Love, Joy, Feminism
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Here are a couple articles to make you think:
After Birth Abortion: The Pro-Choice Case for Infanticide, on Slate
Abortion, Infanticide, Humanity, Free Speech, on Pandaemonium
I’ve always thought of it as one of the moral victories of our age that the extremely historically common practice of infanticide is no longer justifiable or logical. We’ve moved the point at which caring for a baby can be avoided back to the point of aborting a fetus, and then (rather later in the development of medical technology) back to the point of choosing to prevent ovulation, or to prevent sperm from entering the vagina. We’ve even extended our moral understanding of women to the point where we believe (unlike some previous eras that could be named) that all women have an overwhelming moral right to elect not to have sex, which is not a right that was recognized in many previous eras. Compare our attitude towards infanticide with that of Sparta; compare our average incidence of abortion with the Victorian era. If there is a war on to save babies and fetuses we are winning it.
That said, infanticide in previous eras was often accomplished partially by refusing to nurse an infant in an era where there was no formula. If there were no acceptable substitute to nursing – if only taking your top down to feed an infant every three hours all day could keep a baby alive for the first six months – I think there probably would be a coherent pro-choice argument against mandatory infant-supporting. (And pro-choicers would make similar demands that if pro-lifers loved babies so much, why didn’t they pay for wet nurses, much like pro-choicers in this non-insane world we actually live in say pro-choicers should support poor mothers economically.)
I think the huge difference between before and after birth is that, once the baby’s born, somebody else can look after it. And in rich countries, there’s always someone who will, if only the state.
When there’s nobody else to look after the newborn – well, I need to think some more about that. Because in third world countries that must often be the case. Do you starve your existing children to feed the new one?
And I have a corner of my brain wondering just how far the Tea Party will go in reducing state help for the vulnerable. American parents couldn’t be faced with that choice – could they?
While many people are terribly outraged by infanticide – they regard it as more morally reprehensible than murder of an adult – I’ve always been of the contrary view.
Birth is an arbitrary point for treating an infant as a person, but it works on two very basic levels. It’s an identifiable event and it’s possible to treat the infant separately from its mother. So I accept that. Infanticide is not abortion.
However, an infant is so dependent on it’s mother or mothering person for the first two years of life that I can’t consider a mother killing a child under two the same way I regard the killing of an adult or older child.* If she doesn’t have the resources, whether material or psychic, to care for it then infanticide can be regarded as a way to spare the mother’s life, or perhaps the lives of her other children.
Clearly there are better ways. But a mother who resorts to infanticide is by definition in trouble of some kind and for one reason or another can’t make use of those other ways. Sure, prosecute for murder. But have some compassion too, and judge and penalize her less harshly than other classes of murderers.
*While children over two also depend on their mothers/mothering persons, they usually have the ability to solicit help from outsiders. A mother who kills an older child, whether directly or through neglect, is preventing the child from getting other help. This is totally not cool.
While birth is an arbitrary line as regards the child’s development, it is not an arbitrary line in the mother’s relationship to the child. In utero, the child is using the mother’s body, and she has the right to deny consent for the child to do that, since she obviously never explicitly consented to do so prior to the pregnancy. The woman has a fundamental right to the integrity of her body and a right to choose whether or not another person can use it.
After birth, however, this particular fact is no longer relevant, since the child is no longer availing itself of the mother’s body. The mother (and father) now have a choice about whether or not they are willing to assume responsibility for the child. After that, whoever assumes responsibility for the child must either provide for his or her needs or make arrangements such that someone else will. Because at this point they have voluntarily committed themselves to the child’s well-being, and this is a fundamentally different relationship than the one that existed before birth.
My line has always been birth partially because I live in a developed country where I know that if someone can’t or won’t take care of a baby, apart from adoption there’s a nest of centers and fostering homes that works pretty well. Also, I don’t think of a fetus or embrio as a person at all, but I do consider a baby a person so I consider they are protected by our laws and have rights inherent to them. All this might be different if I had lived in a different place… I had never really thought about it.
This is a difficult topic mainly because people expect some kind of clear dividing line on every action’s moral worth or lack thereof. Everything has to be black and white. Unfortunately, reality doesn’t cooperate with this delusion.
I see infanticide as a dark gray point on the moral spectrum. Typically not acceptable in the vast majority of cases due to the existence of alternatives. Regarding the worth of an already born child as zero is odd. That seems to be placing it below even the worth of an adult animal, at least. For Peter Singer of all people to argue for justifiable infanticide in most cases seems bizarre, considering his significant work on animal rights. Surely newborns are not that far inferior to most animals in their qualities.
Considering the points of the Slate article…
(1) Fetal development is arbitrary, yes. There is no basis for arguing to the contrary, since it requires denying biological fact. However, conflating this and the claim that moral development is arbitrary is weird. Moral development doesn’t need to be as arbitrary as reality, because the moral codes of people can be reasoned out. Biology won’t change just because we work our way through it, but socialized codes of behavior certainly do.
The other issue is that to the extent that you can call moral developments in a fetus arbitrary, you can pretty much call all moral developments exactly the same. This seems to descend into relativism and heavy subjective judgement very fast. If we’re so sure that moral development in people generally is not arbitrary, then we ought not to suddenly jump to the conclusion that this case is different just because it happens inside a woman’s body. Likewise, you really need a particular reason to pull out the subjectivity card other than biological facts. Or are we descending into the naturalistic fallacy now?
(2) The concept that only people can cause moral obligations might be widely accepted, but that doesn’t actually make it true. We can’t make arguments from popularity here. A fetus or child could both not be a complete person and still have some limited rights; there’s no sense in jumping to extremes. I personally liken the rights of a child as similar to that of fairly sophisticated adult animals. They don’t necessarily have exactly the same value as people, but killing them arbitrarily is wrong because they do have some value in any event. Furthermore, most children have the potential to grow in value and develop beyond the extent that a cow or a dog would. This doesn’t mean that much if we literally cannot find anyone anywhere to care for that child in order to ensure those developments, but that seems a faulty assumption in many cases.
(3) It’s resting on a far viewpoint to say that “any” burden on the mother would justify infanticide. However, I can conceive of extreme cases in which there may be real world parallels where infanticide would be morally ambiguous. They rest on the possibility that it may be simply impracticable to find anyone to raise the child, and therefore that the child will either die from malnutrition and neglect or barely survive and end up suffering miserably. Some burdens are too much to ask of the mother, and certainly her life would always be one of those. That doesn’t mean the typical burden rises to that level.
(4) It’s somewhat difficult to argue with this premise. There is definitely something to the concept that people determine their own value and meaning in life, and this appears to apply in various degrees to children as well. However, there’s a moderate flaw in that completely self-determined value of everything builds a disjointed and dysfunctional society. We need to have some agreement in order to have cooperation at all.
(5) Mostly I find this one agreeable. Any sufficiently serious defect should normally be considered grounds for termination of a pregnancy, and it’s hard to see how infants differ significantly. I would qualify the cases to life-threatening ones, or those of massive and permanent hardship or illness, though. That’s the sufficient level in my view. Ordinary survivable diseases and genetic defects do not rise to the necessary justification.
There’s an open question as to whether severe mental incapacity is in the same severity class as deadly diseases and so forth. For the most part, I think it probably does qualify. My reasoning is that in a hypothetical world where a “perfect cure” for extreme cognitive states exists, using the cure on someone appears to be functionally no different than killing the existing individual and replacing them with someone else. The “output” person and the “input” person are too different to be reasonably understood as genuinely the same, so morally we ought to see them as unique. However, this suggests either that (a) where it is impossible to obtain informed consent, using such a cure is immoral, or (b) our sense of value in identity is not anything like what we generally perceive it to be, and thus the cure is not really the equivalent of a killing. One way or the other it breaks some paradigm.
Personally, the only genuinely astounding part of these moral discussions we have is that so many people think they can simply assert the answer based on some kind of authority, intuition, or personal anecdote. That’s true nonsense, arbitrary in the strongest possible sense, and merely a very thinly veiled attempt at social control and grabbing power.
I was diagnosed with a “disability” (which I put in quotes because I do not consider myself disabled, but society in general would) at about a year old. Perhaps my parents should have been allowed to kill me….
I would be curious to hear your views on the matter, Libby Anne.
