Wesley Smith

Wesley Smith and 'intelligent design' at the Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute's Wesley Smith is at it again. In his latest anti-assisted-dying tirade published by LifeNews.com, he promote lies about the Dutch Groningen Protocol, despite my published detailed analysis — of how that regulation actually works in practice — providing ample evidence to disprove Mr Smith's polemic theories.

Creationism…with lipstick

Wesley Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute (DI). That's the organisation that promotes ‘human exceptionalism’ (the concept that humans are theologically pre-eminent in the universe), opposes the foundations of evolution, and controversially attempted to have ‘intelligent design’ taught as science in Pennsylvania public schools. The Pennsylvania District Court tossed out DI's ‘intelligent-design-as-science’ argument on the basis that:

“Teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (and Article I, Section 3, of the Pennsylvania State Constitution) because intelligent design is not science and ‘cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.’” — Middle District Court of Pennsylvania

Intelligent design is, after all, merely creationism…with lipstick.

Mr Smith is also the fellow I've previously busted for promoting the false ‘suicide contagion’ theory about Oregon, and cherry-picking his way through other ‘evidence’ to fuel another of his polemics.

More nonsense — this time the Groningen Protocol

And now he's at it again. In his latest anti-assisted-dying tirade, he says this:

“Although technically illegal, infanticide happens regularly in Netherlands without legal consequence, and a bureaucratic checklist was published that determines which babies can be killed. Showing the direction of the current, the Groningen Protocol§ (as it is known) was published with all due respect and without criticism, in the New England Journal of Medicine.” — Wesley Smith

Mr Smith does nothing but parade astonishing ignorance and bias with this statement.

The facts

From my extensive and detailed research about the Groningen Protocol published in the Journal of Assisted Dying, Mr Smith ought to know that:

  • Neonatal euthanasia occurs around the world whether it is regulated or not. It occurs, for example, in France, where there is no protocol and no adult assisted dying law, at a rate far higher than the Netherlands.
  • The Groningen Protocol is lawful in the Netherlands and has recently been overhauled and further strengthened.
  • Its provisions are considerably more strict than are those of the Dutch euthanasia Act for decisionally-competent minors and adults.
  • In the nine years since the Protocol came into effect, there have been just two cases of neonatal euthanasia, both for cases of Herlitz type epidermolysis bullosa, a fatal and untreatable illness characterised by extreme internal and external blistering.
  • That compares with twenty two cases, mostly in relation to spina bifida, in the nine years prior to the Protocol coming into effect.
  • The Protocol was subject to considerable criticism from opponents when it was first published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Highly relevant too is that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology also argued in 2006 (not long after the original Groningen Protocol was published in NEJM) for neonatal euthanasia to be possible in extreme cases in the UK.

Not the only criticism of Mr Smith

Mr Smith has been criticised before by others for selectively using evidence and being:

"prepared to bend the truth to make a point, turn a stomach, and potentially radicalize a reader." — Matthew K. Wynia and Arthur Derse, Medscape

Perhaps Mr Smith doesn't care for the facts getting in the way of a good polemic? While he's entitled to his opinions, by repeatedly bending the truth and making statements contrary to the readily-available evidence, I argue that Mr Smith directly undermines any apparent 'authority' he claims for his musings.


The recurring pattern of resorting to misinformation reveals a lack of any real argument. I challenge Mr Smith to lift his game or retire his quill.

§ Mr Smith links ‘Groningen Protocol’ to a blog published by the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition which is run by Canadian Catholic Alex Schadenberg. That blog is in turn based on a blog published by the Catholic online blog Mercatornet. The Mercatornet blog is itself a reproduction of an article by Dr Felipe Vizcarrondo who was a Clinical Bioethicist at Georgetown University (a Catholic and Jesuit institution), and  which was originally published in Linacre Quarterly, the journal of the USA Catholic Medical Association.

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The more anti-euthanasia campaigner Mr Wesley Smith publishes, the more I think he’s missed his true vocation as a comedian. His latest comical gig against assisted dying is a gem.

