It’s been almost ten years since Peter Singer wrote his famous (or notorious) article in The Spectator (Sept. 16, 1995, pp. 20-22; haven’t found it online) entitled, “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong,” in which he argued for legalization of infanticide, particularly for disabled infants. Now, medical doctors are arguing for it in “respectable” journals like the New England Journal of Medicine.
Perhaps, like the ancient Greeks, we should have a ceremony a month after birth, at which the infant is admitted to the community. Before that time, infants would not be recognized as having the same right to life as older people.
He also argued that people who support abortion but not infanticide are being inconsistent — and they should support both. He gave one of the most back-handed compliments I’ve ever seen when he said,
Pope John Paul II proclaims that the widespread acceptance of abortion is a mortal threat to the traditional moral order. … I sometimes think that he and I at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at stake in the debate.
In his book Practical Ethics, and on his website, Singer clarifies his position:
Q. You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?
A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term â€œpersonâ€ (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesnâ€™t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support â€“ which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the babyâ€™s life swiftly and humanely.
A “serious disability” can include one that required lifelong medical treatment, but does not preclude living a productive and pleasant life. Excerpt from his book Practical Ethics (1993):
A woman may plan to have two children. If one dies while she is of child-bearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, and then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child than for a haemophiliac.
When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.
You would think — or at least, I would have thought — that this was obviously completely loony. But something called the “Born Alive Infants Protection Act,” which made it a federal crime to kill a newborn, was opposed by both NOW and NARAL and twice vetoed by President Clinton on the grounds that a law against killing newborns somehow endangers the right to an abortion. (It was passed a third time and signed by President Bush; it is now being challenged in the courts.)
Now, just today the New England Journal of Medicine released an article entitled, “The Groningen Protocol â€” Euthanasia in Severely Ill Newborns” (March 10, 2005, 352:10, pp. 959-962) in which two Dutch doctors, Eduard Verhagen and Pieter J.J. Sauer (Verhagen is also an attorney) discuss, and advocate, the system they’ve developed for deciding when to kill babies, especially babies who are not terminally ill. In fact, the article opens with a sentence that is almost bragging about how many babies they’ve killed in the Netherlands:
Of the 200,000 children born in the Netherlands every year, about 1000 die during the first year of life. For approximately 600 of these infants, death is preceded by a medical decision regarding the end of life.
Translation: 60% of infant mortality in the Netherlands is intentional!
Suffering is a subjective feeling that cannot be measured objectively, whether in adults or in infants. But we accept that adults can indicate when their suffering is unbearable. …
In the Netherlands, euthanasia for competent persons older than 16 years of age has been legally accepted since 1985. The question under consideration now is whether deliberate life-ending procedures are also acceptable for newborns and infants, despite the fact that these patients cannot express their own will. Or must infants with disorders associated with severe and sustained suffering be kept alive when their suffering cannot be adequately reduced?
Deciding not to initiate or to withdraw life-prolonging treatment in newborns with no chance of survival is considered good practice for physicians in Europe and is acceptable [though illegal --DR] for physicians in the United States. Most such infants die immediately after treatment has been discontinued. [They think this is good. --DR]
Neonatologists in the Netherlands and the majority of neonatologists in Europe are convinced that intensive care treatment is not a goal in itself. Its aim is not only survival of the infant, but also an acceptable quality of life. [But if we can't achieve an "acceptable" quality of life, we might as well give up and kill the baby. After all, we've got to keep up our standards!]
All possible measures must be taken to alleviate severe pain and discomfort. There are, however, circumstances in which, despite all measures taken, suffering cannot be relieved and no improvement can be expected. When both the parents and the physicians are convinced that there is an extremely poor prognosis, they may concur that death would be more humane than continued life. Under similar conditions, a person in the Netherlands who is older than 16 years of age can ask for euthanasia. Newborns, however, cannot ask for euthanasia, and such a request by parents, acting as the representatives of their child, is invalid under Dutch law. Does this mean that euthanasia in a newborn is always prohibited? We are convinced that life-ending measures [translation: killing babies] can be acceptable in these cases under very strict conditions: the parents must agree fully, on the basis of a thorough explanation of the condition and prognosis; a team of physicians, including at least one who is not directly involved in the care of the patient, must agree; and the condition and prognosis must be very well defined. After the decision has been made and the child has died [and it's too late to do anything about it!], an outside legal body should determine whether the decision was justified and all necessary procedures have been followed.
They even have a neat little chart explaining why they killed each of a sample of 22 babies.
See, a “long life expectancy” is considered more of a reason for killing a baby, since there is more suffering in a long life than in a short one.
Once upon a time, doctors, upon becoming doctors, took the Oath of Hippocrates, in which they swore, “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
Now, medical doctors are advocating killing patients they can’t cure in one of the most mainstream and most prestigious medical journals. This is not going anywhere good, especially coming right on the heels of suggestions to limit access to health care for the elderly on the basis of cost.
We are not far from a regime in which doctors decide whether or not our lives are worth living, based not our own notions of the worth of our lives and our suffering, but their notions of our worth and the costs of treating us.
After I read about Peter Singer, (probably in this article by J. Bottum), and especially after he was appointed Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics [sic] at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values [sic], I started telling people that political advocacy of infanticide was around the corner — and of course, people started telling me I was crazy. My prediction in 1996 was that a pro-infanticide position would be in the Democratic platform by 2012. Sadly, I think we’re right on schedule.