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Is the Sanctity of Human Life an Outmoded Concept?

Peter Singer has seen the future, and it does not include the sanctity of life. To be more specific, Singer presents his argument about the future in a forum published in the September/October 2005 edition of Foreign Policy. The magazine asked a number of leading intellectuals to suggest what ideas, institutions, and features of contemporary life will be left behind as human beings rush into a bold new future. As Peter Singer sees it, confidence in the sanctity of human life must be abandoned in order for humanity to be redefined in the new millennium.

Singer is no stranger to controversy, of course. He currently serves as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. The very fact that Peter Singer holds a distinguished chair in the field of bioethics at a major American university should signal all morally sensitive persons that the world of academia is in big trouble.

Singer attracted international attention and controversy with the publication of his 1975 book, Animal Liberation. Then a professor at LaTrobe University in Canada, Singer argued that the concept of animal species is, in itself, “as irrelevant to moral status as race or sex.” As he explained his own position, Singer argued that “all beings with interest are entitled to equal consideration.” In other words, animals should be accorded equal rights with human beings, and the very fact that an individual is a member of the species Homo sapiens does not mean that individual is entitled to human rights and the presumption of a right to live. In other words, every human being is not necessarily a human person.

“During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments,” Singer asserts in his Foreign Policy essay. “By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.”

Looking over the last several months, Singer argues that the year 2005 “may be seen as the year in which that position [the sanctity of human life] became untenable.” In his view, controversy over embryonic stem cell research, the acceptance of human cloning experiments by South Korean scientists, and the tortuous controversy over Terri Schiavo, may lead to a basic change in American public opinion. Singer believes that technological developments will “drive this debate” and lead to a new understanding of the human organism–an understanding that accepts a basic distinction between a human body and a human person. “Hence, a decision to remove the feeding tube will be less controversial, for it will be a decision to end the life of a human body, but not of a person,” he explains.

Singer is also confident that the acceptance of euthanasia in Europe–including the euthanasia of newborns, young children, and the elderly–will lead to a growing acceptance in the United States. “As we approach 2040, the Netherlands and Belgium will have had decades of experience with legalized euthanasia, and other jurisdictions will also have permitted either voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide for varying lengths of time.” Thus, “This experience will puncture exaggerated fears that the legalization of these practices would be a first step toward a new holocaust. By then, an increasing proportion of the population in developed countries will be more than 75 years old and thinking about how their lives will end. The political pressure for allowing terminally or chronically ill patients to choose when to die will be irresistible.”

Singer is consistent in asserting that the sacredness of human life is an outmoded and morally useless belief. In a notorious commentary published in the July 1983 issue of Pediatrics, Singer began by offering a similar prophecy: “The ethical outlook that holds human life to be sacrosanct–I shall call it the ‘sanctity-of-life view’–is under attack. The first major blow to the sanctity-of-life view was the spreading acceptance of abortion throughout the Western world.”

In 1983, Singer was serving as professor in the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in his native Australia. Nevertheless, his article in Pediatrics incited controversy in the United States. After all, Pediatrics is the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In his commentary, Singer argued that infanticide or euthanasia should be seen as morally acceptable under certain conditions. As a matter of fact, he implied that infanticide could well be a morally superior choice when compared to a decision to allow some infants to live.

Consider this chilling statement: “If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.”

Singer’s point is clear–a dog who is able to communicate in a rudimentary way is superior to a human infant who lacks an equal ability to communicate.

In his book Practical Ethics, Singer argues, “The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

Ponder that statement carefully, for it is a manifesto for killing human infants. Furthermore, Singer presses his case to make clear that he is not limiting his argument to the killing of infants who lack the potential to develop such qualities. “This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings,” Singer clarifies. As in his argument for abortion, Singer asserts “that the potential of a fetus to become a rational, self-conscious being cannot count against killing it at a stage when it lacks these characteristics.”

Singer would accept a basic assumption of a right to life only for those beings he judges to have a capacity to envision a future. He would grant the status of human personhood only to those human beings who are able to communicate, to relate to others, and to possess what he would stipulate as a minimal understanding of self-consciousness in time. In short, Singer would grant a healthy dog a greater claim on life than a healthy human infant or an elderly person with Alzheimer’s. But more recently, Singer has courted controversy with his argument that human sexuality should be liberated from any moral limits except consensuality. In an interview with Marvin Olasky of World magazine, Singer asserted that he sees “no moral problem” with necrophilia. He has argued that human beings and animals may be able to have “mutually satisfying” sexual relationships. What he terms “zoophilia” should be illegal, he says, only if it involves cruelty.

Singer’s appointment to a prestigious chair in bioethics at Princeton University led to world-wide controversy. Publisher Steve Forbes took a public stand and pledged to end all financial contributions to his alma mater “so long as Peter Singer remains a tenured professor there.”

Nevertheless, Princeton’s president, Harold T. Shapiro, defended Singer’s appointment.

In a statement published in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin on December 7, 1998, Shapiro defended Singer’s academic credentials. He went on to argue: “But the test in making any faculty appointment is not whether we agree with the findings of a professor’s scholarship; the test is the power of the professor’s intellect and the quality of his or her scholarship and teaching. An important part of our purpose as a university is to ask the most difficult and fundamental questions about human existence, however uncomfortable this may be.” That may sound like lofty academic discourse, but we should note carefully that this argument excludes any consideration other than a potential professor’s intellect and teaching ability. President Shapiro cannot possibly stand by this argument, for it would require him to hire professors who would be proponents of theories, worldviews, and ideologies even he would surely find morally reprehensible. When President Shapiro tries to explain that Princeton serves “these central purposes of a university by appointing faculty members like Professor Singer whose work is intellectually astute, morally serious, and open to engagement with others,” he is defining “morally serious” in a manner that is seriously deficient.

Singer understands what is at stake. “We can no longer base our ethics on the idea that human beings are a special form of creation, made in the image of God, singled out from all other animals, and alone possessing an immortal soul,” he argues. “Our better understanding of our own nature has bridged the gulf that was once thought to lie between ourselves and other species, so why should we believe that the mere fact that a being is a member of the species Homo sapiens endows its life with some unique, almost infinite, value?”

Singer dismisses the Christian confidence in the sanctity of human life as “religious mumbo-jumbo” that must be discarded. In the case of Professor Peter Singer we face the quintessential warning of where the modern, secular, evolutionary understanding of humanity must lead. Unless we believe that human beings truly are “a special form of creation, made in the image of God,” we will inevitably slide into the moral calculations and frightening ideology of Peter Singer and those who share his worldview.

Peter Singer thinks he has seen the future, and he writes with renewed confidence that the sanctity of human life is an idea that will soon be discarded. Christians now face the urgent responsibility to prove him wrong.