Ableism and the Eugenics of Peter Singer

The so-called "argument from marginal cases," which is based on adultism, ableism, and speciesism, illustrates the unquestioned marginalization of human infants, mentally disabled humans, and nonhuman animals. This adultism, ableism, and speciesism is most vividly found in the works of bioethics professor and author Peter Singer.

Singer sees so-called "marginal cases" — that is, humans infants and mentally disabled people — as expendable and exploitable similar to how nonhuman animals are seen as expendable and exploitable. He argues that their oppression is justifiable simply because they are measured by him and society as meeting a lower standard. (Read more...)

The so-called "argument from marginal cases," which is based on adultism, ableism, and speciesism, illustrates the unquestioned marginalization of human infants, mentally disabled humans, and nonhuman animals. This adultism, ableism, and speciesism is most vividly found in the works of bioethics professor and author Peter Singer.

Singer sees so-called "marginal cases" — that is, humans infants and mentally disabled people — as expendable and exploitable similar to how nonhuman animals are seen as expendable and exploitable. He argues that their oppression is justifiable simply because they are measured by him and society as meeting a lower standard. In the book Rethinking Life and Death, Singer writes:

To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child's abilities. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.

However, it is ableism that sets the standard of what is "normal" and thereby marginalizes a child with Down syndrome. Singer's ableism bolsters a system of social oppression that gives superiority to adults and the nondisabled. However, only a select few people would even meet any of the "expectations" on Singer's arbitrary list. Regardless, Singer argues that if such able-supremacist expectations could not be met it would "devastate" the parents and that this is reason enough to kill disabled children.

Singer sees the "lowered expectations of our child's abilities" — that is, the so-called "marginal case" — as a justification for perpetuating institutionalized oppression of children and disabled people. But those "lowered expectations" themselves are a form of ableism that devalues and subsequently disables others. Killing disabled children only furthers the oppression of children and disabled people. In fact, this is exactly how disability is socially constructed.

Disability rights advocates have defined disability as "the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical [and/or cognitive/developmental/mental] impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of society." Obviously killing infants with physical and/or cognitive/developmental/mental impairments is the most efficient and systematic means of institutionalizing their exclusion from society. Singer therefore promotes the most extreme type of disadvantage or restriction possible. The eugenicist upshot of Singer's ableism is an institutionalized and systematic elimination of humans with a variety of different impairments.

In "Animals and the Value of Life," an essay in Tom Regan's Matters of Life and Death, Singer claims "our attitudes to mentally defective human beings ... are in need of reconsideration." But obviously when it comes to mentally disabled humans, Singer does not see ableism as an issue we should be concerned about. That is, Singer doesn't argue that we should challenge and work to end the ableism and adultism that gives rise to viewing other humans as "marginal" or "defective." In fact, Singer thinks just the opposite; he believes we give too much consideration to mentally disabled humans. Singer's ableist philosophy not only supports exterminating disabled children, but also seeks to expand the institutionalized exploitation of disabled people. That is, not only does Singer support killing off disabled infants, but he also writes in "Animals and the Value of Life" about breeding mentally disabled children specifically for vivisection:

Some people carry genes that mean any children they produce will be severely mentally retarded. As long as the lives of these children are pleasant, it would not, according to the replaceability argument, be wrong to perform a scientific experiment on a child that resulted in the death of the child, provided another child could be conceived to take its place.

Singer's adultism and ableism are directly linked to his theory of so-called "animal liberation," which is anything but liberation for animals — human or nonhuman. Contrary to popular belief, Singer believes it is acceptable to continue the oppression of nonhuman animals. However, while he argues in favor of making the exploitation of nonhuman animals less "cruel," he also argues for expanding the oppression of human infants and mentally disabled humans.

Singer's philosophy fits squarely with what Mia Mingus, in her article "Disabled Women and Reproductive Justice," describes as "a culture of ableism" and how the "medical establishment pathologizes 'disabling traits,' associates these traits with 'social problems,' and defines them as targets to 'cure' and 'conquer.'" As Mingus notes, Singer's advocacy that we allow parents to kill children with "disabilities (down syndrome, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia and many more), illustrates the deeply entrenched ableism among [parents] and the culture-at-large."

It is our culture of ableism, which is only bolstered by Singer's philosophy, that needs to be eliminated, not disabled children as he'd prefer. As Eli Clare explains in his book, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999): "The disablity rights movement, like other social change movements, names systems of oppression as the problem, not individual bodies. In short it is ableism that needs the cure, not our bodies."