Should the Baby Live?
Peter Singer has a bodyguard when he teaches philosophy. And he
teaches philosophy at Princeton University. In fact, he holds the
prestigious Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics tenured chair in
Princeton’s Center for Human Values. Singer is widely considered
to be the most influential living philosopher in the world.
Why would a world famous academic at a world famous university be
concerned about his safety? Quite simply, his ideas are a threat
to all sorts of people—the disabled and the pro-lifers are threatened by
his philosophy; pro-choice groups along with certain feminists are
threatened by his logic. And, of course, it is always possible
that the professor is engaging in a bit of political theater.
After all, how much threat is there from a disabled person in a wheel
Singer has gained widespread notoriety by advocating infanticide as well
as euthanasia (“mercy killing”) and physician assisted suicide.
His ideas are reminiscent of other philosophies in recent history that
have made judgments about “lives not worth living,” both in the eugenics
movement in the United States and in Germany.
“Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a
person. Very often it is not wrong at all,” writes Singer in his
essay “Justifying Infanticide.” However, if the parents wanted the
disabled baby to live, “this desire would then be a reason against
killing the infant.” Apart from the parent’s preferences, there
would be no moral basis for defending the life of the disabled newborn.
Killing the disabled baby, if the parents wanted to keep it, would wrong
the parents, not the infant.
In fact, Singer argues that it could be a positive good to kill the
disabled baby, if the parents could replace it with a healthy child.
He says that there would be no loss to the newborn since it is “not a
person whose life has begun”—it lacks self awareness and rationality and
is not able to see itself as existing over time, Singer’s criteria for
Greater happiness could be produced for the parents, who could then have
a healthy child. The second child would be happier than the
disabled child since it would not have to grow up with a disability.
On such utilitarian arguments (the greatest good for the greatest
number), Singer would view the disabled child as replaceable.
Not Dead Yet and other disability rights activists disagree.
Strongly! They are quite happy with their lives, and not willing
to concede that more happiness could have been produced if they had not
been permitted to live. They are not persuaded by Singer’s
insistence that he “has nothing against people with disabilities.”
They clearly understand the consequences of Singer’s ethics—being born
with an impairment could get you killed.
A few years ago Singer
suggested that parents should have 28 days to determine if they would
“keep or kill” disabled newborns. However, he has recently revised
that opinion since a set number of days increasingly appears arbitrary
and inflexible. Rather, he now suggests that the decision should
be made on a “case-by-case” basis. And he insists that it is the
parent’s decision alone, in consultation with their doctor.
It should be noted that
even a healthy newborn baby does not have the same claim to life as a
“person,” according to Singer’s philosophy. “Killing them cannot
be equated with killing normal human beings….No infant—disabled or
not—has a strong claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as
distinct entities, existing over time.” Singer certainly does not
want people going “around randomly killing babies.” But he insists
that restrictions would “owe more to the effects of infanticide on
others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.”
While it is Singer’s philosophy
that threatens the disabled and those who are pro-life, it is his
logic that angers pro-choice groups and certain feminists. In
the interest of logical consistency, he presses the point that there is
no “morally significant line of demarcation between an embryo and a
Yes, Singer says, the position “I have taken on abortion also justifies
wrongness of killing the late fetus and the intrinsic wrongness
of killing the newborn infant are not markedly different.” Thus,
he becomes the pro-choicer’s worst nightmare. He is an advocate of
abortion, but the logic of his position undermines the pro-choice
insistence that physical birth makes all the difference—before birth, it
is the mother’s choice; after birth, the baby has a right to life.
Peter Singer is a
revolutionary, and is not hesitant about portraying himself as such.
His goal is to overthrow the “old ethic” which originated in the
Judeo-Christian view that all people have worth since all are created in
the image of God. He would replace it with an ethic that defines a
“person” according to mental and physical abilities. In his
efforts to increase happiness and reduce suffering, some lives are
defined as “not worth living.” No wonder disability rights
advocates refer to him as “the most dangerous man in the world.”
And others refer to him simply as “Professor Death.”
Copyright © 2003 Michael Poore