Defenders of Peter Singer like to say that his critics are just too dull to understand what he is really saying. As proof, Singer’s defenders note that opponents of his views often compare him to Hitler. And it is true: Some are so appalled by his advocacy for the permissibility of infanticide that they reflexively wield der Führer’sbones as relics of evil against him, thinking the analogy a sure-fire argument winner.
It isn’t. Singer is not a Nazi. Moreover, most people today roll their eyes at any and all Hitler comparisons as hyperbolic clichés.
Besides, the infanticide Holocaust that took place in Germany between 1939 and 1945 was more the poisonous fruit of decades of eugenics advocacy than it was the result of tyrannical political leadership.1
Also note: The language of eugenics was harsh and hate-filled, e.g., “the fit versus the unfit,” calling babies with disabilities “weeds,” and the like. In contrast, Singer and his supporters don’t spout vilification of “useless eaters” from the rooftop. Instead, they speak passively and seemingly ooze compassion, which effectively shields them against widespread censure. Alas, in our unprincipled, postmodern era, one can support (and engage in) the most odious actions and still be praised—so long as the actions are justified as prevention of suffering. If you doubt it, just look at the recent rehabilitation of Jack Kevorkian—who wanted to experiment on people being euthanized2—yet was the subject of a recent fawning HBO biopic in which he was portrayed by Al Pacino.
All of this came to mind when I pondered how to react to Peter Singer’s presentation at the Princeton abortion conference. Some might be surprised to learn Singer no longer believes that it should be legal to kill a baby within 30 days of birth—the assertion that helped launch his international notoriety. He walked back that position years ago, not because he has moderated his beliefs, but because, as he said at the conference, it “is not a practical suggestion.”3
In its place, Singer adopted an Oprah-culture position that would permit baby killing only in cases of severe disability to prevent suffering and help families, telling the Princeton audience: “Maybe the law has to have clear bright lines and has to take birth as the right time, although maybe it should make some exceptions in the cases of severe disability where parents think that it is better for the child and better for the family that the child does not live.”4 In other words, “maybe”—Singer always advocates odious acts with such equivocal language—we should be able to kill babies, but only if they would have very difficult lives, and then, only because we care.
Some might say that Singer’s partial walk-back from his earlier support of a general infanticide license is at least progress in defending the sanctity/equality of human life. That would be to fall into Singer’s trap. At best, rescinding the 30-day kill-by rule, while keeping the infanticide door open “only” for infants with serious disabilities, amounts to a mere tactical retreat that protects Singer from having to defend against criticism that his earlier view would permit killing healthy and able-bodied infants, since they, like their disabled fellows, supposedly lack “personhood.”5
Indeed, based on his Princeton presentation, Singer’s views are now more radical. When asked by an audience member, “At what point do you think an infant [is] self aware [and therefore entitled to] be considered a person?” Singer asserted that even a two-year-old-child does not possess “full moral status”:
I think this is a gradual matter. If you are not talking about public policy or the law, but you are talking about when you really have the same moral status, I think that does develop gradually. There are various things that you could say that are sufficient to give some moral status after a few months, maybe six months or something like that, and you get perhaps to full moral status, really, only after two years. But I don’t think that should be the public policy criteria.6
Don’t be fooled by the “public policy” hedge. It merely allows Singer to pursue his long-stated subversive goal of destroying the sanctity/equality-of-life ethic without having to also defend himself against advocating legalized murder, based on the dubious notion that his ideas would never be put into action.
But it is folly to think that Singer doesn’t eventually want his ideas implemented: He is too serious an intellectual and knows that the law eventually reflects our moral values. Thus, once the very young were deemed by society to be intrinsically unequal—another way of describing denial of full moral status—radical changes in public policy would follow as naturally as water flowing downhill.
Singer made that very point at the conference, albeit between the lines. Purporting to respect the seriousness of the pro-life position against legal abortion, he said: “The position that allows abortion also allows infanticide under some circumstances. . . . If we accept abortion, we do need to rethink some of those more fundamental attitudes about human life.”7
This is very telling. Abortion was once widely condemned and universally proscribed by law except for medical reasons. It is now broadly accepted and considered a fundamental right throughout the West, in large part because our perception of the moral value of fetal life changed. Thus, if we ever accept Singer’s views that children, perhaps past the age of two, do not possess full moral status, it would similarly change our perceptions about the wrongness of their killing, leading ultimately to dramatic changes in morality and law. (This is already happening in the Netherlands, where infanticide—while technically murder—is so widely accepted that Dutch doctors who euthanize babies published the “Groningen Protocol,” a bureaucratic infanticide checklist for use in deciding which babies can be ethically euthanized.8)
Now, we can see the game that is afoot. Singer still wants infanticide to be legal—as he mentioned at the conference almost as an aside—and he is betting that if he can convince us that there is no real difference between abortion and infanticide, our current cultural attachment to the former will be the key that opens the door to accepting the latter. Indeed, if he and his co-believers eventually convince society that moral value comes from possessing personhood—rather than simply in being human—and that full personhood isn’t achieved until after two years, the euthanasia of very ill and disabled babies, and even toddlers, could one day be practiced as openly as abortion is now—particularly in a culture in which some 90 percent of fetuses testing positive for Down syndrome or other genetic anomalies such as dwarfism never make it to birth.
I can hear the argument now, couched as a nod to pro-life sentiments: When in doubt about a future baby’s health status, choose birth. In fact, why not give the baby and parents a chance to see how it goes for a while—say, until the baby grows into full moral status—when a more informed decision can be made? (The same option would apply to a “normal” child who became seriously disabled during her first two years.) In fact, Peter Singer made that very point in Practical Ethics:
Regarding newborn infants as replaceable, as we now regard fetuses, would have considerable advantages over prenatal diagnosis followed by abortion. Prenatal diagnosis still cannot detect major disabilities. . . . At present, parents can choose to keep or destroy their disabled offspring only if the disability happens to be detected during pregnancy. There is no logical basis for restricting parents’ choice to these particular disabilities. If disabled newborn infants were not regarded as having a right to life until, say, a week or a month after birth it would allow parents, in consultation with their doctors, to choose on the basis of far greater knowledge of the infant’s condition than is possible before birth.9
Other than the time factors mentioned, this passage is perfectly consistent with what Singer said at the Princeton conference, as quoted earlier.
So the leopard has grown even more pronounced spots. The question thus becomes, how best to combat Singer-style anti-humanism.
As I mentioned earlier, it can’t be with Hitler. That trope will merely bounce off people’s foreheads. Rather, the answer lies in Martin Luther King liberalism—pounding on the invidiously discriminatory nature of Singer-style utilitarian measurements of human life and defending a robust acceptance of human exceptionalism as the necessary predicate for universal human rights. Indeed, accepting Peter Singer’s thesis is, by definition, a rejection of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”10
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Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute. He also consults for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.
- Perhaps the best recounting of German infanticide between 1939 and 1945 can be found in Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and Psychological Genocide (New York, Basic Books, 1986).
- Jack Kevorkian, Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death (Buffalo, Prometheus Books, 1991), pp. 214, 241-244.
- “Open Minds, Open Hearts, and Fair-Minded Words” A Conference on Life and Choice in the Abortion Debate, Princeton University, October 15-16, 2010, Panel http://uchv.princeton.edu/Life_Choice, Panel II, October 15, from the author’s transcription.
- Singer believes that “persons” possess the highest moral value, which is to be gauged by whether the human or animal individual being measured possesses certain cognitive capacities, such as being self-aware. In his view, there are some so-called human non persons, including infants who have not yet developed the relevant capacities. See Peter Singer,Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
- Princeton Conference, supra.
- Edward Verhagen and Pieter J. J. Sauer, “The Groningen Protocol—Euthanasia in Severely Ill Newborns,” N Engl J Med 2005, 352:959-962, March 10, 2005.
- Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd Ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 190.
- “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by United Nations General Assembly 1948, Article