Culture of Death

The Age of "Do Harm" MedicineWesley J. Smith

Bioethicist Wesley J. Smith takes aim at the arguments permeating our culture that devalue human life. Smith makes readers aware of the historic roots of the modern euthanasia movement, which today repeats arguments made by Nazis and proponents of eugenics tied back to 19th century social Darwinism.

Smith, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, is extremely sensitive to the plight of the suffering and the dying. One of Smith’s primary points is that while death comes to us all, those suffering through terminal diseases can make use of painkillers to ease their difficulties:

Assisted suicide advocates often try to create a false moral equivalency between medically controlling pain and so-called mercy killing. The argument goes something like this: since some people’s deaths are hastened by the powerful medications required for effective palliation, and since pain control is unquestionably moral and ethical, then assisted suicide should also be viewed as proper because the intent of assisted suicide is to alleviate suffering. There are two problems with this argument: medical studies demonstrate that properly applied pain control usually does not shorten life; and, the argument completely misapplies what is called “the principle of moral effect”.

Smith goes on to explain that there is a gulf of moral difference between taking painkillers, which is taken for the intent of relieving suffering and not to end life, and assisted suicide, which occurs under the intent to intentionally cause death as a means of alleviating suffering.

The book also reminds of the past evils connected to cultures which did not value life. The Nazi rulers of Germany called the old, weak, sick, or handicapped “useless eaters.” Forced sterilization was one of the first moves of Nazi Germany, where social Darwinism ran deep in their political blood. Yet the eugenics movement itself traces closely to Darwin. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” (“good in birth”) to advocate that humans engage in selective breeding. Early 20th century eugenics organizations offered prizes to upper class families which could have the most children. Others, such as Carrie Buck, weren’t so lucky and had to undergo forced sterilization in our country between 1907 and 1960.

Smith warns that future troubles could be tied to the fact that only 14% of doctors today report having taken the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” Smith even recounts episodes of doctors recommending that the old or sick be denied basic treatments which might potentially save life. This enlightening book unmasks unexpected occurrences in the present practice of medicine, and shines light into a future that many of us might not like.

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.