Emotions flare at bioethics debate

By Mike Dinoffria, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday June 08, 2002

xA debate between Peter Singer and Nigel M. de S. Cameron titled “What Does It Mean to Be Human” promised to touch upon on its implications on a number of topics including human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia and abortion.  

Singer believes that society should have the choice to determine whether people with certain handicaps should live. 

However, the focus of the debate and the theater of the evening revolved Singer’s proposition in his opening comments that the subject of the debate was more accurately described by the title “What does it mean to be one of us.”  

This came as no surprise to those in attendance who were familiar with Singer, many of whom were there to protest the event, based on views the professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University has expressed in the past. Singer favors, among other things, embryo experimentation and the allocation of heath care resources. Groups representing the rights of people with cognitive disabilities and pro-life stances were among those outside the Calvin J. Simmons Theater carrying signs and chanting to make sure they were included somewhere in the “us” Singer spoke of.  

Carrie Lucas, representing We Are not Dead Yet, a national grassroots disability rights group, was among those who felt that the quality of life for people like her son, who has a cognitive disability, would be greatly compromised if Singer’s opinions affect decision-making in the arena of health care.  

“One of Singer’s points of view is that people with cognitive disabilities are not people. My kid is definitely a person. There’s no doubt about it,” said Lucas, whose child was with her to protest. 

Twice the debate was interrupted. Singer handled both incidents calmly and with poise. The second time, he replied to the disruption that he was not there to win votes but to make sure the audience was thinking critically about the subject.  

Singer’s debate opponent was Nigel M. de S. Cameron, a board member of “The Center for Bioethics and Culture” who along with the “Life Legal Defense Foundation” presented the event. The crowd heavily favored the less controversial viewpoint that Cameron defended. His condemnation of legal euthenasia in Netherlands and in the state of Oregon was met with applause. 

At the end of the debate, the floor opened for questions from the audience. One came from a man with cerebral pulsy who asked Mr. Singer to look him in the eye and tell him that he should not be alive. That stare-down marked the impass that was this debate.