The blogosphere exploded in outrage last month when two bioethicists argued that parents should be able to have their newborn babies painlessly killed. Even more radically, they claimed that "after-birth abortion" should be used to describe such homicides, as opposed to "infanticide," because the moral status of an infant is "comparable with that of a fetus…rather than that of a child." ("After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live," by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, Journal of Medical Ethics, February 23, 2012).
Pro-lifers may have been angered, but few were surprised. The movement has long warned that once courts and legislatures granted women the right to terminate pregnancies and thereby take an innocent, albeit still gestating, human life, that it would eventually adversely impact society's adherence to the sanctity of human life more generally. At least in bioethics, that process is well along. Indeed, advocacy for the propriety of infanticide has been promoted in some of the world's most prominent bioethics journals for many years.
The world's most (in)famous infanticide advocate is Princeton's Peter Singer, who claims that human life has no intrinsic value, and hence, what matters morally is being a "person." Each person must earn “person” status by possessing minimal cognitive capacities, such as self-awareness or self-valuing. I use the term "individual" because Singer seeks to include some animals in the moral community if they possess these capacities. Thus he wrote in his book Practical Ethics—which is taught in virtually every university and college philosophy department—that "a case against killing can also be made on behalf of whales, dolphins, monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, seals, bears, cattle, sheep…perhaps to the point at which it may include all mammals," because they possess the attributes of personhood.
But, according to Singer, unborn children and newborns don’t make the cut. Indeed, Singer has long bootstrapped infanticide onto the existing abortion license. At a recent Princeton bioethics symposium, he claimed that human beings don't possess full moral value until sometime after the age of two (although he did not advocate for a right to kill toddlers). He also explicitly connected the existing right to abortion with a putative license to kill babies, stating: "The position that allows abortion also allows infanticide under some circumstances. . . . If we accept abortion, we do need to rethink some of those more fundamental attitudes about human life."
While Singer gets most of the attention, "After-Birth Abortion" demonstrates that Singer is far from alone. Moreover, the newer article takes the concept of personhood to its logical conclusion that the more politic Singer tends avoid. Rather than just being available to relieve parents of caring for very ill or disabled infants, any unwanted baby should be allowed to be killed within the first few weeks of life, based upon the justifications we employ for abortion—which in the USA means nearly anything.
Wait a minute. That can't be right. For years we have been told that legalized abortion is not about granting a "right to a dead fetus," as it was once memorably put; the aim, the argument goes, is to protect women's rights to control their own bodies. Shouldn't that stop short of infanticide? After all, allowing a born baby to live doesn't force any woman to do anything with her body and thus the issue of personal autonomy ceases to be relevant.
To get around this impediment, the Giubilini and Minerva sophistically stretch the concept to a putative right not to be personally inconvenienced or burdened by the infant, or the child she would later become. They write that an infant, by definition, has not yet developed desires or goals:
On the other hand, not only [personal] aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.
In other words, babies are not people—their good does not factor into the equation.
Why does this matter? After all, isn't bioethical discourse merely the secular equivalent of arguing over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?
No it is not. And while Minerva recanted her support of infanticide in the wake of the widespread fury her article sparked—outrageously, including death threats—, (click for link) "After-Birth Abortion" is merely the latest example of bioethical argument wielded as the sharp point of the spear in an all-out philosophical war waged among the intelligentsia against Judeo/Christian morality based in human exceptionalism and adherence to universal human rights—which, according to the United Nations, is supposed to include all "born" human beings.
Moreover, bioethics has never been about mere abstract argument. Its practitioners use discourse to transform philosophical views into societal action. And while personhood theory is certainly not the unanimous view, I think it is fair to say that it represents the overwhelming consensus in the field—at least among the majority of bioethicists who don't have a modifier such as "conservative" or "Christian" in front of their title.
Those who seek to prevent abortion by proving that the unborn are indeed "human"—such as by requiring women to learn about fetal development or view an ultrasound—should take very careful note. As Singer wrote in defending Giubilini and Minerva's article, "After-Birth Abortion" is merely the latest entry in a 40-year-old concerted advocacy project aimed at obliterating the sanctity of human life as the reigning value of society.
That proselytizing has largely converted the philosophers and ethicists who teach the doctors, nurses, and government leaders of tomorrow at the West's most elite universities, which presents an acute danger to the most weak and vulnerable among us. We are increasingly told that the issues we face are so complex and sophisticated that our most important public policy decisions should be left "to the experts." But in bioethics, that would mean allowing advocates who don't believe in the self-evident truth that all men are created equal to control crucial public policies, such as the ethics of reproduction, health care funding priorities, stem cell research, and the laws surrounding end of life care.
That is why I am encouraged by the public's overwhelmingly negative reaction to allowing infanticide. Sunlight is the great disinfectant. It is crucial to maintaining a moral society that the ubiquitous anti-sanctity of life advocacy that regularly appears in our most prestigious professional journals be dragged out of obscurity and into focused popular discussion. The more people know of the kind of society the big-brained have planned for us, the less likely it is that they will actually succeed.