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On Killing Babies

I am sure that many people  will be as shocked as I am by this report that has appeared in the Daily Telegraph:

Infanticide should be legal, Oxford experts say

A group of medical ethicists linked to Oxford University has argued that killing young babies is no different from abortion, and should be allowed even when there is nothing physically wrong with the child….

[Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, the authors of the report published in the Journal of Medical Ethics,] argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”.

They explained: “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.

“We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

As such they argued it was “not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense”.

The authors therefore concluded that “what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled”.

Utilising ethics and morals to justify the termination of the life of babies is not new. A key question becomes who owns the baby. In his book, The Ethics of Liberty, the libertarian Murray Rothbard argued that the mother “is the natural and rightful owner of the baby.” He adds, “even from birth, the parental ownership is not absolute but of a ‘trustee’ or guardianship kind. In short, every baby as soon as it is born and is therefore no longer contained within his mother’s body possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult.” Rothbard is clear that it should be illegal to torture or murder a baby. But having said that, this does not make Rothbard the great defender of babies. Far from it. He believed that a parent can simply let a baby die by not feeding it:

[A] parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also … the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.

Rothbard would therefore allow a parent to starve a baby to death by not providing it any food.  A different, and earlier argument, for killing babies was made in 1895 by the American individual anarchist Benjamin Tucker. Unlike Rothbard, he believed that parents could torture and murder their children: “parental cruelty is not to be prohibited.” He made an explicit argument based on his opinion that parents owned their children, to conclude that they have the right to throw their child into the fire. Carl Watner explained in the pages of Libertarian Forum (March 1975):

Tucker’s opinion is grounded on the fact that he views the child as the property of the mother. Children, in Tucker’s estimation, belong in the category of things to be owned, rather than as being owners of themselves. However he does note that the “child differs from all other parts of that category (of things to be owned) in the fact that there is steadily developing within him the power of self-emancipation, which at a certain point enables him to become an owner instead of remaining part of the owned.”" Tucker saw ”. . . no clearer property title in the world than that of the mother to the fruit of her womb, unless she has otherwise disposed of it by contract. Certainly the mother’s title to the child while it remains in her womb will not be denied by any Anarchist. To deny this would be to deny the right of the mother to commit suicide during pregnancy, and I never knew an Anarchist to deny the right of suicide. If, then, the child is the mother’s while in the womb, by what consideration does title to it become vested in another than the mother on its emergence from the womb pending the day of its emancipation?”

Tucker clearly refused to invoke the self-ownership axiom towards children, at least until they had reached the age of being able to contract and provide for themselves. In the meantime, he recognized the right of the mother to throw her property into the fire.

I am sure that many people will look at these arguments for either killing a baby or allowing it to die and their prejudice against those with philosophy degrees will be reinforced.

Hat Tip: Paul Bogdanor