In 1992, Jack Kevorkian proposed establishing a pilot program of euthanasia clinics, which, he argued in the Journal of Forensic Pathology, would be staffed by physician-killers, permitted legally to painlessly terminate patients who request it. At the time, euthanasia clinics were considered either a far kook fringe idea, or perhaps, a splendid fictional image reserved for dystopian science fiction. No longer. Today, suicide clinics operate legally in Switzerland, to which an international clientele make one-way trips—a practice known as “suicide tourism.” Moreover, the meme that killing is a legitimate answer to the problem of human suffering has become de rigueur among the intellectual class as a way of removing the undesired unproductive from our ranks, or even, to “save the planet.”
The noted British novelist, Martin Amis, became the latest to support establishing a radical euthanasia license. In an interview in the January 24 Sunday Times (London) Amis expressed views that were hardly compassionate—the usual pretext for supporting euthanasia/assisted suicide. To the contrary: He denigrated the elderly as a “silver tsunami,” whose very existence threatens society. “There’ll be a population of demented very old people like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops,” Amis told the Times. His answer to this malodorous demographic incursion? “Suicide booths on every corner,” Amis offered, a hyperbolic turn of phrase that quickly went viral.
Mostly missed in the resulting commentary to Amis’ diatribe is that he wasn’t as much ageist as self-loathing. “Medical science has again over-vaulted itself so most of us have to live through the death of our talent,” Amis said. “Novelists tend to go off at about 70. And I’m in a funk about it. I’ve got myself into a real paranoid funk about it, how talent dies before the body.”
In other words, Amis rejected his own intrinsic dignity and moral worth in the apparent belief that should he become incapable of producing good writing, his life would be rendered useless. This terror of not being “special”—certainly not limited to the cognoscenti—isn’t really about a feared loss of talent (or productivity, or independence, and so on), but an abiding worry that if we lose our vigor or health, we will become unworthy of being loved.
From the post-modern perspective, this is entirely logical. If we believe moral worthiness is solely a byproduct of some measurable attribute or capacity—rather than being intrinsic—we will naturally disdain our future selves when, because of age, illness, or injury, we lose whatever it is that we decide gives life value. From this wider angle, support for euthanasia can be seen as merely a symptom of the deeper illness of nihilism, a social cancer that has been gnawing steadily away at us for more than a century.
This existential terror can only be overcome by embracing human exceptionalism and its corollary that each and every one of us matters—no matter what. But this corrective is quite beyond the most brilliant intellectual argument or reliance upon religious or philosophical principles—which at most, effectively can be deployed as holding actions. If we really want to reverse the tide, we must strive to love our neighbor even more than we love ourselves.
In this sense, we need to demonstrate true compassion—the root meaning of which is to “suffer with”—by fully engaging our neighbors’ most trying trials and tribulations. We see that tonic administered all the time—in the selfless care of a daughter for her Alzheimer’s stricken mother and in the hospice volunteer confronting his own mortality by engaging profoundly with dying strangers. Love is what motivates the good people who bring dogs and cats into nursing homes to brighten the day of residents and is the ultimate motivation of the pain-control physician who burns the midnight oil seeking a solution to an intractable case—even though it is work for which she will never be paid.
There will always be the Martin Amises of the world raging in despair against life’s vicissitudes. But they will be rendered societally impotent if each of us loves actively. As St. Paul put it so eloquently, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” In the end, if we want to finally defeat euthanasia, it will have to be so with us.
Wesley J. Smith is an award-winning author, a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics for the Discovery Institute, and consults with the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. His Secondhand Smoke is one of the First Things blogs.