Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It is not surprising that Peter Singer is no longer alone in advocating infanticide

Thanks Robby and Bob for your posts (here, here, and here) on the peer reviewed article advocating legalization of infanticide.  The article's abstract sums it up arguing "that what we [the authors] call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."

This really isn't surpring to me. 32 years ago an editorial appeared in California Medicine, a publication of the Western Journal of Medicine. (I have a pdf of the original on file) It begins:

The traditional Western ethic has always placed great emphasis on the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its stage or condition. This ethic has had the blessing of the Judeo-Christian heritage and has been the basis for most of our laws and much of our social policy. ... This traditional ethic is still clearly dominant, but there is much to suggest that it is being eroded at its core and may eventually even be abandoned. This of course will produce profound changes ... in Western society.

[In the new ethic, which] will of necessity violate and ultimately destroy the traditional Western ethic ... [i]t will become necessary and acceptable to place relative rather than absolute values on such things as human lives, ... This is quite distinctly at variance with the Judeo-Christian ethic and carries serious philosophical, social, economic, and political implications for Western society and perhaps for world society.

Since the old ethic has not yet been fully displaced it has been necessary to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing, which continues to be socially abhorrent. The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. ... It is suggested that this schizophrenic sort of subterfuge is necessary because while a new ethic is being accepted the old one has not yet been rejected.

One may anticipate further development ... as the problems of birth control and birth selection are extended inevitably to death selection and death control whether by the individual or by society, and further public and professional determinations of when and when not to use scarce resources.


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I don't see why they don't call it "after-birth contraception" and mandate its coverage as "preventive care," since it clearly prevents so much discomfort and cost.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 28, 2012 11:25:51 AM

What's interesting to me is that those who are pro-life because they believe that life begins at conception have basically no way to respond to the authors of the paper in question. If life (personhood) begins at conception, then there *is* no moral difference between preventing an early embryo from implanting, destroying an embryo from a fertility clinic to harvest stem cells, performing an early abortion, performing a late abortion, and killing a newborn infant. To those who believe that somewhere in the gestation process—say, when an infant develops a functioning nervous system that can support consciousness—a fetus does become a person, the answer to those proposing "after-birth abortion" is clear: they are drawing their line *way* too late. But pro-lifers pretty much have to say—since they have been saying it all along—that from their viewpoint, if you accept abortion, there is no moral distinction between a "pre-birth" abortion and an "after-birth" abortion.

Question: Is if really accurate to say that Peter Singer "advocates" infanticide? It seems to me he identifies situations in which it would be morally acceptable for parents to kill a very young child. But does he actively *advocate* it?

The title "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" and the abstract read like something The Onion thought up and decided it would be bad taste to publish.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 28, 2012 12:24:58 PM

"have basically no way to respond"

No way to respond? Wishful thinking on your part, perhaps. Among other responses, "killing innocents is wrong" is one. Your observation is similar to saying Martin Luther King Jr.'s views were in some way deficient because his advocacy for civil rights for blacks would be equally applicable to orientals.

People who hold the position that opposes killing innocent human beings across the board are rightly proud, not ashamed, that they oppose "a "pre-birth" abortion and an "after-birth" abortion" on the same grounds. And people who draw inconsistent, arbitrary, unscientific lines that let them pick and choose which humans can be killed (while otherwise claiming to defend human rights) should find little comfort in their arbitrary decision not to extend their inequality principles further than they do.

And yes, if you publicly advocate the rightness of killing babies, it is completely fair to say you publicly advocate that killing. Unless of course you are a satanist, who contends that even though an activity, such as killing babies, is right and good, humans should choose evil as such.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 28, 2012 1:14:10 PM


My point is that the authors of the paper and "pro-lifers" are in basic agreement that *if* abortion can be justified for the "pre-born" child, then infanticide can be justified, too. It has been a pro-life argument as long as I can remember. There's no difference in the moral worth of an early embryo and a newborn baby.

Of course, the major difference between pro-lifers and the authors of the paper is that pro-lifers believe abortion can *never* be justified. But it seems to me pro-lifers can't say to the authors of the paper, "Now you've gone too far." I have noted several pro-life commenters expressing joy that such a paper has been published, because they believe it shows the inevitable conclusion they believe abortion supporters must reach.

Pro-lifers can basically only respond to this paper by saying, "All taking of innocent life is wrong." That means the responses of pro-lifers has to convince all the people who support abortion that they are wrong about abortion and they should not support infanticide. But those who support abortion but oppose infanticide only have to convince people that infanticide is wrong. That is not really an uphill battle. I am sure the reaction to this paper by abortion supporters will be almost identical to the reaction from pro-lifers. People do not approve of infanticide, and this paper isn't going to convince them it is acceptable.

