"Professor Death"

Controversial bioethicist Peter Singer talks about the difference between humans and animals (none), the virtues of euthanasia (many) and why some babies are better off dead.

Published June 25, 2001 2:59PM (EDT)

Peter Singer talks about a lot of awful things in an awfully nice way. With a slight Australian accent, he discusses "babies without brains" and "patients in a permanent vegetative state" like a weatherman would discuss scattered showers and afternoon storms. Only rarely, when pushed to the limits of his own argument, or just beyond, does he raise his voice. A little.

Singer's appointment as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 1999 didn't go unnoticed. There were major protests from pro-lifers, from people with disabilities, even from ex-presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, of all people, who threatened to stop making donations to his former alma mater. Now, all the protesters are gone. The lectures by "Professor Death," as his critics like to call him, are not disrupted anymore. Actually, at a "practical ethics" class on a Monday morning not long ago, his students barely made a sound.

His ideas, however -- readily available to friends and enemies in the new anthology "Writings on an Ethical Life" -- have pretty much stayed the same. His central argument is elegant and simple; a child might have come up with it. Humans are animals, therefore animals are in the same league as humans, and should be treated as such. By attacking what he calls "speciesism," racism based on species instead of skin color, Singer raises the status of animals. (He is generally considered to be the founding father of the animal liberation movement and has turned quite a few meat eaters into vegetarians.) But, and this is the more controversial part, in raising the status of animals -- or nonhuman animals, as he calls them -- he effectively lowers the status of human beings, just as Charles Darwin did when he showed that all living beings are biologically related.

Moreover, Singer's utilitarian worldview, which defines good or bad by the pleasure or suffering it causes, leads him to believe that the life of a human being is not always sacred or worth living. Death is sometimes preferable to life. The 54-year-old philosopher from Melbourne maintains that the life of an infant is not automatically more valuable than the life of a higher animal, say a pig, especially not when that infant has all kinds of "defects." Parents should be allowed to have the life of a severely disabled baby ended, according to Singer, just as a pregnant woman is allowed to have an abortion when she discovers her embryo will become a disabled child.

Not even the Netherlands, the first country in the world to have officially legalized euthanasia, goes this far. According to Dutch law, the patient always has to be able to give informed consent to the active ending of his or her life. Infants (and "patients in a permanent vegetative state" or people with advanced Alzheimer's, among others) cannot give such consent. So helping them to die is murder.

As three of Singer's Jewish grandparents were killed by the Nazis when they were living in Austria (his parents fled to Australia in time), it is ironic, to put it mildly, that some of his fiercest critics in the U.S. and in Europe call him a Nazi. They think that when you accept Singer's views, the euthanasia program of the Third Reich, in which thousands of unwanted human beings were put to death, can't be far away. Salon interviewed Singer at Princeton University.

Do you still get hate mail or threats?

Threats, occasionally. By conservative Christians mostly.

Princeton University has always stood by you?

Yes. They've been very good.

Have you been enjoying it so far?

Very much.

Is there a lively discussion going on about the issues at the Center for Human Values?

Not until I came -- there wasn't anything going on. Now, you have Lee Silver, who is a molecular biologist, discussing a lot of bioethical issues, and Shirley Tilghman, who heads the National Center for Human Genome Research. We've been co-sponsoring lectures.

Are people in academia afraid to talk about your work?

There's a certain narrowness about discussion in America. If you go outside the bounds of that narrowness -- in different directions -- you get a not very tolerant response. It's not that people say, "I don't agree, it's poorly argued" or whatever. No, they jump up and down with placards, or write letters to the university president saying you should be dismissed.

Do you think there's a "Stalinism of political correctness" at work, to use the words of conservative provocateur David Horowitz?

In my case, it's the conservatives telling me I'm not allowed to say certain things. So conservatives have their own p.c. -- you could call it counter-p.c. But you shouldn't take all this too seriously: Nobody can stop me from saying what I think. The irony, of course, is that because of the controversy, many more people are reading my books.

Which makes your colleagues criticize you for wanting to get into the spotlight by saying shocking things.

I think it does mean that the discussion doesn't go very deep if you only look at the controversial statements and not at the reasons behind them. If my critics only have me saying babies should be killed or whatever, they can easily attack me. That's a bad thing about the nature of the debate.

Are you working on more boring stuff now?

I'm doing stuff on issues like global warming -- which I suppose are not quite as inflammatory.

But you also wrote a book review about bestiality in Nerve.

Talking about p.c., I got a lot of flack for writing that. One student wrote a negative article in the student newspaper. But I also got a fax from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., charging that because of me, Princeton is equal to sodomy, incest and bestiality.

That's a bit of a stretch.

I would say so. What irks me, though, is that it's such a minor interest of mine. I was asked to review that book. I thought it said some interesting things, especially about the way people try to separate themselves from animals. Now people are saying I'm an advocate of bestiality.

You never get angry about this?

I get annoyed more than angry.

What makes you angry?

