On Monday, March 9, a group called the Public Square hosted a lecture by Peter Singer, a professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. The event took place at the International House on the University of Chicago Campus. Singer's lecture was titled "The Life You Can Save"; the title echoes his latest book (THE LIFE YOU CAN SAVE Acting Now to End World Poverty), in which Singer argues that individuals who are economically comfortable, or safe, in developed countries should do more, and have a responsibility to do more, to help end poverty and starvation in developing countries.
Many people, both university students and community members, attended the lecture, but not everyone was interested to hear about the new book. Five disability rights activists also showed up to remind the audience, or to inform the audience, that Singer is not always in support of saving lives.
Within the disability community, Singer is well-known for his argument that parents should have the right to kill a severely disabled child within the first month of birth. Though I am no Singer scholar(I've barely read anything of his) it seems that in terms of the issues he endorses, he applies a litmus test of suffering. If it is within our power, we should do all we can to end suffering. This applies to animals (Singer wrote a book called Animal Liberation in 1975), to people who face starvation and poverty, and to people with severe disabilities. In the case of people with severe disabilities, according to Singer, if there is no hope to reverse the disability, parents should have the option to kill the child.
A disability advocate stronger than myself could find scores of problems with this argument; I'll just identify two problems. First, a lot can change within the first month of birth. I know several people, both within the community of people of short stature and within the larger disability community, who were issued terminal diagnosis just after birth. Doctors told their parents, "Your son (or daughter) won't live more than a year (or two or ten)." These people went on to live long, productive lives. So, there is no way to project a diagnosis within the first month, or within the first year. Plus, all of us within the disability community, no matter what the disability, have the opportunity to live productive lives given the right supports and opportunities.
The fact that all people with disabilities have the chance to live productive lives leads into the second problem with Singer's argument. Singer argues that a child with, for example Down Syndrome, will never have the chance to develop into an accomplished athlete, or musician or economist. Because there is no chance to develop into an accomplished person, the lives of people with severe disabilities are less valuable. The problem here is that we have a person not familiar with the disability community projecting values onto the disability community. There are millions and millions of people with disabilities who are adults who, if given a chance, would not change one thing about their lives, including their disability. If there is no way to reverse a severe disability, that's okay. When it comes to quality of life, there is no way that a person without a disability, even a very smart person like Peter Singer who otherwise has some pretty good opinions, should pass judgement on disability.
So, on March 9, five disability activists traveled down to the University of Chicago campus. Positioning ourselves to meet the audience as it arrived, three at the west entrance of the International House, and two at the east entrance, passed out fliers with information about Singer's view on disability infanticide.
Who knows who read the fliers, and what difference we made, but if someone reconsidered their views, or asked a question about Singer they otherwise may not have, that's a success. Perhaps that thought alone is cliche. But when genetic clinics with the technology to screen embryos refuse to implant an embryo that carries the gene for dwarfism, and when couples terminate pregnancies after learning their fetus carries dwarfism, every step we take to question and broaden our views on inclusion, tolerance and acceptance, the better.
For more about Singer and his new book, click here
For more about disability response to Singer, here is an article from the New York Times Magazine, chronicling a meeting and debate between Singer and disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson.