I’m not sure where or when Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer first suggested that it may not be unethical to euthanize newborns if they have a terrible deformity or disease, but that view has caused tremendous controversy. Apparently, almost all people see the moment of birth as some irrevocable line beyond which “assisted dying” is unethical, both because birth seems to mark some threshhold of “personhood”, and because the infant has no choice in its fate. But of course the concept of “personhood” doesn’t automatically go along with natural exit from the mother (after all, many think it begins when the infant could be viable when removed from the mother by Caesarian), and the concept of “choice” for an infant doomed to a horrible illness or early death is debatable. At the very least, I think Singer’s suggestion is worthy of rational debate, and shouldn’t be automatically dismissed based on kneejerk reactions about “personhood.”
I for one am able to see some merit in Singer’s suggestion—so long as the infant’s affliction would doom it to either an early death or a horrible, painful life. Infants aren’t aware of death and probably have limited self-consciousness; so both their own well being, and that of their suffering parents, should be taken into consideration. Consequentialist ethics may lead one to agree with Singer. Readers may disagree with him, and if you do please weigh in below, but first read a precis of his views, which you can see in an interview below.
This has come up because, according to Leiter Reports, a popular website run by my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter (a philosopher and legal scholar), Singer has just been disinvited from a philosophy conference in Cologne because of these views.
The details were given by people who translated German articles in the comments sections of Leiter’s page. Apparently Singer was scheduled to speak on “Do vegans save the world?” before his invitation was rescinded. Singer’s previous appearances in Germany have been protested, and one can understand why Germans—the descendants of those who killed not only sick, deformed, and mentally ill infants, but adults as well—would take special umbrage at his views. But I don’t see that as a reason to avoid discussing them.
The disinvitation came when the organizers became aware of an interview Singer just gave to a Swiss newspaper that included some of his “euthanasia of infants” views (among other issue), views which have been known for a long time. As one commenter on Leiter’s site said “There, he is quoted saying: ‘A prematurely born baby of 23 weeks has no morally different status than a 25 week old baby inside the womb’.” Another commenter added this (I’ve kept the original spelling and capitalization):
Here is how the organizers justify the cancellation on their facebook page:
They say they knew of earlier publications and statements of Singer with regard to PND and disabilities, but had not inticipated that he would put “his questionable claims” in public focus in such a way as he did in the NZZ (the Swiss paper) interview from May 26th. Now, they wirte [sic], a focused discussion on the subject matter that was planned for his talk (veganism) is no longer possible. They also write that they had to balance “the high good of free speech — an essence of philosophy” with the contents of Singer’s position. (The phrase between quatation marks is a literal translation; it sounds no less strange in the German original.)
While the organizers’ estimation that a sober-minded discussion on veganism would not have been possible at the festival may be right (I don’t know the nature and extent of the anticipated protests against the event), one wonders whether it might not have been possible to keep Singer invited and change the topic in order to discuss such things as the controversial nature of his claims, the vigorous reactions to them in the German public, free speech and whether a philosopher ought to be considerate of readers’ sentiments. Here is Singer’s NZZ interview that caused all the ruckus.
NZZ stands for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, [roughly, The New Zürich Gazette] “Ein Embryo hat kein Recht auf Leben” (“An embryo has no right to life”). Here is a snippet from that interview—the bit that presumably caused the trouble, again translated by a commenter:
NZZ: Next week, you are due to receive an award for the reduction of animal suffering. This has provoked protests because you, allegedly, want to have disabled children killed. Is that true?
PS: There are circumstances where I would consider that to be justified, yes. For instance, when an extremely premature baby suffers from a cerebral hemorrhage so massive that it will never recognize its mother and smile at her. If such a child requires artificial respiration, almost all doctors would advise to switch the device off and let the child die. The artificial respiration is terminated because they do not want the baby to live. But if the child is already capable of breathing on its own, killing it requires a lethal injection. Why should it be morally relevant whether I switch off a device or give the child an injection? In both cases, I decide over the child’s life. [JAC: People often make a distinction here between a direct action that terminates life and an indirect action that allows life to end, but I consider that a distinction without a difference.]
NZZ: Would you also kill a new-born child with a mild disability?
PS: If the disability is compatible with a good quality of life, it should be possible to find a couple willing to adopt the child if the parents do not want it. Why should it be killed then?
NZZ: So it doesn’t make any difference to you whether a child has already been born or whether it is a case of a terminated pregnancy?
PS: With regards to the status of the child, it doesn’t. The opponents of abortion are right in one respect: birth does not mark a clear-cut boundary. Other factors are more important, like whether the child feels pain or develops self-consciousness. But the moral status of a premature child born after 23 weeks of pregnancy is no different from that of a child still in the womb at 25 weeks.
You can see that Singer doesn’t endorse blanket mercy-killing of all sick or deformed infants. It depends, he says, on their quality of life, something that his opponents seem to ignore. And I’m sensitive to Germans’ awareness of the horrible killings that occurred there (and in Nazi-occupied territory) during the Second World War. But it’s time to get past that, for Germany is no longer a Nazi country, and should be able to engage in philosophical discourse without the taint of Hitler. Singer, as always, raises issues of serious moral import (e.g., Should we kill animals for food? How can we justify living in luxury as well-off Westerners?), and they’re worthy of serious debate. Preventing him from raising the issue, after he’d already been invited to a conference (and has views that have been expressed for years) is a form of censorship.