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Interview with Wesley J. Smith

Daniel Herbster

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Wesley J. Smith is an influential writer and commentator who has dedicated his career to preserving human dignity and educating his fellow man on the principles of bioethics and justice. He is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He has also written a number of books, and he blogs at Secondhand Smoke. Smith was kind enough to share with AdvanceUSA’s readers about important bioethics issues facing our society today and about his work.

Herbster: Why are bioethics issues so important?

Smith: Bioethics is a contraction for “biomedical ethics.” It is a field that has profound influence over core areas of human endeavor that help establish and define the morality of society, and indeed, the meaning of human life itself. Should elderly people have their health care rationed? Is assisted suicide a proper medical service? Is it right to create cloned human embryos for use in research or to bring to birth? Is it wrong to abort fetuses because they test positive for Down syndrome? Should parents be able to genetically enhance their children? Are there morally relevant differences between humans and animals? What should happen if a nurse refuses to participate in an abortion or a physician wants to cut off wanted life-sustaining medical treatment because the patient has a poor “quality of life?” These and other equally important bioethical issues are much larger than the sum of their parts because they establish philosophical norms that exert tremendous influence upon society beyond the policies themselves. Indeed, I can think of few fields more important than bioethics in determining the kind of society we shall become in the 21st century.

Herbster: What is “human exceptionalism” and how does it relate to issues of life and justice?

Smith: Human exceptionalism refers to the sheer moral importance and unique value of being human. I believe strongly that adhering to human exceptionalism is the predicate to defending universal human rights. Indeed, whether we accept or reject human exceptionalism may be the most important issue we face as a culture. For if we say that simply being human is not what gives value to life, we have to ask a second question: What does? That second question leads directly to a system wherein those with power decide which of us has greater—and which lesser—value, and who decides those who don’t make muster. Thus, many in bioethics support “personhood theory,” which denies the objective moral value of being human and claims that what matters morally is being a “person,” a status earned by possessing minimal cognitive capacities. In this view, there is such a thing as a human “non person,” such as fetuses, newborns, and people who have lost these capacities, such as Terri Schiavo. Worse, because the human non person is defined as having lesser value, they lose the right to life and, can be used instrumentally such as in medical experimentation or as sources of organs. Indeed, there is much agitation in bioethics and within the organ transplant community to redefine death to include a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state—meaning that if this view prevails, severely compromised people could essentially be killed for their organs. This isn’t happening—yet—but the only way to make sure that such policies are never instituted is to adhere to human exceptionalism.

Herbster: How did you become interested in bioethics and how has your legal training helped in your work?

Smith: My legal training and experience as a lawyer have been essential to my current work because I developed a way of thinking that is invaluable in analyzing arguments, connecting dots, and in powerfully advocating for my beliefs. Whether or not one wishes to practice law, when in doubt, go to law school. It was the best formative experience of my life. I didn’t plan on getting into these issues, that’s for sure. I had quit practicing law—which is a story in itself—and was writing books with Ralph Nader. Then, in 1992, an elderly friend committed suicide under the influence of Hemlock Society literature. When I saw this material, I was outraged—it was literally proselytizing for suicide. The literature had “witnessing” stories, told readers what drugs to take, and how to use a plastic bag to make sure they died. My friend underscored all of this text in yellow ink. That was how she killed herself. I was furious: These people who didn’t even know her had given her moral permission to commit suicide and taught her how to do it! As I mentioned, I wasn’t thinking of going into this work, but was upset enough to write a piece warning against the euthanasia movement for the “My Turn” section of Newsweek. “The Whispers of Strangers”—which I thought was utterly uncontroversial—was published in the June 28, 1993 edition. Well, you should have seen my hate mail—and this was before e-mail! I was accused of being cruel. I was told I wanted people to suffer. Many letters wished for me to get cancer or hoped that I lived a long and “suffering” life. I was told that euthanasia was noble and suicide was the way of the future. I was floored; stunned. I remember thinking, “What happened to my culture and where was I when it happened?” At that time I was contacted by the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, headed by Rita Marker, wanting to reprint my piece in the Task Force’s newsletter. I read Rita’s book Deadly Compassion, which described the goals of the euthanasia movement. I have never been so profoundly impacted by a book. At that point, I knew I had to enlist in this fight and my life changed forever.

Herbster: What kind of work do you do for the Discovery Institute and for the Center for Bioethics and Culture?

Smith: It’s not quite accurate to say I work “for” the Discovery Institute. I am a senior fellow in the Human Rights and Bioethics project. The DI is a think tank that helps underwrite my work simply because its administrators believe in what I am doing. It also provides intellectual help and advice if I need it, as well as promoting my work. I am very proud to be associated with The Discovery Institute and we hope to build the project into one that will one day have a permanent staff and a sufficient budget to allow us to be more proactive on these issues than is the case today. I consult for the Center for Bioethics and Culture, that is, I give its leadership advice, I am available for speeches, and I write for its newsletter. You might say I am on call to the CBC to help it in its work that focuses primarily, but certainly not exclusively, on biotechnological issues. I also serve as an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

Herbster: Scientists are making great strides in adult stem cell research and induced pluripotent stem cell research (iPSC). Do you think these developments will dampen the enthusiasm for unethical research (ex: embryonic research and human cloning)?