I’m currently doing a postgrad degree in philosophy with a focus on ethics, so this is a very interesting topic for me, which I have considered at length. I recently read Peter Singer’s book “Rethinking life and death : the collapse of our traditional ethics” which was a very interesting read for anyone interested in the ethics of life and death and the definitions thereof.
The abortion debate clearly centres around the personhood of the fetus, and I have long been of the opinion that an integral part of what defines a person (not a human being) is a certain degree of rationality, especially practical (moral) rationality, therefore it could be said that I think a person is someone who is a moral agent. Many philosophers do not consider children (much less animals) to be moral agents, but I disagree a little on this point. I do not think that there is a clear line, where on one side one is a moral agent and on the other one isn’t. I think it’s a gradual slope. And I think (even young) children, and some of our closest non-human animal relatives may be on the lower end of that slope, as aspiring moral agents. I think that the beginnings of moral agency and the right to life do, to some degree, go hand in hand. Therefore, I agree that infanticide is in some cases permissible.
I say ‘some’ not because I think some infants have attained the beginnings of moral agency, rather because even though they do not (necessarily) have a full right to life, does not mean that they (like fetuses) have no moral value whatsoever. In the case of the fetus I think that the mother’s right to do refuse the fetus consent to use her body trumps any value the fetus has. In the case of an infant it becomes trickier, not because birth is some magical point of moral definition, rather because it no longer needs the mother’s consent to use her body, as it can survive without it. Therefore, I think that an infant that could be adopted immediately may not be killed. On the other hand, I’m not sure about infants that would simply be left to the care of the state, since contrary to a previous commenter, I do not think that care or foster homes ‘work well’. And infants with disabilites will often have trouble finding adoptive parents.
Ask anyone what their earliest memory is and they will tell you about something from when they were three or so. The reason that you can’t remember being a baby is that you weren’t there, you didn’t exist yet. There was a baby, there was a brain but there was no mind yet. A person is someone that becomes. A mind is something that the brain learns to do as it interacts with the world and with the people in it.
Have you ever been around a two-year-old ? They’re not the smartest tools in the box and they might not remember it twenty years from now, but they are persons just as much as three year-olds are. They even have memories, would you believe it.
Memory is a notoriously unreliable guide to anything, especially one’s earliest memories which are those with the most potential for having been modified over the years if not entirely confabulated. While there may be neurological reasons why people don’t remember their earliest years much (beyond “it was a long time ago” I mean), maybe even an actual cutoff point (some have suggested it may be related to language acquisition), it certainly has little to do with personhood.
Hi, this is my first comment, although I have been reading your blog for a little while now. I am a brand new atheist, I finally let my belief in the bible god go 4 months ago. I am also formerly quiverfull, I have 8 children and of course was always pro life. While my belief about abortion is definitely changing, it is very hard for me to accept that some people believe that it is acceptable to kill a living child. I guess I have always seen children and animals as needing protection. And I am somewhat disturbed by the belief that young babies and toddlers aren’t really people. I have vivid memories from my 2nd birthday party and some before that. I also have a 2 year old with a definite personality. The thought that someone would not consider her a person worthy of life makes me kind of ill, to be honest. I know that my beliefs can change drastically, because in the last year they have done a 180, but I don’t think I want to be the kind of person that denies a living child life. I hope I am not coming across as condemning, I am just really in shock that this idea is out there. To me, okaying the killing of living breathing children is a slippery slope that leads to things like the Holocaust.
I agree with you, and if you read the articles I linked to you would find that both authors are actually refuting the idea that infanticide is morally acceptable. I think birth is a pretty clear place to draw the line.
I did read the articles and was relieved that the authors didn’t agree with infanticide. I was just truly horrified that there were people out there that thought is was justifiable. I also didn’t agree with Kevin Alexander’s comment that said just because we can’t remember being babies and small children meant that it was because we weren’t actually real people yet. While I can’t yet say I am ok with abortion right up to the time of birth, I do see the need for it in society. The earlier an abortion can be performed, the better. I really support the easy access of reliable birth control, so that very few abortions are actually needed. Also, just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog. It was one of the defining things I read during my deconversion. Especially since you were raised in the quiverfull philosophy that I was coming out of.
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