Peter Singer deplatformed in New Zealand for his stand on euthanasia of newborns

February 19, 2020 • 9:30 am

It seems to me that an enlightened philosophy would allow people to be able to end their lives in a humane way if they’ve undergone proper medical and psychiatric vetting. Some form of this “assisted suicide” is already legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, Victoria in Australia, and and in some states of the U.S. (California, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and—by court order—in Montana).

I further believe—and I’ve gotten into trouble for this—that we should also allow newborns afflicted with incurable conditions—conditions from which they will suffer and die young—to be euthanized humanely. The conditions under which I think this is not only allowable, but ethical, were first laid out in this post of mine.  I was aware at the time that philosopher Peter Singer had agreed with and defended this view, but I can’t remember whether I arrived at it independently or read it in some of his writings. No matter, for it’s a view that people need to consider, and of course Singer has defended this view far more extensively and ably than I.

For his views, Singer has undergone considerable pushback, and has been not only deplatformed, but subject to calls for his resignation from Princeton (he splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne). I, too, was subject to a surprising amount of publicity, nearly all negative, for my one website post about this. On her own website Heather’s Homilies, Heather Hastie defended my views, summarizing and answering some of the pushback I got (thanks, Heather!),  I also wrote about the surprising opposition to my views here and here.

The opposition, of course, comes largely from believers, who see euthanasia of any sort as “playing God.” I swear that some of these people are Mother-Teresa-like in preferring horrible suffering to a merciful end. After all, Jesus suffered! (That was Mother Teresa’s excuse.)

But others object because they see the euthanasia argument as a slippery slope, leading to scenarios in which we can do away with Grandma in the nursing home simply by signing a paper. It doesn’t work like that, of course, as the states and countries who allow adult euthanasia have strict regulations. And euthanizing newborns with horrible and fatal conditions, like anencephaly, is even more unacceptable. Even though such infants are doomed, there’s something about them having been born that makes the prospect of euthanasia especially appalling to people. Of course I agree that strict procedures, including the agreement of doctors and parents, are essential here, but since these infants will die I see no credible objection to letting them have a peaceful death.

Against the strong negative publicity and many emails I got saying I’m a latter-day Satan (I also got emails from some handicapped people accusing me of wanting to deprive them of life), I received several letters from nurses and doctors who, having seen infants suffer and die, agreed with me. But these people, understandably, don’t want their views made public. I stand by what I said, and Singer stands by what he said. The man is clearly no monster, as his books and papers on ethics are extremely humane. And he walks the walk, giving away lots of his own income to the poor. (I should add that Singer is a recipient of the honor of Companion of the Order of Australia, that country’s highest civilian honor.)

Singer has been deplatformed for his views on infant euthanasia (see here, for instance). And, according to the Newshub article below (click on screenshot, and see a similar piece in Think, Inc.), now a country that’s supposed to be extremely liberal and enlightened, New Zealand, has deplatformed him as well. Singer had a contract to speak at SkyCity in Auckland in June, but the venue canceled his contract.  And this was also due to his views on euthanasia.

Although Think, Inc. says that the Auckand incident shows that Singer “has been de-platformed for the first time in his 50-year career”, that’s not really true. Singer was disinvited from a philosophy meeting in Germany and also effectively deplatformed at the University of Victoria in British Columbia when shouting students made his talk inaudible. Those disruptions were also for his views on euthanasia of newborns, although Singer’s talk in Canada was about effective altruism, not euthanasia.

Anyway, the New Zealand story is here:


A quote from the piece above:

Singer, a philosopher who has been recognised both as the Australian Humanist of the Year and the most dangerous person in the world, was scheduled to appear at the Auckland central venue on June 14 for ‘An Evening with Peter Singer’.

However, the figure now says the event had been cancelled by SkyCity after a “news article attacking” his view that it may be ethical for parents to choose euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants.

“We decided that yes it was a reasonable decision for parents and doctors to make that it was better that infants with this condition should not live,” he has said.

On Saturday, Newshub reported that the New Zealand disabled community was frustrated by his appearance. Dr Huhana Hickey, who has used a wheelchair since 1996 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, said he wasn’t an expert in disability.

Do you have to be an expert in disability to know when a childhood condition or deformity is invariably fatal and causes suffering

Even Singer says it was the first time he was deplatformed, which mystifies me. But never mind. His contract was canceled because of a “free speech but. . ” argument (my emphasis below):

A statement from Singer on Wednesday said that this was the first time he had been “de-platformed” in his 50-year career.

