PRINCETON, N.J. -- April 1999 -- More than 100 protesters denounced Princeton University on Saturday for hiring a philosopher whose extreme views include allowing parents to end the lives of their severely disabled infants.
"Nazi Germany did the same thing to the disabled, judging their lives not worth living. We object to that," said John Scaturro, 49, who protested near the Ivy League school along with his wife and young daughter.
University officials stood by the appointment of Peter Singer, a professor whose academic work they say will contribute to scholarship and ethics debates at Princeton.
Singer, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, was appointed last year to the Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics at the university's Center for Human Values. He is to begin work in July.
The 52-year-old academic is widely considered the father of the international animal rights movement yet has argued parents should have the right to euthanize newborn children who have severe handicaps.
In his books, Singer has said that children less than one month old have no human consciousness and do not have the same rights as others.
"Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person," he wrote in one book. "Sometimes it is not wrong at all."
His appointment at Princeton has drawn fierce opposition from pro-life groups, the disabled and others.
Daniel Robert, 51, who uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis, protested while wearing a black T-shirt that said "Not Dead Yet."
"I don't want people killing babies like me or adults like me," Robert said. "We're just as proud to be alive as anyone else. And we have that right."
Many protesters said Singer's hiring gives inappropriate legitimacy to his views.
Princeton spokesman Justin Harmon defended Singer's hiring and suggested that some of his harshest critics have not read his books.
"According to the experts in the field, he is the one of the strongest bioethicists out there," Harmon said. "He's been hired because of the strength of his teaching and his research, not because of any particular point of view he holds for or against any issue."
Update May, 1999:
Steve Forbes Takes on Princeton's Peter Singer
New Jersey -- Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, a member of the board of trustees at Princeton University, will ask that school's president to rescind the appointment of Peter Singer, a controversial bioethicist who advocates killing certain disabled babies within the first month of their lives.
Mr. Singer, 52, who teaches at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, is scheduled to arrive at the university July 1 and will teach as a tenured faculty member in the fall semester. His radical pro-infanticide views, have been the subject of ongoing pro-life criticism and have sparked protests at Princeton, where his opponents are hinting that the school's June 1 outdoor commencement ceremony will not go along quietly.
An Australian, Mr. Singer has been well known in the United States for years as an animal rights advocate. A vegetarian, he argues that ignoring the suffering of animals just because they are not human is a type of prejudice not unlike racism or sexism. "Even an abortion late in pregnancy for the most trivial of reasons is hard to condemn unless we also condemn the slaughter of far more developed forms of life for the taste of their flesh," he wrote.
But it is his theories on the value of human life that have drawn emotional fire, not only abroad but also in this country where he has earned the ominous label of "Professor Death," and has been called "a bigot" against people with disabilities.
Most controversial of his teachings is the suggestion that parents should have the right to kill infants up to 28 days old who have severe disabilities because at that age, he suggests, children don't understand what it means to be alive. Those with serious health and physical concerns may ultimately be burdens on society, and the goal, he asserts, is to eliminate suffering in the world.
"Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person," wrote Mr. Singer, who will fill an endowed professorship at the university's Center for Human Values.
Words like that have drawn the rage of those in the disabled and pro-life communities. They fear a prominent university like Princeton giving credence to his thinking is akin to acceptance of his views.
Disagreeing with Mr. Singer's views are such groups as Princeton Students Against Infanticide, the New Jersey Right to Life organization, and Not Dead Yet, which lobbies for the rights of the disabled. They staged two large and angry protests on campus this spring, their rallies attracting many disabled persons. Some in wheelchairs clutched signs that read, "My Life Is Worth Living."
"This is getting close to Hitler's policies," observed New Jersey police officer John Scaturro, who attended an April 17 protest at Princeton with his wife and child and was interviewed by the National Catholic Register. "He did the same thing in Nazi Germany to the deformed and disabled with the support of academics."
Now, as Mr. Singer's arrival on campus draws near, students and other groups representing disabled persons are calling on wealthy trustees, including the high profile Mr. Forbes who is running for president, and Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, to use their influence and take a stand against Mr. Singer.
"I don't have any doubt that if Steve Forbes and Bill Frist said we don't want to be a part of this trustee board and they took away their money . . . this decision would be rescinded," said graduate student Christopher Benek, 23, who serves as president of Princeton Students Against Infanticide.
Mr. Frist, a heart transplant surgeon who received his bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1974, recently donated $25 million to fund a new student center at the school, Mr. Benek said.
Mr. Forbes, who received a degree in history from Princeton in 1970 and contributes substantially to the university, lives in New Jersey and has a daughter who currently attends the Ivy League school. He plans to speak with Princeton University President Harold T. Shapiro to voice his opposition to Mr. Singer's tenured appointment at an upcoming private meeting, his spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss said.
"Steve would encourage those students who are protesting to continue those activities in support of Mr. Singer's removal," Mrs. Weiss said.
Mr. Benek said he also is calling on Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley, another famous Princeton trustee, to make his views about Mr. Singer known.
Princeton's Mr. Shapiro, who heads President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, writing in a column this spring for the student newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, defended the hire, saying Mr. Singer was internationally revered, the school's top choice, and his ideas, while provocative, would spark a vigorous debate among students. But Mary Jane Owen, a disabled person who serves as director of the National Catholic Office for Persons With Disabilities, says Mr. Singer's hiring was a disservice not only to Princeton but the nation.
Mr. Singer "lacks knowledge and sensitivity about the commonality of human vulnerability and fragility," she said. "Probably, he has never celebrated the personal victories of adults as we learn new ways of compensating for lost functions.
"The American spirit is that we've always admired persons who overcome challenges," said Miss Owen, who is blind, hard of hearing and who uses a wheelchair. "Peter Singer just doesn't get that."
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