Book review: Rethinking life & death

This book had, and still has, me thinking hard. What is life? What is death? Are some lives worth more than others? When is it ethically correct to take innocent human life? I found myself having to reconsider all my previous answers to these questions, and while I still can’t get my mind around the radical new ethic that Singer proposes in the last part of the book (also the most provocative part), I can definitely see that the man and the book has a point. The book WILL make you rethink life & death, it’s very well written, very clearly thought out, very well presented and (astonishingly for a philosophical work) highly readable.

It used to be obvious when a person was alive or dead, but as so often happens, new technology forces us to reevaluate existing ethics. TO mention just a few examples, respirators (invented right here in Copenhagen) allow us to keep people alive who would otherwise have died; we can now freeze eggs, sperm cells and even embryos and revive them later; and the increasing succes rate of organ transplants create an impetus to take organs from a still living body – thus killing the donor.

In Rethinking Life & Death, The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, philosopher Peter Singer offers a wildly fascinating look at current medical practices in western society, and demonstrates how they already violate our traditional, judeo-christian based ethic of “the sanctity of life”, which states that human life is sacred, and that consequently it is always wrong to kill innocent human beings. At its most extreme, this ethic holds that abortion is murder, euthanasia is murder (even with the patient’s consent), and we can never allow a human to die even in the case of brain death or people in persistent vegetatice states (where the cortex, the seat of consiousness, has been destroyed).

Singer offers countless reasons why the belief that human life is sacrosanct leads to absurd choices, and succesfully demonstrates that even those who promote that view don’t follow it.

Consider the Reagan administration, who were famously backed by the religious right-wing Moral Majority and whose position was supported by the then-Surgeon General of the United States, C. Everett Koop. You’d expect him to be firmly in the pro-life camp, doing all he could to save human lives, but here are some of his recommendations:

[When dealing with a baby born without a brain] We think it should be given loving attention and would expect it to expire in a short time. [ie. no respirator used].

[When dealing with a baby born without an intestine] We would consider customary care in the case of that child the provision of…food by mouth, knowing that it was not going to be nutritious… nor do we intend to say that this child should be carried on intravenous fluids for the rest of his life.

So a firm pro-life believer says let the infant die. And I agree completely. Singer covers many such cases, including the system they have in the Netherlands where doctors can legally help their patients die, provided it’s the patient’s own wish and that it is the last resort. Contrast this with the fate of Jack Kevorkian who is currently serving 10 to 25 years for helping people commit suicide.

Singer argues, that rather than define all human life as sacrosanct, it is more ethical to introduce a quality of life ethic. That some lives are… better … or more worthy of being lived. That for instance it might be ethical to take the heart from an anencephalic baby (one born without a brain) and transplant it into another baby born with a heart-condition that would otherwise kill it. In a recent case in Australia, two such babies were lying in the same ward, had the same blood-type, and the infant’s parents agreed to the transplant. Yet current ethics and law prevented the transplant and a few days later both infants were dead.

This is ethical dynamite, and Singer is a brave man for forcing us to evaluate these choices and for proposing a new ethic that is as clear-sighted, far-reaching yet still humane as the one he proposes in this book. Read it!

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