A letter to Peter Singer

This letter was sent to the President of Princeton about the bioethicist Peter Singer by me in 2000. It lists 23 objections to his theory that it is "all right to kill newborn disabled babies".My name is Catherine Slater and I have a daughter with Down's Syndrome

It was also sent to the board of trustees of Princeton University.

Harold Shapiro
President
Princeton University
Princeton
New Jersey 08544
United States of America

Dear Mr Shapiro, I am writing to express my opposition to Professor Peter Singer. I have several reasons why I think he should not be given the opportunity to have such a powerful academic position in such a distinguished University. .

First, Princeton has a reputation for rigorous academic excellence. In its faculties of the Sciences and Humanities research is grounded in proof and evidence. No physicist would publish original research based solely on opinions. Such research is always backed up by deep knowledge of the subject and rational empirical arguments justifying any theories and demonstrating any facts. Singer Ďs writings, both in his popular pot-boilers and in his more academic books , seem to argue using only such "evidence" as justifies his particular personal passions. They do not develop counter -arguments., and opposing points of view are treated dismissively and seen as subjective or irrational. For instance when talking about people who are in comas or coma like conditions not once does he quote the example of the author of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly , or Helen Keller both of whom were profoundly disabled people who were fortunate enough to find an interpreter. They are only two of many other examples

Second, He does not seem to practice scientific philosophy, asking questions and encouraging students to think for themselves .Instead he has thought of the questions and and provided the answers.

Third, Bio-ethics which began in the 1970ís as a way of scrutinising medicine from outside has rapidly become what was described by Professor John Wyatt as "an adventure playground for philosophers" and a field of theory and speculation where medicine itself is marginalised and bio-ethics been hi-jacked by philosophers, ethicists, lawyers and even journalists. Clinicians are no longer involved. However , the debate on medical ethics cannot take place in a forum far removed from clinical practice. Either bio-ethics should move to the medical schools or clinicians and medical scientists should be part of the faculty of any academic department of medical ethics. Singer is not the right man for the job .

Fourth I will not comment in detail on some of Peter Singerís views on other topics except to point out that he takes a shallow and one sided view point . For instance, his views on the civil rights of apes ignore the more relevant issues around preserving the rainforests and returning captive animals to the wild. His views on third world development suggests that the problem woul;d be solved if people in the rich world should donate a greater percentage of their income to charity, rather than addressing the real causes of world poverty such as unfair trade, arms sales, cash crops and crippling debt.

Fifth I know that Singer would claim that he is not proselytising that all severely handicapped infants should be automatically killed,or that euthanasia is a good thing. He is "only" saying that such an action is justifiable and he gives other instances when he is not inciting actions, simply condoning them.However by this acquiescence, it is then possible for legislators and medical practitioners to cite Singer to justify their actions. There is a difference between freedom of speech which of course should be part of any academic debate, and applying these opinions to real life situations. Would Princeton be willing to countenance the dissemination of a view in its African Studies programme that apartheid was justified on utilitarian grounds and benefited the economy of South Africa? .

sixth The following arguments are to do with Singerís views on infanticide. One flippant comment that could be made is that one of Singerís arguments `is about a utilitarianism which ranks human beings as to their usefulness to society- a disabled infant being bottom of the heap. This would, taken to its logical conclusion , rank a fisherman, a fire-fighter or a factory worker of far greater utility to society than a professor of bioethics.

Seventh Singers views on rights for apes, and on animals having more awareness than new born infants deplore "speciesism" , and has we should not treat animals as inferior. He replaces this with another form of discrimination which might be deemed corticalism where human value is reduced to the efficient functioning of a layer of cerebral tissue.

Eighth Singer has a very arbitrary cut-off point for human identity. It is fine to dispose of a defective infant in her first month of life. However anyoneís cortex can become damaged during infancy, childhood, adulthood or most commonly in old age. Singerís views suggest a very capricious attitude to the right to life, ageism -which treats very young people as inferior to people with similar functioning but who are older.

Ninth Singer seems to share a Thatcherite belief that there is no such thing as society, so far as a disabled new-born is concerned. The parents are seen as the only human beings with any interest in the fate of the child ,or any right to decide whether she should live or die. In August 1981 , the parents of a child, Alexandra, with Downs Syndrome who had an intestinal blockage thought it be kindest and best that their child should be allowed to die. The Local Authority and the Official Solicitor (lawyer) for the child argued against it. There were prospective adoptive parents and the condition was operable. The case created legal history and Alexandra is now a healthy 19 year old. This was not an isolated case and I could add other accounts where decisions not to treat have been rescinded either by parents or practitioners and the children have gone on to live happy lives.

Tenth , Respect for human life , protection of the weakest and most vulnerable within society should be what makes for a compassionate and workable and democratic society. To create an arbitrary distinction between persons and non persons, between "normal" human society and a riffraff of malformed babies , brain damaged adults and other undesirables has frightening parallels with other regimes where certain persons have been persecuted or killed because of their race

Eleventh Singer is not just taking part in academic exercises of debate , rhetoric and theory. His applied bio-ethics are in conflict with the moral and legal framework in which the life of all human beings is protected from destruction. Legislators around the world have had insuperable difficulties in trying to frame a legislative programme for medical euthanasia/.Ancient Hippocratic medicine drew an absolute distinction between curing and killing and this has been the foundation of our ethical and legal systems. The new bioethics wants to blur this distinction.

Twelfth a license for parents to sanction the killing of their new born disabled infant isolates the decision from both the immediate past and the immediate future. More and more prenatal tests put pregnant women who are already very anxious through a great amount of stress. Contemplating the possibility of having to make a life or death decision after birth due to either no way of determining the disability beforehand or the disability being a result of the birth (e.g. lack of oxygen, fetal distress) would make the stress during pregnancy even greater.

There is also much evidence of the trauma that mothers face after an abortion, guilt, remorse and depression. This would be much greater had the decision to destroy the baby happened after birth when she had seen and held a living baby. Far from the death of a disabled child causing "happiness" if the result of the death of the first born, leading to the birth of a younger non disabled sibling. Instead the whole pregnancy and birth process would remind the mother of the child who was killed , and would always be an uneasy memory at the least , and more likely a spectre recurring and causing pain.

Thirteenth , Singerís unwillingness to learn about what life is like for a disabled child has led him to assume that a child without a disability is likely to be happier in life than a child with a disability. The number of unhappy people without disabilities and the number of happy people with disabilities gives the lie to this. There are also happy people without disabilities and unhappy people with disabilities but there is no correlation between disability and unhappiness. People with Downís Syndrome , for instance have a disability but it is neither painful nor a disease and they cannot be described as "suffering". Their happiness or lack of it depends on exactly the same criteria as anybody elseís happiness.

Fourteenth, Singerís logic that allows the destruction of an infant of one month old or less, completely ignores the fact that many disabilities are not diagnosed until the second year or later, and that some disabilities occur after birth- e.g. brain damage after a childhood attack of meningitis, and other people become disabled in adulthood. It is a very unfair distinction to say that if you can go undetected and undiagnosed beyond your first month of life you are safe, but if you are detected before you have begun to form relationships and express your individuality then there is no wrong in condemning you to death. However everyone carries mutant or potentially harmful genes and everyone is capable of becoming totally dependent and helpless.

Fifteenth Singerís utilitarian views reduce infants to some form of commodity. If goods are damaged they should be returned to manufacturer. People have the right ,according to Singer to reject or destroy an imperfect child, because under the Description of Goods and Services Act, they are entitled to a perfect product. Taken logically it would suggest that all disabled people are sub-standard, imperfect and inferior. This belief was held with disastrous results in the thirties and forties of the twentieth century.

sixteenth Singer claims to be radical rather than reactionary. He says "after ruling our thoughts and decisions about life and death for nearly 2000 years , the traditional western ethic has collapsed. Yet Singer is actually recycling pre-scientific views .He is expressing the same views as Soranus a first century Roman physician who wrote a chapter in a book entitled "how to recognise the new-born that is worth rearing" and advocating infanticide for those that were not.

Seventeenth The motivation for removing severely disabled people from society is somewhat suspect. Of what crime are they guilty? Do they start wars, use violence, commit fraud? Their only crime seems to be that they are consumers of public wealth and not contributors to it but people with disabilities contribute in many ways to the community. That is not to say that their life can only be valued in terms of human investment and contribution. They are not just passive recipients of care. Nor does a totally selfish society benefit anyone. Public money is used ,not entirely, but to a great extent to provide schools, hospitals, police, infrastructure and many things which could not come from any other source and social welfare is one of many.

Eighteenth Disabled people who have the opportunity to speak up for themselves strongly object to eugenics and to suggestions that they would be better off dead. Many point out that impairments are exacerbated by external barriers and attitudes and that rather than looking either for miracle cures or destruction before or after birth, there are many ways in which by using the social rather than medical model of disability , their ability to do much more could be enhanced by changes in the law, in access and in attitude. Disabled people like Professor Tom Shakespeare or poets like Christy Nolan or Christy Brown have spoken up eloquently on behalf of people with disabilities.

nineteenth If sick and abnormal babies are disposable ,babies have no individuality, the human gene pool must eliminate harmful genes where possible, and babies are easily replaceable , then it would seem that expensive neo-natal intensive care for premature or abnormal babies is a great waste of human and financial resources . This would seem logical and rational based on Singerís beliefs but would be abhorrent to most of society.

twentieth The premise is that a disabled child is always a burden to the parents and there are none of the mitigating circumstances which accompany the joys and rewards of having a non-handicapped child. However, it shows ignorance and lack of imagination to make this assumption. First, good welfare services and financial benefits for disabled children give parents support and relief and children opportunities for independence and development. 50 years ago people were shut up in big wards in large institutions, received no education or stimulation and were helpless and neglected. Children and adults today can reach their potential and become active members of society. Even the most disabled people benefit from medical. educational and social intervention and the chance to grow up in a loving family.

Twenty First Another issue on infanticide is of course that death is so final. Some diagnoses like Downs Syndrome and spina bifida are easily detectable-though there is no way to predict the extent of the disability this early. However other tests take much longer so that doctors cannot say with certainty what many outcomes will be. I know a severely disabled child who was given six months to live but who survived until he was eleven . He would possibly still be alive if he had not contracted measles. New operations and medications are being discovered every month as are new types of education intervention, new strategies and new equipment. By killing a child you lose all chance of any help that might come from future scientific or other research.

Twenty second Singer fails to see that all babies are unique individuals and none can be replaced by another baby. Unlike objects, they are not of consistent standardised design even when they have the same two parents. Parents of disabled children who have terminal conditions want them to die with dignity. One mother said "if my baby dies, I need to have permanent reminders and mementoes of her short existence, to honour her memory as a unique person, my beloved child."

Twenty third My final point is a personal one. I have a 20 year old daughter with Downs Syndrome. When she was born, the hospital had a policy that parents were not told until the fifth day so that they could bond . By the fifth day my daughter had also developed dehydration and jaundice and was put in the special care unit. She could have been in the position where doctors might have felt that "nursing care only" was appropriate. We could have been in a hospital where bonding was not valued and we could have been badly told. A baby born 300 miles away from us, a year later. called John Pearson who had Downs Syndrome , was given nursing care only and heavy analgesic and died aged 4 days old. The doctor, Leonard Arthur was put on trail for murder and acquitted. Peter Singer in one of his books quotes this case with approval and delights in the acquittal. It is chilling to me that that might have been my daughter whose murder he was condoning.

Because I have a child with a disability I have had close contact over the years with many parents. Some of them have or had profoundly disabled children but they have loved these children, done much to help them and have never wished them dead.

My daughter leads a very rich and happy life. She is at college, she has a close circle of friends and she enjoys life. She is helpful and considerate. She is also like any person her age in her likes, dislikes and behaviour. Singer could reply that he is not referring to people like my daughter when he speaks of "mercy killing" and non persons. But he would be wrong. Children and adults with very profound handicaps share a common humanity with my daughter and with my non disabled children as well.

In conclusion, I would urge you to reconsider Peter Singerís position, and ask that he either radically alters his views based on fact rather than fancy or better still that someone else is given his position. Someone with real knowledge of the law , medicine and above all of humanity in all its myriad imperfections. Yours sincerely, Catherine Slater, M.A. (Cantab)

Catherine Slater July 2000


A History of Disability - From Invisibility to Inclusion?
Link to a very good report about the two trials and their implications for disabled people.