Dangerous Apathy

Original Article

The country has been roiled in recent weeks by videos showing two Planned Parenthood executives chirpily telling pro-life undercover investigators that fetal organs could be had for a price. The executives—both themselves abortionists—explained that their techniques could be adapted to “crush” fetuses in a “less crunchy” manner so as to better insure harvests suitable for research.

There have, of course, been previous scandals involving the selling of aborted fetal body parts, complete with price lists. In 2000, ABC’s 20/20 conducted a three-month investigation that, according to the press release, “uncovered an industry in which tissue and organs from aborted fetuses, donated to help medical research, are being marketed for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.” Forced to revisit those practices, Americans again confront the crassness and cruelty of the culture of death. Yet as in the past, there is a dismaying likelihood that today’s horror will fade into tomorrow’s shrugging acceptance.

The Terri Schiavo case was the classic example. Before her case made international headlines, profoundly cognitively disabled patients were legally and routinely dehydrated to death by the removal of feeding tubes, defined as “stopping unwanted medical treatment.” But dehydration mostly happened in the shadows, with occasional cases causing a ripple of news, often as a result of intra-family legal disputes.

Terri’s case was different. It generated an unprecedented amount of public attention—particularly after her family humanized her by posting online a video of Terri smiling at her mother. People could no longer claim they “didn’t know” or that it “could never happen here.” The choice was plain: Should public policy support Terri’s parents’ desire to maintain her life or her husband Michael’s desire to see her dead? Alas, after the smoke cleared—and even though Michael was engaged to, lived with, and had sired children by another woman when he obtained a court’s permission to end Terri’s life—polls showed that Americans supported the court order removing her feeding tube.

That was an epochal moment. In the wake of Terri’s death in 2005, efforts to prevent such slow-motion killings collapsed, and a new frontier opened in the culture of death. Already some bioethicists are arguing that Alzheimer’s patients should be starved to death by nursing homes—even if they willingly eat—if they so request in an advance medical directive.

The Planned Parenthood brouhaha also brings to mind the progressive acceptance of the late Jack Kevorkian’s campaign for assisted suicide. When Kevorkian helped cause Janet Adkins’s death in 1990—she had early Alzheimer’s disease but was healthy enough to beat her son at tennis the week before she died—many were shocked. The media coverage was generally critical. Kevorkian was even condemned as “outrageous” in a New York Times editorial that urged authorities to “go after” him. (Today, the Times is a booster of assisted suicide.)

Following the now-familiar pattern, heated resistance to Kevorkian soon faltered. As years passed—with a few juries refusing to convict based on the specious defense that Kevorkian didn’t intend people to die but merely wanted to end their suffering—he grew bolder. Eventually Kevorkian became so mainstream that in 1998 he was an honored guest at Time magazine’s 75th anniversary party, where Tom Cruise rushed up to shake his hand.

Little noted in the narrative the media constructed around Kevorkian as a quirky savior of the terminally ill was the fact that few of Kevorkian’s subjects were actually dying. Indeed, studies showed that at least 70 percent of those who sucked the carbon monoxide machine in the back of Kevorkian’s rusty van or were hooked up to his “Thanatron,” as he called his assisted suicide machine, were not terminally ill when they traveled to Michigan to die. More: The autopsies of at least five of Kevorkian’s victims showed no underlying illness whatsoever.

In 1999, Kevorkian even stripped Joseph Tushkowski’s kidneys from his dead body after assisting in his suicide, offering them at a press conference on a “first come, first served” basis. Although Kevorkian wrote in Prescription Medicide that his ultimate goal was the vivisection of those being euthanized, he remained a popular figure with seeming license to assist suicides at will.

Kevorkian finally overstepped. After videotaping himself lethally injecting an ALS patient, he was convicted of murder and imprisoned. But once released, he joined the celebrity circuit, raking in $50,000 a speech, as the purveyors of popular culture transformed him into a harmless Muppet figure. He was played in a hagiographic biopic by A-list movie star Al Pacino.

Today, we see increased advocacy for legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia throughout the world—this despite the fact that Belgian, Dutch, and Swiss suicide clinics are taking the agenda to its logical conclusion by euthanizing the mentally ill. A study published recently in the British Medical Journal found that of 100 mentally ill patients who asked for euthanasia in Belgium, 35 were killed by doctors. Most of those who lived changed their minds about desiring death.

Think about that: A practice that not long ago was deemed a serious crime—doctors killing the suicidal—is now reported without criticism in a leading journal. In Belgium and the Netherlands, euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill is now coupled with organ harvesting, with case studies published in transplant journals. And in our own country, the abortion industry is right in step.

It is all too familiar: When harsh truths about medicalized killing—whether of the unborn, the mentally ill, or the suicidal—first come to light, people are shocked, and calls for reform ring out. But indignation soon cools into resigned apathy.

Will the same moral enervation sap public outrage at Planned Parenthood’s offer of less crunchy abortions to facilitate organ harvesting? Have Americans’ moral sensibilities really been so dulled by relativism that we no longer know a barbaric act when we see one?

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.