Peter Singer's Pillow Angel
James T. Fisher January 27, 2007 - 7:56pm
Peter Singer is nothing if not predictable (and predictably awfully limited for someone taken as seriously as he is), but his Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times newspaper (ok I've always wanted to use that great phrase from Jimmy Breslin) certainly contains material for reflection by exponents of Catholic social thought. "What matters to a severely disabled child isn't dignity," blurbed the Times in an accurate summary of Singer's brief essay on the case of Ashley X, the disabled 9 year old Seattle area girl who thanks to her parents had a hysterectomy two years ago so that she would not menstruate; had her breast buds removed; and received hormone treatments to minimize her growth. "Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families," concludes Singer in an essay which is, surprise!, wholly sympathetic to Ashley's parents and their lifestyle choices.
The case has attracted great interest but I am not aware of any comparable frontal assault on a fundamental premise of Catholic social teaching such as offered by Singer, who deserves credit for articulating what others of less confontational natures surely also believe. And perhaps it is time to ask if "dignity" has not devolved into a mantra that only exposes its champions to further ridicule of this type? Singer is himself no more attuned to the manipulations of language than his targets. He apparently has no qualms with the "pillow angel" motif that is so dear to Ashley's parents and also fits nicely within the broader tropes of late-Victorian sentimentality that infect so many discourses on disability, including if not especially as found in much Christian theologizing. For a powerful critique/witness against this enduring unhelpful tradition see the presentation by Kassiane Alexandra Sibley.