A recent article in the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics titled “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” caused quite a stir. Two ethicists associated with the University of Oxford essentially claimed that many of the arguments currently used to justify abortion also justify infanticide—even going so far as to say that “economical, social or psychological circumstances” create burdens which could count as acceptable reasons to kill a newborn child.
Because this deliberatively provocative article was accessible free online (unlike most academic articles), the blogosphere erupted in outrage—and even some more traditional media treated it as a news story. Julian Savulescu, editor of the journal, noted that both he and the authors received death threats. The reaction to the article was so strong that even normally measured voices like Robert George (himself the object of hate speech and death threats for his pro-life views) referred to the argument as “madness.”
I believe we should put infanticide in both its ancient and relatively recent historical context. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all defended the sanctity of life against ancient cultures which accepted infanticide as a matter of course. Indeed, the Catholic Church has been making these kinds of logical connections between abortion and infanticide for the better part of 2000 years. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian manuals for converts, specifically mentions them together: “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” Even in the modern era when infanticide is not a clear public policy issue, we still find the church making this connection. The Second Vatican Council claimed, for instance, that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care” and in the next breath that “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.” Interestingly, the authors of “After-Birth Abortion” share a similar understanding to that of the Catholic Church with regard to the issues and logical reasoning in play. Both agree that certain arguments which permit abortion also permit infanticide.
Several philosophers I talked to could not understand this kind of public outcry—and, indeed, some even thought that the article’s argument was not sufficiently original to be published in the first place. After all, especially as the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition has waned in the developed West, pro-choice arguments for infanticide have become increasingly common. The thinkers who have made such arguments often point out that our culture has rejected a religious respect for the sanctity of human life given our broad acceptance of abortion; instead, we locate the right to life in having morally valuable traits like rationality and self-awareness. Since a newly born child is not rational and self-aware, so the argument goes, one should be able to commit infanticide for many of the same reasons one may now have an abortion.
This is logical, consistent reasoning.
And the pro-choice position for infanticide appears to be here to stay. In a move which will confuse those who think of this position as something new, Savulescu is planning a special issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics devoted to infanticide which will have contributions from many of its defenders over the past forty years—including himself, Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, Jeff McMahon, and more. To his credit, Savulescu is also inviting pro-lifers like myself, Robert George, and John Finnis to contribute diverse and opposing views as well.
How should pro-lifers respond to the debate over infanticide? I have tried to convince public pro-life figures like George to resist using language like “madness” to describe the arguments of our opponents. For if one throws out the sanctity of life ethic as one’s moral guide—as we have already done in many aspects of our culture in the developed West—it seems perfectly reasonable to be pro-choice for both abortion and infanticide. In resisting this shift in defense of the sanctity of life, however, the correct strategy is not to insult or call names (or, God forbid, make threats of violence and murder), but instead we should respectfully engage pro-choice arguments for infanticide.
Indeed, such arguments provide pro-lifers an important opportunity. When I first posted the “After Birth Abortion” article to my Facebook wall, several of my pro-choice friends insisted that it was actually written by stealth pro-lifers trying to discredit arguments in favor of abortion.
It was not written by pro-lifers, but based on the pro-life-friendly reactions the article has produced it might as well have been. Forty years ago the debate over infanticide might have been limited to obscure philosophers, but with the help of today’s digital age the debate has now spilled over into the public sphere—with the result that those who support choice for abortion are now challenged to explain why they do not support choice for infanticide.
Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York City. His just-released book is titled “Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.”