PRINCETON, N.J.—When Christopher Benek heard that Princeton University had appointed Peter Singer to its Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bio-ethics post last summer, he was shocked.
“I found it hard to believe that any university, especially one as prestigious as Princeton, would select a professor of bioethics whose views permit the killing of certain handicapped newborns,” said Benek, a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Singer, an Australian bioethicist, has sparked protests around the world because of his views on infanticide and animal rights. He has argued that killing a disabled newborn infant is not necessarily immoral and that no infant has as strong a claim to life as a rational, self-conscious human being. He also believes animals may sometimes be worthier of life than disabled infants since there is no automatic hierarchy of species among living things.
In July, Singer will begin teaching bioethics at Princeton — unless students like Benek have something to say about it.
Immediately after Singer's appointment, many Princeton students and faculty members expressed concern and outrage. Students wrote letters to the Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, and picketers gathered outside Princeton's University Center for Human Values where Singer will serve.
In his books Practical Ethics and Should the Baby Live?, Singer argues that disabled newborns do not qualify as “persons.” He suggests that parents should be allowed to have their disabled children killed up to 28 days after birth, and he advocates establishing criteria for distinguishing newborn infants from “normal human beings” using such conditions as “rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness.”
‘Hopefully, by organizing students to protest the appointment of Dr. Singer, we will raise awareness throughout academia that there are fundamental human rights that must be maintained in order to secure each and every student's freedom to participate in their own education’…
With just four months remaining before Singer assumes his permanent teaching post, the controversy hasn't faded. As a matter of fact, it has escalated. Students opposed to Singer's views on infanticide and people with disabilities have mobilized to pressure the university to rescind his appointment.
“Hopefully, by organizing students to protest the appointment of Dr. Singer, we will raise awareness throughout academia that there are fundamental human rights that must be maintained in order to secure each and every student's freedom to participate in their own education,” Benek, who recently formed Princeton Students Against Infanticide, told the Register. “The appointment of a professor whose views claim that, in certain cases, disabled babies may be rightly killed supports the false notion that many disabled persons’ lives are less worth living and inherently inferior to the lives of others.”
Benek said Princeton Students Against Infanticide, an umbrella organization representing several campus organizations opposed to Singer's appointment, has launched a petition drive against the appointment. Organizations are planning a rally against the Singer appointment on campus April 17. He said that interest in the group continues to grow as more individuals learn of Singer's radical views and he hoped the group's petition drive would both educate and activate students on the issue.
The first paragraph of the petition reads, in part: “We protest his hiring because Dr. Singer denies the intrinsic moral worth of an entire class of human beings — newborn children — and promotes policies that would deprive many handicapped infants of their basic human right to legal protection against homicide.” It continues by citing Singer's own publications supporting the killing of disabled newborns in certain circumstances.
The petition ends by stating: “The hiring of Dr. Peter Singer is a blatant violation of Princeton University's policy of respect for people with handicaps. If Princeton University is committed to upholding the principles of nondiscrimi-nation, it must rescind its decision to hire Dr. Peter Singer.”
Living With Disabilities
Princeton University officials say Benek and others opposed to Singer's appointment are simply uninformed or have an “ax to grind” with the university.
“To describe Dr. Singer as a supporter of infanticide is an absurd description,” Justin Harmon, Princeton's director of communications, told the Register. “The guy, whether you agree with him or not, has done exhaustive work to establish the moral framework on the nature of life across species.”
Harmon said Singer was chosen for the post due to his intellectual and scholarly accomplishments. He said that Princeton doesn't necessarily endorse Singer's views, and he attempted to downplay Singer's support for the direct killing of disabled newborns by calling such actions “extreme situations which occur in very, very rare circumstances.”
“We're definitely not saying we endorse his views, but the guy is qualified to frame the discussion on bioethics,” said Harmon.
Harmon says opponents of Singer's appointment are forgetting that Princeton is a nonsectarian institution that seeks to engage students in a scholarly debate of various issues. Princeton's commitment to academic freedom overrides any opposition to the appointment, he said. In response to Benek's assertion that the Singer appointment violates the university's nondiscrimination policy protecting those with disabilities, Harmon disagreed, stating that the policy deals with adults and their access to university facilities and programs.
“They haven't read his stuff,” he said of Students Against Infanticide. “He's never written anything about an individual who has a learning disability or uses a wheelchair who is a [functioning] adult.”
“Imagine being a handicapped student sitting in Dr. Singer's class and hearing him say that your parents should have had the right to end your life when you were a newborn,” said Benek. “The issue is about maintaining students’ freedom to be educated, no matter what their personal characteristics may be, without being demeaned.”
Although Singer's writings may focus on newborns, some activists see his views as a threat to disabled people of all ages.
Mary Jane Owen, executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, told the Register that Singer's appointment offers an excuse for those who seek to denigrate lives of the disabled. Owen contended that Singer's appointment sends a dangerous message not only to disabled students, but all disabled individuals.
“I find it unbelievable that Princeton has appointed Peter Singer,” said Owen. “This man's view that a young pig has more potential to enjoy life than a disabled newborn and a disabled person is odious.”
Owen, who is blind and uses a wheelchair, said Singer's perspectives on the disabled undermine everything the disabled community has been struggling to affirm for several decades and may even violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Owen says that by advancing arguments that dehumanize the disabled, Singer undermines the ability of people to combine their strengths and weaknesses to build strong communities. It is by helping each other and feeling needed that people become truly civilized, she said.
“One of the evil things about Peter Singer's views is that he just doesn't grasp the concept of interdependency,” said Owen. “We are meant to be interactive, not autonomous. We need each other.
“We need people with disabilities.
We don't need to kill people with disabilities.”
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of LIfe), Pope John Paul II warns about “a misguided pity” toward those who suffer: attitudes that lead people to think they can control life and death: “Euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and which weigh heavily on society. Thus it is proposed to eliminate malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly, especially when they are not self-sufficient, and the terminally ill” (No 15).
He adds in No. 63: “The Church is close to those married couples who, with great anguish and suffering, willingly accept gravely handicapped children. She is also grateful to all those families which, through adoption, welcome children abandoned by their parents because of disabilities or illnesses.”
While Princeton's Harmon says the university has no intention of rescinding Singer's appointment, Students Against Infanticide's Benek says members of the group will continue to mobilize against Singer through the petition drive, educational tables on campus, and the April 17 rally.
Benek is optimistic that the Princeton students and alumni can stop Singer's appointment. He believes the university is already feeling pressure from the appointment in the form of negative publicity and possible fallout from alumni. However, whether or not the students succeed in having Singer's appointment rescinded, Benek sees a bigger picture.
“We don't really think the university cares what students think on this issue,” he said. “But we're going to show them that students do care about this issue. Princeton made a mistake that is still forgivable if only they will rescind their decision to hire Dr. Singer.”
Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.