Should voluntary euthanasia be legalised?

Sydney Town Hall was alive with curiosity, awaiting the answer. A historic debate was about to begin. At the far left podium stood Professor Peter Singer, the Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and ? for his secular, utilitarian perspective on ethical issues. On the right, robed in white, Archbishop Anthony Fisher – Sydney’s ninth Catholic Archbishop, and holder of a PhD in Bioethics from University College, Oxford.

Peter Singer spoke first, immediately defining voluntary euthanasia as “physician-assisted suicide”. Singer emphasised that he was not an absolutist on autonomy, and then questioned why we, as humans, intrinsically considered killing a person to be wrong. Two reasons followed: firstly, it would be a violation of that person’s autonomy; secondly, that killing would deprive all good things that the person would have experienced if they had lived.

Singer then explained how depriving humans of their liberty to end their lives would in fact deprive them of their autonomy – a paradox of sorts – before concluding that, in a free society, euthanasia should be decriminalised and be an autonomous choice when all prospects of a good life have been eliminated.

Meanwhile, Fisher’s argument was structured around the idea that human life had intrinsic value. He focused on how the legalisation of euthanasia would begin a “bracket creep”, where vulnerable groups such as the elderly would begin to self-identify as burdens to society. Fisher explored how euthanasia would lead to a new social expectation of death, a reduction in autonomy, and health professionals becoming desensitised to death.

Fisher also spoke at length about a potential division in society which would evolve into an ‘us versus them’ mentality; the former being the healthy and the latter being those whose lives could be taken. Fisher’s central point was that the prohibition on killing was a cornerstone of human life, and past civilisations had set the correct precedent through heal/care ethics that used love and acceptance with no targeting of the vulnerable.

Forty minutes were then set aside at the end for a Q&A segment, during which Singer repeatedly refused to answer questions that fell outside the boundaries of the specific question of voluntary euthanasia. Questions such as whether persons living with dementia had the mental capacity to autonomously decide their fate roused significant interest, and whilst Singer declined to answer, Fisher used the opportunity to reinforce how vulnerable groups need protection.

In response to many questions, Fisher said that once the mindset of euthanasia acceptance was adopted, a new culture would be created that would lead down a very slippery slope. He noted that teenagers were being further isolated from parents, which could lead to larger social problems regarding abuse of euthanasia for temporary problems. Singer, on the other hand, argued that voluntary euthanasia had succeeded to a large extent in countries that had legalised it, and added that such legislation in Australia could be regulated and (as a last resort) rescinded.

With autonomy becoming regarded as an innate human value in our contemporary context, the question of whether voluntary euthanasia should be legalised holds more and more significance. The debate between Singer and Fisher led to no absolute or definitive answer, but nevertheless provided a platform for intellectual thought and active engagement in modern culture.

The live stream of the debate can be seen here: