"Come Sweet Death" appears to be an increasingly compelling theme in the nation. There is pressure for the passage of various forms of right-to-die statutes (which some skeptics point out can rather easily be turned into right-to-kill procedures). As part of the lobbying, advocates of active as well as passive euthanasia appear, glowing with compassion, on talk shows. And always, there are those whose mission is to liberate our thinking on the question of infanticide. We have been too fastidious, they say, too unmindful of the good it can do handicapped infants and their families.
Consider Peter Singer, professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Australia. In this country he is best known for his writings in The New York Review of Books where he crisply insists that the sanctity-of-life principle cannot be rationally defended.
Now he and Helga Kuhse have written "Should the Baby Live?", published by Oxford University Press. In arguing that "some infants with severe disabilities should be killed," they are not speaking only of babies who are chronically and irreversibly comatose or those for whom treatment would only prolong dying. Their modest proposal could, for instance, also put to everlasting sleep Down's syndrome infants because they have "a reduced potential for life."
Spina bifida babies might also be better off dead if survival meant -- as it does not in most spina bifida cases -- a lifetime in a wheelchair. After all, Singer and Kuhse say, although "we would rather be in a wheelchair than dead, it is clearly a consideration that is irrelevant to the selection of newborn infants, who lack any conception of themselves as beings with a future."
Indeed, what really is the difference, they ask us, between abortion and infanticide since neither the infant nor the fetus can look ahead. "In neither case . . . has the life of the person begun."
Another distinguished member of the new priesthood of bioethics is Mary Warnock, mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, a life peer, author of "Ethics Since 1900" and the vigorously approving reviewer in a recent New Republic of both the Singer-Kuhse book and another brief for infanticide, Jeff Lyon's "Playing God in the Nursery."
Warnock is scornful of the "slippery slope" argument that once you allow handicapped infants to be killed, any baby could eventually be done away with if the parents decided that after all, they'd rather not have one, thank you. She says mockingly that racing downhill, society might next allow the handicapped of any age to be terminated, and then maybe Jews.
But Warnock herself affirms the "slippery slope" argument of the anti-abortionists. She forcefully points out: "Parents are, after all, legally permitted a choice of abortion if the fetus is shown to be severely malformed (with spina bifida, for example). It is paradoxical that this same choice should be denied them in the case of a premature baby with similar or worse handicaps." The slope is indeed slippery, and in time may be cleared of all paradoxes.
A lawyer I know who has been disabled since birth makes the point that the promoters of infanticide are almost invariably able-bodied. "They only assume," she says, "that it is better to be dead than handicapped."
In recent years I have come to know a number of people who arrived in the world in such shape that their parents were advised by their physicians to let the baby go rather than have him or her endure so reduced a "quality of life." One, currently a candidate for a doctorate in health education, says that when she was born with cerebral palsy, her parents were told that she would never walk or talk. But, she says, "quality of life is not about being able to walk or being without the capacity to read or being without arms. It's about being allowed to function to the limits of one's potential."
There is a poem, "The Ones That Are Thrown Out," by Miller Williams. It ends:
They call them bad babies.
They didn't mean to be bad
But who does.