The Corner

After-Birth Abortion, a.k.a. Infanticide

William Saletan of Slate, who thinks of himself as a pro-choice moderate, notices that two philosophers are advocating what they call “after-birth abortion.” He uses their advocacy to chide pro-choice absolutists: Their premises offer them no way of resisting the logic of infanticide. He is right about that. But I have read him attentively on this subject for years, and I don’t think he has ever come up with much of an argument for resisting the initial slide from pro-choice moderation to pro-choice absolutism.

I wrote a book a few years ago on the right to life, and included a chapter on infanticide — the advocacy of which, I noted, was “by now old hat in the academy”:

Yet what is perhaps most terrible about these apologias for child-murder is that they have a point. They are not correct about the justifiability of infanticide; but they are correct that if abortion is justified, so is infanticide. People who first hear of [Peter] Singer’s views are apt to respond that he is simply crazy. But if the philosophers of infanticide are insane, it is only in the Chestertonian sense: They are not people who lost their reason, but people who have lost everything but their reason. They are reasoning flawlessly from deeply flawed premises that they share with many people who avoid endorsing child-killing only by reasoning poorly from them.

Singer and the others have simply adopted the premises behind abortion and sought to apply them consistently. The ideas that there is a moral right to commit abortion and that there ought to be a legal right to do so are based on the notion that some human beings have no right not to be killed. Try to come up with criteria to rationalize withholding protection from human beings at the embryonic and fetal stages of development, and those criteria inevitably turn out to justify withholding protection from at least some human beings at later stages of development, too.

Comes the inevitable rejoinder: You have to draw a line somewhere. No, actually, you don’t. You don’t need to draw a line separating human beings who have rights and personhood from those who do not. You can draw a circle around the whole class of human beings instead, and say that no one within it should be deliberately killed when acting peaceably.

Update: Saletan notes that his article appeared two years ago. He chides me (among others) for “mak[ing] ‘after-birth abortion’ look like a new thing” and for using the present tense to describe his article. I’ll plead guilty to the second count, not to the first. My post explicitly denies that advocacy of infanticide is new. (And not that it matters much, but it’s Saletan’s article from two years ago that has the chronology faulty. He claims incorrectly that “until now” such advocacy has focused on the alleged best interests of the child.)

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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