Peter Singer in NY Times Magazine: Disability Community Responds!

Today, a letter has been sent out via postal mail to Gerald Marzoratti, Editor of the New York Times Magazine. The letter conveys complaints about the content of the magazine’s recent essay, “Why Must Ration Health Care,” which offers up people with disabilities as sacrifices in the efforts to rein in health care costs.

The letter was composed by NDY in collaboration with the JFA Action Network, which also worked to enlist the organizations and individuals who have cosigned the letter.

If you read this and agree with this, we will be more than happy to add the names of organizations and individuals to this already long list of endorsers.

August 11, 2009

Mr. Gerald Marzorati

Editor, New York Times Magazine

620 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY 10018

Re: Peter Singer “analysis” on health care rationing and people with disabilities

Dear Mr. Marzorati:

Was it the New York Times Magazine’s intention to assault or diminish the basic tenets of the disability community’s civil rights law virtually on the eve of its 19th anniversary? The New York Times Magazine’s decision to publish Peter Singer’s latest long essay entitled ‘Why We Must Ration Health Care’ (7/15/09) less than two weeks before the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act demonstrates either deliberate malice or reckless disregard of the reality of disability as an important demographic representative of nearly 20% of the American population.

As anyone who has read ‘Why We Must Ration Health Care’ knows, Singer spoke “hypothetically” of assigning a life with quadriplegia as roughly half that of a life without any disability at all. On this “hypothetical” basis, Singer lays out a case for denying health care to people with significant disabilities on the basis that our lives have less value than the lives of nondisabled people.

This is Peter Singer’s most direct assault on the value of the lives of people with physical disabilities past the age of infancy that we have read. His policy proposals allowing for the killing of newborns with disabilities and people with significant cognitive disabilities are already well known.

While this is a bolder assault than we have seen from Professor Singer in the past, it’s hardly surprising. What’s surprising and deeply disturbing is that the NY Times Magazine’s editorial staff have sought him out as a writer on more than one occasion.

To be fair, the NY Times Magazine has published some excellent articles in the past that have covered the disability experience as more than a mere medical issue. The late Harriet McBryde Johnson had several thoughtful articles published in the NY Times Magazine describing the historical oppression directed at people with disabilities, contrasted with the wonderful opportunities that unfold if that oppression is lifted. When Harriet died, many of us were taken aback when the NY Times Magazine editors passed over Harriet’s friends and colleagues to write an end-of-year tribute in the year she died. That honor was bestowed on Professor Singer. Perhaps we should have taken that as a sign of things to come.

Reluctantly, we have to suspect that the NY Times Magazine accepted this piece because of its content, agreeing with Singer that our lives have lessened value and that we represent a drain on the collective economic and health care resources of our country. It’s hard to imagine the NY Times Magazine green-lighting an article that targeted any other group in such a way – e.g. immigrants, the poor, or other groups who have been targeted as scapegoats in the health care debates. Did the editor in charge of publishing this issue even notice that Singer used no factual information at all to support his devaluation of people with disabilities?

We have to wonder what went through the heads of the editorial staff when they thought about the reactions of readers – with or without disabilities – to the large graphic that read “__ YEARS OF A NONDISABLED LIFE IS WORTH __ YEARS OF A DISABLED LIFE.”

Contrast this with Senator Edward Kennedy’s essay on the fight for universal healthcare in the current issue of Newsweek. Talking about people with disabilities he said, in part:

Social justice is often the best economics. We can help disabled Americans who want to live in their homes instead of a nursing home. Simple things can make all the difference, like having the money to install handrails or have someone stop by and help every day.

Obviously, the definitions of justice that Senator Kennedy uses are very different from the definitions favored by Peter Singer and the NY Times Magazine.

Without using the term, Senator Kennedy is also describing the social model of disability. In the traditional medical model of disability, the “problems” of disability are all situated within the person. The medical model defines people with disabilities as having a lower “quality of life” than their nondisabled peers. In reality, most of the limitations put on people with disabilities are socially defined – and can be remediated in the same way. The Americans with Disabilities Act is built on the principles of that social model, acknowledging that disability is a natural part of life and that society has to reflect that reality in an inclusive and supportive way.