What makes me angry? I think I get angry when people cause serious suffering, or don't alleviate suffering when they could. I got pretty angry about the stuff that President Bush did recently -- not only that he withdrew from the Kyoto [Protocol] but that he said "first things first": the economic interests of Americans. That sort of smugness. Americans think they're the leader of the world and yet can say that they're putting their economic interests ahead of the lives of -- quite possibly -- tens of millions of people who over the next 50 years will die because of floods or storms or tropical diseases or whatever. I guess that sort of thing makes me angry.

Really? You don't have to worry about a thing here in this beautiful building on this beautiful campus ...

Maybe I have a little bit more empathy with other people.

President Bush makes you angrier than someone calling you a sodomite or a Nazi?

The Nazi stuff used to make me angry because of my particular background, but it happened so often that I got used to it. Which is a bad thing, but quite honestly I have.

In Switzerland a group of protesters for the disabled took your glasses and crushed them. Did that make you angry?

Yeah. That was pretty close to physical violence. And the fact that some people in Germany were calling me a Nazi. But you can't be angry about the same thing for 12 years.

Most proponents of the right to die would agree with your ideas about euthanasia. But you lose them when you suggest that it's OK to kill a baby before it's 28 days old, because until that time, it is not self-aware and "doesn't have the same right to life as others."

I wrote that in 1995. I have changed my position. Now I believe you should look at every individual case.

Have you ever held a newborn baby?

I have had three children. They're grown-ups now. They live in Australia.

Some people think your theory about infants is too clinical, as if having a baby is like buying a new car.

No, I don't write like that at all, I think.

But people who say "Never hurt a baby because a baby is sacred" are being sentimental?

Listen, if you have a newborn baby and the baby has emerged reasonably healthy and normal, of course you wanted to have a child, so you love and cherish that baby. But I've had letters from people who say: "When our baby was born something was wrong with it. The doctor wanted to operate, and now, three years later, the baby has constant seizures, is unable to walk or talk." It's a disaster. It would have been better if the baby had died. There's nothing clinical about those letters; they're tragic. But they are saying: Not all human life is sacred. Sometimes it's better if the baby dies.

The U.S. doesn't allow infanticide or euthanasia. Isn't it happening anyway?

I don't know. But I would suspect there is actually even more ending of patients' lives without their consent in this country than there is in Holland. We did an anonymous survey in Australia, and found that a lot of doctors were ending people's lives. Sometimes they would say, "I'm giving morphine; I know it will shorten the patient's life, but I'm treating the patient's pain." Sort of a double effect. Many were prepared to admit to us that the primary intention of what they were doing was to end a patient's life. There was another, smaller survey in California with similar results, and one in Belgium. It's not totally surprising, because if it's illegal to actively end someone's life, it's hard to openly discuss it with him or her.

When a baby is born without a brain, the quality of life for that baby won't be very high and killing it makes sense to a lot of people. But what if the definition of quality of life changes, and only the life of babies with blond hair and blue eyes is considered worth living?

In the case of a newborn baby without a brain, you could say the quality of life is zero, because there will be no consciousness. But you could keep the baby alive -- although that doesn't happen very often. So doctors are already making decisions based upon the quality of life. There's a continuum here: Some babies are born with a little brain, there are premature babies with massive brain hemorrhages and so on. So everyone who agrees that not all human life must be preserved at all costs just because it's human and because it's biologically alive is going to have to get into the rather tricky and gray area of just what quality of life is enough.

So maybe in 10 years a potential I.Q. of at least 100 would be added to the list of what makes life worth living?

That's possible. What we need to have is an ongoing debate about these things. Not just scream at each other.

What to do with all the knowledge -- which is becoming available earlier and earlier these days -- about the future of a newborn?

In the case of in vitro fertilization, for instance, you could study the embryos beforehand and see what qualities that baby will or will not have and decide which embryo to implant in the uterus. That's an issue we need to have a serious debate on. Because if we don't ... it's not that it's going to go away. If we do nothing about it, some people will provide it. Some people will be willing to pay for it. Then we will have a market for genetic solutions. That doesn't seem ideal to me.

Money already plays a role in decisions about life and death. Parents of a disabled newborn might say they can't afford the extra costs of raising it. Is that a good argument for infanticide?

When do they know it's disabled?

According to your theory that doesn't matter. There's no crucial difference between abortion and infanticide, because neither the fetus nor the newborn is a "person."

It doesn't make any difference to the inherent right to life of the being, no. But it does make a difference in that if the child is born with a disability that would not make its life miserable, but the parents can't pay for the extra care, they could put the child up for adoption. If the disability is a mild one, that's what I think they should do. If the condition is detected during pregnancy, the woman can't give up the child unless she goes through with the whole thing until birth, which is asking a lot more than simply saying, "I don't think you can rear this child; here's another couple that could."

If you make the criteria so flexible, if you make matters of life and death negotiable, don't you think babies will become a commodity?

That may be happening anyway, in terms of selecting the children we have before birth.

You don't think this is a problem?

