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Aug 23 2004

I had planned to let this discussion go, but developments have occurred that may be of interest to readers.

Shortly after I found Peterson's original comment on the web and banged out my hot-fingered response, my discussion with Singer resumed, via e-mail. As in the colloquoy at the College of Charleston, the topic was disability-based infanticide. After a few weeks of wide-ranging cyberargument, Singer invited me to Princeton. On March 25, I talked about infanticide and related topics to 150 students (his undergraduate class in "Practical Ethics") and about assisted suicide to a convivial student/faculty supper club. It was a little surreal. I am still pondering what I learned from these exchanges and also from some reading I've been doing. I expect to write about it in due course, but I can say generally that I have a clearer understanding of Singer's many and varied arguments and a clearer conception of why I so strongly oppose them, as they intersect with disability. I dare to say Singer now has a better understanding of the disability rights point of view, but I will leave it to him to say how, or if, this has affected his thinking.

I will respond to a couple of points in Peterson's response in fairly general terms.

First, he rejects a number of my concerns about where Singer's arguments could lead by characterizing them as "the old slippery slope argument, long recognized by logicians as a fallacy." It is true that the slippery slope is a fallacy in formal logic, in that it does not constitute formal "proof" of any proposition. But in the real world of law and policy, we constantly worry about how rules created in one context will be applied in another, and what extensions may flow from their rationales. Indeed, much of Singer's argument for disability-based killing is an extension of policies that currently have significant public approval, such as abortion with prenatal testing, withdrawal of life support, etc. He is, expressly, inviting us to go just a bit farther down the slope we started sliding down some time ago. Given Singer's mode of argument, it is especially important to think about probable consequences and consider whether it might be time to apply the brakes or even throw things in reverse.

Second, Peterson says I have "no basis" for saying pain is a straw man in the assisted suicide debate. Actually, I have many bases for saying disability is a major driver. Prominent cases that have received media hype have involved neither pain nor terminal illness but disability. (Bouvia, McAfee, Latimer, Cartrette, most of Kevorkian's "subjects," Miss B...) Fear of disability is a very common theme when I discuss these issues with nondisabled people; I have had strangers on the street tell me they'd kill themselves if they had to live like me. More generally, I commend an article I assigned for my Princeton audiences: C. Gill, "Health Professionals, disability, and assisted suicide: An examination of relevant empirical evidence and reply to Batavia (2000)" Psychology, Public Policy & Law, 2000 June Vol 6(2) 526-545. You can find this in the seachable, but proprietary, archive at, click journals. For those who want my more personal view, my essay "Worth Living" (written for the late, lamented POINT) is reprinted in the current issue of Disability Studies Quarterly.

Finally, in connection with Peterson's remark about my wheelchair, I'll whole-heartedly agree that it's "not always about" me -- or, at least, it shouldn't be! That's the point I was trying to make in my response when Peterson, not I, tossed my personal characteristics into the discussion. I'll take Peterson at his word that he wasn't looking at me in a stereotypical manner but was projecting the stereotype onto Singer and/or Singer's perception of the audience. It doesn't really matter a lot, but I believe in being fair to opponents, including Singer. Although his disability prejudice, when combined with his unorthodox views on 'personhood,' has horrifying, lethal consequences, he is not among those who thinks someone like me is too pitiful to argue with, or that arguing with someone like me would make him look bad. My impression of Singer's rhetorical style is that he is consistently cool and abstract and that nothing about me made him "less forceful." By his actions, he has proven that he doesn't mind, indeed welcomes, argument with "an actual disabled person." I hope I gave him and his students and colleagues some things to chew on.

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