An interview with author and bioethics watchdog Wesley Smith
Editor's note: “Unbeknownst
to most Americans, a small but influential group of philosophers and health
care policy makers are working energetically to transform our nation's medical
practice and health care laws.” So goes the introduction of Wesley Smith's
book, “The Culture of Death — The assault on medical ethics in America.”
writer and talk show host Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Smith about his
book and the growing bioethics movement.
How is the medical community's
What's happening is we have this
ideological movement called the “bioethics movement,” which is moving us from
the Hippocratic type of “do no harm” medicine that most people want their
doctors to pursue to one which is based on the so–called “quality of life.”
One of the chilling things you
mention in your book is all this talk about the “right to die.” We have living
wills; we don't want to be hooked up to life support machines; we have a right
to die. You write that the newest trend is not only the “right” to die, but a
“duty to die.”
Yes. The bioethics movement is
moving us towards a duty to die. The reason I start by talking about
philosophies is because this is what undergirds the very horrible policies that
I will describe in a moment. You and I would think, I believe, that being human
is something unique and special in the world. According to the bioethics
ideology, that isn't so, because we are mere biological life. There is nothing
special about being human. Therefore, the bioethicists — not every bioethicist,
but the primary movers and shakers in the movement — have determined we have to
distinguish what makes human life — or any life — special. And they have come
up with a conclusion, which is truly harmful and discriminatory. It's not
whether a human being matters, but whether you are a “person.” So there are
some humans who are persons, and all persons would have what you and I call
human rights. But the human non–persons do not have human rights.
And who gets to make the
determination of who gets to be labeled what and when?
The bioethicists are coming up
with the determinations themselves, and they are teaching it at the highest
Who made them the sheriff?
That's a good question. Who
decided that philosophers — because that's primarily who they are — should
decide what our medical ethics are and what our health care public policies
are? But if you take a look at the president's commission on bioethics, guess
who is manning these positions? Take a look at the most elite bioethics
university positions. It is people like Peter Singer at Princeton.
That guy is a wacko!
Peter Singer epitomizes the
movement I'm talking about.
For the benefit of those readers
who have been spared my previous Peter Singer rants, please explain who this
pretentious, arrogant, twisted academic is.
Peter Singer is an Australian,
what they call a “moral philosopher.” But in his case, it is an oxymoron. He is
known for two things primarily. First, he is the creator of the modern animal
rights movement. He wrote a book back in the '70s called “Animal Liberation,”
and the premise behind it is that humans and animals have equal inherent moral
worth. Therefore, we can't use animals in animal research and things of that
Even the ones that taste good?
He doesn't like you to eat them,
either. Secondly, he is also the most well–known world proponent of legalizing
infanticide. Now, I'm not talking about abortion. Singer and his mentor, Joseph
Fletcher, might call it, in fact do call it, “post–birth abortion.”
If only their parents had
practiced what the offspring now teach.
Peter Singer has said in the past
that parents should have 28 days within which to keep or kill their children.
He has since expanded that to one year. It is based on his idea that a newborn
infant is not a person. Because a person, according to Peter Singer, is an
entity who is self–aware over time. Some other bioethicists talk about it
differently. Some believe in “moral personhood,” that a person is a being that
can make moral decisions and be held morally accountable, for example, in a
crime. But what this gets down to is deciding which of us is better than
These bioethicists — is there an
actual, for–real academic track for that? Or are they kind of self–anointed?
Mainly what it is, is philosophy.
There is no licensing to become a bioethicist. A hairdresser has to be
licensed; a bioethicist doesn't. There are about 30 university postgraduate
courses where people can get masters in bioethics, and the movement is only 30
So it is not unlike being a
reporter. You get to be one by calling yourself one?
That's right. It's not like being
a lawyer or a doctor. You are one because you call yourself one, and I guess if
people pay attention and listen to what you have to say, you're right. And if
people don't pay attention to what you say, I guess you're wrong.
