Michael Jenkins' response to Coleman
Coleman's second letter to Jenkins

1. Letter from Not Dead Yet President Diane Coleman to Michael Jenkins

August 6, 2001

Mr. Michael D. Jenkins
Executive Director
Governor's Commission on Disability
57 Regional Drive
Concord, NH 03301

Dear Mr. Jenkins:

I am writing to you on behalf of Not Dead Yet, a grassroots disability rights organization that leads the disability community's opposition to legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia.

We were appalled to learn that the Governor's Commission on Disability has invited Peter Singer as a speaker at your October conference titled "Genetics: Ethical Concerns of the Disability Community." It is one thing for disability advocates to debate Singer in a general public forum. It is quite another to invite him into our community.

This is a direct insult to thousands of disabled people in New Hampshire and millions across the country. Singer is more than "controversial." He advocates changes in public policy that would deprive millions of people with cognitive disabilities equal protection of the law and allow those who do not meet his fuzzy criteria for "personhood" to be killed by medical professionals with the "consent" of their families.

It's hard to imagine that the Governor's Commission would invite William Buckley to discuss his view that people who are HIV positive should be registered and publicly labeled. Would the NH government sponsor Holocaust remembrance activities by inviting Holocaust Deniers and Revisionists? In one way, these viewpoints could be considered "controversial;" but to the individuals concerned in each case, the viewpoints are seen as hateful, bigoted and contemptuous.

Singer uses demagoguery to further the acceptance of his own personal agenda regarding the value of lives of people with disabilities. He disregards research that conflicts with his viewpoint and makes unsubstantiated claims when he wants to make a point not supported in fact.

Two examples from his latest book, Writings on an Ethical Life, illustrate this:

"Some doctors closely connected with the most severe form of spina bifida believe that the lives of the worst affected children are so miserable that it is wrong to resort to surgery to keep them alive. Published descriptions of the lives of these children support the judgment that they will have lives filled with pain and discomfort." (p. 188)

Which doctors? Who are they? What about other doctors? What published descriptions is he talking about? What do those with spina bifida themselves say about the quality of their lives? Singer doesn't explore these sources, since rigorous examination of research would erode his contention that the lives of disabled people are less worth living than the lives of nondisabled persons. Each time he is publicly debated on these issues, he fails to meet the challenge, but still gains public support.

Singer also published the following in his latest book:

"We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play a guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete or basketball or tennis player. (p. 228)

Singer has admitted in public forums that this passage is highly inaccurate and perjorative. Knowing this, from criticism of this and similar previous writings, he still published it without the kind of disclaimer he is apt to make in a public forum. The thousands of readers of Singer's texts don't get to hear the facile disclaimers he makes when confronted publicly. Undeterred, he writes to influence health care providers and health policy to devalue us as he himself does.

Far from being an abstract academic, Singer is a shrewd street fighter. Singer can be counted on to use the invitation to the Governor's Council to claim that his views are a legitimate topic for debate within the disability community itself. We call upon the Council to rescind the invitation to Singer, and we call upon the panelists to decline to present or debate with him at this or any other disability conference or event. While there may be understandable excuses for the position you may find yourself in, there could be not rationale, even that of avoiding a lawsuit by Singer, that could justify proceeding as planned.


Diane Coleman
President, Not Dead Yet

Cc: Adrienne Asch, John Kemp, Paul Steven Miller, Paula Rogers, Don Shumway

2. Letter from Michael Jenkins to Diane Coleman

Governor's Commission on Disability
57 Regional Drive
Concord, NH 03301-8518

August 14, 2001

Dear Ms. Coleman:

I thank you for your letter calling upon us to rescind our invitation to Professor Singer. We respectfully decline.

Now is not the time, in our view, for the disability community to avoid or run from the views of folks like Peter Singer. Nor is it the time to take shots at him from afar. It is time to bring to an open forum the philosophy he is promoting at Princeton, Harvard Medical School, and countless other venues through his many books and papers.

If we're on the brink of a precipitous ethical downfall, as many think, when it comes to how persons with disabilities are perceived and valued at the end of lifeŠhow abhorrent and frightening it is to see the possibility of the same thing happening at the beginning of life.

We invited Peter Singer to speak at our conference because he represents, in the most dramatic way, a philosophy which shows that we, as a society, may well be on our way to an ethical and moral abyss as we ascribe less and less value to those who are "less than perfect".

As you must recall, we had speakers at our well-attended and provocative conference on physician-assisted suicide that were strong advocates of the Hemlock Society and other pro-assisted suicide/euthanasia groups.

To not have them there would have amounted to a preaching-to-the-choir love fest. Having them there sparked debate and provided a wonderful opportunity for you and the other speakers to eloquently counter their arguments. Emotion-filled remarks on the conference evaluation forms clearly indicated that you and the other speakers/panelists indeed had a profound effect on the participants' pre-conference opinions on the subject.