Mr Smith starts with the case of two Californian doctors found guilty of Medicare fraud: billing fake hospice care for patients who weren't terminally ill. He artfully turns the story into a series of anti-assisted-dying gags.

Who’s on first, What’s on second?

Mr Smith directly connects the money-grabbing fraud case with the Obama administration, ribbing us that the President and federal authorities won’t hold doctors accountable for breaking assisted suicide law. Mr Smith, an attorney, is holding his breath to see if his audience figures out this little joke: oh, the confused jurisdiction names… right!

The Death With Dignity laws are State laws. If the law is broken it is State responsibility to pursue and prosecute offenders. The Feds have no jurisdiction. If, however, Medicare has been defrauded then it’s a Federal matter (FBI): and the Feds did indeed investigate and prosecute.

It’s a bit like the Laurel and Hardy confused “Who’s on first, What’s on second” name sketch, isn’t it? But only if you get it. Grin.

I say, I say, I say: what’s worse—being evil or being dead?

Mr Smith then refers to the case of Michael Freeland, an Oregonian dying of lung cancer who considered using the Death With Dignity Act. Citing himself and referring to the physician who prescribed lethal medication, Mr Smith compares Dr Peter Reagan with the Medicare fraudsters, saying that Dr Reagan “regularly takes on patients solely for the purpose of facilitating their suicides.”

Defamation is always good for a cackle. It’s so droll, like saying that Mr Smith “opposes assisted dying solely because of the great value of redemptive suffering whether others agree or not.” Which, of course, your dear writer is not saying (because Mr Smith has already stated on the record that he doesn't think suffering is redemptive). I’m just saying, you know, for laughs.


Wesley Smith jokes that Dr Peter Reagan is both evil and dead.

To add even greater mirth, Mr Smith describes Dr Reagan as “now late”. OMG, I've met Dr Reagan and he’s a top fellow. He’s died!? No, he hasn't. Fortunately, like Mark Twain, Dr Reagan happily reports that news of his death has been greatly exaggerated.

Phew, comic relief—what a hoot.

The Clause you have when you’re not having a Clause

Mr Smith then tells the one about how doctors ordinarily have to comply with an accepted medical “standard of care,” but that “death doctors” (love those stereotypes, chuckle!) only have to act in “good faith,” which, Mr Smith razzes us, is quite hard to assess. Oh. Awkward audience silence; a cricket chirps. Um, punchline please?

You have to supply your own punchline for this quip I’m afraid, because Mr Smith rather absent-mindedly forgets to. The Oregon Death With Dignity Act 1997 says explicitly in Clause 126.885 §4.01(7), “No provision [of this Act] shall be construed to allow a lower standard of care…”

Ah, more comic relief: the old 'pull-the-wool-over-your-eyes' caper, chortle.

The flip-flop routine 

But the most comical gag is the one I reckon Mr Smith doesn’t even realise he’s told: the joke that we’re all going to die from lethal prescriptions, artfully developed by featuring someone he carefully points out didn’t take the lethal prescription. We just love a good flip-flop. LOL.

Oh, that and teasing us that the Medicare fraud case in which the purpose was to get more money is a great story against assisted dying whose purpose, he banters, is to get less (save) money. Double flip-flop: Ta-ching!

Loud guffaws and applause all round.

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Wesley Smith never seems to tire of spreading opinion. In another piece of published nonsense, he's proposed that USA's rise in national suicide rate is in significant part a consequence of assisted dying law in those few states that permit it (up until the most recent general suicide data that's Oregon, Washington state, Vermont and Montana). His claim flies in the face of actual evidence.

Wesley Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Remember that? It's the organisation that a USA Federal court ruled pursues "demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions," and which comprehensively lost a test case in which it tried to have 'intelligent design' (that's creationism with lipstick) taught as a 'scientific' alternative to evolution.

