Thursday, 19 June 2008

More on abortion - the infanticide objection

Cross posted on In a Strange Land

Here and elsewhere in the NZ blogosophere, people have raised objections and worries about some of the arguments I made in my earlier post on abortion. I want to address these issues here, rather than take them back to the blogs where the points were raised, in part because the conversation on at least one blog has been dominated by someone who is thrashing away at his own views, without paying any attention whatsoever to anything anyone else is saying. I have no desire to try to make myself heard over that kind of racket.

So, the three major objections / points:
(1) But your reasons for supporting abortion must also result in you supporting infanticide. (Raised here.)
(2) What about babies with profound disabilities, who don't fit your criteria of being fully human? Why is it generally held to be morally okay to abort a fetus with severe disabilities but not to allow a baby born with severe disabilities to die? (Raised here.)
(3) "But since Deborah has poked her head in, I'd love to get a feminist perspective on abortion being used to get rid of 'useless' and unwanted girls." (Raised here.)

It's going to take a while to discuss them, so I'm going to divide this into three posts.

The infanticide objection

I argued that it was not morally impermissible to end the lives of human beings that are not 'full human beings'. A full human being is one who has hopes and dreams, thoughts for the future and the past, it can conceive of itself as existing in relation to itself, in relation to other people. Killing a full human being is morally impermissible, because it ends that being’s future, it ends its connections with other people, it ends the existence that it values. However fetuses are not full human beings, so it is not morally impermissible to end their lives.

Here's the rub. It seems that new born babies don't have hopes and dreams, thoughts for the future, can't conceive of themselves as existing, either in relation to themselves, or in relation to other people. If that's the case, then infanticide would not be morally impermissible either.

I don't know about you, but I think that most people, including me, feel that infanticide is wrong. We have what we think is an instinctive reaction against it, a basic, primal gut feel that infanticide is simply wrong. So any argument that allows infanticide must be a bad argument.

This is a standard philosophical move, pointing out the unpleasant consequences of what seems to be a perfectly good argument. The person who put the argument forward then must choose whether to abandon her argument, or modify it so that the unpleasant consequence no longer ensues, or she can simply bite the bullet, and take the consequence.

I'm going to do the latter, and embrace the conclusion that my argument for the moral permissibility of abortion does also admit the moral permissibility of infanticide.

Before you think that the possibility of infanticide makes my argument totally untenable, I want to take a step back and think about slippery slope arguments.

Some theoretical stuff which you should read, because it underpins the rest of what I'm going to say, and because Philosophy is good for you

Here's a lovely slippery slope.


At what point does white become black?

I can't hear your answer, so I'm going to have to put one in your mouth... sorry! The answer is that there is no clear point at which white becomes black.

I think it would be bizarre to say that there is a particular point at which 'white' becomes 'black'. Yet we can quite easily make judgements about either end of the scale: there is a clear 'black' and a clear 'white'. However we have nothing sensible to say about the exact point at which 'white' becomes 'black', because there is no exact point.

This is a common feature of slippery slope arguments. We start at one point, then change bit by bit by tiny bit, until we end up at quite a different point. Yet the changes are so small that we cannot say exactly where A becomes Z. It is simply quite clear that A is not Z, and never will be. Nevertheless, because the change from A to B, and then from B to C, and from C to D, and so on and so on, is so very small, we are tempted to apply the same judgements to B that we apply to A, the same judgements to C that we apply to B, the same judgements to D that we apply to C, until we reach the point where we make a judgement about Z, and think that exactly the same judgement ought to apply to A.

I think we should resist doing this. Often, we can quite reasonably make one judgement about A, and a completely different judgement about Z. That's because even though A changes incrementally into Z, A and Z are themselves sufficiently different that we can make judgements about them easily.

Back to abortion and infanticide

So yes, the criteria for 'full human being' that I have used do seem to apply to new born infants too. It is not at all clear that newborn infants can hope and dream, are aware of themselves existing, are aware of their connections to other people and value those connections. And if that's the case, then all other things being equal, infanticide is not morally impermissible.

(That 'all other things being equal' clause is very important. It does seem to me that if there are people who are ready and willing and indeed longing to bring up a child, then it would be better to pursue adoption than infanticide. But that's not to do with the morality of infanticide per se.)

