Questions of Life and Death

The Activist and the Professor

How would you characterize someone who denies that you, and people like you, were persons when you were born, and says that your mother should have been free to kill you for being who you are?

This was the question facing Harriet McBryde Johnson, a prominent disabilities rights activist, when she was invited to debate Princeton ethicist Peter Singer. Singer believes in infanticide and that it is okay under certain circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with physical impairments so severe they are no longer “persons.”

Ms. Johnson is a leading member of Not Dead Yet, an organization of disabled Americans opposed to physician-assisted suicide and other “disability-based killing.” If Not Dead Yet has a public enemy number one, it is Peter Singer.

Johnson is seriously impaired, unable to function on her own—just the kind of person Singer regards as an “avoidable mistake.” But with some trepidation, she traveled to Princeton for the exchange with Singer before one of his classes, and later before the entire university—an exchange she described in a brilliantly written Sunday New York Times Magazine piece.

Johnson wrote poignantly of her emotions when meeting the man whom she expected to be a “monster” and the “ultimate evil.” Instead Singer surprised her by his graciousness. She described him as “easy to talk to and good company.” Of course, the issue is not whether Singer is a monster—the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. The issue is where his ideas, beginning with his premises, lead.

And this is where Johnson ran into her problems. She repeatedly reminds readers that she is an atheist. In fact, she approves Singer’s desire to ground ethics on “fact and reason” as opposed to religious beliefs. She referred to this as a “grand, heroic undertaking.”

But the problem for people like Johnson is that, historically speaking, the alternative to what they dismiss as just a religious belief is the kind of utilitarianism that provides the foundation for Singer’s ideas—that is, the goal is to maximize happiness in the world, by doing the greatest good for the greatest number.

People like Johnson, who require substantial resources to maintain what Singer regards as an inferior quality of life, would, by Singer’s logic, be eliminated as early as possible.

No wonder Ms. Johnson, obviously an able advocate, wrote that she doubted whether she had bested Singer in the exchange. The reason is that, as an atheist, she is at a moral dead end; she has no moral basis to refute Singer’s deadly logic so long as she embraces his premises about the origins of life.

Only the Christian ideal, that all life is sacred because it is created in the image of God, provides an unassailable answer to Singer’s reasoning. It’s the only sure basis for protecting people like Harriet McBryde Johnson from a moral calculus that reduces them to non-persons.

Ms. Johnson writes movingly, and the reader can feel her anguish over her difficult encounter with Singer. Though not the author’s intent, the article in the New York Times—of all places—makes a powerful case for the Christian understanding of life.

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