I recently gave a speech to a group of conservative senior citizens in California, arguing against assisted suicide, which is due to become legal there in June. Assisted suicide is not an issue that allows for fence-sitting, so although I expected (and received) a friendly reception for the most part, I knew that at least a few people would use the Q & A to tell me that I was full of beans.
Sure enough. “You have made a cogent and reasoned presentation, Mr. Smith,” one of the first questioners told me, his voice rising in anger as he spoke. “But if I want to die, I want to be able to die, and I don’t want my family or me stigmatized by people saying I committed suicide!” In other words, nothing that I said mattered. The man was set in his opinion, and neither the facts about euthanasia practice nor the need for accurate terminology regarding self-killing would change that.
And so it went. Those who agreed with me—the majority of this particular audience—spoke of how their vulnerable loved ones would be endangered by the law, while the law’s supporters mostly made angry assertions about their right to die. Dialogue? What’s dialogue?
When I began advocating against assisted suicide twenty-three years ago, those on both sides of the debate used the same moral lexicon. That is no longer the case. Today, supporters and opponents of the culture of death have radically different and mutually exclusive worldviews, outlooks that do not necessarily track with the usual left-versus-right, religious-versus-secular paradigms that often roil our public controversies. In such a milieu, all that either side can do is hold a mirror up to the benefits and consequences of these divergent philosophies and wait for people to decide which path they wish society to follow.
Usually—still—that means defeat for assisted suicide. The more details people hear about the issue beyond emotional appeals and bromides of “choice,” the less people tend to support legalization. Indeed, Massachusetts voters rejected legalization in 2012 even though early polls showed popular support. Last year and this, more than half the states saw energetic and committed legislative attempts to allow assisted suicide, including in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Colorado. All were defeated decisively, with the awful exception of California. On the international front, the United Kingdom’s Parliament overwhelmingly rejected legalization in 2015, but the Canadian Supreme Court imposed a right to euthanasia across that country a year earlier.
What should opponents of the culture of death do if they—like I, a native Californian—live in a jurisdiction that legalizes assisted suicide? I suggest a policy of total and unequivocal non-cooperation with the suicide agenda.
- Do not participate in efforts to regulate medicalized killing: After the Canadian Supreme Court issued its decision, I was particularly disheartened when a prominent opponent of legalization served on a panel to recommend regulatory guidelines to govern doctor-administered death. Her intention was to help limit the harm. Understandable as that is, I disagree vehemently with the approach. Participating as a colleague with pro-euthanasia believers in fashioning suicide rules validates euthanasia as a policy. It says that your previous opposition to legalization was not based on bedrock moral principle but was merely a matter of negotiable policy differences. It also makes you complicit in the workings of the policy. Moreover, the harm limitations that may be achieved will likely be short-lived, as the guidelines will eventually be expanded or ignored. Better to remain consistent in opposing the now-legal procedure as bad medicine and even worse public policy. Who knows? Such consistent opposition may help persuade some not to end their lives.
- Refuse to attend an assisted suicide: We all care what those close to us think about our actions. Thus, if you are ever asked by a seriously sick family member or friend whether you think assisted suicide is the right approach, tell him in a loving but unequivocal way that it is not; then help find positive means to cope with his difficulties. Similarly, refuse to attend an assisted suicide, if asked. As I have discussed in more detail here previously, taking such a principled—and truly loving—stand means risking the estrangement of other family members and the guilt of not being present when your loved one dies. But if you agree to attend a suicide, you validate the action and confirm that your loved one’s life is not worth living. It also makes you morally implicated in the act.
- Doctors should declare their offices assisted-suicide-free zones: Assisted-suicide advocates want doctors to be involved in the death process because that lends the physician’s authority to the act. If you are a physician, I hope you will not only refuse all participation—and work hard to create conscience protections against forced participation in the culture of death—but also make it clear to your patients that you will never participate in facilitating a suicide or lethally injecting a patient. This could mean something as simple—and controversial—as placing a plaque prominently in your waiting room declaring, “This Office Is an Assisted-Suicide-Free Zone.”
- Mental-health professionals and clergy need to help the suicidal find a better way: If you are in a counseling profession, you need to be ready to work with patients or parishioners who are thinking about assisted suicide. Non-cooperation means not only counseling your patients and parishioners against suicide, but also educating yourself about the many alternatives that will help those who may want to die today to make the decision that will allow them to live tomorrow.
Legal euthanasia and assisted suicide will be with us—at least in a few places—for the foreseeable future. That means that some will face the difficult prospect of deciding what to do if the culture of death knocks on their door. Refusing to cooperate is a hard choice that could subject conscientious objectors to criticism, ostracism, and emotional pain. But it also sends a clear and important social message: Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant for the Patients Rights Council. His new book, Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, will be published by Encounter Books on May 17, 2016.