Why Infanticide Is Not Only Moral, But Morally Obligatory

In Defence of New Humanist Magazine and Peter Singer against Nadine Dorries

This post is in response to claims made by someone called Nadine Dorries who says that the magazine New Humanist is an “extreme” organisation and apparently a “cult”. She claims that humanists advocate “infanticide” – and apparently that’s a bad thing. We need not be interested in her weird accusations of calling a magazine a “cult” (what would you call Cosmopolitan? A religion?). I want to focus on her claims that infanticide is (by definition) immoral, evil, and so on. And, therefore, anyone who advocates must bad, too. These claims are nonsense if we actually examine the arguments.

The Humanist Logo (from Per Caritatem blog) / The Symbol of "Evil" to Dorries

Some brief background: Dorries became the frontrunner for New Humanist’s Bad Faith Award, which is the award the “worst enemy of reason” for that particular year, according to New Humanist’s readers. Past “winners” have been such notables as Sarah Palin and the Pope. Anyway, in response to discovering herself at the front end of apparent silliness, Dorries responded with, well, precisely how a frontrunner for the Bad Faith Award would.

The Humanist [sic] magazine are running an online ‘bad faith’ poll and I am apparently in the lead.

I am not sure why anyone would admit to being a humanist and part of an organisation which has such extreme views. A humanist recently commented that, not only did he believe that abortion was acceptable right up to the moment of birth, but that termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life.

The worrying thing is that almost 400 people have voted in this poll, presumably mostly drummed up via Twitter. However, it’s scary to think how many people out there hold such extreme views dressed up as acceptable in an online glossy magazine.

So in clarifying her views – which helps because saying “a humanist” is unhelpful if she wants readers to verify her statement – Dorries said the following. (This is an extensive quotation, but one needs to see it in full to appreciate Dorries’ myopic view on the subject)

Some have forwaded [sic] snapshot Tweets from people such as a lawyer announcing that he was proud to be a humanist and asking me to prove that humanists would advocate killing babies.

Well here you go. Here is the proof in the words of the Australian humanist Peter Singer who was awarded ‘humanist of the year’ by the Australian humanist society in 2004.

This, in my opinion, evil humanist states that infanticide is ok and that the life of a baby is of less value than a pig.

In 1979 he wrote, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

In 1993 he stated that no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth and that the attending physician should kill some disabled babies on the spot.

I think they call this ‘Eugenics’.

Instead of upgrading the fetus to the status of a person, however, Peter Singer downgrades the newborn to the status of nonperson because newborns, like fetuses, are incapable “of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” They are not rational, self-conscious beings with a desire to live.

Since, in Singer’s criteria, personhood hinges on these factors, killing a newborn (or fetus) is not the same as killing a person. In fact, some acts of infanticide are less problematic than killing a happy cat. If, for example, parents kill one disabled infant to make way for another baby that will be happier than the first, the total amount of happiness increases for all interested parties. Singer’s logic can be summed up this way: Until a baby is capable of self-awareness, there is no controlling reason not to kill it to serve the preferences of the parents.

There are places where she is actually correct in her assessment; for example, that a newborn is not a person, nonpersons deserve less moral focus than persons, etc., but this follows logically from a longer discussion about personhood we won’t go into here. But these correct elaborations are amalgamated with confusion, a Straw Man fallacy, and all of this is glossed with the initial assertion and view that infanticide by definition is wrong. But before we can come to the conclusion that infanticide is wrong, we must look at reasons for and against it.

Infanticide, broadly speaking, is the (intentional) killing of an infant; usually, in the cases of importance to medical ethics, newborns. What reasons would we have for killing newborns? Well, before we answer that question, what reasons do we usually provide for killing in general. In many instances, killing is performed (whether self-inflicted or assisted) because living for the agent in question – whether it is a rational adult, sick horse or newborn with severe spina bifida – is difficult, painful, filled with suffering and so on, and is ultimately futile, meaning there is no chance of recovery from the property which causes the unbearable suffering (for example, inoperable cancer).

For example, people willingly seek out assisted suicide or euthanasia in The Netherlands upon discovering they have some form of inoperable, terminal and usually painful disease. Whether one thinks these people are justified or not is actually not the point here: the people themselves certainly do and they are deciding for themselves to end their lives. There are of course problems with assisted-dying (PDF), but in most cases, there is no good reason to think we ought to prevent people, with, say, terminal diseases, from humanely killing themselves, upon a time of their own choosing, usually surrounded by loved ones. There are no solid objections I know of which sufficiently undermine the idea that suicide and killing, in these cases, is justified. Even Catholic theologians recognise instances where bringing about death is better than continuing life. The point is that there are instances where killing – whether humans or nonhumans – is justified.