Without having read much of what Singer says about infanticide, I (provisionally) disagree that he "advocates" it. Almost every pro-life politician is willing to permit abortions in cases of rape, incest, and authentic threat to the life of the mother. That does not mean that they "advocate the rightness of killing babies." Or perhaps in your opinion, it does, in which case, choosing between a typical pro-life and pro-choice politician is not really pro-life. It's choosing between two candidates, one of who advocates the rightness of killing more babies in significantly more cases than the other candidate.

Saying something is morally permissible and advocating it are two different things.

I am not a satanist.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 28, 2012 3:45:01 PM

"But those who support abortion but oppose infanticide only have to convince people that infanticide is wrong. That is not really an uphill battle."

If consistency and reason and principle are no obstacle, sure.

"That means the responses of pro-lifers has to convince all the people who support abortion that they are wrong about abortion and they should not support infanticide."

Wrong--the general population is already against infanticide. We don't have to convince them to be against abortion in order to oppose infanticide. On the contrary, we can make many of them rethink their pro-choice position by pointing out that there's no non-arbitrary reason by which they could oppose infanticide in principle but support abortion. And it is a good, helpful argument, because it is true. Ultrasonography is making our job even easier in that regard.

So the idea that pro-abortion people arguing for infanticide is something that should make pro-lifers feel apprehensive about their own view is psychological projection on your part. The pro-life view is the only game in town capable of opposing this insanity, for people who are asking these questions and wanting science based and reasonable answers.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 28, 2012 5:43:21 PM

Singer's utilitarianism considers it a net good (not just a permitted act) to kill infants in certain circumstances. And he does not favor choosing evil rather than good.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 28, 2012 5:45:11 PM

There's a piece in The National Catholic Register by Matthew Archbold that makes a point similar to my own:

In the Journal of Medical Ethics, two ethicists argue plainly for the killing of babies post birth. They’re not hedging their bets. They’re saying it plain and simple. And I, for one, thank them for it.

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, associated respectively with Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, and with the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, in the UK, wrote a piece called “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” . . .

Here’s the thing - they’re right. If you accept their premises, they’re absolutely right. . . .

It’s almost a pro-life argument in that it highlights the absurdity of the pro-abortion argument. . . .


Pro-lifers who see no moral difference between a newly conceived embryo and a newborn baby are giving this paper a great deal of attention and publicity, because they see it as a pro-life argument. They think you can either accept the authors' premises, in which case you must embrace infanticide, or you can reject the authors' premises, in which case you must reject abortion. But pro-choicers—or those who do believe you can reasonably draw a (wide, blurry) line somewhere after conception and before birth as the point where life begins—can agree with the authors up to a point. But they can maintain the line the authors draw is way too late in the human development process. They can make a very clear distinction between abortion and infanticide.

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 28, 2012 5:54:52 PM

I'd like to thank Michael Scaperlanda for opening comments on this, unlike some of his colleagues who make claims about what the "other side" will or will not say in response and then demonstrate absolutely no interest in hearing people actually respond.

Anyways. The argument advanced in this post and many others -- i.e. that support for abortion would necessarily lead to support for infanticide if supporters of abortion would just be rational about their believes -- rests on a disturbing lack of ethical imagination by anti-choicers. They sieze on the weakest defenses of the right to legal abortion, attribute them to all people who share the same final judgment about the legality of the procedure, and then use that attribution to imply that all such people are either evil (by supporting infanticide) or irrational.

And the argument itself being used in relation to this paper (i.e. "These people who support abortion say that a single justification for abortion leads to a justification for infanticide, therefore we were justified in our belief that all justifications for abortion lead to justifications for infanticide") is simply invalid.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Feb 28, 2012 6:21:36 PM

"a (wide, blurry) line somewhere after conception and before birth as the point where life begins" equals "a very clear distinction between abortion and infanticide."

No, your arbitrary, unscientific, "wide blurry line" is the opposite of a very clear distinction. When people realize that fact, and some embrace infanticide, it is not the fault of pro-lifers for pointing out that your line is arbitrary, unscientific, "wide and blurry," nor is it the fault of more honest people who reject the notion that they should arbitrarily adopt your criteria for deciding who gets to be killed who gets to justify their killing. It is the fault of your "wide blurry line".

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 28, 2012 6:39:54 PM

Of interest . . .

• A piece by Julian Savulescu, Editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics,
titled “'Liberals Are Disgusting': In Defence of the Publication of 'After-Birth Abortion'”
defending the publication of the paper (and containing a link to the complete text).

One of the things Savulescu says (and who will be surprised?) is, "This article has elicited personally abusive correspondence to the authors, threatening their lives and personal safety."

