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January 29, 2007

A Life-and-Death Appraisal

Peter Singer weighs in on the disabled little girl whose parents have determined to keep her "little" for the rest of her life. Predictably, Singer has no qualms about such developmental tampering, as long as it aids the quality of life -- for somebody. Apart from his justification of this family's actions, however, he uses the opportunity to question the inherent worth of human life.

Here’s where things get philosophically interesting. We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?

What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying. Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her. Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families.

Those last sentences capture the point quite well: "She is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her." Whatever Singer might conclude about this particular, and bizarre, ethical discussion, his underlying presumption is that the life of a little girl holds no value apart from that given to her by family or society at large. Then again, if God is not the Author and Sustainer of all life, by what other standard can we judge?

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Katharine Eastvold

Prof. Singer's remarks are indeed troubling, because they measure the worth of a person by how much that person is loved. What, then, about the unloved? Even for a non-Christian, the logical implications are staggering. Can we divest ourselves of the responsibility to take care of someone, simply by refusing to love him or her? If this is so, then there is no responsibility to love (or else his argument would be circular), and that very responsibility is one of the foundations of Christianity, among other belief systems. Because God first loved us, not only CAN we or MAY we love, but we indeed MUST love.

Prof. Singer's argument also begs the question of defining love. Apparently, for him, love is an emotion - a mere affection for someone or something. If love were an action rather than an emotion for Singer, then there WOULD be the possibility of an obligation to love, because love would be an act of the will, and the will to love would come before the action. This is how most Christians define love - as a series of actions motivated and enabled by God dwelling within us. God's Holy Spirit comes alongside our deficient wills in order to allow us to will love. Obviously, love is sometimes easier than others, and sometimes it does spring from an overflowing of feelings of love. But it is when love is hard, when it is an act of the will, that it is most truly love. Prof. Singer doesn't get into the particulars of why the disabled girl's family might love her; if he did, I believe he'd have a very hard time supporting his argument.

All that said, I actually do think the family should be free to decide to take actions to keep the girl from maturing physically and sexually, as long as those actions are not life-threatening and do not cause significant pain. As I understand it, these steps were taken not primarily for the family's convenience (if they had been concerned with convenience only, they would have put her in an insitution long ago and gone on with their lives), but so that she might be able to get more enjoyment out of life. If she were to reach normal adult size, it would be very hard for her family to move her from place to place, lift her out of bed, and take her on trips. Essentially, she would have been confined to her bed for life, with little interesting visual stimuli to keep her days from being completely monotonous. Thanks to the procedure, she will be able to live at home with her family, see interesting sights, and have a more enjoyable (and possibly longer) life. Furthermore, the sterilization doesn't bother me (although the sterilization of the disabled can be immoral in many cases, I think), because due to her particular disability, this girl would never be able to be reproductively active except as a result of a sexual assault. I think the parents should have the right to decide not to take that chance.

I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts on the merits of the parents' case?

Mark Kelly

And on what basis could Dr. Singer justify his opinion that her life is "precious" for that reason? Why should dignity accompany valuation by others, when it does not accompany species membership?

Gina Dalfonzo

Although I can't begin to fathom the way Singer's mind works, I'll take a stab at that one, Mark. It seems to be the same "logic" he used when he cared for his sick, elderly mother even though his philosophy teaches that in her condition, she wasn't worth the time and money. His love, apparently, made her worth it.


I think that her family should definitely be allowed to follow their conscience on Ashley's health decisions, except for when it would harm her. This would obviously not harm her and will almost assuredly improve her future.

Singer's beliefs are obviously flawed but I hope he receives praise for making this one pro-life stand, rather than just having his flaws picked apart.


As the mom of an autistic child I have some awareness of the need to make tough decisions. My now 16-year old son is currently being given two medications that could harm him, but they allow us to function as a family with less difficulty. One is an antidepressant and the other an antipsychotic.
The decision to give him drugs is always difficult and not taken lightly. I imagine these parents have given serious thought about how to best care for their child, their marriage, and their family. This is an unusual option but it is not anti-life in any way that I'm aware of. It's humbling to have to make decisions for your child who cannot and I don't think that they should be given such public scrutiny-it's unkind and doesn't produce anything good.


"What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying."

What garbage! Why?? Why should Ashley "not suffer"? Why should any of us "not suffer" when thousands of out fellow humans do constantly?

If Ashley's "dignity" is not based on "species membership" then why should she be entitled to lack of suffering. Do we care about mosquitoes' suffering? Or about fish when we pull the hook out of their mouths so they can go on swimming?

It seems Prof. Singer is hypocritical in his logic, and we accept it because of the wonderful sounding platitude of "not suffering"; How kind.

As a stepdad of a severely disabled child (I chose to marry his mother - & him - knowing his disability), I can take comfort in Prof. Singer's defence of Ashley's parents actions; But, quite frankly, I much prefer a defence that is defencible.

I love (in both action and emotion) my son not because he has dignity (for his inherent dignity is no more or less than mine) nor because he "should not suffer" (for why should his lack of suffering be cause for my "suffering" - an honest caregiver of the disable would have to admit they do take work; we DO suffer).

I "suffer" the difficulties and burdens of caring for someone who will never be "productive". I do it not for a glimpse of his smile. I do it because God "suffered".

I LOVE my son because my dignity compels me; My dignity given first in the choice of a Creator, secondly in the action of a Saviour who suffered.

We should forget Ashley; I suspect her parents couldn't give a rip what the general populace thinks of their actions.

We should instead turn our attention inward: I love my son, but do I love my neighbour? I'm willing to "suffer" for my son, but am I willing to "suffer" the indignation of putting a coin in the cap of street person? Am I willing to "suffer" the identification of the criminal to visit them or at least write them?

Sadly, like Prof Singer, I, too, am a hypocrite. I choose my sufferings (Christ in the disable, be it Ashley or my son) and find all kinds of "logic" for my disobedience - my cowardice (or worse unwillingness) to suffer with Christ in the alley or prison or pregnancy crisis centre.

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