A Modest Proposal: Should We Change Our Minds About Infanticide?

The way you corrupt a civilization’s moral standards is seldom by frontal attack. Instead, you employ surveys and supposed scientific studies that shake people’s sense of certainty in the old verities. You unearth some exceptional cases that makes the traditional standards seem unjust, and then you advertise those instances as representative. You change the meanings of words, as George Orwell described in his science fiction fifty years ago, so that the ground of people’s opinions can be shifted without their realizing it. Old, negative-sounding words disappear and new, sanitized ones takes their place. You adopt an incrementalist approach, bringing in small, apparently innocuous changes in law and precedent, until, cumulatively, the old moral consensus collapses. Then you attempt to marginalize opponents by suggesting that only “extremists” and “fanatics” would hold their beliefs.
The newest effort of this kind is now visible on the horizon, a proposal to weaken civilization’s great taboo against infanticide, the killing of babies. I’m not talking about fetuses here, but babies already born.

These days it is still news when a newborn child is killed, yet people soon move on to the next shock. The task for a defense attorney, therefore–whether representing two unmarried teens who kill their infant boy and leave his body in a dumpster, or a “Prom Mom” who has her baby in the school lavatory and returns to the dance in the gym–is to stall the proceedings of justice. Eventually, memory of the unseen, dead baby dies, too, while pity for the visible, living parent grows.

Now comes a soothing professor of psychology, Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to tell us that killing one’s fresh offspring should be regarded less harshly, anyhow. It may seem “immoral” (and you know what an old-fashioned, judgmental word that is), but it also is nature’s way (and you know how wise nature is). The young woman who kills her newborn is merely following an evolutionary instinct to preserve her childbearing capacity for later, when she and future children have a better chance at survival.

“Natural selection,” Pinker writes in “Why They Kill Their Newborns,” a New York Times Magazine article, “cannot push the buttons of behavior directly; it affects our behavior by endowing us with emotions that coax us toward adaptive choices. New mothers have always faced a choice between a definite tragedy now and the possibility of an even greater tragedy months or years later, and that choice is not to be taken lightly.”

Survival of the fittest, baby.

Pinker hedges his analysis by saying that “to understand is not necessarily to forgive.” But then he goes on to mock any idea that killing one’s baby is an act of pathology. “The psychiatrists uncover childhood trauma. The defense attorneys argue temporary psychosis. The pundits blame a throwaway society, permissive sex education and, of course, rock lyrics.”

There is no mention of evil, of the wanton breaking of a religious or moral code. But that also would be a wrong explanation so far as the scientific Professor Pinker is concerned. For him, women who kill their babies are obeying their instincts. It’s their genes talking. Blame their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

What Johnathan Swift wrote in his fierce 18th century satire, “A Modest Proposal,” a call for the Irish to eat their young, is now paralleled by Professor Pinker’s totally serious and sophisticated cure for infanticide: re-interpret it.

What we must do is adjust our morality to fit our evolution. We do this by making “a clear boundary to confer personhood on a human being,” says Pinker, since even the passage of birth no longer suffices as such a boundary. “The right to life must come, as moral philosophers say, from morally significant traits that we humans happen to possess.”

Pinker does not tell us what moral philosophers to credit. But for them and him, the human traits that permit the right-to-life include “a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals..,” “an ability to reflect upon ourselves,” and abilities “to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death and to express the choice not to die.”

So if you don’t have those traits because you were just born (or, presumably, because you are old and feeble, or handicapped, or mentally ill), you don’t have a right to life. There’s your new definition.

Now here’s the new, sanitizing word: “neonates,” in place of newborn babies. Killing them is merely “neontacide,” because, writes Pinker, “our immature neonates don’t possess these (human individualizing) traits any more than mice do.”

Get it? Babies aren’t really human. They’re like mice. At the least, killing them should be judged less severely than killing infants who have been around a while.

Pinker continues, “Some philosophers suggest that people intuitively see neonates as so similar to older babies that you couldn’t allow neontacide without coarsening the way people treat children and other people in general. Again, the facts say otherwise.”

And here comes the pseudo-science: “Studies in both modern and hunter-gatherer societies have found that neonaticidal women don’t kill anyone but their newborns, and when they give birth later under better conditions, they can be loving mothers.”

Pro-life extremists and fanatics will probably say that it is unlimited abortion that has contributed to the gradual “coarsening of the way people treat children and other people in general,” and, indeed, that this coarsening makes socially acceptable the “neontacide” proposals of a Professor Steven Pinker in the New York Times Magazine. But what do they know, they’re not scientists.

I have a different reaction. It’s a genetically-determined, instinct-driven desire to punch Professor Pinker in the nose. Now, don’t blame me; studies show that you should blame my hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Fortunately, I also had some more recent and civilized ancestors, so I’ll confine myself to print.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.