I'm absolutely flummoxed that
people could even waste a moment listening to that jerk Singer.
He is more tactless than some of
the others. However, he is not an aberration. He epitomizes the movement. He
has been the president of the World Bioethics Association. That may not be the
exact name of the organization, but he is at the second most prestigious
university in this country, one of the most prestigious in the world, holding
one of the most prestigious bioethics chairs, with tenure.
Why not just write the Singers
of the world off as radical left–wing wackos and abandon them to their screams
in the wilderness? What kind of impact can these bioethicists have on you and
They are the ones who are making
policy. If you go to court in a fight over a bioethics issue, guess who is
testifying in court? The bioethicists! When President Clinton was determining
what to do about stem-cell research, guess who made those decisions based on
the recommendations of bioethicists? The person who chairs the president's
bioethics commission is the president of Princeton University, who is primarily
responsible for bringing Peter Singer to that university.
So it's an incestuous little
You have a very elite group. They
are at Harvard; they are at Yale; they are at Georgetown University. Georgetown
puts out the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, which is one of the primary
bioethicists' journals in the whole world.
So these guys are teaching
students training to be doctors?
Yes. Every doctor that graduates
goes through bioethics training. And the reason I wrote “Culture of Death” is
because most people don't agree with bioethics.
Our medical ethics and our public
health values don't reflect the American people and our belief in the sanctity
and equality of all human life. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these
truths to be self evident, that all people are created equal.” Bioethicists
reject that by definition because under bioethics, you have to prove and earn
your rights by being a “person.” If you don't want to believe me, let me read
something to you from the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal by a bioethicist
named John Harris. This is exactly what we're talking about. Then I'd like to
lead you to what results from this kind of thinking. What it means is that the
people among us who are the most vulnerable, the weakest — they literally get
shoved out of the life raft.
Here's what Harris says about
being a “person”: “Many, if not all, of the problems of health care ethics
presuppose that we have a view about what sorts of beings have something that
we might think of as ultimate moral value.” Now, you and I would say all human
beings have value, right?
Grudgingly, yeah, recognizing
possible exceptions for Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Exception noted. Well, not these
guys. Here we go: “Or if this sounds too apocalyptic, then we certainly need to
identify those sorts of individuals who have the highest moral value.” Now if
Attorney General Ashcroft were to say we have to decide which people among us
have higher moral value than others, people would be up in arms. But the
bioethicists are saying that very thing, and because they are from the elite
universities and part of the intelligentsia, people seem to think it is OK.
Is it because of that elitism,
or is it because the mainstream just hasn't heard these outrageous claims yet?
Take a look at how the New York
Times and other members of the mainstream media reported on Peter Singer. They
pooh–poohed the stuff about him saying we should be able to kill babies as
being taken out of context, and extolled him as this great new voice.
It seems as if we have this
small collection of arrogant, pretentious academicians who are now dictating
how medicine will be practiced.
It's because we have a bad case
of expert–itis in this country. We think the only people who know anything are
“experts,” and people kind of abdicate their belief that their own values can
be important and can play a part in these issues.
When you say that some of us are
not persons, then what can we do with the people who are not deemed persons? We
can exploit them as if they are a natural resource, right?
That's what these clowns would
say. In fact, they see non-persons basically as fields for growing body parts
that can and should be harvested to be used wherever persons of higher moral
value require the resource.
And there is the point. Tom
Beauchamp — a major bioethicist who wrote one of the primary textbooks in
bioethics, “The Principles of Biomedical ethics” — says, “Because many humans
lack property of personhood or are less than full persons — they are thereby
rendered equal or inferior in moral standing to some non–humans. If this
conclusion is defensible, we will need to rethink our traditional view that
these unlucky humans cannot be treated in the way we relevantly treat similar
non–humans. For example, they might be aggressively used as human research
subjects and sources of organs.” You hit the nail right on the head, Geoff.
Please tell the story you have
on the dust jacket of your book about Christopher and his dad.
