Why Is Infanticide Worse Than Abortion?

Guest Post by James Wilson

The controversy over the Giubilini and Minerva article has highlighted an important disconnect between the way that academic bioethicists think about their role, and what ordinary people think should be the role of bioethics.  The style of this dispute – its acrimony and apparent incomprehension on both sides – are a sure sign that we as bioethicists need to think harder about what we are doing, and who we are doing it for.

At the heart of tempest has been the authors’ claim that abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent. Nearly everyone will agree that the authors are wrong about this, and that infanticide is and should always remain beyond the pale.

The US Born-Alive Infants Protection Act 2002 stipulates that the category of person – and the full protection due to persons – must be extended to “every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development“.  The deep question – from the perspective of academic ethics – is why every human being that is born alive should count as a person.

Often in bioethics the most difficult task is to articulate just what it is that lies behind the sorts of intuitive moral certainties that we all have: that is, to make clear to ourselves, and to those who are inclined to hold opposing views, just what our confidence in our own intuitive moral judgments is based on.  This is often extremely difficult to do.

Why Some Bioethicists Think that Birth does not Matter

At the heart of Giubilini and Minerva’s claim that infanticide is morally on a par with abortion is the premise birth by itself does nothing to change the moral status of a developing human.

According to them (and like minded philosophers such as John Harris, Peter Singer and Michael Tooley) what makes the difference between a person and something that isn’t a person must be something to do with the capacities and abilities that a person has.  On such views, if we want to say that all human beings should count as persons then we need to provide some account of what feature or features it is that all human beings have that renders it appropriate to treat them as persons.  The feature of being born alive to a human mother does not – according to them – fit the bill.

According to these philosophers, this definition of “person” is both too narrow, and too broad.  It’s too narrow, because it’s clear that there could be intelligent alien species who had the ability to engage in moral thinking; but yet who clearly would not be born to a human mother.  They need not be born at all: perhaps the aliens from the planet Zog assemble themselves out of flatpacks from an interplanetary Ikea.  But so long as they are able to live and to value things as we do, why should we deny them the status of persons?  To do so looks like a human-centred chauvinism, no more than speciesism.

But the feature of being born alive to a human also looks too broad: what if the brain of the infant has been irreparably damaged, so that it will remain in its intellectual functioning at a level far below that of a chimpanzee and will never be able to love, to form plans or even to recognize itself in the mirror?  Why (and in what sense) does an infant like this count as an equal of a fully functional adult?

John Harris has argued that we should strike down the thought that it is being born that makes the difference.  As he once put it, “the geographical location of the developing human, whether it is inside the womb or not, is not the sort of thing that can make a moral difference”.  (Even here, he was careful to clarify – as he has on this blog, that he was neither advocating infanticide, nor arguing for a change in the law.)

A Poor Reply: Banging the Table

The cheapest and easiest response to this challenge is to merely bang the table and assert the sheer obviousness of the difference that birth makes.  As an example of this approach, Richard Nicholson once accused John Harris of indulging in “a philosopher’s mind game”.  He continued, “He is wrong in saying there is no moral change that occurs in the process of birth.  That is a change that is recognised in the law.  Most parents would recognise their views about their newborn baby are considerably different than their views about the foetus in the mother a day earlier.”

All this, one feels, may be true; but it is hardly intellectually satisfying.  Just because most parents would feel differently, it doesn’t in itself follow that they are justified in changing their feelings this way.  It’s weak to counter an argument that puts forward reasons by merely appealing to force of numbers – pointing out that most people judge the same way you do.

Explaining the Significance of Birth

If we want to defend the moral significance of birth, then we need to provide some positive account of why birth matters.  I want to outline very briefly three possible positive accounts.

(1) The infant now counts as a person because he or she is now a separate living entity: he or she is viable and is not dependent on anyone else for existence.

Some worries: it seems that this explanation misfires, because ‘being a separate living entity’ is both too broad, and too narrow, to serve as the feature that makes the difference between a person and a non-person.  It’s too broad because dogs and cats are separate entities in their own right, but this does not make them persons.  But it’s too narrow, because there can be persons who are not viable separate living entities: both of a pair of conjoined twins can count as separate persons, but in a severe case it might be quite impossible for both to be able to survive separation.

(2) The infant was already a person, previously it was lodged in the mother’s body like a guest lodged in a house owned by someone else.

On this view, there were conditions under which it would have been legitimate to expel the foetus despite the fact that it was a person (in circumstances such as those that Judith Jarvis Thomson considers in her famous defence of abortion, for instance). The significance of birth is that all these reasons that the mother may have to abort the foetus are then defeated.

Some Worries: This approach seems initially promising, but it may only push the problem further back: (a) we now need to give some non-arbitrary account of why the foetus was already a person, and how it became a person. (b) On this view it turns out that it isn’t birth that is actually doing the work here in making an entity a person.