Smith: Yes and no. I think among the general public, people want treatments and cures. They would prefer that it be from adult and IPSC type cells. The more successful those fields are, I think, the less public support there will be for pursuing contentious areas such as embryonic stem cell and human cloning research. However, I don’t think most scientists are unwilling to be so limited. They want to pursue all areas of research, and indeed, view those of us who raise significant ethical concerns as somehow being “anti science.” We are not, of course. Indeed, I am a strong supporter of science, but believe that like all powerful endeavors, there should be reasonable ethical parameters to guide its activities. In the end, these are not science disputes. They are ethical controversies: Too many of those who push for ESCR and cloning intentionally conflate these two distinct concepts.

Herbster: What do you think are the motives of those who promote unethical embryonic stem cell research and forms of human cloning (besides those with a genuine but misguided desire to help people with diseases and injuries)?

Smith: I think most have a genuine desire to help people and ameliorate disease. But I also worry that a level of hubris has entered the field, a sense of entitlement, if you will. I think that the leadership of the science sector—as distinguished from the bench scientists—believe that they, and they alone, should decide what is right and wrong, ethical and unethical, in science. Our job as society is to provide resources for the important work and get out of the way so that we can garner the benefits. I disagree strongly. I think that democratic processes have a very important role to play here—particularly when the public’s money is funding much of the work.

Herbster: What are the most important bioethics issues facing us today and what issues are the next generation of bioethics issues that you see on the horizon?

Smith: Actually, it is bigger even than bioethics. I think humanism is mutating into an explicit and misanthropic anti-humanism. Indeed, I now believe that we are in the midst of what I call a “coup de culture” in which the social order founded in Judeo-Christian/humanistic view that upholds the unique importance of human life is being supplanted by a philosophical system steeped in utilitarianism—which is where bioethics comes in and the potential of creating disposable castes of people—hedonism—by which I mean the presumed right to indulge almost every urge and desire and not be judged—and radical environmentalism. Thus, Ecuador’s new constitution just granted “rights” to “nature” that are co-equal to those of people and Spain is about to pass into law the Great Ape Project that creates a “community of equals” among humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other apes. The new movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of a great old science fiction film from the 1950s, has the aliens coming to earth not to save mankind from self destruction, but to obliterate humanity—a complete genocide—in order to save the earth. Think about it! An A-List Hollywood extravaganza explicitly sends the message that we are the vermin species on the living planet, which is the heart of the Deep Ecology ideology. I think the goal is to knock us off the pedestal of human exceptionalism so that we will be so humbled and self-degraded that we will willingly sacrifice our own welfare and prosperity to “save the planet.” In this light, the problem of bioethics is a part of a larger overarching threat. Sorry if I went deeper than perhaps you intended for me to go.

Herbster: Not at all. This is important information.

What actions do you expect President Obama and the 111th Congress to take on bioethics issues?

Smith: I think they will federally fund abortions. I think they will move toward passing the Freedom of Choice Act that would obliterate state regulation of abortion, such as it is. I think they will also try to destroy the “conscience clause” rights that the Bush Administration established protecting health care workers from discrimination if they refuse to be complicit in acts such as assisted suicide or abortion. Think about that: There is a danger that medical professionals who adhere to the Hippocratic Oath will be declared persona non grata in health care! I think we will see moves to establish federal control over health care on a national level, leading to fights over health care rationing. I think that on the international stage, the cause of human exceptionalism will suffer in support of more utilitarian and supposedly feminist reproductive and other health care policies. On the other hand, I think that President Obama will continue President Bush’s commitment to help people with AIDS, particularly in Africa, and will work mightily in the fields of disease prevention.

Herbster: How can our readers stay informed on these issues and how can they make a positive difference for human dignity?

Smith: If you don’t mind a plug, I think the single easiest way is to read my blog Secondhand Smoke, at www.wesleyjsmith.com I call SHS, “Your 24/7 Seminar on Bioethics and the Importance of Being Human,” and intend it to be a one-stop information factory helping people who wish to engage these issues obtain the facts and analyses they need to impact the debate. I think it is so important, that I spend several hours a day perusing stories and writing posts, and trying to sort out what it all means. The blog is also a great research tool that allows people trace important stories over time. I use my own blog for that purpose, as a matter of fact. I also think that people should read books, visit the Websites of groups such as the CBC and the International Task Force, as well as attend lectures. There is no dearth of information on these issues; that is for sure. The main thing is to know that while some like to pretend these issues are over the heads of most people, I think they are readily understood once you get past some of the jargon. Then, once they are informed, I really hope people will share what they have learned every chance they get, with friends, colleagues, family, etc. They should write letters to the editor, engage in Internet debates, call radio talk shows, educate, educate, educate. I don’t think these issues can be won among the intelligentsia—they are already too far gone. But we can definitely prevail on Main Street and in the public square if enough people learn about these issues and make it their jobs to inform others.

Herbster: I recently read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell. Do you think there are important lessons for our generation in these books (particularly Brave New World) in the realm of bioethics and human dignity?

Smith: BNW is probably the most prophetic novel ever written and is more relevant today than it was in 1932 when it was first published. I think we are already on the path to the inhuman society Huxley depicts, which not coincidentally, is utterly utilitarian and hedonistic. The only aspect he missed was the radical environmentalism that has come to the fore in recent years. Huxley’s characters believe in nothing. But I don’t think humans can believe in nothing. We seem to be hard wired to seek the transcendent. With theism under attack, a new form of earth religion based on deep ecological principles could well fill the developing belief gap. I also think 1984 is well worth reading because of how vividly Orwell depicted the power of word engineering—a hallmark of the coup de culture today.

Herbster: Thanks for sharing this information with our readers and for your dedication to preserving human dignity. Please let us know of any important issues and developments you see in the future.

Read the entire article on the AdvanceUSA website (new window will open).

Posted: 08-Feb-2009

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