In a piece recently published by conservative blog NationalReview and reprinted in pro-life LifeSiteNews, Mr Smith has asserted that assisted suicide has a significant part to play in the rising USA national suicide rate. "Color me decidedly not surprised. We are becoming a pro-suicide culture," he asserts.

"I am convinced that the correlation [between assisted suicide advocacy and the general suicide rate] could also be at least a partial causation."

On the matter of rhetoric, notice how Mr Smith cleverly mixes certainty ('convinced') with uncertainty ('could') in order to hedge his literal argumentative bets while giving the impression of valid authority. Ultimately, however, being certain about uncertainty can only be... uncertain.

Mr Smith argues from a USA Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that the national suicide rate increased more after 2006, "the very time when the assisted suicide movement has become the most vigorous and made its most dramatic advances [emphasis is Smith's]." He offers not one shred of quantitative empirical evidence to support his contention that the assisted dying movement's 'vigor' changed suddenly and substantially from 2006.

So, what does analysis of relevant and readily-available data show? I've reproduced the USA national general suicide rates obtained from the USA government's CDC online database, plus unemployment rates obtained from the USA government Bureau of Labor Statistics online database in Figure 1. (The suicide data does not include deaths under state Death With Dignity Acts because under these Acts such deaths are not suicides.)

USA national suicide and unemployment rates

Figure 1: USA national suicide and unemployment rates


The national annual suicide rates are shown in red, and the unemployment rates are shown in blue with linear regression lines for before and after 2006. It's easy to see that prior to 2006 the unemployment rate peaked at around 6%, while after 2006—and clearly in response to the global financial crisis (GFC)—the rate peaks much higher at nearly 10%.

Suicide is indeed a complex phenomenon, with a wide range of both risk factors (e.g. unemployment, mental illness, substance abuse) and protective factors (e.g. mental illness mitigation programs, unemployment benefits), and it would be glib to assert only one or a few factors. Nevertheless, Figure 1 demonstrates a clear correlation between trends in unemployment and the overall suicide rate.

Correlation is of course not causation: though I will in a future report show how extensively common this correlation is around the world and over time. Nevertheless, the data, had Mr Smith bothered looking for it, offers a vastly more rational and compelling explanation of the rise in suicide rate than does some hokey theory about how just 325 rational adults in two states (Oregon and Washington state Death With Dignity Act deaths in 2014) who were already dying and quietly and privately chose to go a little early in response to intolerable suffering, caused the suicide rate amongst 319 million inhabitants (2014) across a nation of fifty states, to rise by a "huge and alarming" amount.

Mr Smith backhandedly acknowledges that there are multiple causes of suicide. "There is no question that assisted suicide advocacy is not the only factor causing this alarming increase in suicides," he says, presumptively positioning his hypothetical reason as definitely one of them.

Mr Smith does refer to a recent journal article by David Jones and David Paton that purports to show a weak link between assisted dying and the total suicide rate (with the weak link appearing only if assisted deaths are counted as suicides). I have analysed that paper in detail and shall deal with it in due course. How it passed peer review (if it was indeed peer reviewed) remains a mystery. The study is of an unacceptably poor standard on a range of facets as I will demonstrate.

In conclusion, did the CDC report that Mr Smith cites suggest that 'assisted suicide contagion' was a possible cause of the increase? Nope.

It's really time that Mr Smith and colleagues gave the misinformation campaign a rest.

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The Council of Europe chamber in session.

On the 25th January 2012, the Council of Europe passed declaration 1859 on advance care planning. Immediately, lobbyists opposed to assisted dying loudly proclaimed that the resolution banned euthanasia across Europe, when it did nothing of the sort. What actually happened?

Declaration 1859 on advance care planning

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe passed declaration 1859 on 25th January 2012. The declaration was about advance care planning, which allows patients to inform others about what treatments they would or wouldn't want if they become unable to participate in treatment decision-making.

