Misunderstanding infanticide

Recently, the British Journal of Medical Ethics published a paper which quickly achieved notoriety (via the Catholic Herald), but most commentators have misunderstood what the paper is proposing.

It is not a new argument for infanticide. The argument for infanticide to relieve a child’s suffering has already been made, notably by Peter Singer in 1985. Indeed, infanticide is already practiced regularly in the Netherlands under the Groningen protocol.

The authors argue that infanticide is justified to relieve parents or society of the burden of caring for a child, even in situations where the child’s suffering is not a consideration.

Obviously many people were unaware that infanticide is practiced in a supposedly civilised society. A visceral reaction to the thought of infanticide is not surprising. Killing a newborn child ought to be something that horrifies us.

But in one sense the reasoning in the paper, and by earlier ethicists like Singer, is quite correct: it makes no real difference whether a child is killed a few days before birth or after birth. In fact, there is no obvious point at which a child becomes a “person” worthy of protection from killing. Abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent acts — there is no difference between a person who aborts an unborn child and a person who kills their infant.

This point has been picked up by some journalists in Britain, such as Will Heaven, who points out that if you find the idea of infanticide horrifying (as of course you ought to), then “The only totally logical response I can think of… is to be altogether anti-abortion.”

The authors are simply proposing a new, additional basis for infanticide. Up until now, the argument for infanticide has generally been to preserve the child from a life filled with suffering. But abortion is available on a different basis: the convenience of the mother. As the authors point out, this is inconsistent.

They propose removing the inconsistency. In their view, infanticide should be permitted not just for the benefit of the child, but for the convenience of the parents or society (society, after all, might bear the economic cost of caring for a disabled child).

Here’s my question: most people, I think, find the idea of killing an infant repugnant. Certainly society tends to react with shock when a mother kills their own child after the child is born.

And killing an infant simply for the sake of convenience is truly appalling.

But if you find the idea of killing an inconvenient child repugnant — as any right-thinking person does — on what basis is it right to kill a slightly younger child, still in the womb?