John Leo

Bioethics has hardened into an activist ideology that pervades the medical world, the schools, and government. This explains why Leon Kass, a moderate conservative who heads the president's committee on bioethics, is under such fierce attack and why Princeton University picked Peter Singer as its first scholar in bioethics. Singer thinks parents should be able to kill disabled newborns.

Among bioethicists, Kass says, "there is a kind of condescension toward the views of the general public [and] a very real danger that what constitutes meaningful life among the intellectual elite will be imposed on people as the only standard by which the value of human life is measured." Under pressure from bioethicists, norms have been collapsing. Fifteen years ago, as author Wesley Smith writes in his 2002 book The Culture of Death, legally assisted suicide was unthinkable. So was harvesting the organs of terminally ill patients, which is done today and approved by bioethicists.

Pushing the culture toward outcomes previously considered immoral is routine in bioethics. The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the nation's best religious journal (First Things), wrote, "Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional."

The Schiavo case is a breakthrough for persuading the public to lower the bar on moral constraints. Once we had a bright line between pulling the plug on patients kept alive by life-support systems and killing people like Terri Schiavo who are not on life support but merely being fed through a tube. Requiring clear evidence of consent is no longer required. In the Schiavo case, we have vaguely remembered consent from a party with a vested interest (the husband) some eight years after the patient was stricken. And though the medical and media people seem to agree that Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, there is some doubt that this is so. She has never been given a PET scan, one of the most sophisticated tests used to diagnose PVS, apparently because her husband refused to allow it. The killing of Schiavo is a scandal successfully redefined as unexceptional and therefore moral.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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