Law & the Courts

Abortion, Infanticide, and the Doctrine of Double Effect

Many people prefer to be illogical on the issue of abortion because it suits them.

For those opposed to abortion, the moral distinction between abortion and infanticide is an arbitrary one. If human life begins at conception, and it is wrong to kill an innocent human life, then killing a human in utero must be wrong in almost all circumstances. The occupant of the womb is undeserving of violent death on either side of her mother’s cervix.

The best illustration of “the exception” to this I can think of comes from the movie Master and Commander. Amidst a storm, the mast of a British navy ship snaps, and the lookout is left clinging to it, fighting for his life against crashing waves. When it becomes clear that the weight of the mast will capsize the whole ship if not cut loose, the captain cuts it. The inevitable effect of this action is that the lookout drowns. In philosophical terms, this is an application of the “principle of double effect,” which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

According to the principle of double effect, sometimes it is permissible to cause a harm as a side effect (or “double effect”) of bringing about a good result even though it would not be permissible to cause such a harm as a means to bringing about the same good end. [Emphasis added.]

This, of course, is the same logic permitting abortion in cases where a mother’s life is at risk. Her life, mind you. Not her comfort, her convenience, or her happiness — important though those things are. One might think this position is extreme. Fine. But is it more or less extreme than the position of Virginia governor Ralph Northam who, in supporting state Democrats’ late-term abortion bill, also flirted with the prospect of infanticide of abortion survivors?

By the end of the third month of pregnancy, the unborn human is fully formed. Arms, hands, feet, fingers, and toes. The human can open and shut its mouth. The human has external ears, and the beginnings of fingernails, toenails, and teeth. These well-known characteristics are partly why late-term abortion and infanticide repulse most people. As my colleague David French pointed out: “A Gallup poll this summer found that only 13 percent of Americans favor making third-trimester abortions ‘generally’ legal. In fact, only 18 percent of Democrats shared that position.”

However, it is not only pro-lifers who recognize that the logic of abortion and infanticide are similar. Peter Singer, an atheist professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has argued as much — suggesting that it’s morally okay to kill disabled newborns if their parents don’t want them. This might upset people — if you are pro-life, of course, you think this is based on an abhorrent and false first premise — but it is logical.

The truth is that many people prefer to be illogical on the issue of abortion because it suits them. They are guided by the ick factor. Late-term? Icky. First-term? Okay. When does life start if not conception? Not sure. Until when is abortion okay? Don’t know, but the earlier the better.

Interestingly, state Democrats, in their attempts to justify the Repeal Act, which would permit abortion even while a woman is in labor, places the principle of double effect alongside the “means to an end” argument. Their bill states that late-term abortion is justifiable when “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

Again, this is a fallacy. Saying late-term abortion is okay when there’s risk of “the death of the woman” or if the birth would “impair the mental or physical health of the woman is kind of like saying that cutting the man on the mast loose is okay if they’ll all drown or if he’ll contribute to the depletion of sea biscuits.

Northam’s musings are abhorrent. But the question most pro-choice people cannot answer is: if abortion, then why not infanticide?

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