The declaration made the explicit point that it was about advance care planning and not about euthanasia or assisted suicide.  It made the point that non-voluntary euthanasia is unacceptable—that is, that others should not make death-hastening decisions about a person for their 'alleged benefit'. This is an important point on which both sides of the assisted dying debate can agree.

Council of Europe resolutions are informative to members, but are not binding.

Misstatements by opponents of assisted dying

Despite this simplicity and clarity, the very next day after the vote, a host of conservative religious organisations and commentators began trumpeting that "the Council of Europe banned euthanasia across Europe." It started with the Catholic Church (through its online service Zenit) and sprinted right around the world in a matter of days—even appearing eventually in a professional journal paper two and a half years later.

What really happened: the evidence

But no matter how often and how loudly lobbyists try to claim that the Council of Europe banned euthanasia across europe, it did nothing of the sort.

Read the forensic analysis of the misinformation trail in the F files, here.

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The Council of Europe chamber in session.

Here’s a clear example of mistaken information (misinformation) — more commonly known as ‘bull’ — published by conservative opponents of assisted dying law reform. In this case, lobbyists and commentators misreport by fudge: by cherry-picking and repositioning a declaration of the Council of Europe, asserting that it ‘banned euthanasia' throughout Europe.

It did nothing of the sort.  So what actually happened?

The Council of Europe

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe (not to be confused with the Brussels-based European Union or its strategic advisory body the European Council or representative body Council of the European Union) commissions careful studies into various subjects of importance to its member states.

In 2011, the Council’s  Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee conducted a study called “Protecting human rights and dignity by taking into account previously expressed wishes of patients.” Its purpose was to make recommendations about advance care directives, and enduring powers of attorney—also known in some jurisdictions as guardianship.  These are preferences, documented in advance by a person, which help ensure his or her healthcare wishes are respected and honoured at times when the person can’t currently decide and speak for him or herself. The Committee’s report was handed down as Document 12804.

Wednesday January 25th 2012

On January 25th 2012, declaration 1859 regarding the Committee’s report came before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) for consideration and a vote.

After most delegates had left the very lengthy session, some remaining delegates moved an amendment to the declaration. While it was procedurally their right to do so, they made the attempt only when some five sixths (268 of 318) of their Council colleagues were absent.  

David Pollock of the European Humanist Federation describes the delegates pushing the amendment as:

“an unlikely alliance of the Catholic Church and evangelicals like Pat Robertson who is behind the European Centre for Law and Justice.”

As a result, a statement mentioning euthanasia was added to the original declaration and was passed by (a tiny) vote.

You can read the entire declaration here.  It’s less than two pages.

Now, what the declaration has to say about ‘euthanasia’ appears exclusively in Clause 5, and Clause 5 says in its entirety:

“5.   This resolution is not intended to deal with the issues of euthanasia or assisted suicide. Euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit, must always be prohibited. This resolution thus limits itself to the question of advance directives, living wills and continuing powers of attorney.”

Notice that the clause contains exactly and only three short sentences.

  1. The first sentence is explicit and unambiguous: the declaration is not about euthanasia or assisted suicide.
  2. The second sentence makes it abundantly clear that hastened-dying decisions made by persons other than the patient themselves but alleged to be (i.e. by others) for a ‘dependent’ patient’s ‘benefit’ are unacceptable. Declaring against such non-voluntary euthanasia is a fundamental principle on which both sides of the assisted dying debate can agree. The resolution does not speak against voluntary euthanasia: that is, when a competent patient chooses assisted dying for themselves.
  3. The third sentence reiterates clearly that the declaration deals only with advance directives ('living wills') and continuing powers of attorney (persons granted the legal power to make decisions consistent with the advance directive). Note that the declaration wording does not even speak against assisted dying options within advance directives where permissible by law (e.g. as in the Netherlands), because these are made voluntarily by a competent patient on their own behalf and not by someone else for some 'alleged benefit’.

So, the declaration is not in conflict in any way with the laws of member states which already have assisted dying laws. Nor does it preclude other member states from introducing assisted dying laws.

