The Culture of Death

  In a 1995 encyclical entitled "The Gospel of Life," Pope John Paul II coined the phrase "the culture of death." By this, he was referring to the combination of laws and political and cultural institutions that systematically undermine the value of human life in Western nations. One of the most important forces working in the culture of death is the field known as "bioethics" -- that is, the ethical standards being embraced to deal with medical and biological questions. In his new book, appropriately entitled The Culture of Death, J. Wesley Smith chronicles what he calls "the assault on medical ethics in America." Smith analyzes the practices and philosophies that have taken the medical profession away from the moral certainty provided by the maxim of the Hippocratic Oath, "First, do no harm." As Smith tells readers, the bioethics establishment "[rejects] what until now has been the core value of Western civilization: that all human beings possess equal moral worth." As a result of this rejection, bioethicists increasingly embrace the idea that there are lives that are not worth living -- that the right to life is contingent on an arbitrary idea known as "quality of life." This idea leads to the conclusion that some patients, especially the elderly, have an affirmative duty to die, so as not to waste scarce resources. Unbelievable. Well, this is more than theory. As Smith points out, the fruits of this worldview are visible in the increased talk about "patient autonomy," a term used to justify abandoning patients to hasten their deaths. We see it in the increasingly routine withdrawal of feeding tubes from disabled or terminal patients. If talk of "lives not worth living" reminds you of the Third Reich, you're not alone. Columnist Nat Hentoff makes the same connection in a recent column. He reminds readers that it was the Nazis who coined the expression "lives not worth living," to describe the incurably ill and disabled. They called them "useless eaters" -- a phrase that anticipates the removal of feeding tubes. Unfortunately, Smith doesn't make the connection between abortion and the "assault on medical ethics" he describes. It's unfortunate because it was legalized abortion, more than anything else, that taught Americans that human beings -- especially at the beginning and end of life -- don't all possess equal moral worth. It was abortion that introduced Americans to the concept of disposable human life. Still Smith's book provides an invaluable service to the cause of life. It's both a warning as to how much our culture has embraced the culture of death, and it's a resource for helping us to spread the word about the deadly consequences of this fatal embrace. Even if our neighbors roll their eyes at the mention of the words "pro life," they've still got a stake in this debate. As Smith concludes: "We all age. We fall ill. We grow weak. We become disabled. A day comes when our need to receive from our fellows adds to far more than our ability to give in return. When we reach that stage of life . . . will we still be deemed persons entitled to equal protection under the law?" And all that stands between us and that bleak prospect is the Gospel of Life. For further reference: Hentoff, Nat. "Licensed to Kill; A New Awareness of our Culture of Death." Washington Times, 26 February 2001. Smith, J. Wesley. The Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001.


Chuck Colson


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