Singer Gets Respectful Reception
Harry R. Weber
The Boston Globe, October 5, 2001
Bioethicist Peter Singer got a respectful reception Friday as he told advocates for the disabled it is morally acceptable to kill severely disabled newborns.
The Governor's Commission on Disability was harshly criticized for inviting Singer to Friday's conference because of that stance, first enunciated in a 1979 book.
But only about 20 people protested outside, and few in the audience of about 200 heeded requests from critics that they refrain from applauding when Singer spoke.
Many of the protesters defended Singer's right to his views, but said it was outrageous for a state agency to sponsor his visit.
''Singer has a right to say what he wants. That doesn't mean we have to give him a forum,'' said Daniel Itse, a Republican state representative from Fremont.
Singer acknowledged the controversy over his appearance and the underlying issue of free speech by quoting Voltaire: ''I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.''
The Princeton University professor then lived up to his reputation as a provocative thinker and speaker.
''I do think that it is sometimes appropriate to kill a human infant,'' he said, adding that he does not believe a newborn has a right to life until it reaches some minimum level of consciousness.
''For me, the relevant question is, what makes it so seriously wrong to take a life?'' Singer asked. ''Those of you who are not vegetarians are responsible for taking a life every time you eat. Species is no more relevant than race in making these judgments.''
Singer said society condones other efforts by parents to influence their future children's attributes. On some Ivy League campuses, ads in student papers offer big money to entice female students to donate eggs.
''This is clearly the genetic supermarket at an early stage,'' he said.
If it is all right for people to try to breed children with high IQs and other desirable characteristics, Singer asked, what is wrong with euthanizing newborns who would suffer throughout their lives because of a severe disability?
Before the speech, Itse held a sign saying, ''Singer's got the wrong tune.''
He said his 7-year-old son, Jarrod, was born with a severe brain injury, and doctors gave him only a few weeks to live. But he said the boy has persevered.
''Though he can't communicate, he grunts and groans and makes himself known and, remarkably, he's quite effective at it,'' Itse said.
Another protester, Tom Cagle, 50, of Henniker, wore a T-shirt with the name of a disability rights group, ''Not Dead Yet.''
''Peter Singer is absolutely notorious for misquoting disabled people,'' said Cagle, who has multiple sclerosis. ''He's a bad scientist because he's not consistent.''
Commission Director Michael Jenkins said his group abhors Singer's positions, but wanted him as a speaker to prompt debate on important issues. When the Executive Council, an elected body that reviews contracts, refused to approve Singer's $2,000 fee, Singer agreed to speak without payment.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Gordon Humphrey, who arrived after Singer entered the conference, criticized Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen for not rescinding Singer's invitation.
''It's an outrage she let in this cruel crackpot who advocates killing infants,'' Humphrey said.
''No civilized government in America should give him an honored place to speak.''
Shaheen's spokeswoman Pamela Walsh said the governor doesn't support Singer's views, but believes he had a right to express them. She said the commission wanted a chance to confront Singer.
''I have no idea why Gordon Humphrey is making this an issue,'' Walsh said.
Humphrey lost to Shaheen last year but is expected to run again next year. His vote against the Americans with Disabilities Act when he was a U.S. senator in 1990 became an issue in last year's campaign.
Other speakers at the conference said Singer's views are a sign that the struggle for equal rights for the disabled is far from over, especially in the workplace.
''I do know that I don't want others judging me by my genetic predisposition, and I don't want others to have access to that information,'' said Paul Steven Miller, a lawyer with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Miller, who has a form of dwarfism, added, ''No employer should ever review your genetic records along with your resume.''