Considering the right to death

- November 21, 2014

Peter Singer speaking at the Schulich School of Law. (Nick Pearce photo)
Peter Singer speaking at the Schulich School of Law. (Nick Pearce photo)

The “right to life” debate has been in the public eye for quite some time now, but recently the debate over the "right to death" — the ability of individuals to end their lives when facing terminal health concerns — has taken centre stage, particularly in North America.

Peter Singer spoke last Friday at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law about this very debate and, despite the Haligonian weather, the turnout was impressive: even the overflow room was overflowing.

The talk was this year’s Sir Graham Day Lecture in Ethics, Morality, and the Law, a series named after the noted Dal Law grad and former university chancellor.

Dr. Singer is perhaps one of the most influential moral philosophers of our time. He is most well-known for his 1975 book, Animal Liberation, but also writes about the ethics of death, as in Rethinking Life and Death: A Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1995). Dr. Singer is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, as well as a laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.

“It is significant to be here in Canada talking about this topic at a time when your nation is making important decisions in this area,” said Dr. Singer. The Supreme Court of Canada is hearing a case that will decide whether assisted suicide violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just last spring, Quebec passed its end-of-life care bill, allowing terminally ill Quebecers to receive medical aid in dying.

“This is, I think, a particular part of a broader ethical shift in our thinking about life and death,” Dr. Singer explained. His stimulating lecture explored how social changes — such as the decline of widespread religious belief, shifting views of our relationship with animals and the advancement of medical technology — have played a role in the evolution of our ethics.

A changing ethical framework

For example, the advent of the respirator had a huge impact on our definition of what it means to be dead. Respirators allowed patients’ hearts to keep beating when their brains were no longer functioning.

“So, doctors said, ‘Well, what are we going to do now?’” Dr. Singer explained. “’How are we going to fill up our intensive care wards with patients who have no hope of any recovery of consciousness whatsoever but whose hearts are beating, who are breathing, whose bodies are still warm?’”

Then, in the 1960s, came Dr. Christiaan Banhard and the first heart transplant, which took place in South Africa.

“That led people to realize that these people whose brains are no longer functioning could in fact be used to save the lives of other people who have prospects of longer survival,” said Dr. Singer. These events all led to the decision that patients’ whose brains were no longer functioning could be considered to be dead.

Dr. Singer continued to describe the lead-up to ethical decisions about death like the one being made right now in Canada. The stimulating talk ended with a long Q&A session, wherein people asked ethical questions of all kinds, with topics including mental illness, abortion and the controversial nature of suicide.

If you missed the lecture and want to hear more, you’re in luck: Dr. Singer’s talk will be the inaugural entry in a new lecture series featured on CBC Radio One in the new year.  


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