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 of Princeton University and the University of Melbourne.

Disabled 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 involuntary stay in a mental ward because his doctors found that he was entirely neurotypical and not experiencing any kind of mental illness. He sole “diagnosis” – if it can even be called that – was mild marijuana use. The involuntary institutionalisation came about because he had approached a politician with a letter outlining his plans for mass murder.

Uematsu’s ideology was not informed by mental illness, nor was it without context. We cannot look to neurodivergence as an explanation for his crimes, but rather to ableism, to the devaluing of disabled lives, to the view that disabled people are a burden on their families.

In his letter to Lower House Speaker Tadamori Oshima 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. [emphasis added]

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, however, is almost worse. His website’s FAQ explains his position as follows:

You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?

It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person”… 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. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely. [emphasis added]

What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?

Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it.  And that’s a good thing, of course.  We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, 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.

In summary: killing non-disabled newborns is unacceptable because a parent somewhere would want them. Killing disabled newborns is acceptable because they are unwanted.

Frequently in the initial edition of Practical Ethics, Singer used the phrase “defective infant” to refer to disability. Singer’s own mild myopia is not grounds enough for him to consider himself “defective”, apparently because shortsightedness is not “significant” enough to affect quality of life. (He appears consistently unaware of the social model of disability.) Singer saves the epithets of “defective”, “low quality of life”, & “less than human” for conditions such as spina bifida, hydrocephalus, Down Syndrome, and brain haemorrhage.

These conditions are often screened for in pregnancy, resulting in would-be parents aborting otherwise-wanted foetuses. In Iceland nearly 100% of foetuses with Down Syndrome are aborted. In Western Australia the figure is 93%. Prospective parents are frequently encouraged to abort and denied access to information about the condition.

Of course anyone can abort a pregnancy for any reason, and nobody is obligated to complete a pregnancy to term. The fact that 45% of disabled people in Australia live in poverty is evidence enough to the fact that we are not given good infrastructural supports or assurance of adequate healthcare, so raising a disabled child can be difficult and expensive. (This does not generally apply in the case of intersex variations, another frequent target of selective abortion, where surgical interventions are often justified by bigotry rather than medical necessity.) Placing restrictions on individual reproductive freedom is not a solution to the problem of selective abortion, because the problem is not individual but societal.

The widespread expectation that parents will abort intersex or disabled foetuses betrays a chilling disdain for intersex and 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, connective tissue disorder, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, cancer, fibromyalgia, dyslexia, chronic illness, 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. And with disability being widely represented as a burden and a misfortune, abled parents are encouraged to think of disabled children as an unfortunate and unexpected tragedy.

Rather than addressing problems of infrastructure, accessibility, and healthcare, we are encouraged to think of disability itself as the problem. Which leads to disabled people being the problem. And in a capitalist culture pushing the narrative of false scarcity, this leads to disabled people taking away resources from abled people.

Peter Singer has 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. He is defensive about this perceived lack of consistency in his advocacy:

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.

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. [emphasis added]

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

Singer is frequently cited as a moral hero of veganism. He 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 a recipient of the Order of Australia. 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 often characterises opposition to his stance as led by Christians, anti-choice groups, and right-wingers,  despite the fact that much of his opposition has consisted of disability rights organisations including Not Dead Yet. He is not unaware of the widespread disabled opposition to his eugenicist views; in fact he has frequently engaged with disabled rights activists on the subject, most notably Harriet McBryde-JohnsonStella Young also wrote about the problem of Peter Singer.

Singer’s opponents are not located solely in the right, much as he would like them to be. Despite the fact that many consider him to be 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. Nor is it enough to prevent his alma mater, the University of Melbourne, from praising his reputation, listing him as one of their “distinguished academics”, or keeping him on as a Laureate Professor of their School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. The lack of solidarity with disability rights groups and the eerie toleration of murderous ableism by the left is heartbreaking.

Academia is terribly far behind when it comes to disability studies, disability civil rights, and basic cultural awareness around the lives and experiences of disabled people. It’s horrifying to contemplate fellow students attending a guest lecture that advocates for my death, led by a man who thinks that my life is not worth living, and that my way of being in the world is warped and lesser.

As a disabled student, the quality of my life, and my right to live, are considered apt subjects for academic debates held by abled people. My existence is cited as an ethical dilemma. Disabled people make up 20% of the population in Australia (50% in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities). Too many students are forced to sit through lectures and tutorials where our classmates are invited to question our right to existence, often without thinking about the likelihood of disabled people being present.

University environments in Australia and overseas are seeing a resurgence in eugenicist rhetoric touted as ethics, but now more than ever it is important that we recognise these views for what they are.

Singer is spreading hate speech, not scholarship.

One thought on “Euthanasia, eugenics, & the legitimation of ableism in the progressive left

  1. Thank-you for this piece. I am new to learning about these issues and I’m so glad someone called out these so-called progressive viewpoints. Will definitely share!


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