Peter Singer: It’s Okay to Euthanize Babies or Mentally Disabled People

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. Vox published an interview by Matthews on May 30, 2023 with philosopher Peter Singer who is known as a father of the animal rights movement. Singer is possibly the most influencial philosopher of our day and, among other things, supports euthanasia and infanticide. Matthews states that the philosophy aspoused by Peter Singer has greatly affected him.

I believe that people are too polite about Singer’s philosophy. Singer has a eugenic philosophy and his writings are dangerous. Singer justifies that certain lives are unworthy of life and his philosophy undermines the concept of human equality by justifying the killing of people who lack an undefined level of cognitive capacity.

Matthews asks Singer about his philosophy about killing human beings. Singer responds:

But what is correct about what you said was that when I started thinking about the ethics of how we treat animals, I started asking questions about, well, is it only inflicting suffering on animals that is bad, preventing them from having enjoyable lives? Or is it the fact that we kill them?

That led me to think, well, what is it that makes killing wrong? And because I’m not religious, I was not going to say “because we have an immortal soul,” or “because God forbids it.” I started thinking, well, maybe it’s something to do with our intellect, the fact that we want to plan for the future and that if we are killed, we can’t.

So I thought about that and that made me think, well, okay, so maybe the humane killing of a non-human animal is not as bad as the humane killing of a normal human being. I still think that.

But suppose that you have a human who lacks the cognitive capacities that enable normal humans to think about their future. That could be an infant. None of us were born with those capacities. Or it could be someone with a severe intellectual disability that was not treatable. For that matter, it could be somebody who didn’t really have much of a future to look forward to because they were terminally ill and they were expecting to die within weeks or months, and their quality of life had fallen to a level where they didn’t think it was worth going on.

Singer is justifying the killing of infants and people with disabilities who lack an undefinable level of cognitive capacity. Matthews asks Singer what he thinks about the pushback from the disability rights movement. Singer responds with his support for killing infants:

You’re right to say that in terms of the underlying ethical arguments, that’s not changed. I still think there are cases where parents should have the option of ending the life of their severely disabled infant.

Let me just say a couple of things why I think that’s not as radical as some people might think. It’s standard practice in neonatal intensive care units pretty much everywhere, that if a child is born with a very severe disability, doctors will ask parents whether they want to put the child on life support or not — or if the child is on life support when the disability is discovered, whether they wish to remove life support.

If you have, let’s say, a premature infant who’s had a massive brain bleeding, a hemorrhage in the brain, which does happen with very premature infants, and the doctors say, “Would you like to take your child off life support? This is the prognosis. Your child will never be able to live independently, will never be able to recognize the child’s mother or father, will basically be needing complete care. Would you like to take this child off life support?” That’s a decision to ask: “Would you like the child to die?” There’s no other way of glossing that.

Singer has always believed that there is no difference between killing and letting die and sadly the Supreme Court of Canada, in the Carter, euthanasia decision, agreed, but in reality there is a clear difference between killing and letting die, in a practical and a real sense. Letting die allows nature to take it’s course, whereas killing someone requires someone to intentionally take that person’s life.

Matthews then questions Singer based on the consequences of his arguments for the lives of people with disabilities. Singer responds:

I do consider the consequences of our actions as the way to determine which actions are right or wrong, and if I were persuaded that the harms are really so serious that it is better not to talk about these issues, then I wouldn’t talk about them. But I haven’t been persuaded by that. And, of course, we have to balance it against the consequences of parents thinking about the issue in a way that doesn’t leave them tortured with guilt for making what many people would think of as a morally wrong decision.

I’m interested in social reform. For example, I think switching to voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted dying, that movement has made very significant progress in the last 40 years, and I think has greatly reduced the amount of unnecessary suffering. But some people with disabilities are opposed to that as well, because they think pressure will be put on people with disabilities to end their lives.

That would be a serious consideration if there were clear evidence that that’s the case. But I really haven’t seen the evidence, either about the speech harms that you’re referring to or about pressure on people with disabilities to end their lives. So I continue to advocate for physician-assisted dying.

In general, I think that freedom of thought and expression is really important. I think that people have become, perhaps, overly sensitive in the last couple of decades about speech harm. It’s often said but rarely backed up with firm evidence about how serious it is. So that’s why I haven’t stopped talking about these issues.

Singer admits that when the euthanasia movement switched to voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted dying that they became more successful. Notice that Singer does not say he is opposed to involuntary euthanasia since that would undermine is arguement for euthanasia of infants and other people who are unable to consent. Singer aspouses the concept that some lives are not worth living, including infants with disabilities, who cannot consent and people with dementia, who cannot consent.

When we consider the changes in Canada’s euthanasia law you notice that the ability to consent has been undermined and the concept of killing someone who cannot request or consent is being debated.

When Canada legalized euthanasia the law required that a person must be capable of consenting at the time of death. Bill C-7 changed that requirement by making it possible to kill someone who cannot consent if that person had already been approved for death. Bill C-7 also approved euthanasia for mental illness alone, which will come into effect in March 2024. People with mental illness have a questionable ability to consent. Canada’s recent government euthanasia committee advocated for euthanasia of “mature minors” and euthanasia by advanced directive. Euthanasia by advanced directive would enable the killing of a person who is unable to consent or confirm their “wish” to die and euthanasia of “mature minors” changes the nature of consent that is required.

Euthanasia of infants with disabilities (infanticide) is being advocated by the Québec College of Physicians and discussed by Canadian politicians. Infants are not capable of requesting or consenting for death to be inflicted upon them.

The discussion about killing people with disabilities is eugenic. Eugenic euthanasia permits the killing of people who society deems “unworthy of life,” and giving one group of people (medical professionals) the right to kill another group of people. This is a dangerous idea.

Human equality requires that every human being has an equal right to live and no one has the power to kill another human being.

I believe in human equality. I oppose killing people.

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