Christopher Campbell was a young
man about 17 years old who was in an auto accident. He was unconscious for
three weeks. He suddenly started to spike a terrible fever, and his father,
John, says to the doctor, “Treat my son's fever. He has 105; it's going up to
106.” The doctor told the father, “What's the point? Your boy is unconscious.
His life is as good as over.” And when the father continued to insist on
treatment, the doctor actually laughed in his face.
How did you learn of this case?
This desperate father called me
because I had written a previous book, “Forced Exit,” about euthanasia. He searched
me out, and he said, “Hey, what can I do?” So I gave him some tips, and guess
what? He got treatment for his son.
You could have given him my
You would have had a different
approach. I know what you believe in. The son came out of his comma, is
learning how to walk and is now a counselor for at–risk teenagers.
An at risk–teenager being
defined as any poor soul who had to be treated by Campbell's former doctor.
So you've got this kid now who is
leading a very productive life, recovering and working hard to recover his
physicality, because he had a pretty bad head injury. But this kid would be
dead today because the doctor didn't care enough about his life to reduce a
Sadly, Chris's story is not
uncommon. Tell us about the 90–year–old who couldn't get her doctor to give her
A woman called me to say, “My
mother is 92 years old. She has a terrible infection, and the doctor won't give
her antibiotics.” So, I asked the obvious question, “Why?” To which she
replied, “The doctor told me, 'Your mom's going to die of an infection anyway.
It might as well be this infection.'”
Who or what gave that doctor the
right or authority to make an arbitrary and capricious determination as to
which infection he might or might not treat?
And that's what happens when you
decide that we're not going to say “our patients have a sanctity of life,” but
when we're going to judge, as doctors or health insurance executives, based on
the “quality of life.”
But what about the essence of
the Hippocratic Oath “Do no harm”? If they do or don't do something that does
cause harm, are they not in violation of their sacred oath?
Only 13 percent of doctors today
take the Hippocratic oath.
What? Is that documented?
I found that out in the research,
and I was rather stunned myself. Thirteen percent — and that was some years ago
when that study was done. It may be less now. They take an oath, but it is not
the Hippocratic oath.
They take an oath to what? To
serve and protect the HMO?
Basically, I guess. The bioethics
movement has basically discarded the Hippocratic oath because they think it is
Oh really? Throw me a quote.
Out of the New England Journal of
Medicine. This is by Sherwin Nuland, who wrote the book, “How We Die,” and is a
big mucky–muck at Yale Medical School. This is the elite of the elite, and this
is what he says about the Hippocratic oath with regard to euthanasia: “Many
opponents of these practices point to the Hippocratic oath and its prohibition
on hastening death. But those who have turned to the oath in an effort to shape
or legitimize their ethical viewpoint must realize that the statement as
embraced over approximately the last 200 years [was done so] far more as a
symbol of professional cohesion than for its content.”
If Dr. Nuland wants professional
cohesion, then he should join the Rotary Club. But the Hippocratic oath is not
for the doctor; it's for the patient. It protects the patient. It requires the
doctor to honor the life of each patient as an individual, to not harm the
patient. And it is so important because we allow doctors to cut us, to poke us,
to stick us, to drug us. And if we are not going to have a doctor who is going
to be bound the by the 2,500–year wisdom of the Hippocratic oath, we're in big
trouble. Yet at the New England Journal of Medicine, in an editorial officially
sanctioned by that journal, Sherwin Nuland said the Hippocratic oath is just
about professional cohesion —- it's just tradition.
Has anyone suggested to these academicians
that perhaps it might be just a skosh pretentious on their part to try to
abrogate 2,500 years of tradition with their own personal politically correct
That's what I'm trying to do with
“The Culture of Death.” I'm trying to alert people that this is going on so
that they can talk to their own doctors about these issues. I'm trying to alert
legislators that this stuff is going on, so that when a bioethicist comes to
testify before Congress and says, “Well, we've studied this very carefully and
we have determined A, B, C. ...” that maybe the congressman might know to ask,
“Do you believe in the sanctity of human life? Do you believe there is a
difference between a human person and a human non–person?”
