Why Infanticide Can Be Moral
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
If you wish to contact him, please click here.
This post is an introductory framework for moral infanticide. Before we can even discuss cases of ending an infant’s life for non-medical reasons, we must understand why infants’ lives can be deliberately ended at all (for medical ones).
Deliberately killing a human is difficult to consider, though many can think of or have encountered situations where it’s justified (such as self-defence or euthanasia). It’s more difficult when considering instances where it’s moral to end an infant’s life. Indeed, highlighting that I support infanticide meant, for many commenters, I was “looking for attention”, “sociopathic”, “a completely lost human being”, have “dementia [that] is so profound and alarming that I really have to contact BIG THINK [and the police], and “a low life proponent of murder”.
Like all difficult topics, we must first try consider what really is happening when people propose so-called horrible ideas like ethically ending a life, especially if that life is an infant’s. Though I’ve discussed infanticide before, I want to outline broadly why I think it’s moral, in certain cases, to ‘let’ an infant die or deliberately end its life humanely. (Until people understand this, we won’t get anywhere discussing harder cases such as ‘after-birth abortion’).
Firstly, we must question when it is moral to end the life of any living entity. Ignoring species, is there any good reason to keep alive a sentient entity that is close to death and in constant pain? There might be some, albeit very few, reasons to do so, such as respecting the entity’s prior wishes that were made when he or she was rational and capable.
Yet, in almost all instances of futile suffering (that is suffering experienced during last moments of life), it is neither evil nor wrong to be on the side of reducing this futile suffering (assuming it is futile). For example, a loving husband does not suddenly turn into a sadist or monster when deciding to help his spouse ‘die with dignity’: he does so out of respect for her and to reduce her pointless suffering.
The issue itself is highly contentious, but to continue this discussion on infanticide, we must all agree there are instances where helping a living entity, whether animal (as loving pet owners can attest) or human (such as those who’ve requested it), to die is moral. Even Catholic theologians agree that there are instances, very rare ones, where it is moral. We only need ‘rare’ instances that are moral to conclude not all deliberate killing is immoral.
We can discuss the where and when of such instances, as I will do now with infants, but primarily this discussion will get nowhere unless we at least agree on this one point: there are instances where it is moral but we must argue about them. We get nowhere if you think by definition it is always wrong to kill or end a human’s life; this discussion simply cannot happen (I am willing to have that discussion, but it does not fit in with current arguments for infanticide).
1. Severe Problems and Pointless Suffering
Not every human has a problem-free birth. This sounds obvious, but people, after acknowledging this, then tend to derive what is right or wrong from perspectives suited more to unproblematic scenarios.
Perhaps the harshest example of such problems is anencephaly: “a child [born] with anencephaly [is] born without a scalp, without a vault of the cranium, without meninges, without either brain hemisphere and without a cerebellum”. All the baby has is a brainstem, which works with the spine to control the body’s unconscious functions. These are often referred to as cases where children are born ‘without brains’ but that is not entirely accurate: they do lack higher functions, but not basic ones though these will soon go, too. Twenty-five percent of babies with anencephaly do not survive birth; of those that do, life expectancy is only a few hours or days. In these unfortunate cases, all that parents have is a dying child, who will never recognise them or its own existence.
Another type of case involves babies born with myelomeningocele (or spina bifida cystica), which, says the US National Library of Medicine, “is a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth.” The complications include “cerebral palsy and decreased oxygen to the brain”, hydrocephalus (a build-up of fluid in the skull that leads to brain swelling), and “permanent weakness or paralysis of legs”. Many parents do not wish this kind of life for their child: either because of the actual complications or that they themselves cannot maintain the child’s basic level of worthwhile life. Some have to receive numerous intense medical operations before their teenage years. (It must be acknowledged that, with good aid and consistent support, many do go on to live decent lives.)
But the New York Times discusses a case which highlights the horrors of birth-defects, as well as pointless and inverted moral responses.
2. The Case of Sanne
[‘Sanne’], a Dutch baby girl … was born with a severe form of Hallopeau-Siemens syndrome, a rare skin disease. As reported earlier this year … baby Sanne's ''skin would literally come off if anyone touched her, leaving painful scar tissue in its place.'' With this condition, she was expected to live at most 9 or 10 years before dying of skin cancer. Her parents asked that an end be put to her ordeal, but hospital officials, fearing criminal prosecution, refused. After six months of agony, Sanne finally died of pneumonia.
Ignoring the legal aspect, what good reason is there for keeping ‘Sanne’ alive, in such agony? The most common response is that it is wrong to end life because life is: sacred, god’s gift, inherently worthwhile and dignified. These are unconvincing, since they do not actually engage with the moral dilemma so much as cover it in a convenient metaphysical blanket. Furthermore, the constant agony of a child over six pointless weeks cannot be ignored because of some tawdry concept that has little application. One would think, in fact, that a concept claiming dignity and respect would prioritise ridding a being’s pointless suffering!
As with all cases involving severe birth-defects, keeping the baby alive is not only creating suffering for the child but the parents, too: These are parents who can never touch their child, until he or she is dead, never see them out of hospitals or enveloped in life-supporting materials, never receive even a flicker of conscious acknowledgment. This does not mean we should override their wishes to end the child, but acknowledge them as part of moral deliberation.
3. Wrong to Prolong Suffering, Therefore Infanticide is Moral
In all these cases, there is a prolonging of suffering where action could be taken to reduce it. These seem to me to be cases where it is moral to end the life of the infant, humanely, since the alternative is merely ongoing suffering (especially in cases like ‘Sanne’).
This is a very broad outline but is the template for why I think infanticide is justified. Though these are not common instances, you only need a few to make the case that infanticide can be moral. To have a blanket view that all infanticide is always wrong – and that anyone who thinks otherwise is sociopathic – is to be, I think, myopic of very real cases of suffering that occur. After all, in almost all these cases, the ones making the choice to end the life of the child are the parents themselves: there are few decisions harder. Are we really prepared to consider such people heartless monsters, when their decision is explicitly made out of care for their dying infant? This doesn’t mean they’re right: it just completely refutes the assertion that all people who want infants’ lives ended are heartless or sociopathic.
The defence of infanticide is made with the idea of reducing suffering, not increasing it. We may fight over specific cases. We may disagree with outcomes. That is part of moral deliberation and must be there. What is unhelpful, harmful and immature is to claim the whole arena, the entire idea, and those who support it are monstrous. You may disagree about killing in most instances, perhaps for some of the cases I’ve presented, but what doesn’t hold is a blanket view that it is never permissible and parents should be forced to watch their child pointlessly suffer.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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