March 1, 2024

Disability activist and foe of Peter Singer passes away

Harriet McBryde Johnson broke conventions
Harriet McBryde Johnson Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disability activist who was a prominent foe of bioethicist Peter Singer, has passed away at the age of 50. Born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and confined to a wheelchair (“The sight of me is routinely discombobulating”), Ms Johnson went on to become a lawyer and writer. She was best known for a 2002 debate with bioethicist Peter Singer over his notion that infanticide was not necessarily a crime. She wrote in the New York Times: “To Singer, it’s pretty simple: disability makes a person ‘worse off.’ Are we ‘worse off’? I don’t think so… We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own.”

Ms Johnson was not a conventional pro-life activist. She was a prickly, earthy and outspoken atheist who refused to pity herself or accept pity from others. She first became prominent in 1990 when she criticised America’s Jerry Lewis telethon for its "the charity mentality" and "pity-based tactics". After her encounter with Peter Singer, she felt strangely charmed by his courtesy and intellectual rigour.

She concluded her widely-reprinted article in the Times with the reflection that “As a shield from the terrible purity of Singer’s vision, I’ll look to the corruption that comes from interconnectedness. To justify my hopes that Singer’s theoretical world — and its entirely logical extensions — won’t become real, I’ll invoke the muck and mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived. That’s the best I can do.” ~ New York Times, June 7

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