What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Let’s Have an Honest Debate About Abortion

Have you seen the image to the left on social media sites recently?

As an advocacy poster, it’s quite effective, isn’t it? It tugs at the heartstrings, it moves us to feel the best emotions we are capable of: care, sympathy, and protectiveness, as it portrays a tiny human life in a helpless position. It invites you to endorse its message by clicking on the image if you think it says something true, which it does. Abortion ends a life, and that life is human. At a glance, it makes a powerful case for the author’s position.

Now suppose we take another image

…and give it what appears to be nearly the same caption: ‘

Click if You Think Surgical Removal of Undeveloped Twin Ends Human Life.’

This phrase also contains at least some truth. Would it be effective in rallying people in protest against the surgery? The surgery could save the fully developed twin’s life, or at least give them some degree of freedom, opportunity, and good health not possible so long as the undeveloped twin remained attached.

At this point, on whatever side of the abortion-rights debate you are on, you’re probably already protesting against at least one of these. What point would you make, what argument would you use? ‘A fetus is not a human life yet!’? Or, ‘Abortion is not like surgery to remove a parasitic twin: one is meant to end a life, the other to save one!’? Or, ‘That makes no sense, to compare a beautiful human baby to an assemblage of non-functioning human parts!’? Or something else?

(Note: throughout this essay, I’ve decided not to use the terms commonly used by either side in this debate. They’re inaccurate, disparaging, and to my mind represent the dishonesty that pervades mainstream debate. ‘Pro-life’ implies that people who believe in abortion rights are against life generally; ‘pro-abortion’ implies that people think having an abortion is awesome and everyone should go get one recreationally, or as casually as a boob job; ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-choice’ imply that the other side thinks people should have no choices at all when it comes to reproduction. Instead of these terms, I’m using the purely descriptive terms ‘anti-abortion-rights’ and ‘pro-abortion-rights’.)

I’ll start by addressing the last of the objections listed above. While it’s true that the two captions imply a comparison between a fetus to a parasitic twin, they do so primarily in the sense that the subject of each shares this characteristic: they are both human life. They are both composed of active, functioning cells, they take in nutrients and excrete waste products, they do not decay. And if a biologist were to put their cells under a microscope, or a geneticist were to sequence their DNA, they would classify them as human and not as any other kind of living thing. Yet, as you undoubtedly realize, they are not alike in many other ways, especially this one: one is (presumably) developing in a manner that has the potential to become a fully functioning human individual; the other has no such potential.

But the human fetus, as well as the human embryo (yes, also human life) and the parasitic sometimes share other circumstances: in some cases, the fetus has some sort of abnormality that will prevent it from having the potential for consciousness or for living much time at all.  And sometimes, the presence of the fetus is deadly or potentially deadly to the mother, as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, or in cases such as that of the unfortunate Indian woman who died in labor in Ireland a few years ago. In such circumstances, the fetus or the embryo shares this relationship with the mother as the parasitic twin does to the developed one: the one depends for its life on the other, but is also the cause of the other’s debilitation or death.

The contrast between the two images and their captions reveal one of the main problems with the commonly used terms in the debate: the phrase ‘human life’ is used without specifying what’s really being talked about, a sort of  ‘bait-and-switch’ tactic, in which sometimes it means one thing, and sometimes another. Is what’s being talked about in both images ‘human life’? Yes. Are they both referring to the same sort of human life? No.

In the first case, it’s pretty clear that the author means ‘human person’ or at minimum, ‘potential human person’ when he says ‘human life’. This is not at all the same thing as what’s meant when applying the term ‘human life’ to the parasitic twin. The parasitic twin, in the case of the photo above, as well as in most other cases where that term is used, is a un- or mis-developed twin that, if all had gone well, would have been a separate, individually sustaining organism, but as it turned out, lacks the characteristics of what we would normally refer to as a human person. A human person, generally understood, has a brain capable not only of sustaining a body’s basic functions, but of having or achieving some level of consciousness, to even if only to sense its surroundings, feel pain, and have some sort of capacity for instinct or emotion; it also has a body at least mostly capable of sustaining that brain.