Find out where the bioethicist is
coming from. And most of these folks will have to say, “I do think there are
some humans who are not persons.”
Dr. Peter Singer would say
Geoff Metcalf would say Peter
He would say people with
Alzheimer's disease. Do you know that most people in the bioethics movement
would not believe Ronald Reagan is a person? And as you pointed out and I read
from Tom Beauchamp, that means we may be able to take their organs. And there
is talk, by the way, of redefining death to not be dead, but permanently
unconscious. They are talking about that very seriously in the higher levels of
organ transplant medicine.
Once the pretentious, arrogant,
academician has determined that someone is a “non-person,” they are products,
and it is a product that can and should be harvested. How close is this to
happening, and who gets to make the decision?
Some of the things I write in the
book are happening, and some of them are planned. We have to stop these plans
from taking place. Let me tell you one of the things that is the most scary and
will immediately threaten your listeners and readers. It's called Futile Care
Under Futile Care Theory, or
medical futility as it is sometimes called, doctors are metaphorically putting
signs above the intensive care unit, similar to what you might see in a
restaurant: “We reserve the right to refuse service.” They are saying — and
health insurance executives, too — that if you go to the hospital and you want
your life extended — now I'm not talking about “them” forcing you to stay alive
with tubes in you; I'm talking about when you want the medical treatment. You
may want the respirator. You may want the feeding tube. You may want the
antibiotics. Under Futile Care Theory, doctors are giving themselves, like Napoleon
crowning himself emperor, the authority to say no. That if they think the
quality of your life isn't worth the expending of the money and the resources,
they can say no and unilaterally refuse it.
Who gave them the authority or
the right to decide what in their estimation is a sufficient quality of life?
They are giving it to themselves.
They are creating hospital protocols in which they give it to themselves.
Is this mitigated by HMOs'
concerns about cost containment?
Of course! The bioethics movement
helps the HMOs in many ways. The bioethicists consult with the HMO movement,
and a lot of this has to do with money. It also has to do with bioethicists
wanting a collectivist approach to health care. They want rigorous healthcare
rationing. Futile Care Theory, by refusing care for the sickest and most
disabled among us, is the first step toward a very rigorous healthcare
How ubiquitous is this in
policy? Or is it just incrementally getting its nose in the tent?
No, this is happening all over
the country now. For example, I recite several cases that result in lawsuits in
Tell us about Washington State's
Baby Ryan was born prematurely
with bad kidneys. He needed kidney dialysis. Not surprisingly, the father was a
Vietnamese immigrant and was not perceived to be a person of power. You know,
they don't do this to the Clintons or the Bushes. You do this initially to
people who can't fight back. But this father fought back. The doctors said to
the father, “The time has come for your baby to die. We are taking him off
kidney dialysis, even though you don't want him taken off.” The father got a
lawyer and got an injunction.
And explain what happened to the
The doctors turned the father
over to the Department of Public Social Services because he got an injunction,
saying that the father, not the doctors, were hurting the child because he
wouldn't let him die.
So what happened?
A different doctor came in and
took over the case. He put the baby in a different hospital, and the baby got
better. In fact, the baby did not require kidney dialysis after several weeks.
The child eventually died at age 4, having nothing to do with the kidney. In
fact, he had a very happy childhood. If it had been up to the doctors trying to
impose their values and their morality on the baby, the baby would have died at
age two weeks.
How widespread are these futile
Recently, in the Fall 2000
Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics, they surveyed 26 hospitals.
Twenty–four of them had futile care protocols in place. Why are the futile care
protocols there? So that when you go to court, they can say, “Look, this is
what we have decided. This is our health protocol.” Judges are often very reluctant
to gainsay what the doctors say. So what they are trying to do is create a
standard of care where they can say no if they want to.
