Peter Singer and Eugenics

One small step at a time

By Deborah Danielski

The word "eugenics" comes from a Greek root meaning "well-born" and was coined in 1883 by Charles Galton. Enthralled with his cousin Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Galton sought to improve on "natural selection" by encouraging people to breed selectively in order to increase the proportion of "healthy, smart, capable and sane" members of the human race.

The most notable historic promoter of this ideology, of course, was Adolph Hitler, who began his "ethnic cleansing" by outlawing marriages between the "superior" Aryan and the non-Aryan races. When those methods seemed inadequate to accomplish the task in a timely manner, and he had gained sufficient support for his ideology, Hitler proceeded to exterminate the "undesirables."

"Whatever proportions [Nazi] crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they started from small beginnings," observed American psychiatrist Leo Alexander during the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in 1947. "The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived."

"In a dictatorship such as the Nazi regime, you can have a moral shift in a matter of a few years," said Kent Peters, STL, chair of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities. "In a democracy it takes 50 to 100 years to make such a shift. What we’ve seen in America since the 1960s is a slow march toward using death to rid ourselves of difficulties and imperfections." Noting that Singer has been characterized by Melbourne Archbishop George Pell as Australia’s "most notorious messenger of death," Peters said his appointment to Princeton will help build the foundation for a "moral shift" in America that would accept death as the solution to more and more of life’s "problems."

Singer, who lost three of his four grandparents to the Nazi Holocaust, adamantly denies any correlation between his ideologies and Hitler’s, insisting that he does not advocate imposing death upon anyone against their will. He readily admits, however, that if the individual, parents or guardians of the individual and their doctors are unable to decide whether death would be the best solution to their "problem," the decision should be made by an "ethics committee."

Michael Burleigh, British author of "Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany 1900-1945," however, also sees Nazi ideology in Singer’s work . In an article titled "Planet of the Apes" (History Today, Oct. 1994) Burleigh wrote:

"What Singer fails to engage with is the fact that the Nazis and their Weimar intellectual progenitors were equally aggressively bent upon a secular, post-Christian alternative to the doctrine of the sanctity of human life … When he writes, ‘A self-conscious being is aware of itself as a distinct entity, with a past and a future … Killing a snail or a day-old infant does not thwart any desires of this kind, because snails and newborn infants are incapable of having such desires’ … Singer is, no doubt unwittingly, for history is not his strong suit, using arguments and analogies employed again and again by the Nazis."

Professor Diane Irving, of the DeSales School of Theology believes that eugenics -- under the guise of other labels such as "bioethics" – is not only being accepted in America, but has been the motivating force behind the entire 30-year secular bioethics movement. Princeton University and its strongest financial supporter, the Rockefeller Foundation, have long been linked to the promotion of eugenics in America, she said, adding that the National Bioethics Advisory Committee is chaired by Princeton University President Harold Shapiro.

In an article entitled "The War Against the Poor," (Our Sunday Visitor, Jan. 21, 1996), Mary Meehan documented the historic Rockefeller/Princeton/eugenics connection. She wrote:

"Frederick Osborn (1889-1981), an officer of the American Eugenics Society [which changed its name to the Society for the Study of Social Biology in 1972] for more than 30 years, promoted eugenics through his many connections in the great private foundations and the megawealthy Rockefeller family. He helped John D. Rockefeller III establish the Population Council in 1952, served as the council’s first administrator and was on the board of trustees for many years.

"Convinced that reducing the birthrate of the poor and uneducated would help improve the human race, Osborn used the Population Council to spread birth control to such people. The council supported abortifacient research as early as 1954, when abortion was still illegal."

Osborn was succeeded as President of the Population Council by his good friend and eugenics colleague, Frank Notestein of Princeton University. In 1971, Notestein wrote that social change does not come about through "an explicit and overt attack on the central value structure." Instead, he suggested, it happens through "an initial and progressively effective subversion obtained by the expansion of an existing minority tendency until it comes to be the central core position."

Less than two years later, the United States Supreme court issued the Roe vs. Wade decision which gave legitimacy to the "delayed personhood" arguments advanced by the majority of secular bioethicists today, said Irving, a professor at the DeSales School of Theology.

"The issue really isn’t abortion and it never was," Irving added. "It’s the definition of personhood. Once the new definition of personhood has been concretized in the areas of abortion and embryonic research, it can be used in other areas such as infanticide and euthanasia."

By introducing "animal rights" into the equation, Singer "puts a cuddly face" on eugenics, said Dr. Brian Scharnecchia. He "uses the wonder of nature and animals as a Trojan horse to introduce ‘confusion between good and evil.’ (Gospel of Life #24) The culture of death may be defined as applying the principles of animal husbandry to human beings. Each of its major tenants – sexual indulgence, contraception, abortion, sterilization, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, fetal research – may morally be done to animals but is morally reprehensible when practiced or inflicted upon human beings. We can breed a better pig through artificial insemination. But we cannot in any way breed a better person. The soul of each child conceived beneath her mother’s heart is a divine miracle before which we must stand in awe regardless of whether or not her tiny body is wounded in some fashion."

In questioning Professor Peter Singer about "where to draw the line" on infanticide, Our Sunday Visitor posed the following scenario. "Suppose a woman has a baby she believes she wants. After the baby is born, however, he cries incessantly, night and day. Doctors can find nothing physically wrong with the baby, but the woman just can’t take it any more. She can’t work because she can’t sleep and she can’t find anyone willing to baby-sit for a baby who cries all the time. Besides her own suffering, she concludes that the baby must also be suffering or he wouldn’t be crying. Should she just kill him? If not, why not?"

"Your example isn't really clear to me," Singer responded. " Suppose the woman is right: the baby is suffering, and will continue to suffer for another year, and then die (perhaps it has a mysterious disease that has this effect). Then I think it would be justifiable to kill the baby.

"But suppose the woman has no basis for believing this, and it is quite likely that, if not killed, next week the baby will start smiling and behaving like any other normal baby. Then, obviously, it would have been a terrible mistake for the woman to kill her baby."

Princeton officials defended Singer’s appointment by insisting that he is not an "activist, just a scholar dedicated to discussing theoretical solutions." When asked by Our Sunday Visitor if he considers himself an "activist," however, Singer said, "I am active in the causes that I think are right." His goal, he said, is "to encourage a more open and rigorous debate on ethical issues in America."

Singer’s lectures on eugenics, euthanasia and his denial of the inherent dignity or value of babies, children, the elderly and the disabled have led to protests against and cancellations of Singer’s lectures in Europe, where people experienced the horrors of WWII, Peters said. But Americans "have been slow in recognizing the danger being imported from ‘down under’ by the deans of Princeton," he added.

The Europeans recognize Singer’s rhetoric for what it is, said Irving, "but his appointment to Princeton didn’t surprise anyone. It’s the natural consequence of what’s been going on in America for the past 30 years. Americans remain oblivious to what is going on. When they wake up, they will be shell-shocked."

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