The term ‘human life’ is actually very broad category, which the author of first image ignored when creating it. This category contains all of the following: a harvested organ, arecently severed arm, skin tissue grown in a petri dish for reconstructive surgery, sperm, eggs, human cells, a zygote, a  blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus, and last but not least, human persons.

I recognize many believe the last five in the list belong in the same category, so let’s explore that idea, which, in my opinion, is the crux of the debate: What’s the difference between a human person and a human life, if there is any difference?

Some might say it’s the possession of a soul that makes a person, a person. The term ‘soul’ is a nebulous one, generally a religious term referring to a supernatural, life-giving, consciousness-generating substance or principle that inhabits or in some way is enjoined with a human body. It’s also often used euphemistically to refer to consciousness itself, or rationality, or the feeling, emotional, instinctive part of a person. Yet for the purposes of law in a secular, religiously diverse society, we can’t rely on a concept such as ‘soul’ to decide the issue, not only because its existence can’t be proven empirically, but because not everyone is religious. But even if everyone, or most people, were religious, the fact that every religion, and each adherent of each religion, have different ideas about what the soul is and how and when it’s united with the body, renders it too nebulous an idea to derive law and policy from. For example, some believe that the soul enters the body at conception, while others believe it enters later, when the first breath is taken, when ‘quickening’ occurs, or when the brain is developed enough to attain consciousness. No, we must look to nature to inform the law in this matter, which most anti-abortion-rights activists now do.

Is it having unique DNA which makes a human life a person? I hear this argument used most frequently now that the basic science of genetics has become widely known. In my opinion, it’s the strongest argument used against abortion rights, since it’s the least nebulous, and based on strong empirical evidence. It does, in fact, support the idea of the individuality of a human in its earliest stages of life. If an embryo or a fetus is genetically distinct from the mother, aren’t we morally required to consider it a separate human being, and thus, it’s own person?

Yet the more we know about the biology of reproduction, we discover many facts that may undermine this argument. For one, embryos can split and produce twins, separately developing organisms that are genetically identical. Since genetic distinctness is what makes a life unique, should we think of them collectively as somehow one being, at least until later in life when they develop differentiating traits? A little less widely known: two (or more) fertilized eggs sometimes merge and develop as one organism, called a chimera. Genetically, the living product of this process looks like two individuals, with some cells, parts, or organs of the body possessing one set of chromosomes, and others another, yet it functions as a complete, individual organism. So is it two persons, or one, and if one, did one die, did one somehow ‘kill’ the other? And often, as an embryo develops, some cells separate and live on their own for awhile without developing into anything, though they have the capability to become another embryo; if that doesn’t happen, they die off. Was that individual human life a person yet? Many  zygotes never implant and begin development at all, and many embryos and fetuses (estimated as one-third to one-half) never develop to viability; instead, they die off and are absorbed into the mother’s body, or delivered stillborn. Should we be mourning the deaths (and unconscious cannibalism) of massive numbers of people, though such failed attempts at life are a routine feature of human development? The more we learn about reproduction, the more we find out it’s a messy business, full of false starts, blurry divisions, and multiples that become singulars and vice versa. Genetic uniqueness may not be enough, then, on its own, to demonstrate personhood, though it may be an important factor.

Perhaps it’s the potentiality of personhood that demands we should treat a developing human life as already a person. That positions seems a bit shakier: it creates an even larger number of problems when we consider how and why we should treat ‘potential’ things as real things, that do not admit of clear-cut or satisfactory answers. Should male ejaculate be zealously guarded as potential human life as well, and should we be dismayed by ‘nocturnal emissions’ or the removal of a testicle due to cancer? Should women live their entire lives ‘on eggshells’, avoiding all possible dangers to the point of not pursuing their pleasures or interests, as if they were already pregnant, given that they’re carrying all the eggs (potential offspring) she will ever produce inside her ovaries? Is it wrong for people to not be  trying to reproduce at any given moment, given that if a woman’s monthly cycle goes by without a pregnancy, an eggs and sperm die and are wasted? And why should we treat potentiality the same as actuality in reproduction if not in other areas of life? I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to answer these questions in a way that supports the position that potential personhood is equal to actual personhood; in fact, I think it’s easy to find that most of the logical conclusions of this idea turn out to be ridiculous. If there is a good argument for it, I would be curious to hear it.

