IT HAS BEEN more than 10 years since the disaster at Hillsborough football stadium. Ninety-six football fans were crushed to death that afternoon; yet the final victim, 17-year-old Tony Bland, didn't actually die there - at least, not technically. He was trampled so badly that his chest caved in and his lungs collapsed. Cut off from its oxygen supply, his cerebral cortex was destroyed within minutes.
Four years later, this is how Lord Justice Hoffman described his condition: "Since April 15, 1989, Anthony Bland has been in a persistent vegetative state. He lies in Airedale General Hospital ... fed liquid food by a pump through a tube passing through his nose...His bladder is emptied through a catheter... Reflex movements in the throat cause him to vomit and dribble. Of all this ... Anthony Bland has no consciousness at all. The parts of his brain that provided him with consciousness have turned to fluid. The darkness and oblivion which descended at Hillsborough will never depart. His body is alive, but he has no life in the sense that even the most pitifully handicapped but conscious human being has a life. But the advances of modern medicine permit him to be kept in this state for years, even perhaps for decades."
The justices decided not to let that happen. When they ruled, on February 4, 1993, that doctors could remove the feeding tubes and let Bland die, Britain's highest court made a reasoned decision to kill an innocent human being. Many people were outraged, but the Australian ethicist Peter Singer was not among them; in fact, Singer has argued for many years that euthanasia and infanticide are obvious necessities of the modern world. He wrote that the court's decision reflected "major shifts deep in the bedrock of western ethics," because Bland's death represented the collapse of a 2,000- year-old system of values - one that had enshrined the sanctity of human life, no matter how compromised.
"The day had to come, just as the day had to come when Copernicus proved that the earth is not at the centre of the universe," Singer told me not long ago. We were flying from Melbourne, where he lived, to Sydney, where he was to present a paper at a conference on reproductive genetics. "It is ridiculous to pretend that the old ethics still make sense when plainly they do not."
Singer is a lean, rangy 53-year-old, with a broad forehead and a ring of hair around his balding head which shoots in wisps straight into the air. He has a rich, deep baritone voice, but he doesn't like to use it; his words were so often drowned out by the drone of the jet engines that I had to ask more than once if he would mind speaking up.
"The notion that human life is sacred just because it's human life is medieval," he continued, talking about the treatment of the hopelessly ill. "The person that used to be there is gone. It doesn't matter how sad it makes us. All I am saying is that it's time to stop pretending that the world is not the way we know it to be."
Peter Singer may be the most controversial philosopher alive; he is certainly among the most influential. And as he settles into his new job as Princeton University's first professor of bioethics, his unorthodox views are being debated in America and beyond more passionately than ever before. For nearly 30 years, Singer has written with great severity on subjects ranging from what people should put on their dinner plates each night to how they should spend their money or assess the value of human life. He is always relevant, but what he has to say often seems outrageous: Singer believes, for example, that a human's life is not necessarily more sacred than a dog's, and that it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled, unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats. Yet his books are far more popular than those of any other modern philosopher. …