I have spent four parts in this series responding to Warren’s argument that the unborn cannot be considered persons. Warren wrote her essay in 1973 in a publication called The Monist, but in 1982 she re-published the essay with an added postscript. One of the objections she was receiving to her paper is that it would also justify infanticide as well as abortion. She sought to reply to this claim in her postscript.
5. Postscript on Infanticide
Warren calls this objection to her piece “troubling,” but seems unwilling to fully follow her argument to its logical conclusion (as opposed to philosophers like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley who embrace the logical implications of their views with open arms). Her rejection is completely ad hoc. She admits that if her argument is correct, then if you kill an infant you are not killing a person. But, she adds, there are “many reasons” why infanticide is much more difficult to justify than abortion. What are these reasons?
First, in this country and period of history, the deliberate killing of newborns is almost never justified. She argues that they are “person-like enough” that to kill them requires very strong moral justification, as does killing dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, and other highly personlike creatures. It would be wrong to kill these beings for convenience, financial reasons, etc. But this is just an attempt to side-step the issue. She argued in her previous parts that human fetuses are only “potential persons,” and if her argument succeeds, newborns are only “potential persons” and not actual persons. So killing them would not be immoral. You may not like it, but you have no grounds on which to say otherwise. In fact, Singer argues that infanticide is morally permissible because newborns are no different in any morally relevant way from late-term fetuses. So if Warren argues that abortion is permissible up until the time of birth, then she must argue that infanticide is morally permissible. Otherwise she should admit that late-term abortions are immoral as late-term fetuses, like newborns, are “person-like enough” that to kill them requires very strong moral justification.
Next she offers a great apologetic for adoption. Unfortunately she sees that her argument only states that it would be wrong to kill newborns, not that it would be wrong to kill fetuses, even though her reasons for adopting out newborns certainly also apply to fetuses. Here are her reasons: “…there are (in most cases) people who are able and eager to adopt it and provide a good home for it. Many people wait years for the opportunity to adopt a child, and some are unable to do so even though there is every reason to believe that they would be good parents. The needless destruction of a viable infant inevitably deprives some person or persons of a source of great pleasure and satisfaction, perhaps severely impoverishing their lives. Furthermore, even if an infant is considered to be adoptable [sic — she likely meant ‘unadoptable’] (e.g., because of some extremely severe mental or physical handicap) it is still wrong in most cases to kill it. For most of us value the lives of infants, and would prefer to pay taxes to support orphanages and state institutions for the handicapped rather than allow unwanted infants to be killed.” Tell me why any of these reasons could not also be applied to a human fetus? In fact, there are currently more couples waiting to adopt babies in the United States than there are infants to adopt because we are aborting children that are unwanted by their own parents.
So Warren says there are “many reasons” not to support infanticide and gives us… two. Both of these arguments fail to justify her position on abortion and to argue against infanticide. She can’t eat her cake and have it, too. If my (and Schwartz’) argument for fetal personhood succeesd, then Warren’s argument fails. And if Warren’s argument succeeds, then infanticide is also morally permissible, whether or not Warren has the stomach to follow her argument to its logical conclusion (or do the reasonable thing and give up her position on abortion).
Now Warren does concede that these arguments, at least prima facie, might also support forbidding late-term abortions. But, she continues, there is an obvious and crucial difference in the case of late-term pregnancies: “…once the infant is born, its continued life cannot (except, perhaps, in very exceptional cases) pose any serious threat to the woman’s life or health, since she is free to put it up for adoption, or, where this is impossible, to place it in a state-supported institution.” This doesn’t help her case, however. First, if newborns are really not persons, and it is not wrong to kill non-persons, or at least not seriously wrong, then even if a woman could give the child up for adoption, she would not be morally obligated to. Second, you can’t kill someone on the off-chance that they may pose, in the future, a serious threat to your life or health. If you could, then you could still justify infanticide on the grounds that the child may grow up to kill his/her parents. I believe that life-saving abortions are justified, but you can’t justify abortion in the chance that the pregnancy may one day become life-threatening.
She does argue that if the child can be delivered safely without killing her, then she has no right to insist on the child’s death. The problem with this is that delivering the child in the late term is a faster and safer procedure than late-term abortions (late-term abortions are a two or three day procedure, and c-sections take about thirty minutes). So no late-term abortions are justified because the child can be delivered and then life-saving measures to the mother and child both can be administered. Yet she still argues that abortion is permissible up until the time of birth.
Finally, she argues that even though infanticide is not properly considered a form of murder, and our society disapproves of it, there still remains the moral distinction separate from the legal distinction, with several consequences.
First, she takes the morally relativistic route. It’s wrong to kill infants in our society, but in societies which are so impoverished that it cannot take care of infants adequately without endangering the survival of existing persons, killing it or allowing it to die would not be seriously wrong, provided there was no other society willing and able to take care of it. But this response just begs the question. This only succeeds if the unborn are not human persons. Since Warren never argued for that, only asserted it, she has not supported her contention and so her argument fails (to say nothing of the severe problems with a morally relativistic framework). She also mentions highly civilized societies, like the Greeks and Romans, who allowed infanticide under “such unfortunate circumstances.” That’s not my understanding. Greeks and Romans would allow infants to die if they were simply the wrong gender, as well as any other reason, like the infant being disabled, that the father did not approve of.
Second, she argues that if “an infant is born with such severe physical anomalies that its life would predictably be a very short and/or very miserable one, even with the most heroic of medical treatment, and where its parents do not choose to bear the often crushing emotional, financial, and other burdens attendant upon the artificial prolongation of such a tragic life, it is not morally wrong to cease or withhold treatment, thus allowing the infant a painless death.” This argument, again, begs the question. If infants are, in fact, persons, then we are not justified in prematurely ending their lives, even in the case of severe physical handicap.
Warren tries to escape the logical conclusion of her argument, that infanticide is morally permissible for any reason a woman wants it. The only alternative is to accept that late-term abortions are not morally permissible, which to my knowledge she has not yet done. However, even aside from this, I have argued that the unborn from fertilization should be considered full human persons. If my argument succeeds, then Warren’s argument is moot, anyway. The unborn deserve the same protections as all other human beings.