Life or Death

When talking to Prof. Peter Singer, you don’t get the impression that you’re talking to a monster. His views on what constitutes an ethical life might be diametrically opposed to 2,000 years of Catholic moral teaching and might even be construed as monstrous as seen through a God-centered view of the universe, but Peter Singer the person is intelligent, affable, complex and serious.

For years he has held one of the most prestigious positions in academia as an ethics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Born in Australia, Singer has written and taught extensively on the topic of ethics. If his views frighten Catholics, we should know that he is respected elsewhere. He has been credited with helping found the modern “animal rights” movement with his book Animal Liberation.

My objective in interviewing Singer was not to engage him in some kind of ethical warfare, because I disagree so strongly with so many of his premises — as I suspect the vast majority of our readers do. But I believe it is important for us to know how people who disagree with us think and how they have come to their conclusions.

Some of what you are about to read might shock you. It might anger you. But read on with a seriousness of purpose. Singer is not merely a fringe figure. His views might not be completely mainstream, but his position in one of the most important academic institutions in the world makes it imperative that we pay attention to what he has to say.

At the end of 2004, the Groningen Academic Hospital in the Netherlands announced a new medical protocol whereby infants who are deemed to be suffering too much and/or stricken with severe disabilities may be administered lethal doses of sedatives to bring about their demise. Known as the Groningen Protocol, this new development in the world of euthanasia was the impetus for the following interview with Dr. Peter Singer, the holder of the bioethics chair at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.

According to the Groningen Protocol, deformed or suffering newborn infants are euthanized by doctors at the direction of parents. Does this reflect a position you have been promoting?

Well, I think it’s something I’ve been suggesting can be defended in certain circumstances, so I think it’s a smaller step than many people think beyond what already happens in hospitals not only in the Netherlands but also in the United States, and, in fact, in Catholic hospitals as well.

 That is, decisions are taken in hospitals to assess the condition of infants with serious problems to discuss those issues with parents and, in some cases, to withdraw life support even though the infant could live perhaps indefinitely, but on the basis of the decision that this infant’s quality of life is going to be very poor and it’s therefore not best to keep that infant alive. So I think it’s a smaller step than many people realize, when you think about what is already going on and what in fact most people, including Catholic theologians, are prepared to accept.

This protocol allows human beings to be killed by the acts of the doctor. How can you equate that with the Catholic teaching of not using heroic or extraordinary means to support life in certain situations?

I wouldn’t exactly equate it, but I would say there is not a really morally significant difference. It’s possible to distinguish these things with the use of fine arguments of what are ordinary and what are extraordinary means or measures.

But I think in substance, morally speaking, there is no significant difference in both cases.

How are they morally the same?

We have an assessment of an infant’s condition, we have consultation, we have a decision that it is better that life should not continue. Then we have steps taken that have the result that the infant dies. I think whether this is done by withdrawing extraordinary means of life support or whether this is done by active euthanasia is not really the crucial issue. The crucial issue is always the decision whether the infant’s quality of life is so poor it is better it should not live.

Do you have any thoughts as to why movements such as the Groningen Protocol have their starts in places such as the Netherlands?

Yes. Well, certainly I do think it’s better to be open about this. I think there’s an enormous amount of hypocrisy that goes on in terms of people who talk about the sanctity of human life and criticize those who support active euthanasia but are in fact supporting actions that have a similar effect. Perhaps in the United States, for political reasons or something like that, people have not talked openly about this because they don’t want to confront those who support the sanctity of life.

There’s a certain tendency, I think, to pay lip service to it, to say one thing and do another, in the United States. I think the Dutch have a lower tolerance for that. They actually are a little more blunt, a little more direct. … So it’s all up there right in front for critics to get into and attack. And what goes on in the United States and other countries is much more difficult to discover.

You separate the species part of human beings from the personhood of humans through standards such as being able to plan for the future, having an understanding of one’s environment and having a pronounced sense of self-awareness — that is why you have the position that newborn infants do not possess a complete personhood.

Yes. I’m looking for what it is that might make a morally significant distinction between beings who have the fullest right to life, if you want to put it that way, from those who don’t have such a serious right to life. I don’t think that distinction can be just whether you happen to be a member of the species Homo sapiens or not, irrespective of the characteristics or capacities that you might have. I think there’s something wrong with assuming that every member of the species Homo sapiens is somehow a more morally significant being than every member of every other species.


Obviously this is a premise on which the Catholic Church would seriously disagree with you.

