Concern about infanticide may seem kooky—the kind of alarmist talk that comes from extremist prolifers who won’t stay in their abortion lane. Sure, there was systematic infanticide in the ancient world. Sure, it still happens in rural areas of China and India. Regrettably, there are stories of it taking place in some Western bathroom stalls or dumpsters. As a concern of social justice, though, it may seem as if our attention ought to be focused elsewhere.
But prolifers are not imagining things: arguments in favor of the autonomous moral and legal choice to commit infanticide are easy to find. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, such arguments were the province of respected moral philosophers like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer. Indeed, though Singer was a groundbreaking philosopher on issues like global poverty and concern for nonhuman animals, he became famous (or infamous) for his views connecting abortion and infanticide.
I’ve always found the logic of these arguments surprisingly compelling. They usually go something like this: (1) Being a living organism of the species Homo sapiens does not make one a person with a moral or legal right to life. Otherwise fetuses would count as persons with a legal right to life. But that is absurd. (2) Picking a lower threshold for personhood (like the ability to feel pain) would not only include some fetuses, it would include many billions of nonhuman animals, including rats, fish, and perhaps insects. But that is also absurd. (3) Picking a higher threshold for personhood (like self-awareness and the ability to care about one’s life) would exclude fetuses and include only a few nonhuman animals (like dolphins and the great apes). This is the most reasonable position. (4) Because newborn infants do not yet have this higher threshold for personhood, they do not yet count as persons. Therefore, infanticide does not violate a person’s right to life.
In the mid-1980s, this kind of reasoning began to gain currency with some clinicians. In perhaps the most famous case in the history of Western medical ethics, Baby Doe was born with both Down syndrome and a serious but easily treatable problem with her esophagus. Her medical team and parents declined to give her this lifesaving treatment, almost certainly because of an ableist judgment on the quality of life a child with Down syndrome could have. Christian prolifers teamed up with disability groups to resist this turn toward infanticide, working with the Reagan administration to install clinical protocols (called “The Baby Doe Rules”) that would prevent such things from happening again. This was a huge policy and cultural victory against infanticide.
Just a few years later, however, one would see the reasoning behind the Baby Doe Rules directly challenged. In 1997 Steven Pinker took to the pages of the New York Times Magazine to explain why arguments for infanticide are difficult to refute. When it comes to what is required to be a person, Pinker argues, “our immature neonates don’t possess these traits any more than mice do.” Pinker also rejected the whole concept of human dignity. In a 2008 piece he wrote for the New Republic (titled “The Stupidity of Dignity”), he linked the concept of dignity to a kind of stealth religious belief. “It’s not surprising,” wrote Pinker, “that ‘dignity’ is a recurring theme in Catholic doctrine: The word appears more than 100 times in the 1997 edition of the Catechism and is a leitmotif in the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on biomedicine.” In support of his position, he cited the well-known clinical bioethicist Ruth Macklin who, in a paper titled “Dignity is a Useless Concept,” argued that dignity is better thought of as a shorthand for “respect for persons or their autonomy.” Invocations of human dignity were to be regarded as religious sleight-of-hand, inconsistent with the Enlightenment values of autonomy, rationality, and self-awareness.
As anti–human dignity arguments continued to win adherents, those who support infanticide felt emboldened to make their case more publicly and aggressively. A 2012 article by moral philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, which appeared in the respected Journal of Medical Ethics, was provocatively titled “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” It received considerable backlash, especially from prolifers, but JME’s editor, Julian Savulescu (a former student of Singer’s), stood by his decision to publish the article and even devoted an entire issue to the topic the following year (“Abortion, Infanticide, and Allowing Babies to Die, 40 Years On”). The special issue featured articles by thinkers with different views, but several of them argued in support of infanticide.
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