• A piece by Kenneth Boyd of the Journal of Medical Ethics titled
"Handling Editor Defends Decision: After – Birth Abortion"

Posted by: David Nickol | Feb 28, 2012 7:44:50 PM

Says Mr. Boyd: "people whose lives might have been ended by ‘after-birth abortion’ were this legal, might be deeply offended by this paper. If that is the case I am sorry, but I am also confident that many of these people are equally capable of mounting a robust academic reply to the paper which, again subject to peer-review, the Journal of Medical Ethics will be very willing to consider for publication."

Of course, people whose lived have actually been ended by "after-birth abortion" cannot mount any academic reply, robust or otherwise, to the paper. Their "academic freedom" has been denied, which is all too convenient for the people who declare that denial to be right and just.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Feb 29, 2012 2:36:19 PM

It is pretty obvious that many folks commenting in the blogosphere have not even *read* the paper by Giubilini and Minerva. If they had, they would have focused on the authors' argument for moral equivalence between foetuses and newborns (an equivalence that most pro-lifers affirm, albeit for different reasons). The argument does not point to the fact that these two stages of human development are characterized by the lack of (bare) consciousness. Rather, the paper's contention is that foetuses and newborns have the same moral status because neither of them are *self-conscious* yet - that is, they are not aware of their own awareness (specifically, as the authors observe, they are not capable at this point of valuing their own existence). A newborn cannot believe "I regret crying in the middle of the night, thereby waking up my parents", because he his unable to ascend from the level of first-order desires and then evaluate, accept or reject those desires (which could only happen at a second or higher order of consciousness). Like the foetus, he cannot conceive of himself as the subject of a thought or action.

It is the absence of self-consciousness, not simply bare consciousness, that pro-choice arguments have traditionally turned on. If onset of bare consciousness were enough to establish a right not to be killed, then abortion should be not permitted beyond the point when the foetus feels pain, a conclusion pro-choicers standardly reject (Moreover, it would require pro-choicers to ascribe to non-human animals a right not to be killed. This an attribution that Singer supports but other pro-choicers do not). So, contrary to what has been suggested here, pro-choicers continue face a conundrum, since many of them defend a right to abortion at any stage of pregnancy. If personhood is grounded in self-consciousness (not just bare consciusness), then why should a newborn be treated any differently in moral terms than a foetus, since neither of them have become self-conscious yet?

Posted by: Clement Ng | Mar 1, 2012 4:32:33 PM

Clement Ng,

I have been reading just about anything I can find about this paper and the furor over it, and your comment is probably the most illuminating thing I have come across so far.

Posted by: David Nickol | Mar 1, 2012 4:53:34 PM

I agree that the self-consciousness issue is a problem for a subset of the phiolosophical defenses of legal abortion. But one of the primary issues with the reaction to this paper of culture warriors to conflate the self-consciousness argument with pro-choice beliefs generally, as though the authors of the paper spoke for a monolithic belief system. Clement, I don't think you fall into that group, but I do think you're making a similar mistake -- at most, you seem to be acknowledging the possibility of two similar pro-choice rationales for abortion (self-consciousness vs. bare consciousness).

I'm not well-versed in technical pro-choice work in philosophy, since most of my reading in the area focuses on conservative viewpoints, so I can't really speak to how common the self-consciousness argument is in those circles. But my sense from interacting with normal people is that pro-choice individuals tend to focus much more on liberty questions than personhood questions, which tends to moot the self-consciousness argument and it's ilk. (Though, of course, attempting to parse the philosophical justifications behind the positions of people who haven't thought deeply about the issues is an inherently tricky task.)

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Mar 1, 2012 7:41:32 PM

Hi Andrew. As you say, the question of personhood is entirely irrelevant to many pro-choicers, specifically those who argue that abortion is a form of justifiable intentional or non-intentional killing, even comparable to self-defense in some cases. Judith Jarvis Thomson and David Boonin are perhaps the best known philosophical examples of pro-choicers in this category, as are many consequentialists. They grant, for the sake of argument, that foetuses indeed are persons and then argue that a woman's bodily rights trump the unborn child's right not to be killed.

I did not mention this category of defenses earlier, but do acknowledge that, for those in this sub-set (which may indeed be the unreflective majority), the determination of personhood can be sidestepped. These bodily rights arguments face other problems, I maintain, but a critique of them would take me further afield.

Posted by: Clement Ng | Mar 1, 2012 11:36:58 PM

“…(specifically, as the authors observe, they are not capable at this point of valuing their own existence). …” And teenagers do? Where does it stop? When I was a teenager my Mom, when one of us would do something utterly stupid and teenager-ish, used to "say" to us “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” Of course she was just making a point – then. Based on this new logic I think today’s teenagers that have pro-choice parents’ better look out!

Posted by: guest | Mar 7, 2012 11:07:25 PM