Book Review:
Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America (2001). By Wesley J. Smith.

Jameson Taylor
Reviewed By Jameson Taylor
Reproduced with Permission

For anyone unfamiliar with the newly created "bioethics" movement, Wesley J. Smith's book provides a good introduction to the important figures and themes shaping public policy in this area. What is at issue, as Smith remarked in an interview with the National Review, is whether "the equality of life" ethic should be replaced with a "quality of life" ethic. The equality of life approach, which Smith also refers to as a "Human Rights Bioethics," "would analyze and boldly propose health care public policies based upon the foundational belief that each of us is equal, wanted, and loved." By contrast, the "quality of life" philosophy "values" human life only insofar as it is "useful" or, at least, does not entail inordinate suffering.

As a long-time consumer rights advocate and collaborator with Ralph Nader, Smith's focus is eminently pragmatic: his objective is to alert the public to the fact that the bio-so-called-ethicists have all but completed their invasion and occupation of our nation's universities, medical and law schools, and courts. Peter Singer is the most influential of the bio-Nazis. As described by Smith, Singer "contends that being human ... is irrelevant to moral status; what counts is whether a "being" is a "person." Some animals are persons, whereas some humans-newborns, the disabled, those with severe cognitive disabilities-are not persons. Consequently, Singer concludes, "Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is a person the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as the wrongness of killing a person."

Sane persons unanimously recognize that babies are not equivalent to fish - and that, for instance, is why people often enjoy fried fish for dinner, but never fried baby. The fact that Peter Singer holds an academic post at a prestigious university and is the author of the major article on ethics in the Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that our society has gone insane. Only in Austria and Germany, countries all too familiar with Singer's peculiar form of psychosis, do angry protestors keep the Princeton professor from publicly disseminating his views. Singer "resents his philosophy being linked in any way to the Nazis"; however, Smith demonstrates an "exact congruence between [the Nazis'] justification for murder and Singer's philosophy."

Smith's battle plan consists of two strategies: containment and coalition building. Alliances forged between consumer advocacy groups, pro-lifers, and others have already defeated assisted suicide measures in Maine and Michigan. Smith wants to build upon these victories by encouraging voters to resist innovations such as "Futile Care Theory," which asserts that a wide variety of "non-person humans," including those with severe handicaps and those suffering from dementia have a "duty to die." The key to coalition building, Smith suggests, is that "pro-choicers" and "pro-lifers" who are united in their opposition to the bioethics movement "not get sidetracked by disagreements over abortion." Smith's advice is sound. Just as Christ reached out to tax collectors and prostitutes, the pro-life movement should cooperate with anyone who will listen to even part of the Gospel of Life.

Practically speaking, Smith admits that he is "in my public work ... agnostic on whether abortion should be legal or illegal." Smith, in other words, does not want to risk alienating any potential supporters. Coalitions are one thing-compromise is another. Smith's decision not to defend unborn human persons is arbitrary. The subjectivity of Smith's position regarding abortion highlights the weakness of his entire argument.

Smith contends that the "only real protection against" the bioethicists' tendency to subjectify the worth of human life is "the deep-seated understanding that human value is beyond defining, that human beings are separate and distinct from the rest of life on the planet." The problem, as Smith correctly assesses, is that the bioethicists simply do not agree that human life is in any way unique. Instead of addressing his opponents' objections head on, Smith simply asserts that the bioethicists are wrong because "each of us is equal, wanted, and loved." Equal in what way? Wanted and loved by whom? By one another? The bioethicists very point is that society does not want or love "beings" who cannot function or produce as "persons" should.

Ultimately, the book Smith should have written would help its readers grapple with the only alternative to the utilitarian ethic proposed by Singer and his shock troops. The first part of this response would demonstrate the inherent nihilism of the bioethicist movement. In short, the utilitarians essentially define the "good" as the "pleasant"-whatever sustains a certain minimum level of physical and psychological pleasure. As pleasure is defined by the absence of pain, a "person" must possess "the capacity to feel pain." This is the reason, Smith notes, that Singer believes no moral difference exists between animals and people. Suicide-or murder-is "just" whenever the victim-or patient-feels more pain than pleasure. Taken as a whole, however, does not life itself entail more pain than pleasure? Since to exist is often to suffer, Singer's utilitarianism logically requires the elimination of all life-the sooner the better. In the end, "happiness" - freedom from pain - is only acquired in death. Utilitarianism, in other words, does not serve life after all; and certainly has no business in the medical profession.

The second part of this wished-for book would require a clear affirmation that every individual is endowed with absolute and inalienable dignity because an eternal God loves each one of us from the moment of conception. For perhaps the same reason Smith professes "agnosticism" regarding abortion, he fails to explain how a "sanctity-of-life" ethic can be justified without a firm belief in a God who sanctifies what He alone creates. Only when we as a nation return to this faith in a providential Creator will madmen like Singer be silenced.