It is difficult to disagree with this view. Even if you think most instances of killing (whether suicide or euthanasia) is wrong, you would still think some instances would be right. All I need is at least one instance from any staunch opponent and we can agree that are instances where killing is justified.

When it comes to infanticide, it is no different. Just as we can formulate what instances it is justified to kill a rational, adult person (in cases where all medical procedures would be futile, for example, and he is in unbearable pain), we can do the same for infants. And those instances are usually the catalysts for discussions on ethical infanticide.

Peter Singer, bio-ethicist and one of the world’s leading philosophers (and undoubtedly a very “evil” man who is fighting to end world poverty) often focuses on severe spina bifida cases. (Here and here are two instances where he makes his case, clearly and compassionately, as he always does. I will however summarise his views in the upcoming paragraphs. These are primary sources which you can examine yourself).

Peter Singer: The face of true evil?

The cases often discussed are those with Myelomeningocele. This is, according to the US National Library of Medicine: “a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. The condition is a type of spina bifida. Symptoms: A newborn may have a sac sticking out of the mid to lower back.”

As Singer says: “In the more severe cases, the child will be permanently paralysed from the waist down and lack control of bowels or bladder. Often excess fluid accumulates in the brain, a condition known as hydrocephalus, which can result in intellectual disabilities. Though some forms of treatment exist, if the child is badly affected at birth, the paralysis, incontinence, and intellectual disability cannot be overcome.” [My emphasis]

Research into doctors’ attitudes and professional opinions confirm that using medical resources to try allow these severe cases to continue is, in fact, deeply immoral to them and indeed to the parents. Singer continues: “Published descriptions of the lives of these children support the judgment that these worst affected children will have lives filled with pain and discomfort. They need repeated major surgery to prevent curvature of the spine, due to the paralysis, and to correct other abnormalities. Some children with spina bifida have had forty major operations before they reach their teenage years.” Thus, to prolong their lives is to prolong their and their parents’ agony. There is no prolonging for the chance of curing, since there is, in these severe cases, no chance at all.

Here it is not crass to ask whether a child born with an open spine, in constant pain, who will die probably in a few weeks (the whole time incontinent and in constant pain, not to mention with his/her parents watching and their anguish and inability to act) is better than the life of a healthy nonhuman animal. By what standard could we say the infant’s life is better to, say, an adult pig? Assuming the pig is in a healthy, caring environment where it is allowed to life out its life, there is basically no way to say the dying infant has a better life. The only way you could say so is to assert that because the newborn is human that it is, therefore, better. But that is merely a description, not a morally relevant distinction.

So what if the newborn is human? It’s quite clear he or she is suffering and in a horrible state, causing anguish to his- or herself, his or her parents and the attending medical staff (who can mostly only sedate and watch it die, slowly). In the severe cases, almost no one thinks these newborns should continue living because of the unsolvable pain, continual suffering and futile existence they face. There is nothing to be done, except watch them die slowly with an enormous amount of pain.

It should be clear that advocating for killing these newborns is justified, just as other forms of killing are justified. Just as with other cases, we are killing a being not because we relish in killing or ending life, but out of compassion and in a humane way. Here we would use barbituates or other forms of medication to slowly allow the newborn to sleep, then slip away.

But intention here is not important: what matters is that killing is a neutral term. Whether it is justified or not is the question we must ask. Not all killing is wrong – as we’ve seen. If we can agree that not all killing is wrong (be it euthanasia, self-defence, and so on), it means there are instances where it is right. We must therefore define what kind of instances those are and whether the case at hand matches those criteria for acceptable (or not acceptable) cases of justified killing.

Infanticide is simply killing newborns. Again, this is a neutral term, as we’ve seen Singer and indeed some of the major players in the medical fraternity have justified reasons for thinking that it is right to deliberately end the life of (suffering) newborns in certain instances. There are of course cases where killing is not justified, such as putting babies in microwaves and so on. Unfortunately, we must agree this is infanticide, too. However, it is not justified and is, therefore, murder (usually we can say ‘murder’ is defined as ‘unjustified killing of beings against his, her or its will’).

The problem is we must accept that killing is a neutral term. It is incorrect and inconsistent of us to say that “all killing is wrong”. Wrongful killing is something like murder. But most people would agree that there are cases where killing is justified – whether in euthanasia cases of rational adults choosing to end their lives or in self-defence. If there are good and bad forms of killing, it means killing is not by definition wrong (or right). We must first decide on the justifications (if any) in each case.

