Marlowe's Shade

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Euthanasia Hall of Shame: Peter Singer

In my descent into the world of the right-to-die movement, Australian bioethicist Peter Singer, darling of animal rights activists is a recurring presence. Should it be surprising that a philosopher who would have us give more consideration to animals advocates less consideration of infants and the disabled? Cal Montgomery at the disability rights website The Ragged Edge has written the best indictment of Singer's work I've seen yet.

He argues that in order to have an interest in staying alive, you have to be a thinking, self-aware being and have an understanding of yourself as a being which endures through time. Following philosophical tradition, he calls such beings "persons," in order, as he says in his 1993 book, Practical Ethics, "to capture those elements of the popular sense of 'human being' that are not covered by 'member of the species Homo sapiens.'" Only persons, he says, can be said to have an interest in living and a right not to be killed; non-persons, by definition, cannot.

Obviously, wherever Singer's ideas are accepted as the basis for policy, it becomes a vitally important thing to be seen as a person. Infants, for example, are seen as non-persons. According to Singer they may therefore be killed with far less justification than would be required if they were understood to be persons. Certain adults to whom labels such as "persistent vegetative state" (PVS), "profound mental retardation" and "dementia" are attached may also be killed with less justification, according to Singer.

It would be okay, for example, to kill a "non-person" if you did it because everyone else's preferences would be more likely to be fulfilled if that individual were removed from their lives: that's one justification Singer gives for letting parents kill newborns expected to become disabled children. If parents, freed of responsibility for the disabled infant, were able to try again, says Singer, both they and the non-disabled child they'd ultimately raise could expect to live happier lives.

"We know," he says in his 1994 book, Rethinking Life and Death, "that once our children's lives are properly underway, we will become committed to them; for that very reason, many couples do not want to bring up a child if they fear that both the child's life and their own experience of child-rearing will be clouded by a major disability."

Another justification Singer offers for killing a "non-person" is that it frees "persons," or society, from what they may see as the "burden" imposed by the life of a "non-person." In Practical Ethics, which is often used as a textbook, Singer advocates making it legal to kill disabled infants up to 28 days after birth as well as older "non-persons with disabilities."

The problem disability advocates have with being labeled non-persons is an understandable one.

Is life with a disability any more "clouded," as Singer terms it, than life without a disability? And if so, what should we do about it?
Several studies focusing primarily on people with severe, stable disabilities suggest that people who have been disabled long enough to become accustomed to it rate their quality of life similarly to non-disabled people. The medical professionals treating them, though, tend to underestimate their subjective quality of life.

"Many people assume that living with cerebral palsy means that I am endlessly confronted by my body's limitations," writes human services consultant Norman Kunc in a1995 article with his wife, Emma Van der Klift. "Actually, this is not my experience. Having cerebral palsy means living a life in which innovation, improvisation, creativity and lateral thinking are essential." The description of his life that Kunc offers readers makes it sound more like a dance than a diminishment. While some people with disabilities do attribute significant frustration to disability, it is clear that frustration is by no means a necessary consequence of impairment.

People with disabilities do often find their preferences frustrated in ways that people without disabilities do not. But that frustration is not inherent in their impairments. Rather, it arises from an environment -- physical or social -- which is not designed to accommodate all members of the human race.

What, then, ought we do about that frustration? To offer a parallel: Is the selective infanticide of daughters in societies where boys are offered many more opportunities than are girls an acceptable practice? The girls' lack of opportunity is not intrinsically connected with being born female; nonetheless, the parents and the child they will eventually raise can expect better prospects if daughters are "replaced" by sons. Singer's theory could, therefore, be used to justify the practice of killing off infant girls, thus guaranteeing sons to parents who want them. To date he has not offered that justification.

"I question whether Princeton would hire a faculty member who argued that parents should be permitted to kill their infant daughters so that they could have a son," says National Council on Disability chairperson Marca Bristo. And yet prejudice against people with disabilities is so much more pervasive and unquestioned than sexism that promoting identical methods directed against us raises no concern.

Singer has been roundly condemned by disability advocates like Not Dead Yet, who were at the forefront of the fight for Terri Schiavo's life.

"Peter Singer is attempting to establish a philosophical foundation for denying disabled people the equal protection of the law and killing us for his version of the greater good," says Not Dead Yet's Diane Coleman. NDY, she continues, "considers his appointment a major affront to our minority group, a serious threat to our lives and, hopefully, it will also be a wake-up call for the entire disability movement."

Singer has been named by Time Magazine as one of the world's top 100 thinkers and holds a chair at Princeton University's Center for Human Values.
papijoe 6:52 AM