A Humanist Response to Proposed Infanticide

An article about a medical ethicist, who teaches at an Ivy League university, says he supports infanticide.

According to the article, the professor suggests that for a period of 28 days after birth, parents should possess the right to have their baby killed. He says this action might be taken where the “prospects are clouded” concerning the child’s future, such as where the baby has Down’s syndrome or some other disabling condition.

There are several reasons why Humanists should strongly oppose his proposal. In the first place, Humanists often point out that civilized people allow violence only when necessary for self-defense or the defense of others.

Based in part on this principle, many Humanists oppose capital punishment and seek to abolish corporal punishment of children. They support nonviolent methods of protecting society against murder and juvenile delinquency.

And unlike the death penalty and the hitting of children, those nonviolent methods do not set an example that teaches people to use violence in dealing with problems.

The same logic would apply to infanticide. It would be hard to argue that this practice is necessary for self-defense or the defense of others. There obviously are humane and nonviolent alternatives for responding to childhood disabilities.

Moreover, the example set by infanticide could be seized upon by people seeking rationalizations for taking similar action against others they find inconvenient to tolerate.

Another important consideration is that by continually witnessing killing and suffering, people can become desensitized to those sights. The result is a lessened capacity for caring about others and an indifference toward seeing them harmed.

This danger is explained in the book People of the Lie: The Hope for Curing Human Evil, by M. Scott Peck, M.D. He writes: “The sight of a single bloody, mangled body horrifies us. But if we see such bodies all around us every day, day after day, the horrible becomes normal and we lose our sense of horror. . . .”

Peck continues: “When it no longer bothers us to see mangled bodies, it will no longer bother us to mangle them ourselves. It is difficult indeed to selectively close our eyes to a certain type of brutality without closing them to all brutality. How can we render ourselves insensitive to brutality except by becoming brutes?”

Thus, as a result of growing inured to the idea of newborns being killed for the convenience of adults, people are likely to become casual and callous about unnecessary killing in other situations. As Peck indicates, this process simply turns humans into brutes.

Further, the professor’s line of thinking highlights an error not uncommonly made by persons who emphasize rational thought: they overemphasize it.

That is, they focus exclusively on cold logic and rationality. And they forget the emotional side of humanity – including heart and compassion – which can be just as important as the rational side.

The great nineteenth-century Humanist and agnostic Robert Ingersoll stressed the importance of using both head and heart in making decisions. And he forcefully and eloquently emphasized the need to remember humanity’s compassionate side when considering proposals such as the professor’s.

Ingersoll said: “It may be that the human race might be physically improved if all the sickly and deformed babes were killed, and if all the paupers, liars, drunkards, thieves, villains, and vivisectionists were murdered. All this might, in a few ages, result in the production of a generation of physically perfect men and women; but what would such beings be worth – men and women healthy and heartless, muscular and cruel – that is to say, intelligent wild beasts?

“When the angel of pity is driven from the heart; when the fountain of tears is dry – the soul becomes a serpent crawling in the dust of a desert.”

The Humanist focus on logic, rational thought, and the scientific method should not be so extreme as to drive compassion and empathy from our hearts. If that happens, we become far less than fully human.