Normally it isn’t terrifying to hear the representative of a medical organization say something like this. In most circumstances, I’d love hearing about a less bureaucratic approach to medicine and health care decisions. When the representative is from Planned Parenthood, and the “decision” in question is whether to save the life of an already-born-and-on-the-table baby or kill it, it sends chills down my spine.
Infanticide by Implication (and Argument)
Last week, Florida lawmakers were discussing a bill that would obligate doctors performing abortions to save the life of a child who happens to survive a failed attempt. (To be clear here: This is a born-alive, out-of-the-womb baby at this point.) Alisa LaPolt Snow, a Planned Parenthood lobbyist, was asked what her company’s policy in those situations was. Here’s what she said:
“So, um, it is just really hard for me to even ask you this question because I’m almost in disbelief,” said Rep. Jim Boyd. “If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?”
“We believe that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician,” said Planned Parenthood lobbyist Snow.
Rep. Daniel Davis then asked Snow, “What happens in a situation where a baby is alive, breathing on a table, moving. What do your physicians do at that point?”
“I do not have that information,” Snow replied. “I am not a physician, I am not an abortion provider. So I do not have that information.”
Rep. Jose Oliva followed up, asking the Planned Parenthood official, “You stated that a baby born alive on a table as a result of a botched abortion that that decision should be left to the doctor and the family. Is that what you’re saying?”
Again, Snow replied, “That decision should be between the patient and the health care provider.”
You can watch the rest of the dialogue here:
As you can see, the Weekly Standard‘s headline “Planned Parenthood Official Argues for Right to Post-Birth Abortion” is a bit exaggerated. Snow was not presenting a reasoned defense of “post-birth abortion”; she was answering an awkward question in a tough setting that just happened to imply that infanticide was okay. No, for a formal argument of such depravity you usually have to be a philosopher.
Last February, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, a couple of philosophers, sparked some outrage when they published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics—delightfully titled “Why Should the Baby Live?”—arguing that:
When circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. …we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.
William Saletan helpfully lays out their five key lines of logic in this Slate article in order to show the way their argument challenges pro-choicers “implicitly and explicitly, to explain why, if abortion is permissible, infanticide isn’t,” given that Minerva and Giubilini draw their arguments from shared assumptions with typical pro-choicers such as: morally ambiguous nature of fetal development, the disputed status of fetal personhood, undue burden on the mother, the all-important value of choice, or defect as grounds for abortion. Saletan disagrees with them ultimately because he thinks that “something profound happens at birth” and the woman’s autonomy is no longer at issue. Ironically, I find his defense weak. Once you concede the fundamental tenets which both Minerva and Giubilini as well as Saletan share, it’s difficult to argue that their conclusions don’t follow—or at least are quite plausible.
A Sign of the Time
I bring up Saletan’s summary of Minerva and Giubilini’s proposal, not because arguments for infanticide are so remarkable, (prominent philosophers Stephen Pinker and Peter Singer have already made their own cases for the idea) but because the response to their article shows us that we are at the point culturally where tradition and convention are no longer stopping normal people from hinting, implying, or debating the idea in public forums. Infanticide is becoming a plausible option. The Florida State lawmakers were clearly incredulous, but it is telling that Snow didn’t immediately dismiss the possibility of just letting the child die out of hand. She even goes so far as to cite the “logistical issues” of having to transport the child to a proper medical facilities as a relevant concern. Apparently a baby’s life isn’t worth the drive-time. Or maybe it’s the gas money?
This is not the place for an exhaustive defense of a child’s right to live, a philosophical take-down of the pro-choice movement’s faulty presuppositions, or a debate about the relative usefulness of Planned Parenthood outside of their abortion-providing activities. It is rather an invitation to recognize the signs of the times: We increasingly live in a culture for which there are almost no universally recognized reductio ad absurdum arguments. What I mean is that there are few moral conclusions we can reasonably rely on our neighbor to reject out of hand. We are reaching a point where we can no longer count on the sheer moral inertia of 2,000 years of Christian teaching on the value of life to hold us back from returning to the pagan world of child exposure. The logic of modern commitments to unfettered autonomy, freedom, and individualism are being more consistently and rigorously drawn out to their horrifying conclusions and simply being accepted.
Lest we fool ourselves into thinking that this is purely an academic exercise, or that the discussion in Florida was dealing with extraordinary circumstances removed from reality, it’s important to note that there is a murder trial going on in Philadelphia where, according to the New York Times, a prominent abortionist, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, stands accused of killing “seven viable fetuses by plunging scissors into their necks and ‘snipping’ their spinal cords and was also responsible for the death of a pregnant woman in his care.” The Associated Press clarifies that, in fact, the charge “Gosnell faces seven counts of first-degree murder for allegedly killing late-term babies who were born alive” (emphasis mine). Currently, the defense is working very hard to show that most of these children were, in fact, not viable, or well under the legal limit of performing an abortion (state law prohibits abortions after the 24th week). As Minerva and Giubilini’s formal arguments and the implications of Snow’s lobbying are accepted more widely, these arguments will become unnecessary.
A Second-Century Response
We can’t be naive about the contemporary situation. This is not an alarmist call. In many ways, the pro-life movement has never been in a better position. American attitudes toward abortion have shifted, even if support for its legality haven’t as of yet. However, we need to understand that we have to be able to engage at the level of fundamental convictions about life, freedom, and goodness in our conversations with neighbors and the broader culture. The area of shared basic commitments or moral intuitions has shifted and so we must be able to challenge certain moral logics at the deepest levels. This must happen both at the intellectual level, as well as that of the imagination—the affective dimension in the debate about rights and life cannot be ignored.
Our persuasive efforts in cultivating a culture of life must not be confined to the political or intellectual realm—it must be rooted in a persuasive practice of life in the Church itself. Contemporary post-birth abortion advocates want to take us back to the ancient pagan world where the practice of infant exposure of the weak and the inconvenient was sanctioned by law and advocated by philosophers as a means of proper state-craft. In response, Christians must find creative ways to imitate their forebears who made a practice of rescuing the discarded lives their pagan neighbors tossed to the trash. Either through greater support of adoption and foster-care agencies, communities that intentionally create space for and welcome young mothers in difficult situations, or efforts such as those of Korean pastor Lee Jon-Rak, who created a drop-box for unwanted (due to sex, defect, etc.) children to be left safely and cared for through the church; the Church must give a beautiful witness, in word and deed, to a gospel of life that captures the moral imagination of our culture as it did in those early Christian centuries.