November 26, 2007
Dear Mayor Giuliani:
Your fidelity to your longstanding views on abortion is being scrutinized with rare intensity for so early in a presidential campaign. And no wonder: your pro-choice views have alarmed a veritable army of pro-lifers. These pro-lifers fear that, if you become president, you will use your power, especially in appointing Supreme Court justices, to solidify the pro-choice position. That raises their hackles, and now you’ve become their target. You’re heading for trouble, whether you admit it to yourself or not.
You might think you long ago covered the main bases in arriving at your pro-choice position. But did you? There is a neglected aspect of the abortion question that you may not have seriously considered—or have not considered at all. Perhaps reflection on it will lead you to moderate or revise your pro-choice position. This too-often neglected aspect concerns infanticide. You see, it is irrefutable that there is a logical connection between abortion and infanticide.
Infants lack the same capacities that fetuses lack. Neither fetuses nor infants have a sense of self, an awareness of their life as a continuing project, or an ability to reflect on anything or to communicate at a minimum level of meaningfulness. Only when a child is about 1-1/2 to 2 years old does it possess the capacities that we typically attribute to persons. When it is a toddler, and no longer an infant, it has finally arrived at the shores of self-consciousness. No one thinks it’s okay to kill a toddler.
Most pro-choicers agree that it’s wrong to kill infants. But they have no objective basis for thinking so. The arguments in favor of abortion are unable to stave off the conclusion that infanticide, too, is morally permissible. This is not to say that most pro-choicers favor infanticide; the Judeo-Christian shadow which still hangs over our culture leads them to regard infanticide with revulsion. But it is almost comical to see how pro-choice philosophers try to avoid biting the bullet. Their arguments against infanticide are weak and unconvincing, given their pro-abortion premises. Every one of those arguments seems to rely, in one way or another, on merely subjective considerations. Michael Tooley and Peter Singer are more honest. Both of these well-known philosophers argue for the moral permissibility of infanticide as well as abortion.
One pro-abortion philosopher criticizes infanticide this way: “Killing children or adults is wrong because it violates the respect they are due as creatures aware of, and caring about, their lives; killing infants, because it violates the love we give them as a means of making them into creatures aware of, and caring about, their lives. Killing children or adults is wrong because of properties they possess; killing infants, because of an emotion that we naturally and rightly have toward infants. Infants . . . do not possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them.” (Jeffrey Reiman, Abortion and the Ways We Value Human Life, Rowman and Littlefield 1999.)
Is infanticide really wrong only for these morally subjective reasons—which mirror the traditional Christian rationale for opposing cruelty to animals? Aren’t there any sturdier reasons for opposing infanticide, reasons having to do with certain objective characteristics of the infant? The answer, for the defenders of abortion, is no. Defenders of abortion are unable to distinguish the morality of abortion from the morality of infanticide except by recourse to what that great American philosopher, Huckleberry Finn, called “stretchers.”
If infanticide is wrong, it must be because of some property that the infant possesses. (Otherwise abortion would be morally worse than infanticide. In abortion, the fetus is deliberately attacked, and killed either directly or indirectly. By contrast, infanticide need not involve an actual attack. An infant can simply be left untended, and it will die.) In fact, if it is wrong, the wrongness of infanticide must depend on some essential property or attribute that the infant possesses. And that’s the rub: an infant has no essential properties that distinguish it from a fetus, or, for that matter, from an embryo.
Perhaps you’re not sure where all of this leads. If so, consider this passage from a particularly rigorous and honest pro-choice philosopher: “[T]he implications of the [pro-abortion/pro-infanticide] view are in fact even more shocking to common sense than I have so far acknowledged. Let me cite the worst-case example. Suppose that a woman who wants to be a single parent becomes impregnated via artificial insemination, but dies during childbirth. The newborn infant is healthy and so is an ideal candidate for adoption. But suppose that, in the same hospital . . . there are three other children, all five years old, who will soon die if they do not receive organ transplants. The newly orphaned infant turns out to have exactly the right tissue type: if it were killed, its organs could be used to save the three ailing children. According to the view I have developed, it ought to be permissible, if other things are equal, to sacrifice the newborn infant in order to save the other three children. For if the infant is below the threshold of respect, its time-relative interests can legitimately be weighed and traded off against the interests of others. And its time-relative interest in continuing to live is much weaker than that of each of the three older children; it is only one individual, whereas they are three; and it has no parents or relatives, while each of them, we may suppose, is cherished by its parents and others.” The author adds that “[Peter] Singer’s understanding of the morality of killing has the same implication.” (Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, Oxford 2002.)
As you are all too aware, people disagree about the morality of abortion. But you, as at least a nominal Catholic, should be particularly sensitive to, and apprehensive about, the infanticide-friendly logic of abortion. What this logic does, in effect, is give the benefit of the doubt, in the debate about abortion, to the pro-life side. True, those who are completely secularist in their thinking will not be offended by the philosophical kinship of abortion and infanticide. If you are a thoroughgoing secularist like them, it would be irrational for pro-lifers to support you.
If your Catholic faith means anything to you, and if you value truth, intellectual rigor, and moral consistency, you will make your peace with pro-lifers. At the very least, you will do nothing to give aid and succor to the pro-choice side. This means, at a minimum, that you will reject the idea—which you previously appeared to endorse—that precedent, or stare decisis, can be the basis for upholding Roe v. Wade. In assessing Roe, moral considerations carry far more weight than do legal conventions such as precedent. Precedent cannot bear the weight of legitimizing Roe.
The decision is yours, and while your presidential aspirations may well hang on it, it is essentially a moral and philosophical choice, not a political one. May your decision, whatever it is, exhibit the integrity (intellectual as well as personal) that Americans want to see from politicians, not least on the vexed issue of abortion.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.