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.
Image Credit: morrissey/Flickr (source)