University of Oregon

cognitive disability

Peter Singer on parental rights, cognitive disability, and Ashley X
Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy; Stony Brook, NYC; September 18-20, 2008

You can see commentary on, and discussion of this clip at The What Sorts blog:

Transcript: Now let me say something about the views of parents on this issue. Because that, of course, is relevant. And this is something about Down Syndrome. Obviously, people with Downs are not profoundly retarded; its not the kind of category I am talking about at all. But I did want to just give you a couple of comments that Ive had when Ive spoken about this issue, in terms of the views that parents have. Parents obviously do have a say in how their children should be treated, and I think that thats tremendously important. So that in debates about, for example, infants born with Down Syndrome and other complicating conditions that required surgery, some parents have said that they didnt want surgery performed because they didnt want to have a child with Downs. Other parents have said that they did. And some have said, as Ann Bradley has said here [slide], that some people with children with Down syndrome wish that all of their children had this extraordinary syndrome, which replaces anger and malice, deletes anger and malice, replacing them with human thoughtfulness and devotion to friends and family.

So thats fine for parents who have this view and make that choice obviously. But theres also the contrary view that Ive had expressed to me in letters when Ive ... when my views have been publicized on these issues, about parents whose children have been saved by doctors when they were born, in this case, an extremely premature baby, although not actually as premature as many who are saved now, but who have had a lot of problems. And this woman wrote to me that had she known what was in store for her son, and had the doctors asked her whether they wished to incubate him, in other words, to keep him going on the ventilator so that he would survive, she would have said No. She would have would have said, that would have been a gut-wrenching decision, but it would have been for the best, both best for her son himself, and for the family and the other children. So, the views of parents on these issues go in both directions. And I dont think, therefore, resolve the question in a way, if you like, in favour of protecting life, in all cases. Rather, the arguments that I have suggested imply that parental choice ought to have an important role in decisions. At least in decisions for those with profound mental retardation, maybe in others as well.

I want to mention also the case of Ashley that received a bit of publicity last year, for those of you who heard about it. This was a case of a girl in Seattle. There was some dispute about how profoundly or severely her cognitive disabilities were. It was said that she cant walk or talk, keep her head up, roll over, or sit up by herself. She was fed with a tube, she didnt swallow and the case was controversial because her parents used growth attenuation to make her, to keep her small, and make her easier to care for, which involved operations like hysterectomy, removal of breast buds, and some hormone treatment, to so they could still pick her up and keep her with them. And they said that this was in her interest, for her benefit, so that she could travel on family holidays with them, and so on. Also, they said it would protect her from possible sexual abuse. Now, it was a controversial issue. But one of the things that I dont really agree with is the claim made in this Los Angeles Times article about it, which says that This is about Ashleys dignity. Everybody examining the case seems to agree at least about that. Well, I mean again, as I a said before the term dignity is a very vague term. I would say that its about whats in Ashleys best interests. We are prepared to use the term best interest for animals without too much hesitation. We know what that means . Were not prepared to use it for nonhuman animals . And I dont really think that someone as developmentally disabled as Ashley is described as being is actually someone with dignity in a sense were prepared to deny to nonhuman animals.