Defenders of Peter Singer like to say that his critics are just too dull to understand what he is really saying. As proof, Singer's defenders note that opponents of his views often compare him to Hitler. And it is true: Some are so appalled by his advocacy for the permissibility of infanticide that they reflexively wield der Führer' s bones as relics of evil against him, thinking the analogy a sure-fire argument winner.
It isn't. Singer is not a Nazi. Moreover, most people today roll their eyes at any and all Hitler comparisons as hyperbolic clichés. Besides, the infanticide Holocaust that took place in Germany between 1939 and 1945 was more the poisonous fruit of decades of eugenics advocacy than it was the result of tyrannical political leadership.1
Also note: The language of eugenics was harsh and hate-filled, e.g., "the fit versus the unfit," calling babies with disabilities "weeds," and the like. In contrast, Singer and his supporters don't spout vilification of "useless eaters" from the rooftop. Instead, they speak passively and seemingly ooze compassion, which effectively shields them against widespread censure. Alas, in our unprincipled, postmodem era, one can support (and engage in) the most odious actions and still be praised - so long as the actions are justified as prevention of suffering. If you doubt it, just look at the recent rehabilitation of Jack Kevorkian - who wanted to experiment on people being euthanized2 - yet was the subject of a recent fawning HBO biopic in which he was portrayed by Al Pacino.
All of this came to mind when I pondered how to react to Peter Singer's presentation at the Princeton abortion conference. Some might be surprised to learn Singer no longer believes that it should be legal to kill a baby within 30 days of birth - the assertion that helped launch his international notoriety. He walked back that position years ago, not because he has moderated his beliefs, but because, as he said at the conference, it "is not a practical suggestion."3
In its place, Singer adopted an Oprah-culture position that would permit baby killing only in cases of severe disability to prevent suffering and help families, telling the Princeton audience: "Maybe the law has to have clear bright lines and has to take birth as the right time, although maybe it should make some exceptions in the cases of severe disability where parents think that it is better for the child and better for the family that the child does not Uve."4 In other words, "maybe" - Singer always advocates odious acts with such equivocal language - we should be able to kill babies, but only if they would have very difficult lives, and then, only because we care.
Some might say that Singer's partial walk-back from his earlier support of a general infanticide license is at least progress in defending the sanctity/ equality of human life. That would be to fall into Singer's trap. At best, rescinding the 30-day kill-by rule, while keeping the infanticide door open "only" for infants with serious disabilities, amounts to a mere tactical retreat that protects Singer from having to defend against criticism that his earlier view would permit killing healthy and able-bodied infants, since they, like their disabled fellows, supposedly lack "personhood."5
Indeed, based on his Princeton presentation, Singer's views are now more radical. When asked by an audience member, "At what point do you think an infant [is] self aware [and therefore entitled to] be considered a person?" Singer asserted that even a two-year-old-child does not possess "full moral status":
I think this is a gradual matter. If you are not talking about public policy or the law, but you are talking about when you really have the same moral status, I think that does develop gradually. There are various things that you could say that are sufficient to give some moral status after a few months, maybe six months or something like that, and you get perhaps to full moral status, really, only after two years. …