McBryde Johnson famously debated philosopher Peter Singer in 2001, and wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine, among other places.
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 titled "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."
(By the way, Peter Singer's position on disability is the reason I could never accept his views on the ethics of eating meat.)
This obituary in New Mobility speaks to McBryde Johnson's importance to people with disabilities, and to human rights and equality.
Harriet McBryde Johnson, an irrepressible voice for disability rights, died unexpectedly the morning of June 4, in her sleep. A disability and civil rights attorney who lived and practiced in Charleston, S.C., Johnson was also a gifted writer whose latest works had won her critical acclaim and a growing mainstream audience. She was 50 years old.
Her friend and fellow attorney, Susan Dunn, said Johnson had worked on June 3. "It's a shock to everybody," she said in the June 5 edition of the Post and Courier. The Charleston newspaper also quoted State Supreme Justice Jean Toal, characterizing Johnson as a titanic figure in state legal history, and her father, David D. Johnson, as saying he had spoken with her by phone the night before she died. "I'm a little stunned right now. I don't know what happened. I'm just in mourning," he said.
New Mobility readers will remember Johnson for her signature articles, among them her personal account of her trip to Cuba in 1997 to attend the Second International Conference on the Rights of People with Disabilities. "I can't help being impressed by this ramshackle society tackling the biggest social problems under the most trying circumstances," she concluded.
Her life was marked by an overriding concern for and commitment to defending human rights. Besides being a practicing attorney, Johnson was a well-known political figure in the Charleston area, having served as chair of the Democratic Party executive committee from 1988 to 2001. In 1996 she was a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention. But it was in her two decades-long opposition to the "pity tactics" of Jerry Lewis' Muscular Dystrophy Telethon that she began to gain national attention as a voice for the dignity of people with disabilities.
Her crowning achievement as a writer may have come with the publication of the February 16, 2003 cover story for the New York Times magazine, in which she described her series of public debates and letter exchanges with controversial Princeton bioethicist, Peter Singer. In that essay, "Unspeakable Conversations," she put forth the seminal disability issue of our time, the right to exist, while exposing the questionable ethics of Singer with her wit and intellect, Southern manners, and her extraordinary writing ability.
"At this stage of my life, I'm Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin," she wrote. "To keep myself upright, I lean forward, rest my rib cage on my lap, plant my elbows beside my knees. Since my backbone found its own natural shape, I've been entirely comfortable in my skin."
Johnson was chosen New Mobility's 2003 Person of the Year for persuasively challenging "the myth that people with disabilities are of inherently less value than nondisabled people." In March, 2006, she spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on "Deadly Medicine," a disability rights perspective on the Nazi "euthanasia" program, which resulted in the gassing of hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities.
Johnson was a familiar figure in Charleston, having lived there since the age of 10. Besides her father, she is survived by her mother, Ada A. Johnson, her sister, Ada A. Johnson, and three brothers, David McBryde Johnson, Eric Austin Johnson and Ross L. Johnson.
Thank you, Harriet. You will be remembered, and always missed.