(3) Ethical vision beyond explicit arguments

Charles Taylor makes a useful distinction between two different modes of ethical argumentation, which he calls offering basic reasons and articulating a vision of the good.  As he says in Sources of the Self, “It is one thing to say that I ought to refrain from manipulating your emotions or threatening you because that is what respecting your rights as a human being requires.  It is quite another to set out just what makes human beings worthy of commanding our respect, and to describe the higher mode of life and feeling which is involved in recognising this.”

Ethicists often place a very high degree of value on explicitness and arguments from consistency, invoking basic reasons in Taylor’s sense.  A key part of Giubilini and Minerva’s argument has the following structure, for instance:

1. Persons are creatures with feature F.

2. The newborn does not have feature F.

3. Therefore the newborn is not a person.

A large part of the acrimony of the dispute seems to arise from the fact that many feel that to adopt this kind of schema fundamentally misunderstands the foundations of ethical consciousness.  For them, what is foundational is the fragility of the life of the infant, and that once that has been appropriately noticed or articulated, one should be called upon to respond.  So on this view, the answer may not be to describe those valuable features of human beings in terms that are applicable to any potential being at all, but rather to draw attention to just what it is about human being that we mean when we talk about the intrinsic dignity and value of human life.

This is something that is extremely difficult to do within the confines of analytic philosophy.  For such articulation of the phenomenology of our fundamental moral commitments, literature is far more powerful.  I’ll conclude this post with a bit from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, which perhaps provides some of this vision.  Levin is struck by wonder at the birth of his son:

Meanwhile, at the foot of the bed, in Lizaveta Petrovna’s skilful hands flickered the life of a human being, like the small uncertain flame of a night-light – a human being who had not existed a moment ago but who, with the same rights and importance to itself as the rest of humanity, would live and create others in its own image… Whence, wherefore had it come, and who was it? He could not understand at all, nor accustom himself to the idea. It seemed to him too much, a superabundance, to which he was unable to get used for a long time.

  • BWatson

    I find it somewhat obscure how appeal to common experience is “hardly intellectually satisfying” while appeal to fictional depictions of common experience, however brilliant, somehow manages to avoid this problem. Banging the table with Tolstoy is still banging the table, even if it makes a louder thump.

    It is indeed important to ask why infanticide is worse than abortion, but I think it's a purely secondary issue in this dispute: it's not particular views about the relation between fetus and infant that are the reason people are angry, but because they regard programmatic infanticide — for that is what the paper actually puts forward, not just that infanticide can be OK here and there but that it could be OK on a pretty extensive scale as part of a regular regime — as being as much beyond the pale as racial eugenics or Mengele-style experimentation, and are reacting to its treatment in a medical ethics journal as an acceptable topic for advocacy in much the same way they would react to a discussion of those things as an acceptable topic of discourse. That's the point that really needs to be explored from a philosophical point of view here: what puts a practice so far beyond the pale that it is not just a serious moral wrong to do it, but a serious moral wrong to advocate it and a serious moral wrong to facilitate the advocacy of it?

  • Is it infanticide being advocated, or the discussion of infanticide? There's a big difference.
    (Couldn't G&M's paper be read as saying, “Look, this is where a tolerably plausible and widely-accepted line argument seems to be leading, and that's noteworthy”? In that case, it could be interpreted as inviting further comment about the line of argument.

  • BWatson

    I don't think that's a distinction particularly relevant to the question of the acrimony of the dispute; people are clearly, in large numbers, reading the paper as advocating infanticide. And this is why (for instance) Savulescu's response simply made people angrier. But as a matter of fact I don't think even charitable reading can interpret the argument of the paper the way you suggest; they seem pretty clearly to be arguing for actual moral permissibility as well as the claim about the apparent implication. Even the defenders of the article have explicitly acknowledged this, and it is explicitly how the article is summarized by its abstract (one could perhaps argue that it's just a badly written abstract — as far as I can see it seems entirely accurate, though; i would have said it was a good summary).

    In any case it's simply a mistake to claim there's a “big difference”  between advocacy of infanticide or discussion of lines of argument about it; whether or not there is a big difference depends on the context. And when the topic is something as sensitive as this, people expect that if you engage in any discussion of lines of argument that you will explicitly distance yourself from claims if you aren't advocating them. Suppose the JME published a paper that argued that a very common set of ethical arguments had the implication that Joseph Mengele was perfectly justified, and the abstract ended with a clause like (say) “the authors argue that actions like those of Joseph Mengele should be regarded as permissible in all cases where the cases also meet such-and-such criteria”, and there were nothing at all in the paper that explicitly said something along the lines of, “We are very definitely not advocating Mengele-style actions, we simply want to point out this apparent logical connection.” In such a case, surely no one would say, “Oh, but couldn't it just be interpreted as simply talking about lines of argument?” And if the actual point of the paper were merely to raise discussion about a line of argument, it would be professionally scandalous and irresponsible for it to have been published in precisely that form rather than in a form that made clear it was only about the argument and not advocating a position about actual moral permissibility. And whether they are right about it or not, you have only to look at what people are saying to see clearly that they are putting infanticide in a similar kind of category. And, as I said, because of that, this is the point that needs to be addressed.