It would be a problem if you have a society divided along genetic lines, where the rich can buy the genes they want and the poor can't. I don't think that's the society that would be best in promoting the happiness of most of its members. But I'm not convinced it would be a problem if these services were available to everyone. It's an open question that is worth thinking about.

From your utilitarian philosophy you couldn't argue against it.

Some people might want to select according to characteristics that are in the interests of themselves and their children, but are not in the interests of society as a whole.

Like what?

Well, one thing that could easily happen under a laissez faire system is that people would select for height. You already see ads asking for eggs from girls who are over 5 feet 8 inches tall. The reason is that parents want their child to be slightly taller than average. There is some evidence that taller than average people do significantly better. But of course if everyone selects on that criterion, you get a race to the ceiling and that's not good for anyone. Because we need more resources and so forth.

What if parents don't want an ugly child?

If everyone had the opportunity to avoid having an ugly child, I don't think I would have a problem.

Is ugliness a good enough reason to kill a baby?

I don't think there are parents who would be prepared to go through another pregnancy just because they thought their child was not going to be all that beautiful.

Parents would never refuse to take responsibility for their baby for frivolous reasons?

Most parents are not going to do that. Most parents who go through pregnancy, and childbirth, are going to love and cherish that child.

But it does happen with abortion. A pregnant woman just may not feel like being a mother yet and have the fetus taken away.

If she has had that idea for a month, I think that's a perfectly good reason for an abortion.

What would not be a perfectly good reason for an abortion?

There's a difference between early and late abortions. If you have a late abortion, where the fetus might feel pain, then I think you should have a good reason. Because then you're inflicting pain. As you go through the third trimester, you need to have more serious reasons to end a pregnancy. For instance, I would not support ending a pregnancy only because you want a boy and you're going to get a girl, because it would reinforce sex discrimination. But if you already have two boys and you want a girl, that could be enough reason for abortion.

Do you have grandchildren?


What would you have done if one of your children had had Down syndrome?

If [the fetus] had a blockage of the intestines, which is a common complication, I would have refused permission for the operation. If it did not have blockage or some other complication, but we knew a couple who would want to raise the child, we would put up the child for adoption.

Doesn't it follow from your utilitarian viewpoint that people who want to have children should always first try to adopt, to alleviate the suffering of existing children?

I'm not sure if that follows. You could debate that.

Who should decide if the parents' reasons for infanticide are good enough?

The doctor is the initial filter. If the doctor is in doubt about the quality of the reasons, he should consult a colleague or an ethics committee.

Do you think the doctor should be able to override the parents?

If the doctor feels that the parents' decision is being made in a unreasonable manner, he should be able to go to some other body with the authority to override the parents. I don't think it should be just the doctor. A hospital ethics committee is better than a court, but a court is also a possibility.

What do you say to people with certain disabilities who claim that you're lowering their quality of life? Are they just not getting it?

I don't think I've met someone who said that I'm personally lowering their quality of life.

Some say you're making them feel dispensable.

When I'm talking to them, they're not dispensable, are they? The only sense [in which] they could say that is if their mothers had listened to my views when they were born, they wouldn't be here. So what? That's not really relevant. The same could be said by a third child to someone advocating zero population growth.

Maybe you're not saying that the lives of disabled people are not worth living, but on a scale they're closer to that point than you are.

There are so many more factors important to the quality of life. Maybe the life of a disabled person is much more worth living than mine. All I'm saying is that at birth you can't tell that. It's reasonable to say that a life with a serious disability has the expectation of turning out less well than a life without disabilities. And I'm not talking about intellectual disabilities. I can imagine that parents of a newborn that is paralyzed, that's always going to be in a wheelchair, might decide that they don't want that child and that they are going to have another one. That's a decision I can understand.

In the case of euthanasia of an adult patient, critics argue that the motives of the people deciding about someone's life can be unsound -- for instance, when there's an inheritance.

I like the system in Holland, where the suffering of the patient has to be unbearable, he or she has to express the explicit intention and the doctors have to follow specific rules to practice and report euthanasia.

Do you think Alzheimer's can be a sufficient reason for euthanasia?

Alzheimer's can be a sufficient reason, but only when the person has expressed her wish to die before being seriously affected by the disease. In the absence of any such expressed wish, it is only in the last stages of Alzheimer's, when the person is unable to enjoy even simple things or respond to other people, that euthanasia might be considered.

According to the new Dutch law, patients who are in unbearable pain and wish to die still don't have a right to euthanasia.

Americans always want to describe everything in terms of rights. I don't see the point of that. Nor should any duty be placed on doctors to carry out euthanasia if they do not wish to do so. Presumably Dutch patients will know that the law allows voluntary euthanasia, so if a doctor refuses, they will know that they can look for another one.

The law is still in the penal code, as an exception to the rule that helping someone else to die is illegal.

I think that will do, at least for the foreseeable future. Let's see how this law works before seeing whether there is a need to allow any other cases in which someone might want to die and need help to achieve that end.

By Viktor Frolke

Viktor Frolke is a freelance journalist from Amsterdam. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. ly. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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