The quality of mercy is not strain'd. It droppeth as
the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice
blest -- It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ' Tis
mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the throned monarch better
than his crown.
Eloquent as always, Shakespeare expressed the value our Western
tradition places on kindness, empathy, and charity. Along with
justice and faith, compassion is one of the pillars of our
religious heritage and is woven into the very fabric of our
Presumably, none of us would wish to live in a culture devoid of
compassion. We've seen the horrors of such societies all too
clearly in this century -- in the death camps of Nazi Germany and
the gulags of Soviet Russia. Their infamy is rightly condemned.
Although, as the movie Evita demonstrates, even fascists can adopt
the language of compassion to justify their rule.
But in the closing years of the 20th century, we are
encountering a disturbing phenomenon -- compassion run amok,
compassion divorced from its spiritual roots and politicized to
advance an ideological agenda. The liberal left has become
particularly adept at playing the compassion card, which
increasingly trumps every other consideration, including common
sense, decency, and social stability. Political compassion is never
cost-free. Frequently it is paid for in the coin of social
The great 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat spoke
of the seen and the unseen in the context of economic regulation.
Bastiat charged that when government interferes with the natural
laws of the marketplace, the benefit is readily perceived. The harm
that's done (to individual initiative, innovation and productivity)
is usually hidden, often taking decades to become apparent.
The same is true of political compassion. Its humanity is held
up for our admiration. Its dark side is only gradually
Calls for compassion color every aspect of our political debate
-- from affirmative action and Bosnia, to taxes and welfare. In the
name of compassion, we take jobs and educational opportunities from
one individual and bestow them on another to satisfy the
requirements of race or gender representation. To fuel the
compassion engine, government usurps 40 percent of the average
person's income. In the cause of international compassion, 20,000
American troops are stationed in Bosnia, an area that has
absolutely no bearing on our nation's security.
In the name of compassion, we've created a welfare state
undreamed of in the annals of bureaucratic history. For pity's
sake, we've spent over $5 trillion fighting poverty over the past
32 years. All of that compassion has bought us multi-generational
welfare families, 80 percent illegitimacy in some inner cities,
boys raised in homes without fathers, and rampant crime and
And there's more compassion on the horizon, in the form of the
current crusade for assisted suicide. Last week, the U.S. Supreme
Court heard oral arguments in two cases, Washington v.
Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill. The high court is being
asked to overturn federal appellate court decisions striking down
state laws against doctor-assisted suicide. Both cases were
originally brought by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization
deceptively designated Compassion in Dying.
The argument of the movement (variously called right-to-die and
death-with-dignity) is that terminal patients who are suffering
should be offered a dignified, painless way to end their lives,
that physicians should be allowed to give these victims peace
through lethal prescriptions. Assisted suicide is presented as the
humane alternative to months of fruitless suffering, the
dissipation of family savings, and the agony of watching a loved
one waste away before our eyes while we are helpless to relieve
On the other hand, there are troubling questions and a slippery
slope that seems to beckon. "Terminal" is a relative term. Doctors
have been known to make mistakes in their diagnoses. There's always
the very real possibility of coercion by unscrupulous relatives or
health care providers.
If assisted suicide is granted to terminal patients, how can it
be withheld from those who are nowhere near death's doorstep but
whose distress is every bit as real? What of patients who can no
longer consent, or administer a lethal dose themselves, but whose
existence is equally (as the movement would have it) devoid of
meaning? As Justice David Souter remarked in the course of oral
pleading, assisted suicide can easily progress into active
euthanasia or mercy killing.
We'll return to these concerns later. In the meantime, there's
another timely example of liberal compassion that demands our
attention -- the legalization of marijuana for medical
In November, credulous voters in California and Arizona passed
initiatives that would allow physicians to prescribe pot for a host
of ailments. The Arizona measure permits the use of other Schedule
I drugs as well, including LSD and heroin -- substances widely
renowned for their therapeutic qualities.
There's no age limit on either initiative. In California,
marijuana can be used on the verbal recommendation of one
physician. Proponents of the measure (called the "Compassionate Use
Act of 1996" -- there's that word again) used the suffering of AIDS
and cancer patients to win voter approval for what amounts to the
back-door legalization of pot.
In reality, the California measure also allows citizens to toke
up for (in its own words) "any other illness for which marijuana
provides relief" in the opinion of any doctor licensed to practice
in the state. This could include chronic headaches, back pain,
menstrual cramps, and stress.