This applies similarly to infanticide, which is simply the neutral term ‘killing’ as applied to very young human beings. We have seen there are good reasons for thinking infanticide is justified, just as any cases of killing. This does not deny that unjustified killing of newborns is wrong. Of course it is but that is simply tautological: wrongful killing is, well, wrong. We need to decide what counts as wrongful and justified killing and I have shown why Singer (and others) have said futile, inoperable and severe conditions like spina bifida are sufficient reasons to kill the newborn – note, however, the justified infanticide is done compassionately and with the parents’ consent. Dorries does not mention this.

So, when Dorris says things like “kill the baby on the spot”, I have no idea what she means or where she obtains this claim. I have never read anything by Singer that would advocate such a stance. I’m not sure what she means by “on the spot”. If she means in the hospital, then that seems justified. Where else would you want to perform such a delicate procedure as slowly, painlessly ending the life of a small, suffering, helpless and dying being? If she means as soon as the doctor can see the head or as soon as it breaches the womb, then that is something quite bizarre. As I’ve indicated, this is not an easy process and requires deliberations, discussions with the parents and so on. It is not simply up to the doctor (whoever this mysterious “doctor” is, since such procedures hardly involve just one doctor).

And, finally, since the rest of it muddies up the waters of the discussion, I would just like to highlight her weird paroxysm of “eugenics”. I’m not sure what she means by using this word. No doubt, she wants to drag down the ghost of Nazi past? Or perhaps the weird advocacy to breed only a specific race of people?

If she means doing what we rationally and morally can to rather have healthy children than unhealthy children, I still see no problem. After all, women stop smoking, watch what they eat and so on, in an effort to have a healthier child – would Dorries call women watching their health during pregnancy eugenicists? I doubt it. Nonetheless, we don’t have a definition for the word from Dorries.

As we’ve seen, the justification Singer and some of the medical fraternity have used is the well-being of the suffering newborn. There is no mention of race, sex, and so on. (Indeed, it is even irrelevant that the child is human!) Anyway, it seems to me Dorries must answer why she thinks letting newborns suffer needlessly is justified; how such newborns can have better lives than, say, pigs by any standard, other than species-membership (which, note, is not a standard at all but merely a species category); and what she means by “eugenics”, since people do take active steps either to make their potential children healthier and better or, implicitly, by so doing, prevent disabled ones from coming into existence (all of which is justified, but also would be unjustified to condemn).


2 thoughts on “Why Infanticide Is Not Only Moral, But Morally Obligatory

  1. I meant to ask you about this last night, but it slipped my aging mind.

    Your response to Nadine Dorries is important. Her argument as you have presented it is clearly riddled with problems which you point out well, I believe.

    However, in an effort to ensure that the main thrust of your response remains in focus, and isn’t overshadowed by a possible internal inconsistency, or perhaps an unintentional omission, I want to ask you to clarify something for me.

    I follow your argument which justifies infanticide as a moral act. But I cant see where you link this moral justification to a moral obligation. What I mean to say is that it seems unclear to me how a justification – no matter how strong and rigorously argued – implies obligation. One could imagine a situation where multiple courses of action could be morally justifiable, even equally so. How would this lead to a moral obligation, and how would we deal with contradicting moral obligations that are equally justified?

    It is very possible that I have missed some nuance of your argument above, so it would be great if you could clear this up for me.

  2. I’m uncertain about the difference between a moral action and moral obligation. I’m not entirely convinced that the idea of, say, supererogatory actions should be distinguished from any other type of moral action. For example, people consider giving away a significant amount of resources [without jeapordising oneself] towards charity to be a supererogatory action: I do not, since I can see no good reason NOT to give to charity (however you consider that, whether it’s focused on education, purely pecuniary, etc.). Thus if there are no good reasons to, say, oppose the moral action/obligation giving to charity, then I see no reason to say it’s supererogatory since it just IS moral.

    Now related to that, I see no reason to see a distinction between obligation and a moral action. So if a child is suffering, etc. [all the reasons to ethically kill the newborn], then it just IS, by definition as I’ve outlined, moral to end that child’s life. Is that obligation or just moral? I’m not sure there’s a distinction if the situation outlined fits the criteria I’ve specified (what Singer and doctors describe) for infant euthanasia.

    So, related to the overall post, people would be hesitant to equate: “We just have to END this child’s life” with “We have to SAVE this child’s life” (say if the child is drowning). Because of this hesitation, I didn’t want to immediately isolate such people who would agree with me on this particular topic (“Yes it is moral to save the child’s life”) but not be willing to make the equivocation of obligation, etc.

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