We expect hundreds of legislators, medical and legal professionals, ethicists, clergy, scientists, and, of course, persons with disabilities to attend the conference and we are truly saddened and disappointed that Not Dead Yet has assumed the position it has taken. What better time for you and Not Dead Yet to publicly take a stand in opposition.

I truly thought that you would be supportive, given your participation in the assisted-suicide conference. I looked forward to having you there with powerful, logical, measured counter-arguments to Singer's extreme philosophy.

However, I'm confident that Adrienne Asch, Paul Miller, John Kemp and our other speakers/panelists will do just that.

As you recall, I discussed my intentions to have this conference with you some time ago. When I mentioned that it would, by its very nature, have to address the issues of abortion, designer babies, etc., you indicated that you thought that Not Dead Yet would be drifting off message from its primary focus if it addressed abortion and disability. Incidentally, I strongly disagree with your not including early life concerns in your advocacy efforts.

I feel, in the depths of my soul, a passionate concern that if we don't take a hard, brutally honest look at where we're heading in our perception of the value and dignity of persons with disabilities at the beginning, as well as the end of life, we are guaranteeing a societal devaluation of those in the middle of that spectrum.


Michael D. Jenkins
Executive Director

Cc: Adrienne Asch, John Kemp, Paul Steven Miller, Paula Rogers, Don Shumway

3. Reply from Not Dead Yet President Diane Coleman to Michael Jenkins

August 28, 2001

Dear Mr. Jenkins:

I was disappointed that you chose to respond to our previous letter by suggesting that Not Dead Yet is trying to "avoid or run from the views of folks like Singer," and otherwise questioning our work. I'm confident that our discussion could become more constructive. I hope that you would be willing to let me share a bit more information with you.

Last year, the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) rejected a proposal from Adrienne Asch for a debate between Singer and herself at the annual SDS conference because the Society recognized that such a debate *within* the disability community would do far more harm than good. It would suggest that Singer's views on personhood are a legitimate topic for debate, not just in the general public where we debate him vigorously, but among ourselves as well. Some members of SDS leadership indicated that they would join a protest by Not Dead Yet if it extended an invitation to Singer. It would necessitate the various forms of cooperation, civility, respect and remuneration that normally accompany a speaking engagement. We cannot imagine any other minority group, or women's group, that would extend any form of speaking invitation to someone who denies their personhood.

Of course, I can understand that the Governors' Commission, when they made their initial decision to invite Singer, may not have recognized the distinction between stepping into a general public debate convened by others, and a disability community debate. In addition, they may not have been familiar with Singer's continuing efforts, in his books and media interviews, to discredit our German colleagues who shouted him out of a conference in that country several years ago. So far, only non-disabled people in the U.S. have given Singer a podium from which to speak. But if the New Hampshire invitation is not rescinded, the U.S. disability community will have provided Singer a form of legitimacy he can use in various ways, including to undermine our German friends.

It also seems worth mentioning that Singer is very clever with both audiences and the media. Singer is quick to argue that his critics haven't read his works, or have taken his words out of context. He is quick to verbally disclaim some of the more outrageous and unsupportable statements in his books, indicating that they may be out-of-date. However, there were no "corrections" or "updates" in his recent book, "Writings on an Ethical Life," compiling and rehashing his previous works. His facile disclaimers are nothing but public relations manipulation.

He's an expert at such manipulation. Following our Princeton protest action in 1999, Singer cleverly used a prominent Washington, D.C. disability health care advocate. First, by emphasizing his support of universal health care, Singer drew the advocate into a prolonged email dialogue to explore common ground. After a time, when an AP reporter interviewed Singer in connection with disability community protests, Singer referred the reporter to the advocate. He agreed to the interview, and included a statement to the effect that Singer was our strong ally on some issues. The AP story said there were alternative views of Singer within the disability community, and the article did "blown-up" highlights of two quotes side by side, Not Dead Yet's vs. the Ph.D. Executive Director of an impressively titled Washington, D.C. health policy group. Singer set him up, and used him to maximum advantage, then immediately dropped the dialogue. The advocate's Board of Directors required a letter countering the article quote, but with the Associated Press, it was too little too late.

Inviting Singer to debate at a disability conference now would be like the NAACP or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950's inviting a prominent representative of the KKK (or the John Birch Society) to debate at a civil rights conference. To the best of my knowledge, nothing like that ever happened in the Black Civil Rights Movement. Public debate is one thing, but we don't pay respect, shake hands, smile politely, chat about safe subjects, and share a conference luncheon, with one who is publicly selling the idea that some of us are not entitled to personhood. The invitation would be laughable if it weren't so pitiful. In our view, the best course would be for the Governor's Commission to admit to an innocent error. It is sad that the disability community can still be so confused, unresolved, unfocused, insecure or unable to truly envision our own equality that we would invite a major symbol and messenger of our oppression into our own house, and even pay for the "privilege."

The blame for this does not belong to any one person, but the situation calls for clear corrective action, and then a renewed commitment to reflection, education and the hard work ahead.


Diane Coleman, J.D.
President, Not Dead Yet