Backers of the California law celebrated their victory by
getting high, doubtless, on the advice of their physicians. Dennis
Peron, who originated the initiative, later remarked, "I believe
all marijuana use is medical -- except for kids," words he would
never have uttered during the campaign.
The compassion gambit usually works like a charm, but not
always. Proponents of drug legalization managed to bamboozle the
voters of two states by playing on their natural urge to alleviate
suffering. Backers of assisted suicide have had the same success
with two federal appeals courts and voters in the state of Oregon
However, there are notable exceptions to the rule. The liberal
compassion appeal has failed with such controversial issues as
welfare (most people think recipients should be compelled to work),
illegal immigration (in 1994, Californians voted to eliminate all
but emergency services for illegals and their children), capital
punishment (the overwhelming majority of Americans don't care if
killers had miserable, deprived childhoods; they want them dead
ASAP), and gay marriage.
As to the latter, congressional passage of the Defense of
Marriage Act by overwhelming margins last year reflects public
sentiment here. In Hawaii (admittedly one of our most "progressive"
states), where a court recently declared that the government has no
"compelling interest" in limiting matrimony to a man and a woman, a
survey by the Honolulu Advertiser showed 71 percent of
residents opposed state sanctification of same-sex unions.
All of this leads one to speculate that self-interest, as much
as dispassionate concern for others, has a lot to do with the
public's susceptibility to compassion appeals. The average American
isn't a homosexual or (by definition) an illegal immigrant. It's
highly unlikely that he'll ever be on welfare or death row.
On the other hand, he reasons, he could become a terminal cancer
patient and experience excruciating pain. He might want an escape
from the burden of caring for a dying relative. He could contract
glaucoma or another aliment whose symptoms are said to be relieved
by lighting up a joint. This is compassion geared to the "me
In the case of abortion, whose continued legalization is said to
be favored by a confused and fractured electorate, our pragmatic
altruist reasons that he might end up with an inconvenient
pregnancy on his hands.
Abortion is a grotesque example of compassion's unintended
consequences. Twenty-four years ago this month, it was sold to the
nation generally (and the Supreme Court specifically) as pure
benevolence. Here's a woman -- single, poor, and pregnant. How can
we not sympathize with her plight? Why should her life be ruined?
Do we want her to court death through one of those fabled back-ally
abortions? We were assured that, when every child is wanted,
abandonment, neglect, and abuse would be things of the past.
The Court and a significant segment of the public bought the
compassion argument here. A quarter-century later, we have more
premarital sex (with all of the consequences thereof), more
illegitimacy, and soaring rates of child abuse, neglect, and
We also have one-and-one-half million abortions a year in this
country, most for convenience, many as de facto birth control. Our
national conscience is scarred by such horrors as partial birth
abortions, where all but the head of a late-term child is extracted
from the womb, surgical scissors are inserted at the base of the
skull, the brains are suctioned out, the head crushed and the now
lifeless body removed -- an atrocity defended by the President of
the United States, a man who can shed tears with greater ease than
any previous occupant of that office. And we have a pro-choice
movement driven by its demented dogma to deny the humanity of a
fully-formed child minutes away from birth, solely because of its
location in the mother's body.
If all of that weren't enough, there's a general devaluation of
human life at every stage, reflected in tragedies like the case of
Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson. Late last year, these clean-cut,
all-American kids delivered their baby in a Delaware motel room,
put the child in a trash bag, and tossed it in a dumpster with
other unwanted items, killing it in the process.
There is an inexorable logic to pro-choice advocacy. If an
unborn child in the seventh month of gestation is a thing to be
disposed of for convenience, why not a newborn? According to the
FBI, in 1994, 207 children younger than a week were murdered, a 92
percent increase since 1973. If this is the mercy of liberal
compassion, God save us from more of such loving kindness.
In light of this, we should survey the latest attempts to
inflict benevolence upon us skeptically, to say the least.
Consider the Dutch experience with euthanasia. While it's not
legal in the Netherlands, medical murder is tolerated in certain
circumstances. The Dutch medical society even has guidelines for
the procedure. It's supposed to be voluntary, for terminal patients
in the final stages of their illness who are in severe pain.
In practice, neither the nearness of death, unmanageable pain,
nor consent is necessary to set the Dutch killing machine in
motion. An article by Leon Kass and Nelson Lund, in the December
1996 issue of Commentary, mentions a 1989 survey of 300
Dutch physicians, in which 40 percent said they had performed
nonvoluntary euthanasia and over 10 percent claimed they had done
so five or more times.
Kass and Lund tell us that the most cited reasons for
nonvoluntary euthanasia were "low quality of life," "no prospect of
improvement," and "relatives' inability to cope." Patients' pain
and suffering was mentioned only 30 percent of the time. A 1983
study showed requests for euthanasia came most often not from the
patients themselves but from family members.
Last, yet another report, this one commissioned by the Dutch
government, showed that in 1990, besides 2,300 cases of voluntary
euthanasia and 400 instances of doctor-assisted suicide, there were
"more than 1,000 cases of active nonvoluntary euthanasia performed
without the patient's knowledge or consent, including 140 cases...
in which the patients were... totally competent." Kass and Lund
note that "comparable rates of nonvoluntary euthanasia for the
United States would be roughly 20,000 cases per year."
In his book Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and the
Dutch Cure, Dr. Herbert Hendin notes the case of a man in his
early 40s who was HIV-positive but showed no symptoms, whose doctor
assisted in his suicide. He also mentions a physically healthy but
emotionally distraught 50-year-old woman who was escorted to the
grave by her psychiatrist. Hendin remarks: "The Netherlands has
moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for
people who are terminally ill to euthanasia for those who are
chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia
for psychological distress, and from voluntary euthanasia to
involuntary euthanasia (called 'termination of the patient without
If assisted suicide is legalized here, how many terminal
patients would feel a responsibility to kill themselves to lift a
financial or emotional burden from their families? How often would
terminal patients request aid in dying while in the throes of
severe depression? (The information that you have months to live is
not conducive to calm reflection.) Would managed health care
persuade physicians and hospitals that they have a vested interest
in a terminal patient's speedy demise and thus incline them not to
be overly scrupulous here?
How many George Delurys would be licensed to be compassionate?
In July 1995, Delury mixed a Kevorkian cocktail for his wife, Myrna
Lebov, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis. Last March, the
Manhattan editor pleaded guilty to attempted manslaughter in her
Delury's lawyer said his client accepted the plea bargain of a
lesser charge fearing how the jury would react to excerpts from his
diary, in which he wrote of his stricken spouse, "You are sucking
my life out of me like a vampire" and referred to her "meat loaf"
existence. Lebov's sister, Beverly Sloane, said her brother-in-law
was guilty of "psychological coercion." "He made her feel like a
burden who was exhausting him."
"I tried to get her to concentrate on what she had, grit and
heart and spirit, and her mind. I tried to give her hope. He
concentrated on her limitations and emphasized them," Sloane says.
With the legalization of assisted suicide, multiply the Delury case
by thousands or tens of thousands.
Abuse aside, once the killing starts, where do we draw the line?
Isn't it unfair to those who suffer from debilitating, long-term
illnesses, who are years or even decades away from death, not to
offer them the same quick release provided to those who, in the
opinion of two physicians, have less than six moths to live? Most
of the clients Jack Kevorkian has buried were not terminal.
What of the chronically depressed, many of whom suffer as much
as patients in severe physical pain? What of those who are simply
tired of living, whose lives are devoid of most of what makes
living worthwhile? A society that embraces medical murder will soon
find irresistible arguments for extending the practice.
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, here is a
four-lane, interstate highway under construction. If the Supreme
Court buys the equal protection/due process arguments advanced for
assisted suicide, and Medicare and Medicaid get into the act, the
sign at the side of the road will read "Your tax dollars at
Recall that legalized abortion was initially sold by arguing the
hard cases said to make bad law (rape, incest, extreme youth, and
poverty). Now that it's a venerated right, its practice is nearly
unlimited -- any time, any place, for any reason, by any means,
regardless of the stage of fetal development.
While we're at it, let's ask a few hard questions about
legalizing marijuana for medical purposes. We begin by noting that
several years ago, at the request of the Public Health Service, the
National Institutes of Health surveyed the existing scientific
literature on the medical uses of pot. It concluded that for each
ailment considered there were more effective treatments without the
drug's dangerous side effects. The California and Arizona
propositions were opposed by the American Medical Association, the
American Academy of Opthamology, the American Cancer Society, and
the National Multiple Sclerosis Association.
While the medicinal qualities of marijuana remain in the realm
of theory (the claims are mostly based on anecdotal evidence), the
dangers are well documented. Today's marijuana is considerably more
potent then the stuff inhaled by my contemporaries during the
The children of women who smoked marijuana while pregnant are 10
times more likely to develop a rare form of childhood leukemia as
well as being far more apt to have low IQs and behavioral problems.
