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”Unspeakable Conversations”

by | Sep 4, 2013

Editor’s note. Building on the insights of Amy Hasbrouck found at “The Thrill” we’re running what was a three-part series in 2003 about the late Harriet McBryde Johnson who is a key actor in Hasbrouck’s essay.

The late Harriet McBryde Johnson

The late Harriet McBryde Johnson

It’s not often that articles which pretty much stop me in my tracks. Read too much, talked to too many people, thought too much about issues of life and death to be easily impressed.

But “Unspeakable Conversations,” written by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a lawyer and disability rights activist and advocate for more than 25 years, qualifies for that rare distinction. Her essay in the New York Times Magazine, as of last count, has wracked up almost 500 reader responses. It’s easy to see why.

The topic was fairly and accurately summarized by the introduction to the bevy of e-mails posted on the Times’s “Reader’s Opinion” page.

“In her cover article for The Times Magazine, Harriet McBryde Johnson writes about her experience spending a day at Princeton University speaking in opposition to Peter Singer, the professor and philosopher who wants to give parents the legal right to kill disabled babies. Ms. Johnson was born with a severe disability and could have been killed at birth had Prof. Singer’s theory been in practice. In her article, she tells the story — and presents, in an indirect way, the case for her own life and for disabled lives generally.”

I have read only the first thirty or forty responses and I want to be scrupulously fair, not only to the gist of Ms. Johnson’s remarkable article, but also to the equally remarkable feedback it has engendered. I want to try to read many, if not most, before going too much further.

Let me just say this. I am currently reading a book titled “Explaining Hitler,” by Ron Rosenbaum, in my opinion the most brilliant investigative reporter of our generation. The subject matter of the book, which came out a few years ago, was the extraordinarily intriguing—and most revealing—ways in which academia’s views of the Nazi dictator continue to change.

It is an absolutely spellbinding read, a profoundly important examination of how easy it is (if we are not very careful) to “understand” something/someone to the point where it is explained away. “Evil” is quite understandable to laypeople, but often not so to intellectuals. Especially easy for pro-lifers to understand is the lethal price paid when categories of human beings are viciously dehumanized.

Ms. Johnson is alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) fascinated and repelled by Princeton Professor Peter Singer who champions just about every awful proposition you can think of. One of the most important points she makes, directly and indirectly, is that to dehumanize Singer is to fall into the same trap Singer is caught in. (Neither Ms. Johnson nor I are labeling Singer a Nazi.)

But at the same time she is inundated with advice from friends (and subsequently not a few readers) that to treat Singer civilly is like shaking hands with the Devil. It can only help to legitimize the opinions of a man whose ideas are rancid, odious, and almost unbelievably dangerous in a world that is not at all hospitable to those with mental and physical disabilities.

How she handles those conflicting impulses makes for an absolutely fascinating essay, which we will examine at some considerable length.

[Part Two]

“He insists he doesn’t want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.

“Whenever I try to wrap my head around his tight string of syllogisms, my brain gets so fried it’s . . . almost fun. Mercy! It’s like ‘’Alice in Wonderland.’”  —  From “Unspeakable Conversations,” by Harriet McBryde Johnson.

Yesterday we began a discussion of Ms. Johnson’s essay which appeared in the New York Times Magazine, an essay that raised enough support/opposition/hackles to generate more than 500 e-mail responses. Let me be clear from the outset: Johnson is no pro-lifer. But the issues she raises in her discussion of her debates with Princeton Professor Peter Singer are of enormous significance to the battles we fight on behalf of unborn babies, children born with disabilities, and the medically dependent.

Singer is notorious for so many outrageous statements it’s impossible to know where to begin. Every time you think you can take his argument so far that even Singer will say, no, you run across something new.

For example, not content with going after babies born with severe disabilities, Singer was asked in an interview that appeared on what would he say if, in

“maybe in 10 years a potential I.Q. of at least 100 would be added to the list of what makes life worth living? “


“That’s possible. What we need to have is an ongoing debate about these things. Not just scream at each other.”

Yes, indeed, come let us reason together about “what makes life worth living.” And if, while sipping tea and sharing a cookie, Singer find additional categories of people whose lives are also not worth living—as defined by the rest of us “normal” people— well, let’s not get huffy about this!

