Fact Sheet on Peter Singer

Background

Peter Singer, recently appointed to a tenured chair at the Center for Human Values, begins his first semester of teaching at Princeton University in October, 1999. Princeton University is a prominent leader is shaping national policy on bio-ethics.

Singer is arguing for major policy changes: people with significant cognitive disabilities and infants with any known disability should be killed when there is a benefit to the non-disabled people around them to having them removed.

The first targets of Singer's proposed policy changes are people with cognitive disabilities, perhaps the most devalued members of our community. It is time for all of us to come together in strength to oppose any threat to any one of our brothers and sisters.

It's not about academic freedom, it's about hate speech.


Personhood

According to Singer, to be ethical, we must treat all "persons" according to moral guidelines. But not all humans are "persons." Singer claims that in order to be "persons" and to deserve moral consideration, beings must be self-aware, and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time.

Singer claims that no newborn infants are "persons." He claims that some people with life-long cognitive disabilities never become "persons" at any time throughout their lives. And he claims that some people who acquire cognitive disabilities through injury, Alzheimer's Disease, or other means cease to be "persons."

Singer says that killing a "non-person," even if it is human, does not carry the same moral weight as killing a "person."

Infanticide

It may be all right, according to Singer, to kill infants. Because they are not "persons," they have no interest in staying alive, and it is only superstition that makes us think that killing them is intrinsically wrong.

Singer is quick to note that it is still wrong to kill most infants, for other reasons. The killing of an infant would, in most cases, make the parents unhappy. Second, in the cases where the parents do not want the infant, there are other couples and individuals who would like to adopt the child, so the child should be kept alive and put up for adoption.

But infants with known disabilities, and especially cognitive disabilities, he says, do not bring the same amount of happiness into the lives of their parents. Additionally, the very fact that someone is disabled means that he or she will have an unhappier life than other people. And therefore the reasons not to kill non-disabled infants do not apply to disabled infants.

Singer argues that it should be legal for parents to decide to have their disabled infants killed up to 28 days after birth. This way, he says, parents could have non-disabled replacements. In addition, the infants would provide a source of organs for transplantation to other infants who could grow up to be non-disabled.

Euthanasia

It may be all right, according to Singer, to kill people whose doctors claim they are severely cognitively disabled. Although Singer doesn't give a list, we know that people to whom labels like "mentally retarded," "demented," "persistent vegetative state," and "severely brain-damaged" are applied are likely to have that judgment applied to them.

Singer claims that such people are not "persons," and therefore can not be said to have an interest in staying alive. Unless the benefit to the people who love these "non-persons" outweighs the emotional and financial burden to individuals and society of keeping them alive, they can safely and deliberately be killed.

The euthanasia of people whose minds are judged inadequate would be a way to save money. It would be a way to allow families to "move on." And it would provide a source of organs for transplantation to people whose minds have been judged acceptable. According to Singer, very often people with cognitive disabilities should be killed.

Academic Dishonesty

In building his case, Singer makes many assertions that he does not support, because they can not be supported.

Singer writes as if impairment itself guarantees that people with disabilities will have fewer opportunities in life. He ignores the fact that many of the barriers people with disabilities face every day are created and sustained by the very society he claims should be allowed to kill them.

He leads readers to believe that if some medical professionals judge the lives of people with disabilities as not worth living, that is indicative of how people with disabilities judge their own lives. In fact, study after study has shown that medical "experts" routinely underestimate the quality of life reported by people with disabilities.

But Singer does not include people with disabilities in the discussion of the quality of their lives. He assumes that non-disabled academics and professionals are better qualified to discuss what it is like to have a disability than disabled people themselves.

Singer suggests that decisions about who is a "person" can be made objectively and with little doubt, by doctors. In fact, doctors routinely underestimate the capacity of people who are judged to be mentally disabled.

In short, a lot of Singer's "logic" is smoke and mirrors. It has no more basis in fact than the eugenic models of racial superiority and inferiority that were widely held and respected in the first decades of this century.


Demands for Injustice

Singer is not simply arguing academic theories. He is urging that policy decisions be made on the basis of his ideas. His demands for "academic freedom" are merely attempts to keep the affected people out of the discussion.

If Singer's approach were to be put into law, as he wants, a new class of non-citizens would be created. A group of people with disabilities would be forced to prove that they were "persons" before even being granted the most basic right, the right not to be killed at society's convenience.

When people assume mental capacity, they tend to find mental capacity. When people assume mental incapacity, they tend to find mental incapacity. To demand that people assumed to be incapable pass a higher test than those assumed to be capable merely to stay alive is simply unjust.

Singer claims to be speaking for the vast majority of non-disabled people. He claims he is only saying what everyone else thinks. We in the disability community call for a clear statement on the part of people without disabilities that we are entitled to the equal protection of the law.

This text courtesy Not Dead Yet!, 1999

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