The Short Trip from Abortion to Post-Birth Infanticide

February 24, 2010

I’ve recently spent a fair about of time arguing that the intentional killing of an innocent human life [before or after birth] should always be illegal.  This morning, I stumbled across something very interesting and relevant to the point.

It seems that controversial Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer has addressed a relevant part of the issue.  Singer is a utilitarian and he takes the common step of arguing that not all human beings are “persons,” and it is only wrong to kill “persons” (where the interest of the person killing outweighs the interest of the non-person).  However, he is extremely honest about the implications of his position:

I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.  As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.  That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do.  It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment.  That will often ensure that the baby dies.  My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.

[Emphasis added.]

Moreover, Singer addresses the common argument that an unborn baby is neither “alive” nor “human” for the justification of abortion:

[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life.

That is the rational result of splitting “personhood” from mere human life.  One can engage in the “fiction” that an unborn child is neither human nor living—a fiction that an apparently infanticidal Princeton professor claims is unsupportable despite having every reason for accepting it if he could—or one can accept occasional infanticide in a utilitarian package deal.  That is a serious commitment to abortion.

Peter Singer is right, unborn human beings are both human and alive, and his argument is further evidence, at least to me, that splitting “human life” from the (wholly invented) concept of “personhood” is a grave wrong (and yet another work of fiction) that leads to such pleasantries as infanticide, not to mention slavery, eugenics, and genocide, where utilitarian ideals would permit that such measures be taken.  Those ugly-sounding practices aren’t so far off if one is able to take “personhood” from a living human being, for whatever reason.

Also note, Peter Singer is no slouch professor throwing out some controversial ideas.  He was integral to the establishment of the International Association for Bioethics and served as its first president.  One can hardly dismiss his argument as the rantings of a hack professor.  The man knows what he is talking about.  He is wrong to adopt utilitarianism, but he is right in taking the concept to its conclusion.  Those who believe in the transcendent principle that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should always be illegal can avoid such illusions altogether.

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8 Responses to “The Short Trip from Abortion to Post-Birth Infanticide”

  1. Jeff Baitis Says:

    Furthermore, it is not a very large leap to argue that children with chromosomal abnormalities or other incurable heritable genetic defects should be sterilized or killed in order to reduce suffering and better humanity. Frankly, these are pretty old arguments. Isn’t it interesting how all these years of Sangerian eugenics hasn’t really improved the life of the “poor” (they shall always be with us, read: John 12:8)? Eugenics, Nazi euthanasia, capital punishment: whichever you choose, you sacrifice personal liberties and debase human life.

    Furthermore, this begs the question “if a baby has a really terrible staph infection, shouldn’t we just put it down?”

    Oh, and don’t forget to apply these principals to old people, wards of the state, the profoundly disturbed, Down syndrome folks, and anyone else who might stand a chance of intimately knowing that that life is actually about Christ’s suffering on our behalf…


  2. Eugenics, Nazi euthanasia, capital punishment: whichever you choose, you sacrifice personal liberties and debase human life.

    Not that I condone the procedures and methods by which capital punishment is meted out by various state governments, but I must ask why capital punishment is any more a sacrifice of personal liberty than self-defense killings (unless you condemn both)? In both cases, the criminal is deemed to have forfeited his right to life through his own voluntary deeds. Capital punishment is distinguishable from euthenasia and abortion because the latter involve the intentional killings of innocent human beings who’ve done nothing to warrant killing. Capital punishment is analytically consistent with the idea of human liberty and the sanctity of life, just as involuntary imprisonment and self-defense killing are consistent with human liberty and the sanctity of life. Again, I’m not saying that capital punishment is distributed in a just or fair manner today, but I don’t think you can lump it together with the others.

    One can consistently be a proponent of capital punishment while condemning the killing of innocent human life on the grounds that human life is sacred.

  3. Jeff Baitis Says:

    I think that capital “punishment” isn’t really punishment — there’s no reform of behavior involved in execution. It seems to me that some of the more important goals of our justice system are to award victims compensation for damages, to ensure that criminals will not harm other victims, and to afford criminals an opportunity to receive treatment and, hopefully, to repent.

    If it is true that “all life is sacred,” as long as society has the means to keep criminals from harming others while they are afforded the possibility to make something better of themselves, I don’t really see much of a point in executing them. Maybe you can convince me otherwise. It seems inherently more Christian that we should at least try to love our enemies; how else would these individuals come to terms with the gravity of their actions (and, hopefully, repay the victims by living lives of servitude and humility)?

