By Wesley J. Smith
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote that bioethicists “professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on the way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as unexceptionable.” After the events of the last few weeks, the same could be said of liberal politicians.
Infanticide was once “unthinkable.” But over the last few decades, some of the world’s foremost bioethicists have considered baby killing worthy of respectable debate.
Princeton University’s Peter Singer is the most famous such advocate. A crass utilitarian, he argues that “being human” doesn’t have any moral import. The question of value rather depends on whether an individual exhibits the cognitive traits of a “person” over time, such as self-awareness. In this view, some human beings are non-persons—an invidious category that includes the unborn, infants, the profoundly cognitively disabled, and those who have lost their personhood through illness or injury.
Non-persons do not possess the right to life. In Rethinking Life and Death, Singer explicitly compares human non-persons to mackerel: “Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is a person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as the wrongness of killing a person.” He opines in Practical Ethics:
When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.
Singer has repeatedly argued that since both late-term fetuses and newborn infants lack the cognition required to attain the status of “person,” infanticide should be permitted under the same circumstances in which society permits the abortion of viable fetuses.
Singer is far from alone in tying the morality of infanticide to the ethics of late-term abortion. Several years ago, the Journal of Medical Ethicspublished an infanticide advocacy piece asserting that whatever justifies abortion also supports the right of parents to have unwanted infants killed:
In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice “after-birth abortion”, rather than “infanticide”, to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which “abortions” in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.
The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has similarly written that as a matter of Darwinian logic, killing a newborn and aborting a late-term fetus should be viewed through the same moral lens:
If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born?
I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral. After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties).
The events of the last few weeks have moved the “Neuhaus Gauge” on infanticide from “debatable” to “justifiable” because it is now being embraced within the political and cultural mainstream. New York recently legalized late-term abortion and repealed a law requiring doctors to care for babies who survive abortions. A similar Virginia proposal made huge news but failed in committee. Rhode Island has a similar bill pending, supported by its governor. Meanwhile a Vermont bill aims to make abortion an absolute right without any limitation as to time of gestation, purpose, or method. The bill has 91 co-sponsors.
Further evidence can be seen in the support Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam received after asserting that babies who survive late-term abortion can legally be left to die. Northam falsely (according to a study published by the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute) states that late-term abortions are restricted to “cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that’s non-viable.” Northam later said:
So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.
Northam, a physician, is a specialist in pediatric neurology. His statement, made with such clinical detachment, chilled many. But Northam was defended—notably by New York Times liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported the brouhaha as merely a “Republicans pounce” political story, not a question of significant moral import.
This isn’t just a question of advocacy. Dutch doctors openly commit infanticide on babies born with terminal conditions or serious disabilities. Indeed, infanticide has become so socially acceptable that a bureaucratic checklist called the Groningen Protocol exists to help doctors decide which babies can be killed. Despite allowing this blatant human rights violation, the country remains in good standing in the international community. Meanwhile in the United States Senate, Democrats blocked a bill that would require medical professionals to provide care and treatment for babies born alive after abortion attempts.
How is it that infanticide has become justifiable when it was unthinkable in the years following World War II (German doctors were hanged at Nuremberg for killing disabled babies)?
The answer involves an increasing clash between contesting first principles vying for societal dominance. Is human life sacred, or does our moral worth depend on relevant personhood characteristics? Is society’s ultimate purpose to protect all innocent human life or to eliminate suffering—a category which both includes eliminating the sufferer, and, as with an unwanted fetus or newborn, the perceived cause of suffering? The answers we ultimately give to these questions will determine whether infanticide is finally established as unexceptional.
Editor’s note. This appeared at First Things.