“It’s extraordinary that Skycity should cancel my speaking engagement on the basis of a newspaper article without contacting either me or the organiser of my speaking tour to check the facts on which it appears to be basing the cancellation,” Singer said.

“I have been welcomed as a speaker in New Zealand on many occasions and spent an enjoyable month as an Erskine Fellow at the University of Canterbury more than 20 years ago. If New Zealand has become less tolerant of controversial views since then, that’s a matter for deep regret.”

A SkyCity spokesperson told Newshub: “Following concerns raised by the public and local media, SkyCity has cancelled the venue hire agreement for ‘An Evening with Peter Singer’.

“Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity.”

Is it “inclusive” to allow children born with only part of a brain, or a brain outside the skull—children doomed to die within days or weeks—to suffer before their deaths? For that is what this is all about. In fact, in September Kiwi citizens will have a referendum on the legalization of voluntary euthanasia for adults with less than six months to live.  At a time when they’re debating this, it is not only proper but essential to discuss the euthanasia of doomed newborns, who suffer but cannot give consent. As Wikipedia notes, “A poll in July 2019 found that 72% of the [New Zealand] public supported some kind of assisted dying for the terminally ill. Support over the past 20 years has averaged around 68%.” Why must the “terminally ill” include only adults?

In such a climate, it’s unconscionable to deplatform somebody for his views, especially when it’s not even clear that his “evening with Peter Singer” was going to touch on this subject. As the report notes above, nobody checked with Singer before canceling his contect.

Promoters of the talk are looking for a new venue, and I’ll report back if they find one.

Finally, here’s cartoon from Heather’s post, underscoring the futility of religion when it comes to helping the afflicted:

h/t: Paul

39 thoughts on “Peter Singer deplatformed in New Zealand for his stand on euthanasia of newborns

  1. With respect, there is a bit of a slip in that slope. I agree that for newborns facing certain death that euthanasia can be an ethical choice. As you say, the main difference in terms of the ethics of this question between adults with a terminal illness and children is consent. But therein lies the slipperiness, IMO.

    In a nutshell, I am bothered by this danger; a newborn with microencephalopathy cannot give consent but neither can a four year old with glioblastoma nor, legally, can an eleven year old with leukemia.

    I know laws can be constructed that safeguard these things, but the level of trust I have with the way our laws are enforced troubles me with regards to this issue.

    1. There’s a slip in every slope, so they say, but I think that if laws can be constructed to safeguard these things, as you seem to agree, then we should construct them. They will reduce suffering in the net.

      Nobody is saying that four year olds with glioblastoma or eleven year olds with leukemia should be euthanized without consent. But suppose the four year old has a prognosis of certain and painful death, and the eleven year old says he wants to die?

      1. Honoring the wishes of a child is a difficult one, that’s for sure. We (rightly) believe that haven’t the experience or the maturity to give proper consent.

        I think a day of reckoning is coming, for example, when adult transgender people start suing the adults who let them be “altered” as minors.

        I am not sure how it could be worked out to allow children a role (other than seriously listening to them) with euthanasia.

        I truly would not wish this kind of decision on my worst enemy.

    2. Hmmm. I just now followed the link to your original post on this. You address this very point.

      I should have read that first.

    3. I think it is something to worry about too. But, problematic enforcement of laws with regards to this issue is no different than problematic enforcement of laws regarding any other issue. Particularly any issue which involves consent, which is a lot of issues. Slippery slopes are everywhere.

      Which side to choose to err on in order to err on the side of caution is not always an easily discernible thing on issues like this.

    4. The risk of euthanasia abuse has to be weighed against the willful extension of a painful life. This seems like a real-life Trolley Problem. There seems to be no social cost to inaction but perhaps there should be.

    5. I agree. I particularly worry about differential legal treatment between poor and rich, which we know happens.

      For me, the way out of this is testing. We’ve got 50 states, let’s run a limited experiment and go from there. Give a number of willing states the freedom to allow it. Wait 10 years. See if they slip down the slope. See how their courts adjudicate tough cases. Expand on the policy (or pull it back) based on what you learn.

      I’ll admit I was leery and skeptical of physician assisted suicide even for terminal adults, because of the potential for slip. But Washington ran the experiment, and there wasn’t any significant slip. So now I’m okay with it.

