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Ethicist Peter Singer Critiques Roe v. Wade, Obamacare, Romney


Last week the man whom The New Yorker called "the most influential living philosopher" came to my school, Stevens Institute, to talk about "Ethics and the Election." Peter Singer, who was raised in Australia and now teaches at Princeton and the University of Melbourne, espouses utilitarianism, an ethics that seeks to minimize suffering and maximize wellbeing.

Singer's work is challenging, not because his writing is difficult to understand but because it is all too clear. He has a knack for pushing people out of their moral comfort zone. His 1975 book Animal Liberation, which contended that we should seek to minimize the pain of all sentient creatures, not just humans, helped inspire the modern animal-rights movement. Since then, Singer has challenged mainstream attitudes toward many other issues, including euthanasia and poverty.

Although his positions—especially on mercy killing of severely disabled infants and adults--have sparked public protests both in the U.S. and abroad, Singer is disarmingly cool on the page and in person, even when talking about the hottest topics. He is clearly motivated by compassion, and the desire to make the world a better place, but he appeals to reason rather than emotion, a rare trait these days. Reading and listening to him, I envy him, because when I argue my emotions—and my conviction that I'm right--often get the better of me.

During his lecture to a packed house at Stevens, Singer expressed disappointment that questioners in the Town Hall Presidential debate seemed primarily concerned with their personal welfare. Ethical conduct, Singer reminded us, begins with concern for others beyond you and your immediate family, community and even nation. Here are several ethical issues that Singer analyzed for the Stevens audience:

HEALTH CARE REFORM: The U.S., Singer said, badly needs health care reform. The U.S. spends far more than any other nation on health care and yet ranks 36th in longevity and 39th in infant mortality. Mitt Romney has pledged to overturn Obamacare, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act, which reduces the number of Americans lacking health insurance and calls for greater consideration of the costs and benefits of treatments.

Singer believes that, although Affordable Care represents a step in the right direction, we need to go much further to improve our health care. Although conservatives have equated rationing with "death panels," we need stricter rationing of medical services, so that we do not spend enormous sums on, for example, drugs that marginally prolong the lives of the terminally ill. Obamacare also leaves too many Americans uninsured, 17 percent, according to a study cited by Singer.

Singer refuted Mitt Romney's claim that, because hospitals cannot turn away uninsured patients, no Americans die due to lack of insurance. Actually, Singer said, uninsured patients often seek treatment when it is too late. He cited a recent case of an Atlanta woman who suffered a heart attack because she could not afford medicine for high blood pressure. She died after receiving $100,000 worth of emergency care. Singer argued that truly universal health care coverage would save money and as many as 44,000 lives a year.

ABORTION: Singer's analysis of abortion surprised me. First of all, he agreed with many pro-lifers that a fetus, even at six weeks, is a "living human being." [See postscript below] He showed us slides of fetuses, because we should not "run away from what abortion is."

Singer nonetheless believes that abortion is ethical, because even a viable fetus is not a rational, self-aware person with desires and plans, which would be cut short by death; hence it should not have the same right as humans who have such qualities. Abortion is also justified, Singer added, both as a female right and as a method for curbing overpopulation.

Singer further surprised me—and showed his meta-commitment to democracy and reason--when he said that he, like Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan, disliked Roe V. Wade. That 1973 Supreme Court decision, Singer felt, provides a flimsy rationale for abortion and has corrupted the process whereby Supreme Court Justices are chosen. Ideally, Singer said, voters rather than unelected judges should determine the legal status of abortion. Singer nonetheless acknowledged that if Roe V. Wade is overturned, some states might outlaw or severely restrict abortion. "I'm torn," he admitted.

POVERTY AND GLOBAL WARMING: Neither Presidential candidate, Singer pointed out, has expressed concern for the more than 1 billion people in the world enduring extreme poverty, defined by the United Nations as an income of less than $1.25 a day. This year almost 9 million extremely poor children will die of preventable causes, including malnutrition, malaria and other treatable diseases.

Singer suggested, a bit ironically, that American taxpayers may be prepared to pay much more to help impoverished children. He cited a poll that asked Americans how much of the federal budget goes to humanitarian foreign aid. Respondents came up with a median guess of 25 percent. Asked how much the percentage should be, respondents said 10 percent.

The actual amount of U.S. aid is about one percent, which is smaller than many other affluent, industrialized nations. Smiling faintly, Singer proposed that politicians should honor voters' desire to increase humanitarian to 10 percent.

Americans, Singer suggested, bear an extra responsibility to address global poverty. Impoverished regions, he noted, will bear the brunt of the droughts, severe storms and surging sea levels resulting from our avid consumption of fossil fuels. Singer agreed with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni when he told the U.S. and other industrialized nations, "You are causing aggression to us by causing global warming."

My one disappointment with Singer's presentation was that he did not address U.S. drone attacks, cyberwarfare, defense spending and arms sales. Before Singer left Stevens, I pleaded with him to turn his attention to hawkish U.S. policies. My hope is that this courageous, clear-headed thinker can help us recognize the immorality not just of U.S. militarism but of militarism in general--so that we try harder to end war once and for all.


Postscript: After posting this column, I received a message from Singer saying that he did not view abortion as the destruction of a "person," which I incorrectly said in my original post. He explained: "I said that the fetus, or even the embryo, can be considered to be a living human being. I then sharpened the notion of 'human being' into either 'member of the species Homo sapiens' or 'person' and said, using two versions of the basic argument I had on my powerpoint, that the fetus is a member of the species Homo sapiens, but not a person, because the idea of a person involves the capacity to see oneself as existing over time."

Post Postscript: I just received the following note from Frances Kissling, who is Catholic and pro-choice: "Dear John, I've been reading the many pick-ups of your report on Peter's presentation at Stevens. I was somewhat surprised by your framing of Peter's position on the moral status of the fetus but not surprised that media like to focus on uncommon bedfellows. In this case your assertion that 'Singer agreed with many pro-lifers that a fetus is a "living human being." He nonetheless believes that abortion is ethical, because even a viable fetus is not a self-aware "person" with desires and plans, which would be cut short by death; hence it should not have the same right as humans who have such qualities.' There's an implication here that those who favor legal abortion, like Peter, should be expected to deny that fetuses are 'living human beings.' That of course is the propaganda message those opposed to abortion put out. I've been a card carrying pro-choice leader since 1970, president of Catholics for Choice for 25 of those years and a founder of the National Abortion Federation. (By the way, I have a PowerPoint presentation on fetal development I use all the time that has graphic images of the fetus at all stages of development.) I don't know a single pro-choice leader who thinks the fetus is not a living human being. The choice movement, like Peter, distinguishes between persons and human beings. The definition of when a fetus moves from mere member of the species to person differs within the movement and may not, as Peter's does, rely on sentience or self awareness but again no one thinks it is not human nor that it is not living. On the matter of whether Peter 'agrees' with many pro-lifers that the fetus is a living human being, I think this is also incorrectly stated. Most pro-life leaders hold that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception, entitled to the same protections as born persons. They do not hold it is merely a member of the species homo sapiens and strenuously disagree with Peter on its status. It's not uncomplicated, and in the very heated and important debate about whether abortion will remain legal and for what reasons in the US, it matters when the various movements are incorrectly characterized, even with the best of intentions." Frances Kissling, Senior Advisor, Women Deliver Program

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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