May 24, 2024


Writing in the , Peter Singer, doyen of utilitarian bioethicists, recently supported the so-called “Ashley treatment” for a severely retarded girl. In that widely discussed case, Ashley’s breasts and uterus were removed and her growth was stunted with hormones so that her parents could care for her more effectively. After discarding objections based on “naturalness” and the slippery slope, Singer also dismissed “lofty talk about human dignity”, which he found illogical, since dogs and cats have more intellectual ability than even normal babies. The only relevant issue, he argued, was how to relieve Ashley’s discomfort and pain.

to Singer’s observations came from two academics whose 37-year-old daughter is as handicapped as Ashley. Eva Feder Kittay, who teaches philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and Jeffrey Kittay, the founder of the renowned journal Lingua Franca, indignantly object that “We don’t give IQ tests to determine if a person is entitled to the things that go with human dignity, such as human rights.” They describe how their daughter Sesha’s development and memories are manifested in her musical tastes.

The Kittays maintain that the lives of severely retarded people like Ashley and Sesha raise questions about “false idols of intellectual capacity”. “Life is precious; all individuals have intrinsic worth, the source of their dignity; and joy, like the human body, comes in many varieties.”