Jewish World Review March 4, 2003 / 30 Adar I, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Killing them softly | They are both professionals: She's a lawyer, he's a professor. When they first met, she was surprised to find him solicitous and gentlemanly. It sounds like the start of a '40s romantic comedy, doesn't it?

He is known for arguing that people like her could justly be killed in infancy.

Disability-rights lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson described her exchanges and confrontations with Professor Peter Singer in a fascinating New York Times Magazine article, "Unspeakable Conversations," published February 16. They met when she showed up to protest a speech Singer gave in Charleston, SC, and reached its height when Johnson spoke at Princeton last March at Singer's invitation. She is still conflicted over her response to him. She believes that his philosophical positions--which have garnered him equal parts condemnation and acclaim, and brought him the honor of a professorship in Princeton's University Center for Human Values--are the moral equivalent of Nazism.

Yet she noticed that when they met, he did not seem "totally grossed out" by her severe disabilities (she is a diminutive woman with a long braid and a slumped spine; a muscle-wasting disease has left her "a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin"). Singer treated her courteously and engaged her on a purely intellectual plane. She does not know whether she should have accepted his invitation to debate him. Was that treating his arguments as if they are within the boundaries of reasonable discussion, rather than treating him as if he were a courteous, intelligent Klansman? Some of her friends in the disability-rights movement chastised her for hobnobbing with the enemy.

Johnson did not want their debate to become a forum in which she had to prove that her life had value. She didn't think that position should be up for debate. But she agreed to the event nonetheless, thinking it would be "an unusual opportunity to experiment with modes of discourse that might work with very tough audiences and bridge the divide between our perceptions and theirs." She hoped she might "reach a student or two"--and besides, the trip would make "a great story."

Simply by showing up and presenting her life story, Johnson proved part of her case: A disabled woman's life can be as full, as joyful, and as meaningful as a non-disabled life. It was obvious that she had not been condemned to a life of endless, pointless pain. Johnson answered students' questions and provided evidence that the beliefs about disability that drive debates about Singer's positions (and about assisted suicide, the other topic on which she spoke while at Princeton) are often flawed, exaggerating the suffering of the disabled in order to cast a glow of benevolence on the act of killing them.

But in the end, Johnson's article is as eloquent in its silences as in its words. Johnson found herself unable to refute Singer's intellectual stance, although she knew it was morally repugnant. This is because Singer's conclusions follow directly from his premises; to refute the former the latter must be entirely rejected. And on the deeper issues, the premises on which Singer's arguments rest, many Americans are much more Singerite than they realize.

Singer begins with two premises: First, that the right to life is not derived from being a human individual, but rather from being a "person," a being with some degree of self-awareness and ability to assess preferences. And second, that actions that cause, or fail to prevent, suffering (of persons or non-persons, though the suffering of persons may well be worse) are unethical. Suffering is an evil to be avoided at all costs; it has no meaning and no value.

Singer articulated this view early in his career; I read it in his book Animal Liberation when I was a preteen, and I can still remember the passion with which he promoted the animal-rights position. He quoted Jeremy Bentham's statement, "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? But rather, Can they suffer?"--and I found, when I began writing this article, that I remembered that line almost verbatim, so deep was the impression Singer's work made. In order to end the suffering of animals, Singer called for an end to meat-eating, fur-wearing, and all the other uses to which humans have put animals. In order to prevent the suffering of humans, Singer has justified the killing of newborns who show profound disabilities. These humans will only lead lives of pain, burdening their parents, he argues. Why not let the parents start afresh, the failed child forgotten, in the hopes that their next child might be healthy?

Singer argues that his position is the logical extension of the abortion-rights movement. A fetus cannot think; can a baby? A fetus has no memories; neither has the infant. A fetus has none of the habits, reflectiveness, or consciousness that we encompass in the term "personhood"; a newborn demonstrates little more of these qualities. Singer argues that the difference of location--in the womb versus outside--does not magically confer a right to life. If a fetus lacks "personhood," and it is persons (not individual human lives, which begin at conception) that law and ethics should protect, then a newborn too lacks personhood and thus should lack protection.

Johnson never gives us her own position on abortion. But an exchange she had with her sister sounds like today's political debates--the only difference is that it is infanticide, and not feticide, that they are discussing:

[Johnson argues,] "He's only giving parents a choice. He thinks the humans he is talking about aren't people, aren't 'persons.'''

[Her sister replies:] ''But that's the way it always works, isn't it? They're always animals or vermin or chattel goods. Objects, not persons. He's repackaging some old ideas. Making them acceptable.''

By Singer's own definition, and the definition of personhood used by many, many supporters of legal abortion, the infant is not a person. Maybe not an object--a very cute animal, with the first dawnings of self-awareness, like a kitten or a puppy. But nothing more. And kittens and puppies, however sweet they may be, can be "put down" when their lives become a burden to themselves or their owners. Johnson fails to respond to Singer's "personhood" argument, and so she cannot fully answer his argument for selective infanticide.

Of course, most parents will not have any reason to seek their newborn's death. But if they believe the child will lead a pain-filled and burdensome life... suddenly euthanasia becomes more tempting.

That's why Johnson rightly points out that disabled people generally do a lot more than just sit around suffering and taking up other people's time! George F. Will has also pointed out that Singer has been mistaken about the effects of Down's Syndrome. But saying that Singer misidentifies which babies will likely lead lives composed of more-suffering-than-average is not really a refutation. It is instead an invitation for Singer to refine his targets, perhaps focusing on genetic predispositions toward depression or schizophrenia rather than physical disabilities.

Johnson tacitly accepts Singer's premise that suffering is inherently evil; she is only arguing that she suffers less than he thinks. She writes, "[L]ike the protagonist in a classical drama, Singer has his flaw. It is his unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently 'worse off,' that we 'suffer,' that we have lesser 'prospects of a happy life.'"

In order to fully reject Singer's infanticidal stance, we have to affirm two premises: First, that individual human lives--not "persons"--have value and deserve legal and ethical protection. Second, that suffering is not the greatest evil; lives of great suffering can also be lives of great worth and nobility. We rightly seek to reduce suffering through technological advances, but when people must suffer, their lives do not become less valuable than happier lives. If we do not affirm these positions, we are Singerites still, however much we may seek to deny it.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet