Peter Singer and Eugenics

04.05.2011

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who is best known for his book Animal Liberation. His work on ethics is respected within the academy and he has had an impact on public opinion unmatched by almost any other professional philosopher. He is the world’s foremost proponent of utilitarianism, one of the two major doctrines within mainstream western ethics. Singer was recently appointed to a prestigious chair at Princeton University, a top US school. That appointment has brought to these shores a heated controversy about several of Singer’s views that has been raging in much of Europe for the past decade. This article will only address Singer’s views on selective infanticide, one of his most controversial positions.

Singer advocates the killing of certain newborn infants at the discretion of their parents. The criteria he proposes for deciding which infants may be killed center on a wide range of hereditary physical conditions which Singer considers “disabilities”. He has been forthright and consistent in his advocacy of this position for many years. The second sentence of his 1985 book Should the Baby Live? (co-authored with his close colleague Helga Kuhse) reads: “We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed.” The reason that Singer supports infanticide in such cases is not, as one might expect from a utilitarian, to put an end to the newborn’s suffering; as Singer himself repeatedly points out, in many of the cases in which he favors infanticide there is no physical pain or suffering of any kind involved. His stated reason, rather, is that such children have diminished prospects of eventually enjoying an adequate “quality of life”, in his words, and to allow them to live would take away resources from what Singer calls “normal” children. He therefore advocates killing “disabled” infants, if the parents so choose, and replacing them with “normal” ones. The terminology of “replacement” is Singer’s own; his philosophy “treats infants as replaceable”, in his words (Practical Ethics p. 186).

What counts as a “severe disability” for Singer? He intentionally leaves the term vague to allow for a broad range of parental discretion, but he has discussed a number of specific examples, both hypothetical as well as actual cases. The conditions he has explicitly named as sufficient justification for active infanticide include Down syndrome, spina bifida, and hemophilia. Here is Singer’s reasoning on the latter condition, taken from his popular textbook Practical Ethics (P. 186): “Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. . . . When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

Like hemophilia, spina bifida is a congenital condition. It covers a very broad range of symptoms, many of them quite minor. Singer considers any one of the following conditions to constitute, in conjunction with a diagnosis of spina bifida, a “severe physical handicap”: “chronic urinary infections; kidney disease; paraplegia requiring the use of calipers, crutches, or wheelchairs; severe spinal deformities; precariously controlled hydrocephalus; blindness, fits, or other less common defects.” (Should the Baby Live? p. 61) This list of “severe” handicaps comes in the same book that begins, “We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed.”

Down syndrome, once again a genetically based condition, gets the most attention in Singer’s recent work. His 1994 book Rethinking Life & Death, whose aim is to articulate “a social ethic where some human lives are valued and others are not” (p. 112), recapitulates the arguments in favor of selective infanticide outlined above. There he endorses the view that “it is ethical that a child suffering from Down’s syndrome…should not survive” (p. 123) because “the quality of life of someone with Down syndrome [is] below the standard at which medical treatment to sustain the life of an infant becomes obligatory” (p. 111; in Singer’s terms “treatment to sustain life” doesn’t refer merely to surgical intervention but to simple feeding as well). This “quality of life” reasoning is sometimes cast in more colorful terms; in Should the Baby Live? Singer quotes, entirely approvingly, the grandmother of a Down syndrome child: “Had the poor little mongol been allowed to die, as he so easily could, my daughter might have had one or two healthy children in his place” (p. 66). Singer goes on to suggest lethal injection “in the case of a Down syndrome baby with no other defect” (p. 73).

This contrast between “mongols” and “healthy” people – a crucial dichotomy for Singer – is entirely spurious (we might also note that Singer fails to question or challenge the term “mongol”, an obsolete and pejorative designation for people with Down syndrome). There is nothing “unhealthy” about people with Down syndrome. They do not walk around with constantly running noses or malfunctioning bladders. They do not require ongoing medical attention. The contrast is even more ludicrous in the case of hemophiliacs, who are physically indistinguishable from non-hemophiliacs. Such judgments are doubly suspect when applied to newborn infants. In this context, “healthy” and “normal” cannot refer to an individual’s physiological constitution, which has yet to be fully formed. They can only refer to genetic factors.