However, based on my own experience, and the reported experience of other mothers, it's not clear to me that newborn infants have no connections to other people. My own newborn infants recognised my voice. They settled and slept in my arms, in a way that they would not with other people. I have very precious memories of one of my twins, unable to sleep in her crib, but falling asleep so peacefully early one morning as I lay back on the pillows, and gazed at her beautiful little body cradled in my arms. More than that, my daughters recognised their daddy. Our eldest daughter arrived screaming (good girl!), but calmed when her daddy held her so tenderly for the first time, and sang to her.

I don't know whether this means that our daughters valued their connection with us, that more than anything else, they were connected to us. But that doesn't lead me to reject abortion. Instead, it leads me to say that I am not sure about abortion in the later stages of a pregnancy. Because I am not sure, I want to push the threshold for the moral permissibility of abortion back to sometime before birth (in a standard pregnancy). Perhaps the start of the third trimester (all other things being equal). Even then, I will want to place the mother's health before the fetus's health. Why? Because I know for sure that the mother is a full human being, and her needs come before the needs of a being that may or may not be a full human being.

Equally, just not being sure about the moral status of new born babies doesn't mean that I can't be sure about the moral status of newly fertilised eggs, or blastocytes, or embryos, or early stage fetuses, before the critical brain connections have been forged. These beings are certainly human, but they are quite clearly not full human beings. Anyone attempting to describe them as full human beings is making bizarre claims, which can only rest on some sort of theological beliefs. A blastocyte bears no resemblance to me, even though I was once a blastocyte. Ending the existence of a blastocyte, of an embryo, of an early stage fetus, is not morally impermissible, just because ending the life of an infant is impermissible. We should not apply the judgements we make about new born infants to blastocytes, embryos and fetuses, just because we can't draw a clear dividing line between blastocytes and infants.

The 'yuck' factor

Famously, some philosophers do say that infanticide is morally permissible. And of course, our reaction is to say 'yuck'. But equally famously, that is just a cultural construct. The Greeks and Romans exposed unwanted infants, and Eskimaux did the same, with no moral consequences attached. Our culture has learned to regard infanticide as repugnant. So just thinking that it is yucky is not an argument in itself. It's just a reaction, and one that should invite us to think hard about exactly why we find whatever it is yucky. To be sure, some of our 'yuck' reactions are based in well-founded worries about disease - there are good reasons for finding rotting dead bodies to be revolting. But it's not clear that there are good reasons for finding infanticide to be repugnant. If you do find it too horrible to contemplate, then I suggest that you get over it, and spend time contemplating it, and thinking about exactly why you find it repugnant. If you can pin down a reason, then you need to to think about whether or not it really applies to fetuses. If it doesn't apply to fetuses, then the fact that you find infanticide to be repugnant is not a reason to find that abortion is repugnant.

Finally, none of what I have written here is new. It is commonplace, everyday, basic level, applied ethics. It's the sort of material that is covered in every introductory applied ethics course in every university in the English speaking world. I urge you, please, if you want to think about this issue some more, then go and get yourself an applied ethics textbook. As I said in my earlier post, we are happy to spend millions of dollars supporting philosophers in universities, people who spend years and years learning how to argue, how to tease apart issues, how to think carefully and clearly about the most complex of issues. But somehow, when it comes to the most perplexing moral issues, we just ignore them. What a waste.


ari said...

I see you have taken Ethics 101, Deborah. :D

I have to say I completely agree with your entire post. I also think part of our reason for the yuck factor of infanticide being higher than the yuck factor of abortion is that newborns have a little more independence and a little less reliance on their mother than when they were in the womb, which could make infanticide morally grey even if an eight-and-a-half month abortion is perfectly permissible.

hellengrad said...

Good one. Reading about abortions is really going to make a contribution to the women's right's movement. There are no pro choice groups any more and I'm trying to start it up again. Get off your lazy behinds and do something active.

Women going for abortions don't want hugs and fluffy bunnies. They want action. I know this because I spoke to some of them yesterday. If they wait for you tarts to get a round tuit, Ken Orr will have banned abortions, contraception, pre marital sex and civil unions.

Tui said...

I really enjoyed this and agree that it's frustrating that professional philosophy tends to be more or less ignored or dismissed when it comes to sensitive moral issues.

@hellengrad - not only do you not have any idea, I am sure, what Deborah does with her time (and for all you know she spends half her time doing non-blog stuff for the women's rights movement) but you are quite wrong. What women going for abortion want will not matter in the slightest if you cannot convince people - as Deborah and the rest of the bloggers here are doing - that abortion is morally permissible. Your hectoring is not going to convince anyone, and while I am sure you do good work, it will be worthless without people speaking for you.

hungrymama said...

Very interesting Deborah.