The proposed treatment – or nontreatment – of people with disabilities also violates the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was signed by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She signed the Convention on July 30th at the direction of President Obama. While the Singer essay violates the spirit and vision of the Convention in numerous ways, the most pertinent section of the document is spelled out in Article 25 (f), in which obligates signatories to “prevent discriminatory denial of health care or health services or food and fluids on the basis of disability.” This is important. Article 4(d) states that countries that have signed the Convention agree to “refrain from engaging in any act or practice that is inconsistent with the present Convention.”

The American disability community, Senator Kennedy and an ever-growing majority of the international community all recognize that public policy has to embrace the inherent equality of the lives of people with disabilities – and public policy must reflect that in practice. The NY Times Magazine and Professor Singer stand opposed to the more progressive voices of social justice, inside and outside of the United States.

We, the undersigned, protest this treatment of people with disabilities within one of the most important public policy debates in our time. The New York Times Magazine has failed in its public responsibility to treat citizens of the United States with the simple respect we deserve by serving up people with disabilities as a drain on public resources and to legitimize the denial of medical care to those of us who need that support the most.

The editorial staff of the New York Times Magazine needs to meet with representatives of disability advocacy groups, with the following goals:

  1. The NY Times staff needs to define and clarify its understanding of disability as a basic human rights issue.
  2. If the current stance of the NY Times is that the lives of people with disabilities are, in fact, a drain on health care sources, it should be stated on record.
  3. Discuss training in the basics of covering disability in news stories – beyond the “human interest” and “medical” angles.
  4. Cover the difference between “analysis” and “appealing to bigotry” in public policy discussions.




Not Dead Yet


American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)

Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

The Community Consortium, Inc.

Concrete Change

Edmonds Institute

Feminist Response in Disability Activism

Hearing Loss Association of America

Little People of America

National Coalition of MH Consumer/Survivor Organizations

National Association of the Deaf

National Center for Environmental Health Strategies

National Council on Independent Living

National Youth Leadership Network

Nonviolent Choice Directory


The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

The Center for Self-Determination


Access to the Arts, Inc.

ADAPT Chicago

ADAPT Montana

Californians for Disability Rights, Inc.

Center for Disability Rights

Center for Independent Living – Fresno

Community Resources for Independent Living – Alameda County, CA

Disability Options Network

Disabilities Network of NYC

Fair Shake Network

Green Country Independent Living Resource Center

Independent Living Center of Southern California

Independent Living Resource Center – San Francisco

MetroWest Center for Independent Living

Michigan ADAPT

Michigan Disability Rights Coalition

Oklahoma Association of Centers for Independent Living

Placer Independent Resource Services

Respect ABILITY Law Center

Services For Independent Living – Columbia, MO

Silicon Valley Independent Living Center

Students and Citizens Against Futile Ethics

The Whole Person, Inc.

Topeka Independent Living Resource Center


Ana Acton

Susan Rushing Adams

Kirk C. Allison, PhD

Eliza Anderson

Navidad Arnett

Judith Badner

Rosa Barragan

Janine Bertram Kemp

Steven Black

Arthur W. Blaser

Mark Boatman

Marc Brenman

Lawrence J Brick

Elizabeth I. Burns

Brian Burrows

Josie Byzek

Maria A. Cabrera

Catherine F. Calhoun

Allie Cannington

Dr. Mary C. Cerreto

Carol Grosik Clark

Molly Cisco

Haddayr Copley-Woods

Mary Krane Derr

Margaret K. Dore, Esq.

Steven M. Eidelman

Meg Evans

Philip Ferguson, Ph.D.

Jill Gerrie

Clark Goodrich

Lisa M. Gwinner

Dustin J. Hankinson

Dr. MJ Hardman

Laura Hershey

Margaret Holt Baird, Esq.

