Euthanasia, eugenics, & the legitimation of ableism in the progressive left

A week after the Sagamihara massacre, Q&A gave a platform to pro-euthanasia eugenicist/”ethicist” Peter Singer, an academic formerly of Monash University, more recently of Princeton.

Disability activists Kath Duncan and Jax Jacki Brown were not invited to speak as authorities, but instead challenged Singer on his position from the audience.

In response to being challenged on his views about euthanasia and eugenics, Singer said “It is the parents and doctors making a decision in consultation. It is not some crazy guy going into a unit and killing people.”

Of course, Satoshi Uematsu was not “crazy” – in fact months before the murders he was released from a two-week stay in a mental hospital because his doctors found that he was entirely neurotypical, and did not experience any kind of mental illness. He was diagnosed only with mild marijuana use. Uematsu’s ideology was nothing to do with mental illness or “craziness”  but was everything to do with ableism, everything to do with the devaluing of disabled lives, everything to do with the view that disabled people are a burden on their families. In a letter he wrote in February 2016 Uematsu wrote that

Thinking about the tired faces of guardians, the dull eyes of caregivers working at the facility, I am not able to contain myself, and so I decided to take action today for the sake of Japan and the world.
My reasoning is that I may be able to revitalise the world economy and I thought it may be possible to prevent World War III.
I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.
I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery.
In his book Practical Ethics Singer writes
“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”
Singer claims that this quote has been stripped of context; his attempt to clarify that context explains that
“Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
“Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies.”, and in 2015 that ““I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.
“…Moreover, although a normal [sic] newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.”
Frequently in the initial edition of Practical Ethics, Singer used the phrase “defective infant” to refer to disability. Another passage in Practical Ethics states that “”It may still be objected that to replace either a foetus or a new-born infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled. Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so.”

It’s difficult to deny that Singer and Uematsu have similar feelings with regard to euthanasia, economy, and the value of disabled lives.

Singer’s own shortsightedness is not grounds enough for him to consider himself “defective”, apparently because myopia is not “significant” enough to affect quality of life. He saves the epithets of “defective”, “low quality of life”, & “less than human” for conditions such as spina bifida, hydrocephalus, some forms of Down’s Syndrome, and brain haemorrhage. These conditions are often screened for in pregnancy, resulting in would-be parents aborting otherwise-wanted children. Of course anyone can abort a pregnancy & nobody is obligated to complete a pregnancy to term. And yet the widespread acceptance of aborting intersex and disabled foetuses betrays a chilling disdain for disabled lives. Parents who choose to have children don’t get to decide if their child is disabled or not. It’s not up to them whether their child grows up to show signs of depression, anxiety, psychosis, autism, connective tissue disorder, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, cancer, fibromyalgia, dyslexia, rheumatoid arthritis, or whether they experience injuries leading to amputation or paralysis or the use of mobility aids. It’s also not up to parents whether their child grows up to be trans, or queer, or a sports fan, or an academic, or a eugenicist. Unfortunately it’s also not up to disabled children whether the family they are born into is supportive or not.

Singer has also gone on record stating that “I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.”
Abled people cannot determine the quality of life of disabled people.
The expense of medical treatments for disabled people does not make them any less necessary than medical treatments for abled people (which are no less expensive).

Interestingly, despite the claims he has made publicly about the moral use of wealth, Singer goes against his own ideology in his personal life: his mother has late-stage Alzheimer’s, and lives in expensive private nursing care provided by Singer. Perhaps “defective” disabled lives are only worth living when they are people that Singer knows and cares about. Even then there are limits to his compassion:

“What is it that I am doing in relation to my mother that I should be doing differently in accordance with my philosophy? Am I supposed to be killing her? For one thing, I would end up in jail. She gets some pleasure from life, the pleasures of eating – rather simple pleasures. Why should she not continue to have those? Because it costs money to look after her! Yes, but there are other things. I am not living in dire poverty and giving everything to people who are starving to death.

“In an ideal world, if I could legally… if there was a way, without punishment or whatever, of painlessly ending my mother’s life and then transferring the resources used to look after her to people who would otherwise die from malnutrition, of which there are many, I would say, yes, that would be a better thing to do. But that is not the situation either I or my mother are in.”

Singer often characterises opposition to his stance as led by Christian, anti-choice groups, and right-wingers,  despite the fact that much of his opposition has consisted of disability rights organisations including Not Dead Yet. Singer wrote his thesis on civil disobedience, published seminal scholarship on animal liberation, stood as a Greens candidate in the 1996 election, and is a political advocate for famine relief. He is frequently cited as a moral hero of veganism. He is Jewish, but has faced significant opposition from German universities, where his scholarship has been identified as far too close to Nazi ideology for comfort. Although German protestors consisted of disabled activists and anarchists opposed to Singer’s advocacy of what sounded eerily similar to the Nazi doctrine of lebensunterwenlebens, or “life unworthy of life”, in his descriptions of these interactions Singer casts himself as the anti-Nazi voice of reason, comparing the shouts of Singer raus! – Singer out! – to historical chants of Juden raus! – referring to Jewish people.

Singer’s opponents are not located solely in the right, much as he would like them to be. Despite the fact that he is frequently cited as a hero of left wing politics, Singer’s ableism makes the entirety of his politics and academia suspect. Widespread opposition from disability rights groups, however, is not enough to discredit Singer in the eyes of other progressive movements, including the Greens, animal liberationists, and vegans. The lack of solidarity with disability groups and the eerie toleration of murderous ableism by the left is utterly heartbreaking.

Singer is spreading hate speech, not scholarship. Academia is so far behind when it comes to disability studies, disability civil rights, & the most basic cultural awareness around the lives & experiences of disabled people. It’s utterly horrifying to contemplate fellow students rocking up to a guest lecture that advocates for my death and says that my life is not worth living, that my way of being in the world is warped and lesser. Academics that promote eugenics, genocide, and euthanasia should not be welcome in university environments.

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