I think for me things change around the point of viability when a feotus could, at least theoretically, survive outside of the mother's body though there's a lot of grey area about when in a pregnancy that occurs - some 24 week preemies do OK, some 28 weekers don't and some (with chromosomal abnormalities for example) will never survive outside of the womb.

Julie said...

Thanks for this Deborah, I found it a very interesting read. Like you, me experience of a newborn leads me to conclude that they do meet your fully human definition, but how much of that was me projecting, in much the same way that i tend to anthropomorphise the cat?! ;-)

Anna McM said...

My foster mother lost her first baby (he died within a few days of his birth) and was urged by her mother-in-law not to attend the funeral. The mother-in-law was referring to a tradition which I hadn't heard of, whereby mums weren't supposed to go to funerals of newborn babies. I guess the rationale was that a hormonal mum would get all unnecessarily upset about the loss of a life that was too new to matter. I don't know how widespread this tradition was (maybe just a Catholic thing?) but it goes to show that even relatively recently in NZ, infants weren't regarded as fully human by some.

My sister-in-law is of Irish Catholic stock, and one of her grandparents was one of twenty-three children. Only six of those children lived to adulthood. In that environment, babies must have been dispensable - a mum wouldn't dare get attached to them.

Heather said...

Sorry, bit late to the party... my first reaction to the issue of infanticide is "why would anyone leave it so late"?

The white/black transition really resonated with me. The whole debate seems to be hampered by both sides arguing a coin-toss of the precise moment a foetus becomes a person (& thus abortion becomes murder) - perhaps over the course of a pregnancy, abortion just becomes progressively less tenable?

Julie said...

I felt the same as you Heather, in terms of wondering why anyone would leave it so late. Undomestic Goddess and I were actually talking about this the other day.

My instinct is that late term abortions are very rare. And that those who seek an abortion at say 37 weeks gestation will have a good medical reason, it's just that sometimes it may be one of mental health, and as such more prone to being dismissed by those who don't understand.

Anonymous said...

"Because I know for sure that the mother is a full human being, and her needs come before the needs of a being that may or may not be a full human being."
That provides a really solid response to people arguing for the immorality of meat-eating. And for anyone arguing that human rights outweigh animal 'rights'.
Also, it seems your stance has gone from 'abortion is morally permissable' to early abortion is morally permissable, based on some ill-defined notion of a newborn baby having some kind of similarly ill-defined 'connection' to its parents. I think the literature on attachment may illuminate this idea of connection. But a lot of work would still be required to justify early abortions (as opposed to late) on the basis of notions of attachment. The justification to which you have retreated to (could it be called the 'yum factor'?) may be as feeble as the 'yuck factor'.

Given the passion with which we defend abortion, don't we have a better argument to justify it?

Anonymous said...

Also, you say, "But it's not clear that there are good reasons for finding infanticide to be repugnant. If you do find it too horrible to contemplate, then I suggest that you get over it, and spend time contemplating it, and thinking about exactly why you find it repugnant. If you can pin down a reason, then you need to to think about whether or not it really applies to fetuses."

Coming from someone clearly capable of analysis and rigorous debate, this challenge is strange, to say the least. Infanticide is repugnant, quite possibly for similar reasons to those that make incest and homicide repugnant to us. Or do you not find homicide repugnant? Incest is 'programmed' to be repugnant to us so that when we reproduce we have a higher chance of producing healthy babies. To continue the human race--need anyone say more? Of course infanticide is repugnant to us, so that we don't kill our babies at the first hurdle so that the human race continues! (And yes there may be good reasons to 'put the baby out' for some societies) It's simple Darwinism. It seems to me, the same arguments might apply to abortion. Perhaps that's why many do feel repugnance towards it.

Anna said...

I think one big point that wasn't touched on in this is the conflict of rights between mother and unborn child. I think a big thing that makes abortion much more morally okay than infanticide is that, while the mother is pregnant, there can be a significant conflict between upholding the mother's rights vs upholding the rights of a foetus. In general, I think we assume that the rights of a women, who can be without a doubt considered a 'real human', to come before the rights of a foetus, where there is still much debate about what they are/what legal status they hold/what rights they should have. While there is a conflict of rights, it seems acceptable to favour the rights of the mother over the foetus'. When, however, the baby is born, the right of the mother to bodily autonomy is no threaten by the baby - it's no longer a balancing act. And although there is an arguement that the baby can still pose a threat to the mother's rights, there are ways this can be solved (e.g adoption), unlike when the baby is inside the mother, where (in terms of abortion) one set of rights HAS to override the other.