    That stated, I view killing in self-defense and in the defense of one’s neighbor an unfortunate and sometimes necessary evil. In order to defend yourself or someone else, lethal force may be necessary (although hopefully lethal force is avoided).


  4. Jeff:

    I disagree with your take on “punishment”, and I found a useful source (an online dictionary entry) to differentiate between punishment and discipline (which is what I think you mean when you write “punish”):

    PUNISH, CORRECT, DISCIPLINE refer to making evident public or private disapproval of violations of law, wrongdoing, or refusal to obey rules or regulations by imposing penalties. To PUNISH is chiefly to inflict penalty or pain as a retribution for misdeeds, with little or no expectation of correction or improvement: to punish a thief. To CORRECT is to reprove or inflict punishment for faults, specifically with the idea of bringing about improvement: to correct a rebellious child. To DISCIPLINE is to give a kind of punishment that will educate or will establish useful habits: to a careless driver.

    I am of like mind with C.S. Lewis in finding punishment for any principle reason other than desert to be immoral. Punishing for the purpose of deterrence or preserving society is to treat a man as means to an end. Punishment for the sake of reform is dehumanizing. Punishment because a man deserves to be punished is the only satisfactory justification.

    Consider what one means when one says of a man in prison, “he’s repaying his debt to society.” One does not pay a debt to deter others from incurring debts, or to protect people from debtors, or to make the debtor a better person. One pays a debt simply because one owes payment. Criminals owe a debt of punishment for their crimes. This is why criminals sometimes (albeit rarely) turn themselves in, even years after their crimes. They know they owe payment. They turn themselves in for punishment, not to set a good example or to protect society from themselves.

    Insofar as Christian doctrine is invoked here, I agree that private Christians must not go around executing or harming people that harm their friends or families just because the criminal deserves to be punished. But the government is not a private Christian. I must reference Romans 13:4, Genesis 9:6, and Numbers 35:30, 33.

    But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

    Whoever sheds man’s blood,
    By man his blood shall be shed,
    For in the image of God
    He made man.

    If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death at the evidence of witnesses, but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. . . .
    So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

    I am emphatically not saying that our government should become the theocracy reflected in the Numbers passage (whereas the Romans passage certainly cannot be described as a governmental document, theocratic or otherwise). However, my moral sense is certainly informed by the passages above. Note that God does not say that murder must be punished just because He says so, as with ceremonial laws. Rather, He says murder defiles the land itself, and requires the blood of the murderer. I am not a theologian and do not understand how the bloodshed of an innocent person “pollutes the land”, but there seems to be something about murder that is a little more innately wrong, and deserving of punishment, than other violations. Moreover, the Romans passage says that the government bears the sword for “wrath,” not “protection” or “victims” or “reform” or “repentance.” Wrath implies, at least to me, a deserved punishment, i.e. justice.

    When one considers the crimes committed by Timothy McVeigh, one is practically compelled to admit that this man deserved to be put to death.

    By the way, my punishment argument above is also the reason why I consider jailhouse religious conversions to be irrelevant to whether a criminal should be readmitted to society. If a man truly repents and becomes a Christian while in jail, his response should not be, “Let me out, I’m no risk to anyone anymore! I’m cured!” His response should be, “I am here because I deserve to be.”

  5. padraic2112 Says:

    > He is wrong to adopt utilitarianism, but
    > he is right in taking the concept to its
    > conclusion.

    You’re assuming, as Singer does, that Utility can be measured as a purely objective utility. This is a very particular branch of utilitarianism; one that subscribes to morality as a relativistic measurement of an objective standard.

    Most people who would call themselves utilitarians think Singer is a complete nutbar, just like many people who would claim to be libertarians think Ann Rynd was a hack writer.

    > Those who believe in the transcendent
    > principle that the intentional taking of
    > innocent human life is always wrong and
    > should always be illegal can avoid such
    > illusions altogether.

    Granted. That doesn’t make the stance, in and of itself, the correct one (this is just arguing from the consequences of a belief).

  6. padraic2112 Says:

    @ Jeff

    > It seems to me that some of the more
    > important goals of our justice system
    > are to award victims compensation for
    > damages, to ensure that criminals
    > will not harm other victims, and to
    > afford criminals an opportunity to
    > receive treatment and, hopefully,
    > to repent.