Johnson first met Singer when his traveling bioethics seminar show came to Charleston. Singer “lays it all out”–

“The ‘illogic’ of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.”

Johnson grabs a microphone, challenges Singer, and the next thing you know they’re exchanging oh-so-pleasant emails including “pointed questions” from Singer to “clarify my views on selective infanticide.” It’s oh-so-civilized,

”an engaging discussion of baby killing, disability prejudice and related points of law and philosophy. Dear Harriet. Dear Peter.”

Johnson, though “horrified” both by what Singer says and “by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist,” she can’t help herself. She’s “dazzled by his verbal facility,” and, besides, “He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument…”

And, then before you can say how-did-I-get-myself-into-this, Johnson’s agreed to come to Princeton for “an exchange of views.” Wise to the dangers of debating whether her parents ought to have had the right to kill her–and on Singer’s home turf, no less–Johnson feels trapped. If she says no, Singer can say he offered her a chance and Johnson declined.

Besides, although she does not say so, you can’t help but think Johnson is morbidly fascinated by a man who so matter-of-factly (and eloquently) lays out the case why she oughtn’t be alive to be asking questions in the first place. Perhaps, in her heart of hearts, she also thinks she can bring him around.

The bulk of the remainder of this long essay (7,864 words) explains her experience with Singer—how he did not feel repugnance at her physical disabilities, how he was the very model of courtly gentlemanliness, how they even exchanged gentle banter.

But then comes the really hard part: dealing with fellow disability rights advocates who wonder

“How could I put myself in a relationship with Singer that made him appear so human, even kind?”

Johnson’s answers—to her friends, family, and, most importantly, to herself–will be the subject of Part Three. At the same time, space permitting, we’ll tackle the extraordinary flurry of reader emails sparked by her essay.

[Part Three]

“Unable to muster the appropriate moral judgments, I ask myself a tough question: am I in fact a silly little lady whose head is easily turned by a man who gives her a kind of attention she enjoys? I hope not, but I confess that I’ve never been able to sustain righteous anger for more than about 30 minutes at a time. My view of life tends more toward tragedy. “  —  From “Unspeakable Conversations,” by Harriet McBryde Johnson, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

Q: Was it emotionally difficult for you to take part in a public discussion of whether your life should have happened?

A: It was very difficult. And horribly easy.”

A rhetorical question and answer, also from “Unspeakable Conversations.”

Harriet McBryde Johnson describes herself as a lawyer in solo practice in Charleston, South Carolina, who has been a disability rights activist and advocate for more than 25 years. The last two days we have discussed her essay in the New York Times Magazine, which, as of this writing, has generated 598 reader responses.

For those just tuning in, Ms. Johnson wrote about her “exchange of views” with Princeton Professor Peter Singer, whose utilitarian philosophy makes short work of babies born with severe disabilities and (as Johnson describes his position) holds that

“it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn’t consider them ‘persons.’ What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.”

Johnson first met Singer when he spoke in Charleston on “Rethinking Life and Death.” Commandeering a microphone, she challenged Singer on “selective infanticide.”

Warm and fuzzy emails are exchanged. Johnson flatters herself that “Singer seems curious to learn how someone who is as good an atheist as he is could disagree with his entirely reasonable views.”

And before you can say your-parents-ought-to-have-had-the-right-to-kill-you-at-birth, Johnson has agreed to come to Princeton to exchange views on infanticide and related issues in one forum, and then assisted suicide from a disability rights perspective, in another.

She’s well aware that she’s agreed to a lose-lose proposition (she’s legitimating that it’s perfectly acceptable to bat her non-existence back and forth over coke and Fritos), made worse by the fact that Johnson is up against an erudite and experience debater.

But though “horrified” both by what Singer says and “by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist,” Johnson proves to be easy pickings. She writes that she’s “dazzled by his verbal facility,” and, besides, “He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument…”

Indeed at the “exchanges” Singer is almost courtly in his treatment of her and respectful of her views. Reading her comments it’s hard not to see this as a kind of academic Stockholm Syndrome, where the captive (Johnson) gradually identifies with her captor (Singer).

When she gets home, Johnson’s friends want a blow-by-blow account, complete with details how she blew him away. She explains it wasn’t that way at all and within the disability rights community she quickly learns “people worry that my civility may have given Singer a new kind of legitimacy.”

