Cover Story

Death dealers: the marketing of euthanasia

A PROTESTER'S PLEA: Jailed for demonstrating in front of a euthanasia clinic, a man in 2073 bears witness against the culture of death

Issue: "Life Issues," Feb. 24, 2001

Hollywood Hills Federal Correctional Facility

Jan. 22, 2073

Dear Judge Kaelin:
Several weeks ago you and your colleagues on the 4th Circuit Tolerance Court in Los Angeles convicted me for speaking out against the death industry. I submit this letter as part of my appeal. In its ruling, the court called my peaceful protest at the Vine Street Victory Over Life Clinic an "insensitive violation of personal freedom" and "intolerably judgmental." The court rejected my defense, that I was only exercising my rights of conscience. But I feel the court failed to take into consideration the facts about the true nature and evolution of euthanasia in our country, and the threat it poses, unless we as a culture take into ourselves anew its ancient antidote. Today, of course, federal offices are closed in celebration of Freedom of Choice Day, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, our societal declaration that unwanted people can be legally killed (today, in fact, is the centenary of Roe). As the last quarter of the 20th century unfolded, the devaluation of human life and the dismissing of all personal obligation toward it spread from the unborn to the elderly and infirm. "Euthanasia" and "good death," words we now see daily in commercial advertisements, began to be used in public-policy debates. But this extension of the abortion mentality should not have been a surprise to anyone. Even Joseph Fletcher, a 1960s philosopher and leading advocate of this new morality, explicitly equated the two, saying "Abortion is prenatal euthanasia, and euthanasia is post-natal infanticide." Efforts in the early years of the Right to Death movement focused on the aged and ill; euthanasia was sold as "death with dignity." A few important cultural indicators show its steady progress:

  • The Humanist Manifesto II (1973) recommended euthanasia as a sensitive alternative to aging. This was academia stuff, rather than popular culture, but it was a precursor.
  • In the Cruzan case of 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to find a constitutional duty for the law to protect every citizen from death by the denial of life-saving medical treatment.
  • Derek Humphrey's suicide manual Final Exit became a national bestseller in 1991.
  • A voter-approved doctor-assisted suicide law took effect in Oregon in 1997, as several other states flirted with similar measures. By the end of the century one person each month in Oregon was enlisting the aid of a physician to kill himself.
  • The man we now celebrate as a crusader, Jack Kevorkian, enjoyed widespread public support even then as he openly helped more than 100 people kill themselves, before being convicted of second-degree murder in 1999.
  • By the turn of the century, the Dutch government fully sanctioned euthanasia, even in its "involuntary" form. Forty percent of all euthanasia deaths in that country occurred without the consent of the patient.