Down syndrome is usually characterized by short stature, distinctive facial features, and, as my dictionary puts it, “mild to moderate mental retardation”. Singer himself describes the condition as involving “some physical abnormalities” as well as “mild to moderate intellectual disability” (Rethinking Life & Death p. 106). There is no mention here of “severe disabilities”; Singer notes that “People at the upper end of this range [of Down-related intellectual disability] can live independently with little supervision. Others need help with managing their financial affairs, and need to be supervised when shopping, cooking or travelling outside the home.” (ibid.) Unlike migraines or arthritis, Down syndrome is not a painful condition, and people who have it do not “suffer” from it in any conventional sense.

Why, then, does Singer argue that infants born with this condition can justly be killed? Because they are “abnormal” and do not have “good prospects” (Rethinking p. 214). This notion of “prospects” runs like a mantra through Singer’s discussion of Down syndrome children: “the future prospects of life may be so bleak” (211), “the prospects are clouded” (213), and so forth. But what sort of prospects does he have in mind? On p. 213 of Rethinking he lists several activities which a person with Down syndrome will supposedly never be capable of: “to play the 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, basketballer or tennis player.” This list reads like a parody of bourgeois myths of achievement, success, and respectability. To Singer, however, these are legitimate reasons for killing a newborn. After all, if you can’t do your own financial planning, why should you be allowed to live?

Thus we find that in Singer’s view, “severe disabilities” – and also sometimes merely “mild to moderate” ones – are acceptable grounds for parents to decide to have their babies killed. He stands by this view even in some cases where other families offer to adopt the child (Should the Baby Live?, p. 13). At no point does he entertain the possibility that parents who make such a decision on the basis of these criteria are capitulating to a groundless social prejudice exactly analogous to sexism, racism, or homophobia. Indeed he embraces such criteria as ethically proper and vociferously promotes their widespread application.

This is a eugenicist position. It endorses selection according to desirable and undesirable genetic traits, and favors the elimination of the latter. Singer’s argument sorts people into two categories, “normal” and “abnormal”, and declares the ostensibly abnormal ones fair game at birth. He doesn’t even bother to try to provide “objective” grounds on which to classify some human physical or mental conditions as “defective” (a term he used in earlier editions of Practical Ethics) and contrast them with “healthy” ones. Instead he simply welcomes whatever arbitrary social norms happen to prevail, thus turning his argument into a vehicle for prejudice. But of course there is no perfect, flawless version of the human form against which putatively “inferior” specimens could be measured.

Singer’s stance is understandably distressing to those disabled adults who think they’re quite capable of leading full human lives even if they don’t fulfill some mythical and arbitrary definition of perfect humanness. In Germany his public pronouncements have generated vigorous opposition, much of it galvanized by disability rights activists as well as radical political ecologists around the group “Ecological Left”. In North America, however, Singer’s eugenicist views have been commended by some on the left, especially as the controversy surrounding his Princeton appointment has lead to predictable condemnations of Singer by the traditional “right to life” right. Singer’s arguments have resurrected the troubling tradition of “progressive” support for eugenic programs, the tradition of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and many others who should have known better. This tradition is an attempt to erase the fundamental contingency of sexual reproduction and to create an “improved”, “healthy” race, cleansed of deficiencies and deformities.

Those of us who believe that people can’t be divided into “fit” and “unfit” categories reject Singer’s pernicious logic. We resist the re-emergence of eugenicist thinking in a “progressive” guise. We insist that any ethical system which condones such invidious distinctions among people is morally bankrupt and has no place on the left. In the era of The Bell Curve, resurgent sociobiology, and modernized Social Darwinism, we cannot afford to be complacent on this question.

Editorial Comment

Published on the Institute for Social Ecology webpage (2001)