Marijuana disrupts short-term memory, impairs learning, and damages
the lungs. It suppresses the body's immune system, aggravating
diseases like tuberculosis, asthma, glaucoma, and multiple
sclerosis. HIV-positive pot-smokers advance to full-blown AIDS
twice as fast and have an increased incidence of bacterial
Of those who use pot regularly (100 times or more), 75 percent
will graduate to cocaine. Marijuana also lowers inhibitions. When I
was in college, popular wisdom held that alcohol makes you violent
but pot acts as a sedative. Sometimes, perhaps. Certainly not for
condemned killer Richard Allen Davis who was high at the time he
murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas.
I don't know anyone who maintains that marijuana improves motor
skills, enhances driving performance, or makes it easier to operate
chain saws, cranes, and locomotives.
Among the young, marijuana use is soaring. According to a
government-sponsored survey of 50,000 students in elementary and
secondary schools, among eighth graders pot use tripled between
1991 and 1996.
Each year, we spend the equivalent of the GNP of a third-world
country urging kids to "just say no." How can we expect them to
heed this urgent message if society simultaneously declares that
pot is good for what ails you? If marijuana is medicine, how can it
harm you? This quack remedy from the Cheech and Chong pain-relief
clinic will result in a general rise of addiction and attendant
Besides focusing on hidden consequences and real motives, the
best way to counter the left's misuse of compassion is by putting
the matter in its proper context. In the Shakespeare quotation I
began with, the Bard goes on to observe that mercy "is an attribute
of God himself; and the earthly power doth then show likest to
God's, when mercy seasons justice."
The danger lies in severing compassion from its religious roots.
Shakespeare alludes to the fact that the Western ideal of charity
comes directly from our spiritual heritage. The first recorded case
of kindness is Abraham's. The Bible tells us that the patriarch
would sit in the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day,
waiting for visitors to approach. He would run to greet them, lead
them to his dwelling, wash their feet and hands, and feed them.
Later, Abraham argues with God, in an attempt to dissuade the
Almighty from destroying what is essentially a city of strangers,
who are (almost without exception) evil.
Compassion is the basis for choosing a wife for Isaac (the woman
who gives drink to a servant and draws water for his thirsty camels
as well). Leviticus commands the Israelites to leave the corners of
their fields unharvested for the widow and orphan. It enjoins them
not to oppress foreigners in their midst, "for you were strangers
in Egypt." The name of one of the biblical heroines (who refused to
leave her bereaved mother-in-law) became synonymous with compassion
or pity -- ruth -- as well as its absence, ruthless.
In the New Testament, there's the parable of the Good Samaritan
and the example of Jesus feeding the multitude and intervening to
save the woman accused of adultery.
How often does God command the Children of Israel to emulate him
-- "as I am merciful, you be merciful. " Compassion gives us the
greatest opportunity to imitate the divine.
But, as my friend Father Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute
reminds us, compassion comes from the Latin meaning not "to give
to" but "to suffer with." Sometimes compassion means giving, and
sometimes the truly compassionate course is to withhold.
A slightly inebriated vagrant approaches you on the street
asking for spare change. Is it compassionate to give him a dollar
toward the purchase of a bottle of cheap wine or to steer him
toward a shelter, a hot meal, and a warm bed?
In 2 Thessalonians (3:10) Paul urges, "If a man does not work,
neither let him eat." Was the Apostle being cruel, or expressing
the profound understanding that by giving the man who can work the
means of a life of idleness we rob him of every shred of dignity
and ultimately starve his spirit to death?
Is it compassionate to give the terminal cancer patient a lethal
drug, or to sit with her, hold her hand, and let her know that
she's not alone and that her life still has meaning? Knowing of the
anguish that comes from a needle, a spoon, or a wrapper, is it
compassionate to legitimize addiction?
Is it compassionate to facilitate a society in which the weak,
the sick, and the handicapped can be disposed of for convenience or
Is it compassionate to help the individual and society to
violate one of God's most important laws -- thou shalt not murder
-- with the knowledge of what that sin will do to the soul of one
and the conscience of the other?
It seems to me that what's needed is clear-eyed, unsentimental
compassion -- hard-headed soft-heartedness if you will, compassion
that is holistic, that treats the whole person: body, intellect,
and spirit. Else the face of compassion is often cold and brutal
beneath the mask of concern.