A paper by two bioethicists arguing for “after-birth abortion” has stirred up a debate, to say the least (here’s an earlier post about it). I asked Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and one of the world’s best-known philosophers, for his take. Here’s what Singer, whose own views on infanticide are controversial, wrote:
In contemporary applied ethics, the issue of the moral status of newborns and the possibility that in some circumstances infanticide can be justifiable, dates back to Michael Tooley’s article “Abortion and Infanticide” published in Philosophy and Public Affairs—perhaps the most respected journal in the field—in 1972. (The authors quite properly note this article, as well as later contributions to the discussion.) Their article doesn’t say anything remarkably new, although it does add some thoughts about the justifiability of infanticide in cases in which the infant is not severely disabled, including a discussion of whether it could be justifiable to kill the newborn infant even when there is a couple who are keen to adopt such a child.
I expect that it is because the authors saw their article as a contribution to a discussion that goes back 40 years, that they were taken aback by the virulence of the reaction to it, and especially by the death threats they received. Of course, 40 years ago no articles were published online, and there were no pro-life Web sites, so since that time it has become much easier to stir up opposition to articles published in academic journals.
The moral status of newborn infants is a real issue, and it is proper for academic journals to publish articles that, like this one, discuss it in a serious and well-reasoned manner. People who wish to defend the traditional view of the sanctity of all human life should respond to the authors’ arguments, not by mere abuse. And it is ironic that some seek to “defend” the sanctity of human life by threatening to kill those who question it!
Opponents of abortion ought to welcome articles arguing that there is no real difference of moral status between the fetus and the newborn, for they have been arguing that themselves for many years. Their problem, apparently, is that most of them do not know how to argue against anyone who agrees with them that the fetus and newborn infant have the same moral status, but then denies that merely existing as an innocent living human being is enough to give a being a right to life. If opponents of abortion believe they can win this debate by reason and argument, rather than by threats and intimidation, they have some work to do.