Rev. Nan Hildebrand

Susan Houston

Dania Jekel

Bob Kafka

Neil Kapit

Denise Karuth

Tom Keogh

Molly King

Joseph F. Kras, MD, DDS

Sandra Gail Lambert

Sharon Lamp

Aubrie Lee

Jessica Lehman

Miriam Levine

Victoria Lewis, Ph.D.

Patricia Lockwood MS

Madonna Long

Ruth Deale Lowenkron

Calvin Luker

Tricia Luker

Liz Lyons

David K. March

Patricia A Martin

Theresa A. Martinosky

Ben Mattlin

Julie V. Maury

Ryan McDuffee

Eileen McGinn

Tina Minkowitz, Esq.

Jacinda Moore

Heidi J Moore

Carolyn Morison

Brian Mosley

J. Kenneth L. Morse

Janet Norman-Bain

Hector Ochoa

Tom Olin

Kay Olson

Stephen Pate

Alicia Paterni

Rob Pedlow Ph. D

Kathy Podgers

Andrew P. Porter

Edith M Prentiss

Sarah Pripas

Adarsh Pyarelal

Amy F. Robertson

Ralph Savarese, PhD

Phil Schwarz

Jeff Shannon

Alice Sheppard

Thomas K. Small

Eleanor Smith

Laura Smith

Phil Smith, Ed.D.

Raphael J. St. Johns, MS

Lorraine Stephens

Robin Stephens

Maria Strong

Lynne Tamor

Nathan D. Turner

Michael Volkman

Joy E. Weeber, Ph.D.

Kathi Whittaker

Rob Wilson

Alison Young

Tony Young

Lynn Zaritsky

9 thoughts on “Peter Singer in NY Times Magazine: Disability Community Responds!

  1. As a member of NYLN’s advocacy board, I am proud that they added their name to this letter. It is so important that this message be spread. Good job NDY on the letter!

  2. I understand being very much against this sort of thing… there is still the problem to be solved, though: When there is not enough health care money to go around, what then? It comes down to triage, eventually, so that limited money is used in such a way as to benefit the most people.

    Ideally, one would structure the system in such a way that triage is almost never necessary. But what should be done instead? And how?

    I think it is rather important that, in addition to saying, “No! We don’t want this to happen!” there should be sensible proposals of what, exactly, the correct solution is.

  3. Please add my name to this letter. It is bizarre that some people who say that favor extension of health care to people who do have health coverage (and that includes many people with disabilities) are using this in an effort to devalue life at the beginning and end, and to depreciate people who are differently abled
    David Whitten

  4. Peter Singer talks about the lack of value of people with disabilities, but fails to provide the scale he’s using to measurie it. It appears that it’s primarily one of economic ($) value, as opposed to human value.

    Yet on the human scale, he also seems to devalue the quality of life for people with disabilities, pronouncing it as poor. Inasmuch as he’s not disabled, I’d like to know his source.

    Studies consistently show that people with disabilities tend to place a high value on their lives, more highly even than their non-disabled peers. The exceptions tend to be the newly injured or those receiving substandard care. After a period of adjustment and improvement in care, their value of life improves as well .

    It’s been very hard to support my son’s beloved alma mater with Peter Singer as head of bioethics; a slap in the face of people of who believe that our right to life comes from a higher power, not from healthcare or other govt bureaucracy advised by the Peter Singers of the world.

    When people like Singer are in prominent leadership positions, their ill-informed, inhuman/inhumane, and subjective opinions are presumed to be fact-based, objective positions, and become “accepted”and “acceptable”. One measure is unemployment, which has hardly changed in the 25 years since the ADA was passed.

    One final thought: if Peter Singer were hit by a truck and paralyzed, or fathered a disabled child, would he still consider himself/his child to be “half” a human?

    Frankly, I rather doubt it…but who am I to determine how others value their lives? I’ll leave that up to the Peter Singer-bureaucrats who are more “qualified” to pass judgment.

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