If you look at the Catholic tradition, of course. If you believe every human being has an immortal soul and no non-human animal has an immortal soul you would differ from my views on that.

Are there conditions such as severe mental illness where you can see involuntary euthanasia as an ethical choice?

Well, I mean we have to make sure we’re talking about a case where there is no capacity to make an informed judgment, a considered judgment, and there is no previous statement of the person’s wishes or intentions, then clearly if someone is suffering greatly and there is no hope of recovery, I think any human person would say we shouldn’t keep this patient alive.

Do you find yourself more of a lightning rod of controversy when you give lectures?

It certainly happens that a lot of people take objections to what I say, but that’s the nature of philosophy. It goes back to Socrates; the role of the philosopher is to stimulate people to think critically about assumptions they normally take for granted. I think if I wasn’t doing that I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.

How much do you think your way of looking at things will gain ground? Does that depend on the universities?

It’s partly education, but it’s also partly that there are developments in technology that force us to be clearer about our values in some of these questions we’ve been talking about, like the sanctity of life and the treatment of newborn infants and things that we’re forced to re-examine because technology opens new possibilities to us. … For example, severely disabled infants used to just die anyway, whatever anyone did, because we didn’t have the medical means to keep them alive very long, so there was no real moral issue there.

We could all say yes, every life is precious, but tragically we can’t save these lives. Now we’ve got the means to save them and we have to ask the question, “Do we want to save them?”

Suffering, and the possible good that can be wrought from it, is a cornerstone of Catholic teaching. Would it be fair to say you reject that premise altogether?

If you go to the dentist, that dentist might hurt you, but you get a relieved pain in the long run. So yes, sometimes we have to go through a certain amount of suffering for a greater good.

But it seems to me that the Catholic view of suffering as a good in itself more or less is one they need to come up with because otherwise it’s difficult to believe that a God could have created a world with so much suffering in it. In fact, I think even with that view, it’s very difficult to believe that because there is a lot of suffering animals go through that is presumably not redemptive for them in the way that Catholics believe suffering is redemptive for humans. To me, it’s still a bit of a mystery that anyone can really believe that this world was created by a God who was both omnipotent and benevolent.

But putting that aside, I would say Catholics who hold this view of suffering in connection with the topics we’ve been talking about like euthanasia should be free to choose to suffer to the very end, but they shouldn’t impose those beliefs on others. If other people want to avail themselves to voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide or write living wills that they would like their life ended if they were no longer capable of making decisions like that about themselves, then I think it’s wrong for Catholics to stand in the way of people who don’t share their religious beliefs and who don’t share their views about the positive aspects of suffering.

I would like to thank Professor Singer for taking the time out of his holiday to speak to me by phone from his home in Melbourne, Australia.

As a note of clarification, it is important to understand that Professor Singer does not limit his withholding personhood from only disabled infants as the following quote from page 225 of his book Writings on an Ethical Life makes abundantly clear:

“In the modern era of liberal abortion laws, most of those not opposed to abortion have drawn a sharp line at birth. If, as I have argued, that line does not mark a sudden change in the status of the fetus, then there appears to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion or allow infanticide.”

With all due respect to Professor Singer, I must answer that quote with one I found within the body of work of G.K. Chesterton:

“MAN is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.”

Robert Brennan

The Catechism vs. Singer

Quality of Life

Peter Singer: The crucial issue is always the decision whether the infant’s quality of life is so poor it is better that it should not live.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible. Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable (Nos. 2276-2277).

Extraordinary Means

Singer: Asked the difference between Catholic teaching on extraordinary means of life support and the practice of allowing severely handicapped infants to die: “I would say that there is not a really morally significant difference.”

Catechism: Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected (No. 2278).

Human Dignity

Singer: I think there’s something wrong with assuming that every member of the species Homo sapiens is somehow a more morally significant being than every member of every other species.

Catechism: The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation. … The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection that civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined (No. 2273).


Singer: It seems to me that the Catholic view of suffering as a good in itself more or less is one they need to come up with, because otherwise it’s difficult to believe that a God could have created a world with so much suffering in it.

Catechism: Although set by God in a state of rectitude, man, enticed by the evil one, abused his freedom at the very start of history. He lifted himself up against God and sought to attain his goal apart from him.

As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin.

Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many … so that they might be ransomed from the futile ways inherited from their fathers.

Apart from the cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven (Nos. 415, 418, 622, 618).