Unresolved Problem
debate between Peter Singer & Bill O'Reilly
'The O'Reilly Factor', Fox News, April 29, 2005

O'REILLY: "Unresolved problem" segment tonight, dying with dignity. That's what the Terri Schiavo case was supposed to be all about, but I didn't see much dignity in starvation. Did you?

In Oregon, doctors are allowed to kill patients who are terminal and want to die. In Vermont, they're debating whether to do that. And in Holland, they not only allow euthanasia, but also at least two doctors there are killing babies born with catastrophic illness.

With us now, professor Peter Singer, who teaches bioethics at Princeton University, and is the author of the new book, "Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics.

Now part of the thesis in your book is that the opposition to euthanasia and infanticide in some cases, is religious based. Correct?

PETER SINGER, BIOETHICIST: That's right. I think particularly for what's happening in Oregon. I mean, I think most people support the idea that you've got a right to decide if you want to die. And if your physician is prepared to help you, then he should be able to help you write a prescription that you can take.

I think the opposition to that really comes primarily from people with religious convictions that say it's always wrong to take an innocent human life.

O'REILLY: Yes, because they believe that the life is a cycle that the Creator is pretty much in charge of. And that you shouldn't intrude on the Creator. And that's basically the basis of all our laws here in America about life, is it not?

SINGER: No, I don't think so. I think a lot of our laws are about individual freedom and should the state tell us what to do. I think that's a very strong American tradition that says, you know, the state should really back off, that it shouldn't try and rule our lives.

O'REILLY: But...

SINGER: It's a very private decision...


O'REILLY: What about people who don't want to live, you know, suicide people? Should they have the right to go into a hospital and say look, I don't like it here, I don't want to live and please kill me? Should they have that right?

SINGER: No, I don't think they should.


SINGER: Well, I think, you know, if you're not ill, and you really want to commit suicide, you can probably do it yourself.

O'REILLY: Yes, but why...

SINGER: You don't need a hospital.

O'REILLY: But if the state should back off and allow people their personal decisions, why not have somebody who's damaged psychically and doesn't want to live? What's wrong with that?

SINGER: Well, I mean, people may be making that sort of decision hastily. I think that, you know, if they consider -- I think people have a right to end their lives if they're thoughtful and considerate. But I don't think the state needs to get into...


O'REILLY: What about a six-month waiting period for suicide victims?

You see, I'm not making the moral distinction between the state allowing somebody to die, who -- like a baby who's born with Down Syndrome. Would you allow the state to kill the baby who's born with Down Syndrome?

SINGER: Well, I think we have -- if we have people who will adopt that child, if we assume the parents don't want it, of course, you know, parents will very often want to bring up that child. And they won't even be considering that.

O'REILLY: Well, say a parent gives birth to a baby, and the baby has Down Syndrome, and the parents are callous and selfish. And they don't want to raise the child. Does the state have a right to kill that baby?

SINGER: No, the state should offer that child to other people who will look after and care for that child.

O'REILLY: OK, but that's what they do now.

SINGER: Yes, that's right.

O'REILLY: But in Holland, you know, if the parent comes in and says you know, this baby's messed up, kill it. Two doctors there, it's going to -- then they'll kill it.

SINGER: They're not talking about Down Syndrome. They're talking about very severe cases where there's really no quality of life at all. That's very different from Down Syndrome.

O'REILLY: Does -- the doctor makes the decision, though?

SINGER: No, the doctors and the parents discuss it.

O'REILLY: Right.

SINGER: Look, you have to face it. The doctors make these decisions here, too. It's just that they do it by turning off the respirators. I've been in hospitals with my students, where the doctors very openly will say, and this is Catholic hospital, too, the doctors very openly will say that when a baby's quality of life is going to be really grim, when there's very severe brain damage, they will turn off the respirator and let that baby die, although...

O'REILLY: Will they consult with the parents before they do it?

SINGER: They will. In this hospital that I visited, they will.

O'REILLY: OK, because they can be prosecuted for that.

SINGER: I don't know. It's a gray area legally. If you're talking about turning off a respirator, that's a gray area.

O'REILLY: All right.

SINGER: I've not heard of a doctor who's been prosecuted for that.

O'REILLY: In the Schiavo case, the argument was that the parents wanted to care for the woman in the state that she was in, and nobody really knew what Terri Schiavo's wishes were. So in that case, if parents are willing to care for a Down baby, or any baby, and a woman in a vegetative state, I don't think the state has a right to override that. Do they?

SINGER: Well, in the Schiavo case, there was also her husband. Of course, no baby has a husband. So the Schiavo case was really a dispute about...

O'REILLY: Right.

SINGER: ...should the husband decide or should the parents decide.

O'REILLY: What the wishes were, right.

SINGER: And what were her wishes. And that's why I don't think it was a really classic right-to-die situation at all. I think it was all about these factual questions, what would she have wanted? Was she aware? Should the husband, should the parents...

O'REILLY: So you saw merit on both sides of the argument?

SINGER: I did see some merit on both sides.

O'REILLY: I'm shocked.

SINGER: Well, I mean, that's because I'm not just trying to, you know, take a down-the-line view on pro-life or...


O'REILLY: All right. So bottom line is...

SINGER: You have to look at the facts of each case.

O'REILLY: ...if you have a terminal disease, and you want to die, you believe that all doctors should be allowed to end your life. If it's terminal, if you're going and you want to do it?

SINGER: That's right. That's right. The timing and the method of your death should be yours if you're terminally ill.

O'REILLY: That coming in the USA? That's going to come, you think?

SINGER: Well, I think it could. I mean, it seems to me the Oregon experiment has been working. And I haven't heard big stories of abuses in Oregon that's been going for seven years now. It's a relatively small number of people...

O'REILLY: All right.

SINGER: ...who have used it.

O'REILLY: Thanks for coming in, Professor. We appreciate it.

SINGER: Thanks very much. It's good to talk to you.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Unresolved Problem', debate with Bill O'Reilly