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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

The Moment I Recognized the Culture of Death



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Over at First Things, the First Thoughts blog has re-published the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s last speech (2008) to the National Right to Life Committee. In it, he asks when his audience first noticed the culture of death, and recounts his own awakening. From, “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest:”

The culture of death is an idea before it is a deed. I expect many of us here, perhaps most of us here, can remember when we were first encountered by the idea. For me, it was in the 1960s when I was pastor of a very poor, very black, inner city parish in Brooklyn, New York. I had read that week an article by Ashley Montagu of Princeton University on what he called “A Life Worth Living.” He listed the qualifications for a life worth living: good health, a stable family, economic security, educational opportunity, the prospect of a satisfying career to realize the fullness of one’s potential. These were among the measures of what was called “a life worth living.”…

Neuhaus looks out at his congregation and sees the very types of people who Montagu denigrated as having lives not worth living:

In that moment, I knew that I had been recruited to the cause of the culture of life. To be recruited to the cause of the culture of life is to be recruited for the duration; and there is no end in sight, except to the eyes of faith.

I had a similar epiphany when I learned that my friend Frances had been persuaded to kill herself by reading Hemlock Society literature.  From the Introduction to my book Forced Exit: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and the New Duty to Die:

As I read the material, my jaw literally dropped.  I could not believe my eyes.  The documents seemed scurrilous to me—nothing less than pro-suicide propaganda extolling self-destruction as a morally correct and an empowering experience.  Most of the newsletters had stories in them—allegedly letters from satisfied readers—of warm and successful suicides, and/or advocacy pieces by euthanasia proponents.  The articles had an almost religious tone to them that made me feel as if I were reading tracts from some bizarre death cult.

The January 1988 issue of the Hemlock Quarterly caught my eye because it was especially worn from frequent reading.[i] One of the stories inside, entitled “A Peaceful Passing,” signed by “A New Member in California” (supposedly a grief counselor), told in glowing terms of the suicide of Sam, allegedly a terminal cancer patient.  Frances had underscored these words from the story:

Believe it or not, we laughed and giggled and [Sam] seemed to relish the experience.  I think for Sam it was finally taking control again after ten years of being at the mercy of a disease and medical protocols demanded by that disease.

Suicide promoted as uplifting, enjoyable fun sickened me.

 Frances’s suicide–and how she was seduced toward yielding to her self-destructive urges–changed the arc of my life.  Completely. That’s the moment I was recruited. And as Fr. Neuhaus said, I am in it for the duration.



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