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April 2003



Should the Baby Live?


Michael Poore



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 chair?


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 personhood.


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 newborn baby.”


Yes, Singer says, the position “I have taken on abortion also justifies infanticide…the intrinsic 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.”






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