      Unfortunately, our legal system is really geared towards a binary interpretation of rights and constitutionality. Something is either legal, period, or illegal, period. For “moving social targets” like this, I wish we had a bit more acceptance of “legal for them, for now, until we know more.”

  2. I wonder if guest speakers should adopt a contractual perquisite from Hollywood: the “pay or play” deal. I.e., make it financially painful (perhaps with an extra $ penalty) if the sponsor/venue deplatforms.

  3. Singer is a very humane person with a rational and consistently applied set of ethical principles that he has spent a lifetime expounding. It is astonishing that he is being silenced in this way.

    1. But alas not new – his _Writings on an Ethical Life_ (published 2000 or so) mentions him being “deplatformed” (or as I think it says, “disinvited”) on Germany, so …

      The sad thing is that he’s explained his viewpoint, including that he has a very different view of what adults with disabilities are about (i.e., his position has no consequences whatever about them) and what the very young are like …

      There’s an interesting volume _Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy_ which deals with some of this.

  4. “now a country that’s supposed to be extremely liberal and enlightened, New Zealand, has deplatformed him as well.”

    That seems a bit unfair to New Zealand, as it is really Skycity, a business, that has done this, not the country.

      1. Somewhat rich of Skycity given their main business is the not particularly socially useful business of gambling.

        BTW New Zealand will be having a referendum in September on whether to legalise voluntary euthanasia for those with a terminal illness and less than six months left to live.

    1. A bit unfair to NZ, but not entirely.

      In 2018 Massey University disinvited Don Brash, former governor of the Reserve Bank and former leader of the opposition, allegedly for safety reasons, almost certainly because of his conservative opinions on race, even though he would not have been addressing racial issues.

      That same year, two Canadian visitors, one probably an alt-righter, the other probably not, had their joint booking at a publicly owned venue cancelled after some people objected.

      There seem to be plenty of people, including politicians and spineless bureaucrats, willing to suppress rather than debate opinions they disagree with.

  5. I suspect that some of the pushback comes from people who have experience with a mental or physical disability that causes physical or social suffering; they see themselves (or their family members) somewhere far down that slippery slope, whereas in reality they are standing on the flat spot at the top of the slope and are in no danger of falling (or being pushed) down. Lots of disabled people live with some physical pain that is nothing like the suffering described in Singer’s writing, or in Jerry’s original post on this subject. Unfortunately, some of these individuals (or their family members), like the person with MS in New Zealand, mistakenly imagine themselves falling into the category of severe and unrelievable suffering that warrants euthanasia, like the newborn with trisomy 18 described in Jerry’s older post who was forced to live on a ventilator. They object to a practice that they mistakenly imagine would have denied them life. I think some of these objections are couched in slippery slope terms, but I suspect in many cases solipsism accounts for much of the resistance.

  6. I think Singer’s ideas are very thoughtful and deeply humane.
    I’m sure that only those who have not read his arguments, would even think of opposing him exposing his ideas. Moreover, as you point out Jerry, it was not at all clear he was even going to talk about infant euthanasia.
    With our modern social media someone can easily be smeared with a caricature of his/her ideas, and subsequently be vilified, not allowed to be considered seriously about anything.
    Shame on Skycity.

  7. Looking at that picture – it may come as a surprise to many, that not everyone with what is called a disability, wishes to be treated or cured. Some Deaf people for example. There is no one size fits all answer to this – each individual will feel differently. Some Deaf people – I mean culturally Deaf – will see attempts to ‘cure’ deafness, as an attack on their culture & sign language(s).

    Looking at it from a biological perspective, if one invests a lot of resources in an offspring, the loss of an older one should be worse because more effort has gone into rearing, & still has not reproduced, compared with the loss of a newborn. Some animal mothers will consume offspring in some stressful situations – I suppose a way of recouping the calories. (I am not proposing people eat babies!)

  8. I remember reading how, in the olden days, doctors would smother or otherwise end a deformed newborns life surreptitiously at the time of birth. I suspect this was for the best in most cases, but it leaves the decision up to one person. It would be much better to obtain the understanding of the society so that parents and other parties could be consulted in these cases. With modern testing, problems can be detected much earlier in the pregnancy and deliberation would be carried out over a longer period – probably making better decisions.
    How many very deformed infants end up in institutions when no one wants to accept responsibility for them?

