By Fr. George Welzbacher
June 15, 2008
Harriet McBryde Johnson died on Wednesday, June 4th. Her name may mean nothing to you, but on March 25th, 2002 she created a sensation at Princeton University when, in an academic debate reminiscent of the battle between David and Goliath, she courageously challenged one of the reigning lords of the academic world, Princeton's Professor of Ethics Peter Singer, the Australian atheist who zealously advocates the killing of infants with severe disabilities. (In promoting so brutal a policy Professor Singer out-Spartans the ancient Spartans; they at least felt a certain inhibition against the outright killing of their own frail and sickly children; these children were abandoned instead at the frontiers of Lacedaemon, thus allowing for the possibility that their non-Spartan neighbors might give them a home (though as often as not that would mean that once the children reached a certain age, if their disabilities were not too severe, they might well be sold into slavery.)) In the debate at Princeton Miss Johnson showed herself equal to the task of persuasively countering Professor Singer's propaganda for the culture of death; she convincingly made the case that a human life, even one that right from the start was afflicted with a major disability, was still worth living. She herself suffered from a life-long crippling degenerative neuromuscular disorder.
Miss Johnson later gave her argument a more leisurely exposition in an article that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, an article widely cited by those on the pro-life side of the culture wars. Her defense of the severely disabled went straight to the mark: "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" [including, I should think, the satisfaction that comes from triumphing over difficulties that most of us will never face. For an extreme example one might cite Helen Keller.]
Dead at 50, Harriet Johnson will long remain an inspiration.. May I share with you the obituary notice that appeared in The New York Times for Saturday, June 7th, 2008. Dennis Hevesi wrote the tribute.
* * * * *Harriet McBryde Johnson, a feisty champion of the rights of the disabled who came to prominence. after she challenged a Princeton professor's contention that severely damaged newborns could ethically be euthanized, died on Wednesday at her home in Charleston, S.C. She was 50.
No cause has been determined, her. sister, Beth Johnson, said, while pointing out that her-sister was born with a degenerative neuromuscular disease. She never wanted to know exactly what the prognosis was," Beth Johnson said.
The condition did not stop Harriet Johnson from earning a law degree, representing the disabled in court, lobbying legislators and writing books and articles that argued, as she did in The New York Times Magazine in February, 2003, "The presence or absence of a disability doesn't predict quality of life.
Using a battery-powered wheelchair in which she loved to "zoom around' the streets of Charleston, Ms. Johnson playfully referred to herself 'as "a bedpan crip" and "a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin."
Rolling into an auditorium at the College of Charleston on April 22, 2001, Ms. Johnson went to the microphone during a question-and-answer session to confront Peter Singer, a philosopher from Princeton, who was giving a lecture tilled "Rethinking Life and Death "
Professor Singer had drawn protests by insisting that suffering should be relieved without regard to species. That, he said, allows parents and doctors to kill newborns with drastic disabilities, like the absence of higher brain function or an incompletely formed spine, instead of letting "nature take its course."
In Professor Singer's view, infants, like other animals, are neither rational nor self-conscious.
"Since their species is not relevant to their moral status," he said, "the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here, too."
Ms. Johnson had been sent to the lecture by Not Dead Yet, a national disability-rights organization.
Describing the event in The Times she wrote: "To Singer, it's pretty simple: disability makes a person 'worse off.' Are we 'worse off ? I don't think so."
She added: "We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy and pleasures pecutiarly our own."
An e-mail exchange followed that encounter in Charleston, leading to an invitation to debate Professor Singer at Princeton on March 25, 2002. Their two encounters were the subject of the 8,000-word Times article, which brought Ms. Johnson considerable attention in the disability rights movement and from the general public.
"Her impact came mostly from her writing," said Laura Hershey, a disability rights activist with several organizations, including Not Dead Yet. Millions of people by now have read that article, and it was reprinted in her book. Dozens ofpeople who read the article told me, 'Wow, I never thought about it that way."
Ms. Johnson's memoir, "Too Late to Die Young," was published in 2005. Her novel, "Accidents of Nature," about a girl with cerebral palsy who had never known another disabled person until she went to camp, was published in 2006.
Bom in Laurinburg, N.C., on July 8, 1957, Ms. Johnson was one of five children of David and Ada Johnson. Her parents taught foreign languagesalcolleges. Besides her parents and her sister, Ms. Johnson is survived by three brothers, Eric, McBryde an Ross.
The fact that her parents could afford hired help was a salient point in another Times Magazine article Ms. Johnson wrote in November, 2003, "The Disability Gulag." Describing institutions where "wheelchair people are lined up, obviously stuck where they're placed while a TV blares, watched by no one, " she called for a major shift from institutionalizing people to publicly financing home care provided by family, friends or neighbors.
"I sometimes dare to dream that the gulag will be gone in a generation or two," she wrote. "But meanwhile, the lost languish in the gulag. ..."
Ms. Johnson graduated from Charleston Southern University in 1978, then earned a master's degree in public administration from the College of Charleston. She graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1985 and soon went into private practice.
Humor laced her writing. The "crippled children's school" she attended as a teenager, she wrote in a Times Op-Ed article in December, 2006, once considered staging a play based on Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." But who would be Tiny Tim?
Ms. Johnson quoted directly from the Dickens book: "Alas for Tiny Tim, he bore a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame!"
"Alas!" Ms. Johnson exclaimed. " 'A little crutch! An iron frame!' In our world, the crutch- and-brace kids were the athletic elite! They picked up the stuff we hard-core crips dropped."...
* * * * *
Professor Singer, I might note, is one of the founders of the animal rights movement. And that three of his grandparents died at Ausschwitz, there is some measure of irony in the fact that he himself is now expounding the very premise that the Nazis embraced to justify what went on there, the idea, namely, that "there is life that doesn't deserve to live"----"Leben des Lebens unwert" -and that such life ought to be destroyed. Contributing to this mindset was Friedrich Nietzsche, who called for "the ruthless annihilation of all that is decadent ....... "die erbarmungslose Vernichtung alles Entarteten ". With this ideology calling the shots all that you need to do, if you want to justify the killing of Group A or Group B, is to find some reason for tagging it with the label: "decadent". For Professor Singer an infant with a severe disability is biologically "decadent." Ergo.
It's a sobering fact that the professor's philosophy is not all that different from the mindset of those who lend their support to late-term abortion. Or to abortion in general, for that matter. And it's a fact that the human mind, if it is to make its way successfully through "life's stormy seas", has a fundamental need for absolutes; so when the traditional absolutes of the natural law are contemptuously cast aside, what is politically correct will quickly take their place. And once that happens only God can save this republic!