Orlando Sentinel

No compassion in 'practical ethics'

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on October 6, 1999.

It's hard to imagine being puzzled about whether killing babies is right or wrong. Yet here we are at the end of the 20th century debating whether infants with disabilities deserve life.

Should parents be allowed to kill their badly formed children within a month of birth? Such is the question posed by Princeton professor Peter Singer, who, strangely, is charged with guiding a new generation through the moral intricacies of bioethics.

Singer is above all a practical man, as suggested by the title of his 1979 book, Practical Ethics. In his view, infants under 1 month of age have no human consciousness; therefore, parents should be able to kill a severely disabled child.

Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person, Singer has said.

Protesters, many of them disabled, demonstrated their contempt for Singer's position by barricading Princeton University entrances last week. Even presidential candidate Steve Forbes, a member of Princeton's Board of Trustees, says he'll no longer donate to the school as long as Singer is on board.

Though unpalatable, Singer's opinions are neither new (primitive tribes destroyed damaged children) nor unique (Hitler similarly believed in destroying what he considered to be imperfect humans). Nevertheless, Singer's moment in the spotlight affords us an opportunity to reaffirm the majority belief that human life always matters. Imperfect human life -- the kind Singer's view would eradicate -- may matter most of all.

Several years ago while writing a story on life-and-death decisions in the intensive care nursery, I interviewed a couple who decided against doctors' recommendations to let their badly damaged child die. When I met them, the child -- born with severe spina bifida -- was 2 years old and a veteran of surgical wards. She faced a future of disability and dependence.

It was impossible to ignore the happy spirit of that household. Maybe they were putting on a good face for the reporter, but I don't think so. How do you coach a severely handicapped 2-year-old to laugh for the nice lady?

My friend "Susan" has an adopted daughter who is mentally retarded, blind, deaf and unable to walk. At age 10, she probably lacks the sort of human consciousness Singer would look for in a 2-month-old, yet she smiles and waves her arms in response to human voices and touch. She seems to love attention, which her doting brothers and sisters give her freely.

Recently, I read an article in The New Yorker by a woman writer whose sister had given birth to a child with some severe disability. I can't remember the details, but the gist of the story was that that this child, born with so many counts against him, brings joy into the lives of everyone he meets. Against all medical odds and predictions, he has flourished.

What I take from these anecdotes and experiences is a sense that imperfection, rather than perfection, is where we discover our humanity. Through kindness, mercy and sympathy, we begin to define ourselves as human beings. Our definition of quality of life, meanwhile, could use some tweaking.

We may understand why primitive peoples euthanized defective infants. The tribe could scarcely provide for its healthy members, all of whom were expected to contribute. But the evolution of mankind presupposes a commensurate evolution of the human spirit, the measure of which is largely compassion.

Compassion is almost never practical.

[Posted 10/05/1999 3:28 PM EST]

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.