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Discussion over euthanasia during this time focused on a distinction between "active" and "passive." Active euthanasia-suicide, assisted suicide, "mercy" killing-was really no more than a person acting to cause the death of himself or another, but using words like "mercy" and "dignity" in this context made it seem less brutal. Passive euthanasia-intentionally fatal withholding of available medical treatment, such as CPR or a respirator-though more widely practiced, was no better. It also brought about a patient's death. Let me make myself clear: Withholding useless medical treatment when death was imminent, or relieving suffering through pain medication-even if that resulted in the inadvertent death of a patient-never amounted to euthanasia. Nonetheless, in the politics of the day, euthanasia proponents insisted this too was a type of euthanasia. They hoped to expand the definition of the "good death" as widely as possible and make it seem commonplace. But euthanasia by definition is, and has always been, the intent to bring to pass a person's death. Still, despite the death lobby's aggressive legal and political posturing, the cause wasn't gaining much ground. At the outset of the 21st century, the case against medical killing was still pretty compelling. Euthanasia disproportionately victimized the poor who could not afford the best treatments available, and were thus more likely to deteriorate medically. It was argued that euthanasia corrupts the medical profession by eating away its ethical heart-the devotion to healing and the refusal to harm. After 1973, this heart was already darkening due to Roe. Defenders of life pointed out that euthanasia forgets the highest good is not necessarily whatever the patient wants, and that patient-doctor agreement alone does not automatically make an action appropriate. Euthanasia, they argued, cheapens human life and has us deciding on subjective bases who should live or die. It wrongly denies any redemptive value in human hardship, and is founded on the philosophical assumption that death ends suffering-which it well may not, as Christians stubbornly continue to believe. Opponents of euthanasia showed that the impulse is psychologically naive, based on the belief that deeply depressed and fearful persons can make competent decisions about their own care, and that relatives of someone suffering won't euthanize their loved one in order to end their own torment. In its essence, euthanasia is of a piece with abortion, and so many other social pathologies born in that confused time when secular liberalism first seized power. Even in these early years, its advocacy and practice depended on a perverted sense of personal autonomy and freedom, a narcissism and rebellion against our natural moral intuitions. Because of fallen human nature, it is a rule of human civilization that social institutions tend to destroy and distort their very purpose for existing. In the case of our own nation, the ordered liberty and sober independence we first forged have devolved into a sentimental and impatient tyranny of desire, declaring that our wants are our needs, and therefore are always justified. Looking back now on what 20th-century Christians called the "culture of death," the words of fifth-century Christian sage St. Augustine have a haunting, timeless relevance: "O, Lord, without Thee, what am I but a guide to my own destruction?" It became apparent in the first decades of the 21st century that the euthanasia movement would, paradoxically, be hindered by the very technology it sought to enlist in institutionalized killing. Tremendous advances in pharmaceuticals, cancer treatments, artificial organs, engineered foods, and corrective genetic therapies added nearly two decades to the average life span, and greatly improved the physical quality of those later years. Of course Death still knocked, but his rapping at the door was more polite, so to speak, with a person's end-of-life pain and suffering much reduced. And for those people willing and able to pay for cloned organs and tissues from petri dishes or from aborted human beings, life spans reached as high as 110 years. The euthanasia movement was on its self-made deathbed, until it was rescued by a sentiment profoundly ordinary, yet profoundly destructive: boredom. The unparalleled general affluence created by the American techno-economy, joined with the spiritually suffocating nihilism that has been festering in the American soul from the 1960s, combined to create a pervasive sense of boredom. It was most acute among the old and very old, who were, unlike the elderly of a century ago, in fine physical condition. Boredom by itself isn't fatal, of course. But when combined with a pragmatic government push to clear the huge Social Security and Medicare rolls, it proved a powerful impetus. The IRS taxed estates more and more heavily, leaving less and less for one's heirs. By 2058, a full 95 percent of a person's estate went to the federal government at death. But there was a loophole; those who died voluntarily paid a mere 5 percent. The Natural Death Tax had its intended effect; doctor-assisted suicides increased and the Social Security burden on productive workers decreased. Those wishing to revive the "death with dignity" enterprise saw a cultural and financial opportunity in this malaise, and began to market their madness accordingly. Their jingles and rhymes filled the airwaves and Internet: "Better a meaningful death than a meaningless life"; "Better to die feeling everything than to live feeling nothing"; "Join the revolution, and go from prolong to 'So long!'" They pitched elaborate "death scenarios" to people starved and desperate for meaning and purpose in their lives, promising them the fulfillment in death they did not find in life. So whether dying as a political crusader fighting to bring democracy to still-undeveloped countries, as an environmentalist valiantly resisting deforestation, or as a Luddite protesting the establishment's complete reliance on technology, these ultimate consumers were placed in the virtual-reality event of their choosing, hailed as a hero, then dispatched as a macabre climax. And, of course, the industry's death-by-sensory-overload was the most popular package of all, featuring a customized day-long stimulation of every known pleasurable sensation, ending when a fatal dose of morphine was injected to mingle with and enhance the body's endorphins. The resulting glamorization of death vastly misapprehends the nature of death itself. Death is not a natural part of human life, and it is not a friend to be embraced. It divides families and loved ones and separates individuals from the communities in which they express their humanity. It is an enemy and an indignity that entered the world as the result of sin. Moreover, our casual integration of death into our culture, and the sanctioning of its selling, inclines us away from rightly regarding its significance: It is nothing less than the doorway through which we cannot return, the end to our activity here and now. By treating death as just another experience, we diminish the ethical seriousness of our lives now, and their eternal character. That's why I was out on that sidewalk in front of the Vine Street Victory Over Life Clinic that morning. My motive wasn't intolerance, it was compassion. My conscience, and my heart, led me there. My goal was to warn the people going in of euthanasia's biggest lie: that death is the end of life. It is not. It is rather the beginning of a clearer vision, where we will behold to our happiness or horror both our true selves and the true God. My attorney has warned me against invoking God and the Bible in this appeal, but I think he is wrong. I base my appeal on this very thing, that the 4th Circuit Tolerance Court was itself intolerant of my religious point of view. I thank you for your time. Very respectfully,

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