When ending life makes sense

When ending life makes sense McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 22, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 13
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > March 22, 2001 > When ending life makes sense

When ending a life makes sense

Renowned philosopher Peter Singer made the case for medical termination of human life at a McGill lecture on March 8.

Photo Professor Peter Singer
PHOTO: Owen Egan

With implacable logic, the man many describe as the founder of the animal rights movement attacked the ethic of the sanctity of life, which he feels "is no longer tenable" after prevailing for 2,000 years.

Singer noted that the current popular definition of death as brain death was adopted by every country in the developed world by bypassing the sanctity of life ethic, which, in theory, requires doctors to keep people alive, even when there is no hope of revival.

"This new definition of death was adopted without controversy. How is that possible? The assumption at the time was that this definition was based on new scientific discoveries," said Singer, a professor at Princeton University.

In fact, defining death as meaning brain death was adopted after it was recommended in a report by a Harvard scientific committee, but the report made no mention of new relevant scientific discoveries.

"It presented utilitarian reasons for brain death, such as the need for organs to be used in transplants.

"They disguised what they were doing, in fact. They couldn't argue that it's okay for us to open the chest of living patients, take out their heart and give it to a stranger. Instead, they said that these people are dead. People went along with it either because they just didn't realize what the committee was doing, or because they just saw no good purpose anymore to keeping vital signs going in a brain-dead patient."

The key issue in brain death is irreversible loss of consciousness. In many cases, once that has been established, ending life support is the only sensible option, according to Singer. He cited the case of a young man in Britain who was brain dead following a near asphyxiation.

"The doctors went to court for permission to remove his feeding tube. The judgement of the court was that his life was of no value to him, and that the feeding tube could be removed. It was a sensible decision, and it was incompatible with the ethic of the sanctity of life."

Singer argues that there are a number of situations in which human life no longer has any value.

"In some cases, doctors can decide that the life of a baby with severe birth defects has no value. That is a momentous decision, to say that an infant's prospects are so bad that its life should be ended. I wouldn't want to say that a child with condition A should die and that a child with condition B should live. That depends heavily on the parents, and how far they are willing to go to care for the child ... [but] it is a decision which is made by doctors every day."

Another exception to the sanctity of life ethic is physician-assisted suicide, "in which we have, by definition, a competent patient who wants to end his life." Singer addressed the "slippery slope" arguments advanced by assisted suicide's opponents.

"To argue that laws allowing assisted suicide will lead to more assisted suicide outside the law, you would have to have evidence that this has occurred in jurisdictions with euthanasia laws, such as the Netherlands. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite: there is more illegal assisted suicide when there is no law on the books."

Singer argues that society is in denial about what is going on every day, and that we need to start a dialogue about the conditions under which we can allow the ending of human life.

"Having these kinds of laws would simply mean that we're being more open about decisions which we are already making ... and setting up sound criteria, which would clearly not extend to the killing of anyone who wants to go on living."

During question and answer period, Singer was asked whether he feels that there is any value to suffering. He replied that some people have chosen to suffer in their last days; Sigmund Freud, for example, refused painkillers because he wanted to keep his mind clear.

"I don't think suffering, in and of itself, has any value; some choose to endure it because of some countervailing good, like being clear in the head or wanting to finish a novel... Certainly, I would strongly object to the idea that someone would require me to suffer in the last days or weeks of my life because they think that the suffering is a good thing, when I don't share that opinion."

Singer's lecture was the Annual McGill Lecture in Jurisprudence and Public Policy, presented by the Faculty of Law.

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