings are less than exceptional, that will also infringe on our obligations as human beings, for example, to treat animals properly.
I mean, if the obligation to not torture an animal isn’t predicated simply and merely because we are human beings, what is it based on? It is precisely because we are human beings, precisely because we should have empathy for animals, precisely because we understand that they have the capacity to suffer and feel pain and precisely because we owe it to them as a human obligation, not as an animal right, but as a human obligation to treat animals in a proper way.
By doing that, we hope to be able to further the idea which is the backbone of Western Civilization: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." That’s a statement of human exceptionalism that has brought greater liberty, freedom and prosperity to the world than we’ve ever seen before in history, and the loathing and the misanthropy that is unleashed when you reject human exceptionalism is very dangerous to our thriving.