    1. To me this question is the sole problem with the issue and with which I struggle to find an ethical answer; how deformed is deformed enough to justify smothering them? Beyond the ethical issues, there are real-down on the ground legal hornets nests aplenty. I suppose in some cases it is a no-brainer* but one can easily imagine the slope we’re on. Remember, they cannot consent to this.

      *sorry for the terrible, terrible joke.

      1. Regardless of how difficult the choice is on individual cases, eliminating that choice entirely doesn’t solve anything. It’s a horrible choice to have to make regardless of how the decision comes down, but it doesn’t mean we can just run screaming from the room.

        1. I agree Paul and I think I’m guilty of conflating issues of ethics with issues of legality. It comes from neither being subjects I’ve much studied. I think I’ll just sit back for awhile and see what others say on this.

    2. Rickflick: Not just olden days. When I was at school in the UK in the 1960s, our biology teacher told us his sister was a midwife. And according to her, when a midwife realised that a baby was anencephalic, she delivered it face down into a wet towel and reported it as a stillbith.

      1. I’ve watched the BBC dramatic program “Call the Midwife”, which makes me think Midwifery was more important in the UK than in the US. I don’t know if the program ever dealt with the midwife ending the life of an abnormal baby. They should have. Most of the births depicted took place in the home, which, I suppose, left more discretion than in a hospital setting.

  9. “Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity.”

    This doesn’t really sound like a Slippery Slope Argument— or even an argument at all. It’s an almost rote appeal to values, specifically those which deal with welcoming and accepting people so that they don’t feel excluded or unsafe.

    The point then might not be about Singer’s actual views, but how they’re perceived. Even if the philosopher successfully convinced SkyCity and virtually everyone in the audience to adopt his ideas regarding infant euthanasia, if just one marginalized handicapped person mistakenly still thinks they’re being targeted, that’s too high a price to pay. Moral dilemmas are hard: “I’m on the side of the oppressed” is easy.

  10. There is nothing ethical in killing a young child and there is nothing ethical in letting a young child suffer.

    What should we do? I don’t know, and I’m pretty sure nobody knows (but a lot of people pretend to know).

    So I’m probably in the “Pro Choice” camp for practical reasons,because I want to keep my options open; I don’t want to decide for other people, and I don’t want others to decide for me.

  11. I shocked my fellow undergraduates by pointing out that I was sometimes in favour of (voluntary) active euthanasia but less in favour of passive (or letting die) – since the former can be made painless (or near to) whereas the other condemns someone to arbitrary periods of pain (or numbness, if one allows a painkiller). No thanks on the latter.

    It is views like this that some people just have a hard time with. I asked my classmates whether or not suffering mattered absolutely or whether or not the amount did. Most saw where I was going and got the *Socratic* version of the numbness! (See the Meno bit about the electric eel/”torpedo”)

  12. I don’t see the point of using extraordinary measures to prolong life for a few months or even a year where there in not only no quality of life but there us intense suffering. Hospice is an option in the US. In England my understanding is that those measures are not taken. Morphine, hydration, and anti-anxiety medications can be used to end life without suffering.

    Slippery slope and moral arguments I believe are used to avoid taking personal responsibility for
    making decisons.

  13. I have tickets to see him speak in the middle of the year in Brisbane Australia. I wonder if we’ll see any similar shenanigans

  14. SkyCity espousing moral and ethical values? thats a crock, there is only one value they’re interested in and it has nothing to do euthanasia.

    …”now a country that’s supposed to be extremely liberal and enlightened, New Zealand”…
    Sorry but we struggle and trip over ourselves like any other country, we are always trying to improve our lot but no one I know would say this. BUT, in comparison to Iran we probably are.

  15. Late to the discussion but it should be pointed out that it is not uncommon for children, who are suffering (most commonly air hunger and pain from untreatable cancers in my experience), to have their suffering alleviated with medications which hasten their death (as a known, discussed, and expected side effect).

    Physicians have been managing this “doctrine of double intent” with families and the law for decades. My understanding is that the same is true for in adult medicine. I am not aware of any cases of “slipping down the slope” of wanton suffering alleviation for less than terminal problems.

    It is strange to me that euthanasia draws such resistance when in essence it is being practiced daily in all 50 states, UK, Canada, and Australia (likely other countries as well that I am not aware of). The only differences are how we describe/discuss it, and the doses/meds used. Let’s start calling it what it is.

    1. That sounds right. I think the practice should come out of the shadows and be acknowledged by society as an act of civilization.

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