Friday, February 02, 2007

Peter Singer and Ashley

I knew it was only a matter of time before Peter Singer weighed in on the Ashley controversy. Ashley is the little girl with a disability whose parents convinced doctors in Seattle to remove her breast buds, perform a total hysterectomy and treat her with hormones when she was six to prevent her from ever growing in stature and sexual maturity. Peter Singer is the bioethicist from Princeton whose remarks have angered and frightened people with disabilities for years. In the past Singer has stated that killing babies with disabilities would be acceptable because their quality of life would be so poor. When adults with disabilities assured him that they indeed had quality lives, Singer stated that they were not qualified to make that assessment. Singer is also known for writings where he states that animals have more status and value than people with disabilities.

His op-ed piece in the New York Times on January 26th held no surprises. He stated that the modifications that were made to Ashley were acceptable because Ashley is precious not for “what” she is, but because her family loves her. Singer once again asserted his view that a person’s value is not inherent in them, but assigned to them by others.

This view is natural to human beings. Every two year old that smashes another child on the head to get a toy holds the same view. Every teenager who exerts, or succumbs to peer pressure holds that belief, as does every competitive consumer who buys their car, house or clothing to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’

The problem is of course, if someone else can assign your value, someone else can take it away. Like deadly nightshade, this view is natural, and deathly dangerous.

Every person that tolerates abuse and every abuser hold this value.

Every pogrom, holocaust and ethnic cleansing in history, from Ancient Egypt to today in Darfur has its roots in the same philosophy. All forms of exploitation, slavery, hate crimes and even road rage are based on this same belief. This philosophy provides the foundation for a slippery slope that has brought avalanches of horrific behaviors since the dawn of time.

As Singer himself points out, “natural” does not necessarily mean “better.”

There is an alternative to this inborn and common philosophy of course and that is the belief that everyone’s value is inherent in them. In Singer’s statement he tries a little verbal sleight-of-hand and substitutes the word “dignified” for “dignity.” The point he attempts to obscure is that these words are not synonyms. ‘Dignity means worthiness and value. ‘Dignified’ means behaving in a proper and respectable way.

When dignity is inherent in a being, dignified behavior is an interesting aside, appreciated but not determinant of worth. This philosophy is more complex, but it protects everyone—the able as well as the frail, the flawed, and even the sometimes just plain foolish.

If Ashley’s and everyone else's’ inherent value were presumed perhaps we would not subject her to surgical procedures and risks that we would not consider for a non-disabled person.

If we championed a belief in everyone’s inherent value we would apply technology, relationships, innovation and any other resources we had to adapt the environment, the community and even the world to meet the needs of Ashley and her family instead of resorting to using medicine to neuter her and stunt her growth.