The reminder of her essay is a kind of back-and-forth self-exploration of the wisdom of getting on the same platform with someone like Singer and how this intersects with how Johnson now sees those around her who are non-disabled.

From the outside, the issue isn’t that Johnson comes to see that “Singer is actually human.” Of course he is. Nor is it that he is “a man of unusual gifts,” for clearly Singer is. And surely those who advise her to make Singer “an object of implacable wrath, to be cut off, silenced, destroyed absolutely” are wrong.

It is rather that Johnson is so taken with Singer that she concludes he is “even kind in his own way,” a man “reaching for the heights.” What “heights”?

“[T]rying to create a system of ethics derived from fact and reason, that largely throws off the perspectives of religion, place, family, tribe, community and maybe even species — to ‘take the point of view of the universe.’ His is a grand, heroic undertaking.”

To Johnson, Singer is like a “protagonist in a classical drama” who has a “flaw.” Which is?

“His unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently ‘worse off,’ that we ‘suffer,’ that we have lesser ‘prospects of a happy life.’ Because of this all-too-common prejudice, and his rare courage in taking it to its logical conclusion, catastrophe looms. Here in the midpoint of the play, I can’t look at him without fellow-feeling.”

Johnson ends her essay with a retelling of a real conversation with her sister followed by what she would have said on second thought. The gist of this reevaluation is that, while Singer “just has some strange ways of looking at things,” in Singer’s mind, “he’s only giving parents a choice. He thinks the humans he is talking about aren’t people, aren’t ‘persons.’ ”

In the imaginary rehash, her sister eloquently points out this is no mere academic exercise—that it’s dangerous to romanticize Singer’s views (my words, not the sister’s)—to see them not as “old-fashioned hate” but as what Johnson describes as a“ twisted, misinformed, warped kind of beneficence.” Johnson now believes “His motive is to do good”!

Her sister suggests it is very dangerous to dismiss Singer’s extraordinary ability to shape bioethical thinking as “just talk.” In her imaginary rebuttal, Johnson insists what happened to Jews in Nazi Germany won’t happen to the disabled. Why? ‘Cause it won’t. “I have to believe that.”

Johnson believes that if she sees Singer’s prejudice against people with disabilities as “an ultimate evil, and him as a monster,” so is almost everyone else—anyone who, she says, “sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance.”

“I can’t live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can’t refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It’s not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.”

Johnson evidently believes that almost everyone who is non-disabled is infected with the same “disease” as Singer, so why single him out? If she does, all those who fail to accept her without even an inkling of prejudice–or lack of understanding–would be on the same plane as a man who has made it his life’s work to justify taking the lives of not only people like Johnson but countless other less-than-perfect people as well.

This, of course, is imputing a kind of collective guilt—we are all closet Singers. He has just made the “mistake” of being brutally honest.

But in her failure to discriminate (in the good sense of the word—making distinctions) Johnson tars almost everyone with the same brush, which cannot possibly advance the cause of justly treating people with disabilities.

And then there is this.

On the Times’s web page, an extended exchange has gone back and forth on abortion. Johnson writes that she is

“saddened by abortion generally, and particularly by the fact that so many terminate pregnancy based on disability. But I do not feel that my personal views should be made the law of the land, particularly when so many other people have strong views to the contrary.”

Besides, for Johnson, abortion is different from infanticide. “First, pregnancy implicates the woman’s equities in bodily integrity that are not present after birth. Second, Singer’s proposal targets disabled babies — it is not a neutral ‘pro choice’ law. She writes

“If the proposal is for infanticide on demand — which is NOT what Singer argues for — I would be opposed, but it would not be a disability rights issue. I would be opposed because generally I love babies. Not lots of reasoning.”

No, not a lot of reasoning at all. A brave woman is intellectually co-opted by a man whose philosophy has no room in it for her very existence.

This same woman is “saddened” by abortion but unable to see that she is infected with the same short-sightedness toward the unborn that she believes plagues most non-disabled people vis a vis those with disabilities. Which is a real tragedy.

For Johnson has a lot to offer, including a resolute determination not to feel sorry for herself. Let’s hope she reroutes that unused emotion into empathy for unborn children.

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Categories: Infanticide