One woman's account of her preparation for -- and participation in -- the protest held against bioethicist Peter Singer at Princeton University Tuesday, September 21, 1999I heard the criticism over and over again that we Singer opponents had not read his material, and were making uninformed accusations about his viewsReading Peter Singer
-- & Protesting Him
by Sarah L. Triano Ph.D.
Sarah l. Triano is a student in the Disability Studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Read Triano's Singer website
Prior to leaving Chicago for the Singer protest at Princeton, I spent the entire weekend reading through a pile of material about Peter Singer and by Peter Singer, including Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, and Should the Baby Live?
While reading Singer's views on animal liberation in an interview with Singer conducted by Bob Abernethy for PBS's Religion & Ethics Weekly, it occurred to me that Singer wholeheartedly embraces what might be considered a social model of animal rights, but he cannot seem to apply this same model to the lives of infants with disabilities.
When stating his case for animal liberation in the Abernethy interview, Singer contends that "the key quality animals share with us is the capacity to feel pain and the capacity to sufferŠand they have an interest in not suffering."
Singer goes on to detail the needless suffering that animals experience at the hands of humans. In order to truly understand the social basis of this suffering, Singer says, "You would have to go into the chicken sheds, you know, stinking of ammonia -- you can barely breathe in them -- and look at the crowded chickens living their lives in semi-darkness, indoors. See how -- how deformed they -- they get through having been bred to grow so quickly."
Humans, by creating this kind of suffering, humans are resorting to what Singer calls "species-ism" (when we "use animals just as thingsŠin order to satisfy some quite minor needs of our own," and in doing so "ignore their capacities for suffering.")
In this interview, Singer brilliantly lays out the social bases for the suffering of animals. Rather than blame some quality inherent in the animals themselves for this suffering, he condemns a "speciest" society and calls for radical social change.
Yet when discussing the suffering of severely disabled infants, Singer is unable to make the logical transition to a social model of disability. When questioned about the opposition he has received from disability rights groups for his support of infanticide for severely disabled newborns, Singer replies that these groups have "a misunderstanding of my viewsŠI think that any disabled person should be supported in trying to live the best possible life that he or she can, as long as he or she wants to do soŠIt's certainly nothing against people with disabilities that motivates my position. It's rather, a desire to avoid suffering."
According to Singer in Practical Ethics, some disabled infants have lives that "will be so miserable and so devoid of minimal satisfaction that it would be inhumane or futile to prolong life." It's a "compassionate" desire to help disabled infants avoid further suffering, therefore, that motivates Singer's support of infanticide -- the same argument used by neonatologists, incidentally, to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment for severely disabled newborns.
I am absolutely confounded by the fact that Singer can so brilliantly make an argument for a social model of animal rights, but cannot seem to apply the same logic to disability. Is it impossible for him to imagine that certain humans might actually be subjected to the same kinds of oppression as animals?On the face of it, Singer's argument appears reasonable -- but when you throw his logic back at him and apply it to animals, it suddenly becomes apparent that Singer's argument is completely absurd.
Using Singer's logic, you could argue that many animals being used for food and experimentation have lives that are "miserable" and completely "devoid of minimal satisfaction." Does this mean that we should kill them right from the start, in or to help them avoid having to live an existence of suffering and pain, and that failure to do so would be "inhumane"? Of course not. This seems illogical because the suffering and pain these animals experience is obviously not related to their "animalness" (to some quality inherent within them), but rather to the oppression imposed on them by humans. In Singer's view, however, the suffering a disabled infant experiences is inherently related to their disability, and not to societal attitudes and other forms of social oppression.
I am absolutely confounded by the fact that Singer can so brilliantly make an argument for a social model of animal rights, but cannot seem to apply the same logic to disability. Is his belief in the social model of animal rights so rigid that it is impossible for him to imagine that certain humans might actually be subjected to the same kinds of oppression as animals? His description of the chicken sheds is reminiscent of many of the institutions that disabled people are forced to live in today -- "You would have to go into the institutions, you know, stinking of ammonia- you can barely breathe in them- and look at the crowded disabled people living their lives in semi-darkness, indoors."
I wonder if the argument has ever been to presented to Singer in this way? Animals shouldn't be killed at birth simply because they will suffer in life. Society should be changed to prevent this suffering. Neither should disabled infants be killed just because they will experience "suffering." It is society that should be changed to really prevent this suffering.
After pondering this thought, I proceeded to complete my reading for the week.
In his 1942 article "The Problem of Social Control of the Congenital Defective: Education, Sterilization, Euthanasia" (American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 99, July 1942, p. 13-16) Foster Kennedy makes the following proposition:
"I believe when the defective child shall have reached the age of five years -- and on the application of his guardians-that the case should be considered under law by a competent medical board; then it should be reviewed twice more at four-month intervals; then if the Board, acting, I repeat, on the application of the guardians of the child, and after three examinations of a defective who has reached the age of five or more, should decide that that defective has no future nor hope of one; then I believe it is a merciful and kindly thing to relieve that defective -- often tortured and convulsed, grotesque and absurd, useless and foolish, and entirely undesirable -- of the agony of living."
