PRINCETON, N.J. — Carrying posters decrying Nazi-style eugenics and extreme notions of academic freedom, more than 100 pro-life and handicapped-rights advocates assembled on a quiet Princeton University campus to protest the hiring of Peter Singer to a prestigious chair in ethics.
Singer, 52, a university professor in Melbourne, Australia, is internationally known for his work in utilitarian ethics and famous for his promotion of animal rights. He says that parents should have the right to kill their newborn children if they are handicapped and that babies less than a month old lack the consciousness necessary for personhood and have no claim to human rights. (See Indepth, Page 10.) He is called “Professor Death” and compared to Dr. Jack Kevorkian by opponents.
“This is getting close to Hitler's policies. He did the same thing in Nazi Germany to the deformed and disabled with the support of academics,” John Scaturro, a New Jersey police officer, told the Register during the April 17 protest.
He and his wife, Maureen, came with their 3-year-old daughter, Marian Grace. They held a sign which read: “Singer's Quality of Life Test: You Fail, You Die!”
Scaturro said, “This hiring is an indication of society's acceptance of these kind of ideas. The public is influenced by the opinions of those in respectable positions.”
Singer was appointed last year to the Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics at the university's Center for Human Values and is scheduled to take his tenured position July 1.
Despite the protest and a number of critical statements in media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, and from religious leaders, including Cardinal John O'Connor, Princeton's administration says that it will not withdraw Singer's appointment.
Speaking at a campus rally, Marca Bristo, a handicapped-rights activist who is confined to a wheelchair, said, “It is sad that just as Jack Kevorkian has been jailed for acting on the ethics that are very similar to those of Peter Singer's, Princeton has chosen to hire the proponent of infanticide to teach undergraduates ethics.”
She is chairwoman of the National Council on Disability, which advises President Clinton and Congress on issues affecting disabled persons, and a member of the group “Not Dead Yet,” which lobbies against discriminatory practices against handicapped persons in public policies and health care. A dozen other members of the group attended.
“The plain truth is that Peter Singer thinks that people with disabilities have lives not worth living,” she said.
Bristo called Singer's utilitarian theories “dangerous” and stated that if he advocated the killing of infant girls so that society could have more strong males, or the extermination of poor children to keep them from placing a burden on society, “this university would draw a line and say that such ideas belong outside the marketplace of respectable ideas.”
Key to Singer's ideas is a utilitarian notion of the quality of life and the total good of a population. This notion leads him conclude that parents of a severely deformed infant may rightfully kill the child if they will then seek to have a more healthy child.
In “Practical Ethics,” a text for his course at Princeton, Singer writes, “f killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse affects on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him … killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”
He rejects the inherent superiority of human over other species and argues that the life of an animal could be preferred of the life of an infant.
Mary Jane Owen, national director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, said that her study of Singer's works found them to be intellectually bankrupt.
“I think he is not a good scholar. He is very cavalier in his analysis of what society needs,” she told the Register. “How does he determine the total good of a society while disposing of the life of certain individuals whom he says are disposable? You cannot read his books without being struck by his push to do away with what he calls the ‘totalitarianism’ of the Catholic view about the sanctity of life. In his world, there is no absolute right or wrong.”
Holding pictures of her son who has Down syndrome, Frances Kelly said at the rally, “Would you want him killed?” She said her son, now 23, could not attend because he works as an assistant chef in a nearby hotel.
Hidden from the Nazis
In a letter to Princeton's president, Harold Shapiro, Kelly wrote that no parent can predict the potential or future happiness of a handicapped newborn and accused the university of replacing respect for individuals with “measurements and statistics.”
In a moving rally speech, Traude Barbiero said that at birth her life was in danger in Nazi-occupied Austria, where a eugenics campaign was targeting low-weight and deformed infants. Her parents hid her from authorities in a neigh-bor's house, said Barbiero, president of New Jersey Right to Life Committee.
“As someone who has lived to tell the story, I can attest to the fact that Dr. Peter Singer has a long legacy,” she said. “His so-called new ethic is not new. He complains that we quote him out of context. But we know that we quote him in context, and the context is murder.”
She said that his talks have drawn large protests in Switzerland, Austria and Germany because the people of those countries know firsthand where his Nazi-type ethics can lead.
The campus rally was organized by Princeton Students Against Infanticide, a small group of graduate and undergraduate students who banded together to oppose Singer's appointment. Also taking part were representatives from New Jersey Right to Life, New Jersey Concerned Citizens for Life and local councils of the Knights of Columbus.
Although few students turned out for the rally, the hiring of Singer has been a hot issue in Princeton's daily newspaper. Few students have expressed direct support for the professor's ideas, but a number have argued for “academic freedom” and a free flow of ideas.
Kathryn Getek, a member of the Princeton Students Against Infanticide board, told the Register that in conversations with students on campus, she has found many apathetic and others employing tortured logic to defend Singer's appointment.
“They have to maintain a ‘pro-choice’position and we have to show them that if they follow the logic all the way through, they'll wind up in a place they don't want to be. They'll find themselves defending infanticide, which they never thought they would do at the start.”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.