To move this debate forward, let’s go ahead Andy grant the idea of embryonic and fetal personhood here, so we can move on and consider the next big question: is it ever permissible not only to destroy non-person human life (such as discarding spare organs, destroying tumors, and excising parasitic twins), but to destroy the lives of human persons?

Most people, I think, would say yes, even if rarely. For example, take self-defense. In defense of one’s own life, or in defense of another innocent person’s life, most would agree that one would be justified in stopping an immediate threat, even if that could only be accomplished by using deadly force. Many others believe it’s permissible for soldiers to kill enemy combatants in a just war, or even if it’s unclear it’s a just war, so long as they don’t target civilians. Others believe it’s justified to take human life if they’re a real but perhaps not an immediate threat, such as assassinating the murderous Hitler or Saddam Hussein. Some would even say it’s permissible in some cases of euthanasia, such as the following: the doctor who painlessly puts to death his terminally ill patients before the approaching Nazis, known for their brutality and torturous human experimentation, can reach them; the slave mother who kills her infant daughter, conceived in rape, so that she will not have to endure the same life of rape, pain, and misery that her mother did; the terminally ill patient who chooses to die rather than endure pain, debilitation, or the knowledge that their family would be impoverished by medical bills. Many believe more mundane cases of euthanasia are okay too, such as ‘pulling the plug’ on a patient who’s entirely dead except for life processes maintained only with machines. A few would even say it’s okay to sacrifice the innocent life of another to save many, as in the famous thought experiment in which you push a very large man over a bridge to stop a runaway trolley, knowing you’ll save several other people further down the track, yet knowing you’ll kill him in the process.

Given, then, that most people think it’s at least sometimes permissible, or even right, to end the lives of human persons in some circumstances, are similar arguments applicable to cases of abortion? Let’s return to the case of the Indian Hindu woman who died in the Irish hospital. If we grant that the lives of two persons were at stake, we are left with the fact that we’re mourning the death of two people, where it might have been only one. In the case of women (and all to often, young girls) who find themselves in a situation where the offspring they’re carrying threatens their lives, would self-defense arguments apply? After all, most of us don’t think that the right of self-defense only applies when the threatener is consciously aware of being a threat: they could be innocent of wrongdoing but still justifiably ‘neutralized’, whether the threat is from someone who is operating in a state of brain damage, insanity, extreme immaturity, or in the case of a fetus, incapababilty of conscious thought.

At this point, we’ve considered many of the key arguments in favor of the anti-abortion-rights position, and raised objections. Let me pause here and critique what I think are problematic arguments commonly made by pro-abortion-rights advocates, a good one and, I think, a silly one:

Let’s start with the stupid one, to get it out of the way: ‘If you’re against abortion, don’t have one, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose.’ If you present say this (with bumper stickers or otherwise) to one who believes that human lives are human persons from the very earliest stages of development, you’re making a statement analogous to this one: ‘If you’re against murder, don’t commit one, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose,’ or, ‘If you’re against child molestation, don’t do it, but don’t take away a person’s right to choose.’ How silly, if not horrifying, do those last two sound? If no one buys the latter arguments, no one should buy the first, whatever side of the debate you’re on. I beg everyone who uses this slogan to please stop, it sounds as thoughtless as it is.