This sounds almost identical to Singer's argument that parents, together with their physicians, have the right to decide whether "the infant's life will be so miserable or so devoid of minimal satisfaction that it would be inhumane or futile to prolong life."
In the past, when Singer has been questioned about the parallels made between his arguments and those promoted during the Nazi regime, Singer's standard reply is that three of his four grandparents died in Nazi camps -- "there is absolutely no connection with what I'm talking about," he says.
"I'm not talking about a state-imposed policy of ending anyone's life," Singer said in the Abernethy interview. "I'm talking about restoring freedom of choice and autonomyŠ and allowing parents and doctors to make decisions in the privacy of their own homes, without the state stepping in and telling them what to do. I think that's the antithesis of what the Nazi's were about."
Yet what the Nazi's "were about" was implementing a systematic program of euthanasia for people with disabilities that was supported, in part, by negative eugenic ideas. Although Kennedy, writing in 1942, was not a Nazi and did not advocate for state intervention in his program to relieve "defective children" of "the agony of living," his arguments are typical of those made at the time to advance the goals of negative eugenics; and although Singer is in no way a Nazi and argues for parental autonomy rather than state intervention in his program to end the lives of severely disabled infants, his arguments can also be characterized as embodying the goals of negative eugenics (the full realization of which was witnessed in Nazi Germany and in Cambodia).
It was with these insights and thoughts that I embarked on my journey to Princeton University to protest the appointment of Peter Singer.
The protest officially began around 8 o'clock Tuesday morning, led by about 20 members of Not Dead Yet. We positioned ourselves outside the FitzRandolph gate and began passing out flyers detailing NDY's position and why we were protesting the appointment of Peter Singer.
Some people stopped to discuss the issue with us, but most simply took the flyer and kept on walking. One man I spoke with said, "I don't support Singer's views, but I do support academic freedom and the free expression of ideas at the university." I tried to explain to this man that we too supported academic freedom and that we were not trying to limit Singer's freedom to express his ideas in books, presentations, or to students at Princeton University -- but that to appoint him to the endowed Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics Chair at the University's Center for Human Values was inherently problematic for numerous reasons, the most important of which is that it provided Singer with a platform and a privileged position from which to publicly promote his ideas and ensure they get translated into public policy.
At one point during the protest, a gentleman approached my group of protesters and verbally attacked us. We "just didn't understand the suffering 'those people' have to go through."
We told him that we did understand; that we were disabled ourselves. "You aren't disabled -- you don't look disabled," he retorted.
After arguing about this with him for several minutes -- us pointing out that you can't see disabilities such as cancer or AIDS -- he got right to the point: "You don't understand the suffering that the parents and the siblings have to go through." This seemed the real motivation behind the "compassion and suffering" arguments: it is not the suffering of the disabled infant at stake; this is simply a veil for the larger and deeper issue of the family and societal suffering that results from raising a disabled child in a society that fails to provide adequate resources, and sees disabled people as a financial burden and a drain on scarce resources.
The real motivation behind the "compassion and suffering" arguments is not the suffering of the disabled infant at stake. That's simply a veil for the larger and deeper issue of the family and societal suffering that results from raising a disabled child in a society that fails to provide adequate resources, and sees disabled people as a financial burden and a drain on scarce resources.
At this point it occurred to me that this issue might be very personal for this man. So I calmed down and politely asked him, "Sir, are you the parent of a child with a disability?" He was outraged. "That's none of your business!" he yelled.
He then proceeded to say that if we knew our history we would know that Singer's arguments were rational and correct. After all, he reminded us, the Spartans practiced infanticide for disabled infants and they were a great civilization. A colleague of mine pointed out to him that the Spartans were also an extinct civilization, which only served to infuriate him more. He concluded his tirade by asking us if we had seen the PBS segment on Religion and Ethics. No, but I had read the transcript on the internet, I told him.
"No -- none of you saw it," he insisted. "And you haven't read his material either," he went on. "If you had read his material, you wouldn't be saying these awful things about him."
Had he read any of Singer's material, I asked him? I got no response. I tried to tell him that I had, indeed, read a great deal of Singer's material. But he refused to listen. He kept arguing that we were simply misinformed and didn't know anything because we hadn't read Singer.
I heard this man's last argument repeatedly throughout the remainder of the protest -- that we had no basis for protesting Singer because we hadn't read his material; that we were simply uninformed. When I returned home to Chicago, I saw the argument time and time again, in every article I read about the protest. An article in the New York Times quoted Justin Harmon, a spokesperson for the university, as saying, "There's been an active campaign of disinformation about Peter Singer. They've taken things he's said or written out of context." Similar accusations were made in The Daily Princetonian the day after the protest. A September 26th editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated: "Not that many of the protesters bothered with nuance - or even with actually reading Mr. Singer's work before calling for his head on a pike. All most of them had seen or heard was [sic] snippets from Web sites."