    I more or less agree with your assessment. That is, it seems to me that for a society to be stable, the system of law enforcement must accomplish many (sometimes divergent) goals simultaneously.

    It must present the populace with a standard of conduct that approximately matches the desires of the populace, else you have revolution (or civil unrest, if a large enough sub-population feels under- or unrepresented).

    It must present the populace with an appropriate sense of safety and security, else you have a loss of productivity as each member of the society over-invests in resources to protect him/herself and his/her property.

    It must present the populace with a mechanism for formalized justice, what our host is more or less referring to as “punishment”, else you have vigilantism and a disrespect for the law as the proper arbiter of disputes.

    Finally, it must enable (and not repress) sub-populations of the greater population to aspire to full membership in the greater population, lest you create an underclass. Without the chance at “paying your debt to society” and re-entering what we consider to be the normal function of citizenship, you’ll create a sociological entity of the pathologically underprivileged. The children of criminals will become progressively more likely to be criminals.

    You can create a system of laws and consequences based entirely upon rules and punishments, and they can in fact be entirely morally justifiable, and yet still result in severe consequences for the overall society.

    Now, one can argue (as our host has in the past) that a morally unjustifiable law cannot be acceptable, but I would argue that the law, itself, is not here entirely for the purpose of codifying morality (as the old saw goes, “You can’t legislate morality”), and thus one cannot entirely view the law within such a box.

    What is good is good. What is bad is bad. Formalized frameworks such as the law can only at best approximate what is actually good, because humans have a limited understanding and all operable language systems are to some degree ambiguous.


  7. Those who believe in the transcendent principle that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should always be illegal can avoid such illusions altogether.

    Granted. That doesn’t make the stance, in and of itself, the correct one (this is just arguing from the consequences of a belief).

    Correct. I’m playing on the intuitive need to protect innocent human life and punish murderers, and a naturalistic utilitarianism doesn’t get you there.


  8. Now, one can argue (as our host has in the past) that a morally unjustifiable law cannot be acceptable, but I would argue that the law, itself, is not here entirely for the purpose of codifying morality (as the old saw goes, “You can’t legislate morality”), and thus one cannot entirely view the law within such a box.

    Well, I’d clarify that I don’t believe that the law exists to codify all morality (it shouldn’t be criminal when a child cheats on a test in school). But every law must have some basis in morality. In other words, you cannot not legislate morality. If you are going to legislate anything, you must legislate morality. By “morality” in this legislative sense, I mean those standards of conduct in accordance with reason itself, not those provided exclusively by religious texts. Reason itself, I would argue, demands that certain deeds (like murder) be avoided, and ultimately, punished.

    To quote Aquinas, “Now in human affairs a thing is said to be just, from being right, according to the rule of reason. But the first rule of reason is the law of nature. . . . Consequently every human law has just so much of the nature of law, as it is derived from the law of nature. But if in any point it deflects from the law of nature, it is no longer a law but a perversion of law.”

    Thus, there is no true law completely apart from the law of nature and the rule of reason. To explain further from Aquinas, “to the natural law belongs those things to which a man is inclined naturally: and among these it is proper to man to be inclined to act according to reason.”

    Aquinas adds: “[T]he first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that ‘good is that which all things seek after.’ Hence this is the first precept of law, that ‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.’ All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts of the natural law as something to be done or avoided.”

    Thus, human laws depend on the natural law and reason for their justification and force. And the first principle of reason is that good is to be done and evil avoided. You may call the latter part “morality,” and if so, then morality (but not all morality) must be legislated, and anything else is an imposition of pure power (fiat) rather than true law.

    I would argue that reason itself demands that murderers be punished, not merely rehabilitated nor treated as means to an end.

    There may be all sorts of great byproducts of humans laws, such that when choosing between multiple options of just laws, we might choose those that have the greatest byproducts. But when one of those byproducts conflicts with justice, justice must prevail. It is justice that justifies the existence of law in the first place.

    As to which moral standards should or should not be punished, the question is what is in the common good. Yes, men of good conscience may disagree on what is in the common good because that is a conclusion from many, many different premises. But it must be the common good that we seek.

    Hence, while I find drunkenness to be a moral evil, I recognize that prohibition was not in the common good. But neither would it be in the common good to fail to punish murderers—not because murderers need to be rehabilitated, but because it is a reprehensible thing and contrary to reason to allow murder to go unpunished.


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