The better one, called the bodily rights argument, holds that a woman’s self-determination, her ability and her right to control her own life and her own destiny, depends on her right not to nurture another body inside of her own against her will. While on the face of it, it sounds compelling, but I must admit: I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it for the same reasons I don’t think it’s permissible to withhold care from any person who depends on you for survival. Human beings are social creatures and all of our lives depend on one another to some degree, especially the lives of children, the disabled, and the very elderly, who are entirely dependent on others. All humans use their own body, in one way or another, to nurture  other lives: it’s a central feature of the human condition. I think it’s a case of special pleading (a logical fallacy) to think we can ‘force’ parents to feed and shelter their offspring using their body only when their offspring are outside the body, and not in all other cases in which they’re entirely dependent. If the argument claims that our independence and integrity is dependent on our not having to nurture others, this makes our responsibility to our children merely a matter of the child’s location, and of which resources we feel like sharing at the time, which seems arbitrary. Unless you almost literally want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, this argument weakens upon examination, at least when used on its own. Human persons are their bodies, and are morally connected and responsible to one another, required to nurture their children, or they’re not. The argument as to whether or not embryos and fetuses are persons, that they have become children who we’re morally and legally obligated to nurture, is a separate one.

Whether or not we’ve made up our minds as to what makes a human life a human person, there are several positions we can take. Here are some:

One: we should refrain from purposefully ending human lives in general. And we probably take this position because we agree with one or more of these propositions, with or without qualifiers: all human life is precious, fragile, and should be intrinsically important to us as a social species dependent on one another for survival. We should protect and nurture all human life insofar as we are able, since, from its earliest stages, it has the potential to develop into a an interesting, unique, and valuable individual, and it’s this potential that makes human life worth protecting and nurturing; when we make exceptions and habituate ourselves to ending human life in its earliest stages, we can become ‘hardened’, over time, a little less disposed to treating human life, in all its forms, as if it’s valuable. This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are many more such propositions in favor of an anti-abortion-rights position. And some of the arguments that support these positions are not only compelling, but true.

Two: we should be circumspect about ending human life while recognizing that nurturing, protecting, and sometimes saving the lives of human persons sometimes necessitates ending human lives that are not persons, and sometimes, if rarely, ending lives of other human persons. We should be honest about the real difficulties and dangers of preserving the lives and liberties of human persons in a world where pregnancy, disease, and other people can threaten the health, life, and liberty of women or their other children, especially in parts of the world where women traditionally have little or no rights of control over their own bodies, and where child poverty, even starvation, is common because birth rates outstrip accessible resources. Even if we have not yet, as a society or as a species, clearly identified the criteria for what makes a human life a human person, we should make the best laws we can based on all of the best information we have, not based on a narrow ideology, and to always make it our concern to err in favor of preserving the lives of persons.

Three: we should not worry too much about whether or not the lives we take are those of human persons, so long as the difficult circumstances we are faced with give us compelling reasons to take those lives, that when we do so we endeavor to minimize suffering, and we have good reasons to put the interests of certain lives first: those of sentient, conscious beings; of members of species in danger of extinction; of members of communities other than our own who presents a danger to us.

This list is not exhaustive, of course there are many more. My own position is closest to the second of these.

However we all disagree on the matter, we must make it our priority to conduct the debate in the most honest way possible. First of all, it’s because we realize that the complexity of the matter make it often extremely difficult to discover what’s the right thing to do given the circumstances. But mostly, it’s because only an honest debate will bring the true facts of the matter, and the actual issues we face, out into the open. Only then do we have any hope of actually resolving this important moral and legal problem. Whatever side of the debate we’re on, human lives, and human happiness, are at stake.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

“Chimera” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimera_(genetics)

“Ensoulment” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensoulment

“Jury Cites Poor Care in Death of Woman Denied Abortion”

“The Twin Inside Me” (documentary) http://www.ovguide.com/tv_episode/extraordinary-people-season-4-episode-5-the-twin-inside-me-609631# (I watched this documentary several years ago, where I first learned of the phenomenon of chimerism)

“The Twin Within the Twin” (documentary) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUrIQiqeTv0 (I watched this documentary several years ago as well)