Much has been written recently about biologist Jerry Coyne and his agreement with Peter Singer in regards to euthanizing young children with severe disabilities. You can read his original post on his website which is entitled, “Should one be allowed to euthanize severely deformed or doomed newborns?” What I have not seen however is a perspective written by an individual with a disability, so I decided to take this opportunity to expose the faulty logic underlying his implicit premises as well as the, perhaps unintentional, consequences that can arise from espousing this type of ideology.
Coyne begins his post by largely agreeing with Peter Singer who is perhaps the most widely known defender of euthanasia in the world today.
“If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born? I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral.”
I have to give Singer and Coyne a great deal of credit admittedly. They are actually tragically consistent. I do not know how many times I have asked abortion-rights supporters what makes a child one minute old substantively different than a child one minute prior to being born. All that changes is essentially location during that time. I would argue that the same child should not be killed in either circumstance while Singer and Coyne would argue that they should be murdered in both. Obviously we are on different sides of the coin, but they do deserve some credit for consistency even though it is an utterly evil position.
I will also give Coyne in particular credit in his writing because he recognizes that abortion and euthanasia are fundamentally the same process. They are both killing a life that he identifies as the same thing. Notice that he does not try to slide in the sleight-of-hand that life begins at the first breath. He identifies the being in the mother as the fetus as well as the being just after it is born as the fetus. Again, I admire his consistency as evil as I find it because I agree, fundamentally, nothing changes, and he recognizes that clearly.
The problem is however that where his consistency drops off.
“It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.”
Of course, the first problematic assumption is that any child with a disability is doomed to die or suffering or in pain. That is evidentially not true and an irresponsible characterization to say the least.
The second problematic assumption in this passage is that the judgment of suffering is being done by people who are not actively experiencing this suffering. Coyne is putting the doctor and parent in an omniscient role that they are simply not qualified to preside in. There is a major difference between knowing a lot about spina bifida for example and actually living life as a person with spina bifida. I might be a person with a physical disability, but I would not presume to speak for individuals with intellectual disabilities for example. I do not know what life is like for them, and I certainly would not argue that their lives do not have value simply if I believed (which I don't) that their lives are full of suffering. That would be ridiculous, but that is what Coyne is doing right here.
Coyne then goes on to something that is very strange in my opinion. He argues that 50 years ago, everyone would have argued that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide were immoral, but now people understand that there truly is nothing wrong with them.
“This change in views about euthanasia and assisted suicide are the result of a tide of increasing morality in our world… Although discussing the topic seems verboten now, I believe some day the practice will be widespread, and it will be for the better. After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans?”
Because our morality is going to continue to increase, we’re soon going to realize that everything we thought was right is simply wrong. He proceeds even further than this however.
“The reason we don’t allow euthanasia of newborns is because humans are seen as special, and I think this comes from religion—in particular, the view that humans, unlike animals, are endowed with a soul. It’s the same mindset that, in many places, won’t allow abortion of fetuses that have severe deformities. When religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.”
I could argue from a religious perspective at this point because I do believe that humans are created in the image of God, and this does differentiate humanity from the remainder of creation. However, I know that many supporters of Coyne would just write me off as a member of a dying species of religious believers, so let’s look at his commentary from a different angle.
Coyne argues that our sense of morality is increasing. Presumably because he believes it is increasing, it went from somewhere and is proceeding to somewhere. After all, without reference points, how would we possibly know whether it is increasing or decreasing?
Therefore, he believes that morality is objective. There is such a thing as right, and we are progressing towards that which is right. I would disagree with him on what that is, but he believes in the existence of objective morality apparently just as much as I do.
The minimization of suffering seems to be at the peak of his moral mountain. If something minimizes suffering, then it is good and ought to be done. On the surface, this sounds like a good argument. After all, nobody wants to see people suffering. Even though Coyne does not really make a case for why not suffering is objectively better than suffering in this article, I’m not going to argue on that point. Maybe he makes that case elsewhere. For now, I’m just going to take it for given that he is justified in believing that the minimization of suffering is a good thing.
Again though, I come back to this idea that Coyne does not understand what it is to live like a person with a disability. Some people might look at my life and argue that I must be suffering because I cannot walk. Some people might say I am suffering because my muscles continue to grow weaker little by little. Every disability is different obviously, and there are plenty of features of different disabilities that could be viewed as suffering by different people.
Even if minimizing suffering is a good thing which I would in general agree with and granted for the sake of argument, the parents and doctors are making an uninformed decision. They do not truly understand the experience of this very young person with a disability, and it might actually be less suffering to remain alive than to be killed soon after birth. There is no way to tell whether or not this procedure which Coyne is arguing for would actually move towards this objective good that is minimizing suffering.
At the very least, from his perspective, he should allow the child to make this decision to end his or her own life (which I still find problematic). After all, this entire criterion of minimization of suffering is apparently a judgment of personal suffering, and no one truly can know that from the outside. By his own criterion, I don’t know how you would differentiate this case from the deciding that a random person driving down the road is not suffering and killing them on that basis. That would obviously be murder, and I am not saying that Coyne would defend that. I’m just saying that I do not understand how that would be any different than this case if I sincerely believed that that person was suffering and wanted to minimize their suffering. I know no more about what is going on in that person’s head than anyone does about the feelings of a newborn child who is about to be terminated.
That doesn’t seem like a radical concept, and I think many people believe it. However, many people who might share that perspective would be harmed by any type of legislation to allow for the legal euthanization of the newborns. If they had their own choice, they might ultimately believe that their life has quality despite suffering. Therefore, by taking away their life, we are actually doing more harm and invoking more suffering than they would be by being able to live in the way they would prefer. This decision would violate Coyne’s own criterion of minimizing suffering.
I know this has been an extraordinarily long article for me, but it is an important issue. Jerry Coyne is an influential man. He has over 40,000 email subscribers, and I have no doubt that many people follow his website loyally. The problem is that he most clearly does not understand the experience of an individual with a disability. That is the underlying issue with most of his article that I have tried to point out for you as someone who lives every day with a disability.
He understands the basics that abortion and euthanasia are basically the same, and he is consistent. He understands that objective morality is a real thing and that we ought to reach towards that which is good. We even agree that in general terms, the minimization of suffering is a good thing. However, the part where he loses me and I think most people is that he is trying to imply that parents and doctors can play God in these situations. Even though they have no firsthand knowledge of the proposed suffering that this child must be going through, they assume that the suffering must be there and that is better than life.
As someone who certainly has some obstacles in life and might be seen as suffering by some people, I can tell you that I would much rather be alive with the challenges I have than killed at birth. Yes, not everything has been pleasant in my life, and there were things I certainly would have preferred to avoid. However, on the whole, I’m happy that was not born to parents who thought that my life would have been ruined by so much suffering that it wasn’t worth beginning. If Coyne would listen to the voices of the people who he is assuming are suffering, I think that he would recognize that perhaps even those who are too small to have a voice yet might feel the same way.