Indeed, the declaration is not in conflict because the adoption of declarations by each member state is voluntary. It is incorrect to represent in any way that a Council of Europe declaration is a ‘determination,’ ‘ruling,’ ‘ban,’ ‘prohibition’ or other form of obligation upon its members.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Dr Stephen Latham, Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics at Yale University, states unequivocally in his blog on bioethics:

“… it’s a mistake to report it [the declaration] as a condemnation of assisted suicide, or to anticipate that it will have strong effect on pending cases involving assisted suicide.”

Dr Latham rightly points directly to the explicit declaration statement that it “is not intended to deal with the issues of euthanasia or assisted suicide." He further affirms that the European Court for Human Rights (a court of the Council of Europe) has held that Article 8 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms protects the individual’s choice to avoid a painful and undignified death.

So, despite the clarity of the declaration, how long did it take for opponents of assisted dying to publish mistaken information about it?

Thursday January 26th 2012

Within mere hours of the vote, cherry-picked bull began charging around the globe.

Bolting energetically out of the paddock was the Catholic online newspaper promoting Vatican opinion, Zenit. Proclaiming jubilantly, “Anti-euthanasia ruling hailed as major victory”, Zenit stumbled at the first hurdle of truthfulness —the declaration was not, in any sense, a ‘ruling,’ nor called for a blanket “prohibition of euthanasia” as its lead paragraph states.[1]

Off to a similarly agile start was Dr Grégor Puppinck, Director General of the conservative Christian lobby group the European Center of Law & Justice — who you will remember David Pollock described above as in an alliance with the Catholic Church and others.  Published on the Catholic Family-backed Turtle Bay and Beyond blog, this article was wrongly titled “Major victory for life in Europe: euthanasia must always be prohibited.”[2]

For good measure, Dr Puppinck’s opinion piece, complete with alternate headline “Victory: Council of Europe adopts resolution against euthanasia”, was published the same day on the USA Christian/Catholic pro-life website LifeNews.com.[3]

Similarly, Christian/Catholic pro-life website LifeSiteNews.com's John Westen published a piece the same day titled "Major victory for life in Europe: ‘Euthanasia must always be prohibited'".[4]

Also on the same day, the conservative European think tank European Dignity Watch’s headline likewise cherry-picked words from the declaration: “Council of Europe bans euthanasia”.[5]

Wasting no time, the Swedish Christian “Yes To Life” group trumpeted the mistruth “Council of Europe prevents euthanasia in Europe!”  (The Council of Europe would be very talented indeed if it could actually “prevent euthanasia across Europe".)[6]

Canadian Alex Schadenberg’s Euthanasia Prevention Coalition also repeated the same cherry-picked nonsense with the headline “Council of Europe states that: ‘Euthanasia must always be prohibited.’”[7]

Friday January 27th 2012

Well-known UK Catholic journalist Simon Caldwell was only a shade slower out of the blocks just one day later.  His article’s headline in UK’s Daily Mail rates a comprehensive fail for saying “Euthanasia ‘must always be prohibited’, rules Council of Europe.”[8]

Saturday 28th January 2012

Another day later and the UK Telegraph republished the story, misstating “Assisted suicide should be illegal through Europe, human rights body rules.”[9] (While this article had no by-line, its copy was remarkably identical to Simon Caldwell’s pieces in the Daily Mail [above] and UK Catholic Herald [below]. Caldwell is a known writer for the Telegraph.)