  • I'm inclined to agree with the first two sentences here: the acrimony here clearly does go beyond the distinction.

    As for the rest… well, I can't speak on behalf of the authors, so if my charitable reading is unconvincing, that's really all I have.  However, I wonder if the open letter from them that's just been posted speaks to your concerns?

    (NB: sometimes new posts take a while to show – I have no idea why.  If you're wondering what open letter I mean, refresh the page in a few minutes.)

  • BWatson

    Not really; and it couldn't, because the primary issue is with the profession; it is not solely due to the authors but to a breakdown throughout the whole system leading to publication, followed by the failure of the Journal to respond effectively. (To take just one example: it occurred to no one in the entire process that given that the public has an intimate public interest in moral responsibility to infants, that this paper should have proceeded in its argument much more carefully and tactfully than it did.) There were a lot of things that went wrong here, and if this is not recognized, that's a problem in itself. It's an embarrassment for the profession, not a personal failure of the authors, and the blame should not get laid on the shoulders of the authors alone.

    The open letter does, however, do a very good job of address several points of breakdown on the authorial end — the relatively closed culture of bioethics, in which people feel free to talk about ethical topics of crucial public concern without any regard whatsoever for the public's input or for how things would look to the public, a failure to make clear enough the distinction between policy and discussion, a blunt abstract — recognizing these problems is a very good start. (There are things that I think they could have taken more responsibility for, but under the circumstances it is actually pretty good.) What is needed however is a serious discussion on how bioethics as a field actually relates to matters of practical bioethical concern for people, and on how bioethicists should handle discussion of topics of crucial public interest. If this does not happen — well, that would be a case of philosophers failing to learn by philosophical reflection on their own practice and experience, and that would just be sad.

  • Isn't there a danger, though, that this line of thought ends up implying that bioethicists should only ever think about things that are publicly acceptable?

    That isn't a demand that we'd make in any other discipline; and it'd be as fatal to bioethics as it would be to any other serious academic discipline. Bioethics is, when it comes to brass tacks, about the study and analysis of moral claims; it's not about reflecting them. Public opinion might be a kind of moral smoke-alarm; but sometimes smoke alarms go off without much reason, and can be ignored. Perhaps bioethicists need to be aware of public opinion as a kind of warning; but it can't be the whole story.

    Incidentally, I've been mulling over your comments all evening, and I think I might be able to come up with a more satisfying way to avoid your “well-reasoned-Mengele” problem. It's still only a germ of an idea at the moment, but (with luck, and assuming it doesn't fall apart as I develop it) I'll get to post something next week.

  • David Gillon

    “Isn’t there a danger, though, that this line of thought ends up implying that bioethicists should only ever think about things that are publicly acceptable?”

    If something is unacceptable, then isn’t recognising that the ethical thing to do? In fact isn’t recognising it essential to a full development of your position? It doesn’t stop you developing the logic, but recognising and addressing the issues that worry us mere hoi polloi might make us a little less concerned at the cavalier way our concerns seem to be dismissed currently.

    However, I think that there are specific issues that take this paper out of the general ‘acceptability’ argument  and into areas where ethics may find itself needing to make the hard choices it is currently sticking it’s collective head in the sand to avoid addressing. When ruling on freedom of speech, US Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes (who ironically made one of the most disablist judgements ever in Buck vs Bell), insisted that freedom of speech stopped where it endangered others, giving the specific example of shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. The M+G paper takes the explicit position that a disabled life is a lesser life that justifies infanticide. The danger of Eugenics arguments about  the lack of worth of disabled people has been dreadfully demonstrated in the 200,000+ dead of Aktion T4, and in historic abuse of disabled people worldwide by the medical establishment (cf Buck vs Bell). Adding to that, we are currently going through a period where disabled people in the UK face a riding tide of hate in the street and in the media. The parallels to OWH’s crowded theatre are all too apparent (and before anyone points out M+G are writing from Australia, the editorial board is not, and disability hate crime is an issue in Australia just as much as in the UK http://www.wwda.org.au/hate.htm). 

    If the bonfire of hate is already burning, then is throwing petrol on it the ethical thing to do?

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  • Jeffrey Kraus

    Why is infanticide beyond the pale when historically it has been widely practiced by humans? According to Mother Nature by Sarah Hrdy humans are unique among apes for killing their own offspring. Infanticide seems to an innate human instinct.

    It seems the basis for the opposition to infanticide is religious. It was practiced during Greek and Roman times but suppressed by Christianity. It would not seem to be proper to decide matters of ethics based on the obviously false beliefs of religion.