And they also deny you the
opportunity to seek out an alternative healthcare facility which does not have
According to the Journal of the
American Medical Association, in Houston, all the hospitals agree to honor each
other's futile care protocol determinations. These things are going up in the
Catholic hospitals in Philadelphia.
No. If you read the Health
Progress, which is the journal of the Catholic Health Association, they print a
futile care policy that has been put into place in the Mercy systems in
Philadelphia. Basically, what it says is if a hospital ethics committee says
that the care shall not be approved in that hospital, even if you find a doctor
willing to provide the care, they can't do it. That's in a Catholic hospital.
What can we do to put the brakes
on this trend?
First off, when you go in the
hospital, you make sure that there is somebody there that knows they may be
giving you the bum's rush to cut off care. I'm not saying that if the doctor
says it is time to go home and die a natural death, [that] the time has come to
stop with the tubes and things, that you shouldn't do that. But when they
recommend that you do that and you don't want to follow that recommendation,
you have a right to stand up against the bum's rush you might receive, as the
nurses and the chaplains and the social workers start trying to push you into making
a decision you don't want to make. You have to have somebody willing to stand
up for the value, the inherent value of your loved one's life.
Second, it used to be that people
wanted to sign these advance directives to make sure that they didn't get hooked
up to machines against their will. That used to happen 20 years ago. That
happened when the economics of medicine were such that the intensive care unit
was a big profit center for the hospital.
The old joke use to be they'd
keep you on those machines until you die or your insurance runs out.
Yeah, but that is no longer true.
Today, the economics of medicine says the longer you are in that intensive care
unit, the more money they lose. So they want to get you out of there, and
sometimes it is not appropriate to do that. So, what you may need today, and
what I have signed, is a Protective Medical Decisions Document. It is put out
by a group I work with called the International Anti–euthanasia Task Force, and
it documents the kind of treatment you want. For example, it prevents them from
taking away your food and water because you are cognitively disabled, which
happens in all 50 states.
You have some awful stories in
the book about intentionally dehydrating patients.
That's right. And it is a
terrible situation — especially if you are conscious. You can heal dehydration.
It takes 14 days to die. They take away your food and water, and it used to be
based on the decision of family to do it. Now with these futile care protocols,
it's a different story. For example, at a hospital in San Jose, Calif., I had a
futile care protocol leaked to me that said you could not get those tube
feedings if you were in a serious, cognitive incapacitated state.
Is there a website where people
can get this protective medical decision document?
Yes. There is a website and an
800 number. It is http.///www.iaetf.org
or they can call 1–800–958–5678 and ask for a Protective Medical Decision
Document. They've got them for all 50 states.
If a doctor says you are going
into ABC hospital, can you get a copy of their futile care protocols before you
go in there?
You should be able to, but not
always. When I was leaked that Lexion Brothers Hospital protocol in San Jose, I
called the doctor who had signed it, and he lied to my face about what it had
meant. He said it was about the right of a person to refuse unwanted medical
treatment, which of course I support. But that isn't what it was about. I read him
the part that proved that, and he hemmed and hawed and stuttered but never
would give a straight answer. I've had people try to obtain futile care
protocols at hospitals and some have been refused. Some hospitals have turned
Time is insufficient to cover
all of this, which is a good reason for folks to buy the book, "The
Culture of Death."
We have just scratched the
surface. There is a case in California involving Robert Wendland. Robert can
roll a wheelchair down a hospital corridor. He can write the letter “R.” He can
answer yes or no questions with the aid of buttons. He was in a terrible auto
accident, and he is cognitively disabled. It is before the California Supreme
Court now whether he can be dehydrated to death, which will take 14 days. The
Court of Appeals said that he could be and said there is no presumption for
continued existence in the law of the state of California.
That is a terribly frightening
Luckily, the Supreme Court took
the case, so the previous ruling is no longer legally binding, but we've got
real trouble when courts and doctors and insurance executives create a
disposable class of people.
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