Monday 30th January 2012

Simon Caldwell followed up with the same article in the UK Catholic Herald, again with a false headline “Euthanasia should be banned across Europe, rules Council.”[10]

Also on 30th January, Catholic-founded Australian Family Association's Paul Russel uncritically republished Alex Schadenberg’s opinion piece on their anti-voluntary euthanasia campaign site “HOPE”.[11]

Tuesday 31st January 2012

Not to be outdone, the next day the Patients Rights Council (formerly the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide), an anti-euthanasia lobby group consisting essentially of two people (Rita Marker and Wesley Smith), uncritically summarised Simon Caldwell’s Daily Mail opinion piece.[12]

Wednesday February 1st 2012

On February 1st the polemic was republished in CathNews in Australia, with false headline “Council of Europe says ban euthanasia.”[13]

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney republished on its youth engagement website xt3, with the headline “Euthanasia should be banned across Europe, rules Council.”[14]

Friday February 3rd 2012

By February 3rd, the Church of England Newspaper had jumped on the bandwagon, misstating “Council of Europe assemby [sic] calls for ban on euthanasia.”[15]

So did the Scottish Catholic Observer with an extra dose of hyperbole: “European human rights body rules that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be banned in every country on the continent.”[16]

The misinformation was repeated on the Irish Catholic web portal CiNews, the blog site of conservative USA Christian organisations the Population Research Institute and The Moral Liberal, the Catholic parish for Wymouth Our Lady Star of the Sea, in an opinion piece by Catholic British Peer David Alton, the Perth Catholic Archdiocese LJ Goody Bioethics Centre, the Australian blog site of Catholic News Jesus Caritas Est, … I think you get the idea.

No wonder Yale University’s Dr Latham mused dryly in his blog:

“… a number of different publications are mistakenly alleging that PACE has called for a permanent ban on assisted suicide.”

September 19th 2012

Later in the year I was kindly invited to speak at a Brisbane public forum on the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia hosted by the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties. Mr Yuri Koszarycz, then recently retired lecturer in bioethics, ethics and church history from Australian Catholic University, spoke for the opposing position. Given the audience were paying to listen to our respective pearls of wisdom, it was paramount that our material be properly researched and backed by good evidence.

Yet Mr Koszarycz dropped the “R” bomb (amongst others) in his presentation: yes, he asserted that the Council of Europe had ‘ruled’ against euthanasia, when it clearly had not.

July 17th 2014

Dr Grégor Puppinck (remember, he’s Director General of the European Center of Law & Justice) makes another appearance, this time as the lead author of a paper published in the International Journal of Human Rights[17]. In it, he rails against his perception that when reviewing cases of assisted suicide, the European Court of Human Rights ‘ignores’ Council of Europe declaration 1859. To support his argument, he quotes the single sentence “Euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit, must always be prohibited” (p 746).

The paper’s discussion quite omits the two crucial, framing sentences, so a reader unfamiliar with the declaration’s original text would not know that it said it is “not intended to deal with the issues of  euthanasia or assisted suicide” and that it is about “living wills and continuing powers of attorney”. No wonder the European Court of Human Rights doesn’t believe that declaration 1859 is crucial when considering cases of assisted suicide: declaration 1859 is about advance care planning!

Indeed, a reader of the journal article could be forgiven for wrongly deducing, on the basis of the only sentence quoted by authors Puppinck and de la Hougue, that the Council had ‘banned euthanasia’.  It most certainly had not.


So let’s recap what happened. The primary facts are:

  1. The Council of Europe passed a declaration (#1859) about advance care planning—not about euthanasia or assisted suicide (it explicitly said it wasn't).
  2. The declaration spoke only against non-voluntary euthanasia (NVE)—not against voluntary euthanasia (VE) about which it contained no statement of any kind.
  3. Council declarations are in no way 'rulings', 'bans' or 'prohibitions' on its members because member adoption is entirely voluntary.

Yet despite the clarity of the declaration, quite a number of anti-euthanasia lobby groups and commentators, commencing the very next day and starting with the Catholic Church (through Zenit) and the European Centre for Law and Justice, published editorials mistakenly stating that the Council of Europe had ‘banned euthanasia': in other words, spreading bull.

A question that could be asked is this: how did it happen that so many anti-euthanasia individuals and groups published misstatements so closely together in both interpretation and in time?

[17]  Puppinck, G & de La Hougue, C 2014, 'The right to assisted suicide in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights', International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 18, no. 7-8, pp. 735-755.

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