After a friend's assisted suicide, California attorney Wesley J. Smith wrote a Newsweek article condemning the propaganda that led people to believe they had the right to take their own lives. He later became involved with the Anti-Euthanasia Task Force based in Steubenville, Ohio, and authored Forced Exit: The Slippery-Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder. Smith recently spoke with Register assistant editor Geraldine Hemmings.

When did you first become involved with the whole issue of euthanasia?

I got into this whole issue because a friend of mine killed herself under the influence of Hemlock Society propaganda. And I was so stressed about this, that I wrote an article for the June 28, 1993, edition of Newsweek which I called, “The Whispers of Strangers.” I warned about these whisperers who were giving people, like my friend, moral permission to kill themselves and then teaching them how to do it.

The task force asked permission to run that article in their newsletter and that's how I heard of them. At the same time that they were asking for that permission, I was also receiving all kinds of hate mail from people who were saying that suicide is good, that suicide is noble and that I only wanted to see people suffer.

I realized that something really profound was happening in the culture and something very disturbing.

How did you become involved in the Anti-Euthanasia Task Force?

I talked to Rita Marker and I read her book Deadly Compassion which was the biography of Ann Wickett … who helped [Derek Humphrey] co-pilot the Hemlock Society and whom he abandoned when she became ill with breast cancer. In her despair, she turned to Rita.

[Ann] ended up killing herself. But it was her biography [that influenced me] and it was also the warning by Rita of what the agenda is of the euthanasia movement.

I called Rita and said, “Listen, I think that I have some skills that you that you could use.” … I said that if I could be of any assistance, to let me know. And my involvement with the task force from that point on grew continuously.

Do you find that euthanasia is increasingly permeating the minds and the hearts of people in this country?

It's the death culture. We have a death culture. I call it a medical death culture which increasingly looks to killing and/or death as the answer to medical difficulties and societal problems. You devalue human life and it's essentially utilitarian. …

We have … a ‘medical death culture’ which increasingly looks to killing and or death as the answer to medical difficulties'

— Wesley J. Smith

What we are doing in suicide and euthanasia and bioethics is creating a hierarchy of human values. We value something in life more than we value other things. Those we value, we treat better than those we don't value. And that's just a new form of oppression. Instead of being based on race or being based on gender, it's being based on state of health or physical ability. That's unacceptable.

How should you look at the suffering of others, and what is true compassion?

I think that it's our human obligation to help. True compassion is “suffering with.” Compassion means that when someone is suffering, we care and we love enough that we involve ourselves to help take some of the burden off the suffering individual. That, of course, can come in many ways because there are many forms of suffering.

Among those ways, for example, is that if physical pain is the cause of suffering, we try to get people access to the kind of medical treatment that would alleviate that. … Let them know that they remain valued and loved, and not rejected because they are no longer healthy.

What is the difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide? Is the difference merely technical?

Technically, assisted suicide is when a doctor or someone else gives the person the help by which they kill themselves. … Assisted suicide is a joint effort to kill someone where the actual act is done by the person. Euthanasia is when the third person does the killing.

Surely assisted suicide is just a steppingstone away from euthanasia?

Assisted suicide is the wedge towards euthanasia. But advocates in this country know that people reject doctors doing the killing, so now they are saying, “You do your own killing.” But self-killing does-n't always work because sometimes people go into comas. … Eventually, if people ever come to accept assisted suicide, they will naturally accept euthanasia.

Oregon has physician-assisted suicide. Has this state paved the way for other states to do the same?

No, I actually think that the tide is turning. Since 1994, five states have outlawed assisted suicide specifically by statue, and one state has made it a civil wrong. The five states that have outlawed it by statute are Rhode Island, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland and Michigan. The state that outlawed it as a civil wrong is Virginia. Jack Kevorkian is now in jail as a murderer. Michigan, which was the center of assisted suicide activity in this country, rejected legalization in November 1998 by 71%-29%, which is an overwhelming margin.

Who are the main leaders in the fight against euthanasia?

When Oregon passed its law, assisted suicide's primary opponents, but not exclusive, were the Catholic Church and the right-to-life movements, and medical associations. That has now broadened to include advocates for the poor [and] the disability-rights activists.

So that you not only have religious people but you have secular people. The disability-rights groups and the advocates for the poor are ratio-nalist, materialist seculars, and liberal. … The opposition now looks like America.

And that has had a huge difference here in California in stopping a legislative attempt because the grass-roots effort to prevent legalization here has been very successful precisely because the opponents are no longer pigeonholed into one part of the society … and that is to be deeply welcomed.

We often ask the question “What can I do? I'm only one person. I'm not part of any group. How can I help?”

There are a lot of things you can do. First and foremost, you need to talk. The only way to defeat it is going to be one person at a time, grass-roots style. That's where it will be the most effective. We have to tell each other our stories of how this is bad. And we need to advocate in our neighborhood and among our relations over the dinner table and after church.

If someone sees someone in a wheelchair and says, “If I looked like that, I would go to Kevorkian,” which is very common, it's our human obligation to say, “Wait a minute, let's take a look at that statement,” and defend the value of the disabled person or the sick person, and learn about the things that can be done to make life better for disabled people and for the dying people, so that this is no longer shrugged off as the innocuous statement.

Start talking about the HMOs and how it only costs $35 for the drugs in an assisted suicide but it may cost $35,000 to care for that person properly. And, if you legalize assisted suicide, guess which way things are going to go? You start bringing up these very practical and pragmatic reasons. If the person is religious you can also bring up moral issues and eventually you turn it around. One by one, people are turning around. … Our victory will come with education, education, education. And that is done one person at a time.

What can we do as individuals when we learn about support for euthanasia in newspapers, TV or over the Internet?

When someone opposes assisted suicide and the issue is on talk radio or a chatroom over the Internet, or there's an article in the newspaper, they should write a letter to the editor, they should engage in the chatroom, they should call the talk radio program. They should be able to set forth why this is wrong, not only from a moral perspective, but also from the practical pragmatic perspective.

The Anti-Euthanasia Task Force gives people the educational tools to allow them to engage in this issue intelligently and with optimism and with a knowledge of the truth. That works; that is what really works. I call it stretching the rubber band — let's say that the goal is to break the rubber band. I stretch it and it doesn't break, you stretch it and it doesn't break, but after 20 of 30 people, eventually it breaks. And the person who breaks the rubber band isn't actually the last person, it's all of them.

Average people are the key to victory … average people who know that it's wrong and who touch people in their daily lives.

Was this an over-the-table conversation in your family when you were growing up?

It wasn't an issue when I was growing up. I'm 50 years old. It was never dreamed of that people would want their doctors to kill them. It was not discussed because we had memories of the Holocaust in which doctors in Germany did kill people based on disability. … That's why I was so shocked [at the reaction] when I wrote my [Newsweek] piece, because I didn't think that my article was controversial.

Surely parents have a very difficult task in rearing a family in today's society when they are surrounded by all of this? What can they do?

Parents have to bring their children up respecting life and respecting people who are sick and respecting people who are disabled, and believe in equality.

—Geraldine Hemmings