The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

Join / Donate

All Forums > Ethics >


Aug 23 2004
response to Peterson

Just this morning I surfed into the internet edition of your May 2001 issue and was quite startled by Dave Peterson's "Thoughts on Peter Singer, Harriet Johnson, and ethical matters." Peterson offered an able recap and critique of Singer, but when he talks about disability, it's clear that he, like Singer doesn't get the basic points.

After kindly describing my September 1999 talk to the Secular Humanists as "very eloquent," Peterson calls my stand on "euthanasia" (a biased term I never use) and the killing of disabled infants "logically flawed." First, he says it is not reasonable to generalize from my own experience. I am, it seems, "the exception" in having a good life with a disability. Those who want to be dead are, it seems, the norm. In my opinion, based not only on my own life but on extensive study and experience representing and working with hundreds of people with severe disabilities, I am no exception. While some people with disabilities are miserable, so are some people without disabilities. In my opinion -- and the objective social science literature bears me out, by the way -- what makes the difference is not level of impairment but access to the resources that are needed to live free of institutions and control one's own life. To insist, as Singer does, that every disabled person who says her life is worth living is an

In my colloquoy with Singer, the one time I made him squirm was when I said that when some people encounter a disabled person who doesn't fit the stereotype, the reaction is not to question the stereotype but to "carve out an exception to their prejudices." We need to consider the possibility that the common belief that people with very severe disabilities are generally better off dead is a false stereotype. Disabled people are, after all, a minority group, subject to discrimination in jobs, government services, and public accommodations. We have historically been locked up in institutions and sterilized against our wills. It is not unusual for an oppressive society to justify such treatment of a minority group by creating myths.

Peterson then makes the interesting point that, "[S]he is having the time of her life, her experiences are rich and full, and she would have missed that if she had been killed at birth. Well, yes. But if her parents had let her die, she would not have known what she had missed." The same is, I suppose true of Peterson himself and all of us. Kill us, we won't care; we'll be dead. Certainly that would relieve all human misery! If we want to be logical, why limit this argument to people with disabilities? Why not kill African Americans, to save them the misery of confronting discrimination every day of their lives? Obviously, society as a whole has an interest in protecting the lives of devalued minority groups. From where I sit, it's not just about me but about my millions of brothers and sisters with disabilities. The world would be poorer without them.

Peterson then says I don't "address the hard cases, the exceptions that need to be explained ... the small percentage of people with chronic pain who are not helped by medication." I do think most, if not all, pain can be relieved. Although a doped-up life is not what anyone would choose, the notion of intractable pain is essentially a straw man, not the real issue. What is driving actual cases of disability-killing and assisted suicide is not pain but depression, devaluation, and lack of control over one's own life. It always gets back to the popular assumption that our lives are inherently unworthy of life.

Peterson complains about an anonymous flyer comparing Singer to Hitler, handed to him by an "elderly woman." The only flyer I saw was handed out by me, an elderly man, and a woman in her 30's. My flyer was not anonymous; it was produced by Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights organization that opposes assisted suicide and disability killing from a secular, progressive perspective. It does note some important comparisons. We do not say or imply that Singer is just like Hitler. Hitler killed millions; Singer does not advocate killing of any "person," as he defines the term. However, it is important to be alert to the danger of disability prejudice. When we start allowing one group of people to declare another group of people unworthy of living, and legitimate that in law, it is hard to stop. The Holocaust began with the killing of chronic and incurable patients in the back wards of the hospitals. Progressive, forward-looking physicians and policy-makers were able to do this and feel good about it. It

Lastly, two points that may be beside the point, or maybe not. Anyway, they rankled. First, while many people with spina bifuda have spoken out against Singer, I don't have spina bifuda. I have no idea where Peterson got the idea that I do. I have a progressive, congenital neuromuscular disease. Singer's eugenic net is wide enough to include me.

And finally, Peterson says Singer "seemingly did not want to pick a fight with Johnson, sitting there in her wheelchair." In fairness to the man who argues that my parents should have been allowed to kill me at birth, I must report that I heard nothing from Singer, personally, so outrageously condescending as that statement. Singer, who is accustomed to debating members of the disability rights movement, did not hesitate to defend his position when I picked a fight with him. Whenever I get in a fight, as a lawyer or advocate, I expect people to deal with my arguments. Whether I'm sitting in a wheelchair or in some other seat has absolutely nothing to do with anything.

Feb 7 2008

im sorry but i think you are both arguing similar things, he is saying kill all unnormal ppl is he, and are u saying save all unnormal ppl, im afrade i think you are both wrong, you cant make a rule that will cover all possibilities, only guid lines for suitable profesionals to make a judgment based decision, ond then thay can only inform the parents and let them make a decision, there just cant be a rule for evry one, its just not possible,

myself i have met some very interesting disabled ppl with better minds than me, and some very stupid able bodyed ppl, maybe singer has a view on them too? should stupid ppl be euthinised lol, after all they dont realy enjoy the world and life as much as me with their disabled inteligance, heheh, im not a advocate of nazie genetic perfection, and his kill all deformed has a wiff of that about it, but like any other biological entity on earth, there must be a point were the organism isnt fit for any purpose, just because we can see it as one of us dosnt meen we should care about it in the same way, there are some dreadfull deformitys, that yes we could keep alive after birth for hours, days eaven weeks or months, but, we realy need to consider that sometimes this is cruel in the extream, not only for the child but for the parents and the medical staff that are forced to do that job with the knowledge that others dont of how much pain and suffering they are inficting on that child.

i need to reapet some thing i read on these pages earlyer.

It's not allways about you.

Return to Ethics Forum
Return to Discussion Home

Webmaster: Alex Kasman 2016