In February, a remarkable article appeared in the New York Times Magazine. It was an account by Harriet McBryde Johnson of her debate with Princeton philosophy professor Peter Singer, whom Johnson noted is “often called—and not just by his book publicist—the most influential philosopher of our time.” The subject of the debate was whether parents should be allowed to kill handicapped or retarded infants. This was no mere academic debate for Johnson, who is severely handicapped.
The article was remarkable in part because the Times tirelessly propagandizes on behalf of abortion. And Singer shares the Times’ passion. In fact, he has already arrived at a point that it may take the Times’ editorial writers a few years to reach. As Singer has written, the arguments assailing fetal personhood
apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. . . . [T]here are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain, and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.
Remarkably, the man advancing such arguments is met not with revulsion but with honors or, at worst, equanimity. Singer is, after all, ensconced at one of our most prestigious universities. Early in the article, Johnson recounts her anger at the reception Singer received after advocating infanticide in conservative South Carolina:
I am shaking, furious, enraged—but it’s for the big room, 200 of my fellow Charlestonians who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail.
Yes, decency does demand this, but decency is an increasingly scarce commodity in contemporary America. By the end of the article, even Johnson draws back from labeling Singer a “monster.” As she told her sister, Singer’s “ideas are new, in a way. It’s not old fashioned hate. It’s a twisted, misinformed, warped kind of beneficence. His motive is to do good.”
Infanticide is not new. But the warped beneficence Singer uses to justify infanticide is something new—and terrible. Flannery O’Connor warned of this twisted tenderness over 40 years ago:
If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.
Terror is an apt description of Singer’s brave new world, in which imperfect babies would be killed and pigs would be legally protected. (One of Singer’s students sought to take the moral high ground from Johnson by asking whether she ate meat.) But, sadly, it also describes an aspect of our own world, our own America, where over a million unborn children are killed every year. Singer justifies infanticide by relying on our acceptance of abortion, and Johnson repeatedly concedes that his arguments are logical extensions of our current arrangements. Since Johnson never questions abortion, her arguments against infanticide come across as defensive. After all, as Johnson notes, “disabled fetuses are routinely aborted now.”
Singer’s arguments, of course, discount the reality of what occurs in the womb before birth. As a pro-abortion editorial in California Medicine noted on the eve of Roe v. Wade,
The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not put forward under socially impeccable auspices.
Stripped to its essentials, the “right” to abortion—conceived as it is in a twisted tenderness—is all about convenience and pleasure and avoiding the consequences of one’s actions: It is the “right” to have sex without ever running the risk of pregnancy. Singer’s “right” to kill handicapped newborns is of a piece: It is the “right” to have children without ever getting saddled with a child you do not want.
In one sense, the depth of support for abortion among almost all leftists (and many others) is remarkable. Even if a per-son believed that cost-free promiscuity is a natural right—a fantasy entertained at no point in history before ours—he should recognize that contraception would virtually eliminate the “need” to resort to such a drastic “remedy” as abortion. For the modern liberal, however, the untrammeled individual pursuit of pleasure is the end of life. Since the greatest pleasure comes from sex, sex must be what life is all about. This philosophy is evident in the sex-education courses that are nearly ubiquitous in contemporary America. In my sister’s school district in suburban Detroit, youngsters are required to demonstrate how to put a condom on a banana. They are shown explicit films on oral sex. In case pregnancy still intrudes, despite the lessons in contraception and sodomy, students are also indoctrinated in abortion: They are required to draw a map illustrating the route from their home to the nearest “abortion provider.”
The disastrous consequences of this philosophy are obvious: There is no need to visit the local abortion mill to see the little dismembered bodies left in hedonism’s bloody wake. I cannot turn on my computer without receiving uninvited offers to enlarge both my penis and “my” breasts. Popular media contain explicit references to sex that would have been unimaginable in the free-wheeling 70’s. Even some baby-boomer reporters are shocked by young people so amoral that they regularly engage in sex not merely outside of marriage but outside of any emotional commitment or even real affection. And, because of abortion, many women no longer feel any responsibility for their unborn children, and many men no longer feel any duty toward the person an earlier age would have called their “beloved” and ours is likely to term their “sexual partner.”
Abortion intrudes even on “wanted” pregnancies. My mother has a friend whose daughter was pregnant with triplets. Her doctor told her not to worry because “we can do a selective reduction.” He volunteered this advice even though there was no indication that any of the children were unhealthy or “unwanted.” Indeed, I wonder what to make of the selective acceptance of the unborn child that flows from being “pro-choice.” What should we think of people who both condemn pregnant women who do not eat enough vegetables and applaud pregnant women who do something far worse to their unborn child? A friend of mine knows a fanatically pro-abortion doctor who wanted to make T-shirts for pregnant women who were “pro-choice.” He thought that the only honest slogans for these shirts would be “So Far, So Good” and “This One’s A Keeper.”
I do not know whether Peter Singer’s brave new world will ever arrive, though the prestige he enjoys and the politeness with which his arguments are received are not encouraging signs. Even if we never quite embrace Singer’s vision, however, the contemporary reality is awful enough that we should turn away from the “tenderness” foreseen by O’Connor, accepted by all too many of us, and now pushed toward its logical conclusion by the likes of Singer. We should return to the only alternative to this false tenderness likely to withstand the desire to make things easy for ourselves and, we imagine, for others, too. We should return, in O’Connor’s words, to “faith.”