The case for infanticide.

This, as you might expect, is going to be a delicate subject.i

Let’s first address the reality that this isn’t a new debate, nor could it possibly be, at least not in liberal and decent societies worth the mention.ii Questions and concerns over the moral agency of newborns, their possession of a soul (hence personhood), and their utility to their families is as old as humanity itself. Pharaohiii demanded the slaughtering of the male children of the Hebrew nation around 1500 BC, which led to our old friend Moses being sent down the river, only to be rescued by one of Pharaoh’s daughters. The Ancient Greeks of Sparta brought each newborn baby to their council of elders for assessment ten days after birth. If the child was determined to be too weak or otherwise infirm, he or she were killed on the spot.iv And those are just a couple of the ones we have ancient stories about, to say nothing of the more modern examples of 19th century England or 20th century China under the One Child Policy. Mothers and fathers have killed their children for any number of reasons – either practical or selfish – for millennia, and in many corners of the world still do.

So whether it’s a king trying to quell a rebellious people, a community trying to selectively breed itself to success, or a mother who isn’t prepared to take care of a deformed child, infanticide is a very natural practise. There’s therefore nothing “inhuman” about it. If it can be done by humans, and it cannot be contested that it can, then it’s natural and quite human, though whether it’s humane is an altogether different ethical consideration.

So is infanticide humane ? Can it be ? This is a tricky proposition because it must consider not only what it means to be a human being, as opposed to an animal, but also what role suffering plays. As to the former, I covered this recently in my letter on free will, from which :

Given that we know what freedom looks like, at what level in the hierarchy of organic beings can we say that will, that is, desire, comes into play? Personally, I’d argue that this is what separates man from beast, so to speak. To take a basic example of will, whereas animals eat out of necessity, humans can and do eat out of desire. How else can we explain strawberry cheesecake or coconut curry? That humans have desire can scarcely be contested, and I’d argue that from this desire (and freedom of course) comes much of the beauty of the human condition.

So do newborns have the desires, much less the pathological needs, that characterise both the best and worst of humanity ? It’s hard to say that they do. Really, they’re entirely dependent lumps that just want to suck on a tit and cry about it. All. Goddam. Day. That’s it. At this earliest stage of lung-dependent development, therefore, they’re scarcely distinguishable from animals, even if they quite evidently have the potential to become much more, good health being presumed.

Unfortunately for the little guy, I can’t reasonably argue that potential alone is a sufficient grounds for life. Who has potential ? Under what circumstances ? In what time and in what place ? These questions being unanswerable with any semblance of authority, they’re excluded from being acceptable premises for any practical frameworks here. This is a key point taken up by ethicists Giubilini and Minerva :

So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred. A consequence of this position is that the interests of actual people over-ride the interest of merely potential people to become actual ones.

Not only is a newborn’s potential unquantifiable and unqualifiable, it can’t possibly outweigh the interests of adults in general and its parents in particular. These mature interests become exceedingly clear when we consider that most sensible cases for infanticide involve disabled children. If we take into account the strong possibility that cases involving infanticide are due to obvious mental or severe physical deformities with the newborn, we see that the child’s potential is indeed limited and that their parents would be taking on an extraordinarily burdensome challenge in raising them.

This being the case, this inability to mold your child in your own image, to lift them atop your shoulders that they may see farther horizons and reach more closely to the gods, is, to my mind, acceptable grounds for early termination of life. This is no different from a mid-term abortion of pregnancy. For while mentally retarded children may be “happy on the inside,” they’re more like long-lived puppy dogs than the children that most people sacrifice their everything for. As to physically retarded children, as long as they have their hands and eyes working well and they can plug themselves into a computer, there’s never been a better time in the history of humanity to achieve their full potential and positively contribute to the world. So there’s that, but parents may still choose to throw in the towel and try again. And that’s ok.

As to suffering, this is something we should reasonably want to minimise if we’re ending the lives of such fragile and defenseless beings. Some fashions will certainly be better than others, and should one find oneself in such a position, these higher roads ought to be taken.

But is infanticide the only way to prevent parents and the society they live inv from being unduly burdened ?vi What about adoption, you say ? While I’m personally in favour of adoption over infanticide for healthy children, goodness knows our LMO-riddled environment has led to its fair share of sterile couples who would love nothing more than a little baby to call their own, Giubilini and Minerva bring up an interesting perspective I hadn’t previously considered :

Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief.vii It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic.

Ultimately, this consideration is best left to the parents in question ; I only advocate in favour of a family’s freedom to decide for themselves what’s best. If you and your wife don’t want to spend the next 50-years looking after some drooling, hobbling runt that would defeat you financially in a single week were it not for the support of the state, and you don’t want to make a 50 year wager on the viability of socialised medicine, to say nothing of your own desire for freedom or your desire to try again for a healthier child, the puritanically naive notions of priceless life and “everyone is a trainflake” shouldn’t hold you back from doing what’s best for you. Death can be tragic, but it can also be necessary.viii

After all, without Dionysis, there can be no Apollo.

___ ___ ___

  1. This was catalysed by recent conversations with friends, which were both positive and productive, as well as “So this is how The Giver started” (linkrotted) over at RCWG*, from which we see a typical libertard reaction to pain and choice : “all life is beautiful and worth infinite+1 dollars, you guys are Nazis because you think differently, and the state should make all bad things illegal mkay, particularly those related to individual freedoms.”** This is, of course, utter and patent nonsense. Lives are at best worth a bitcent, pain can be very motivating, and large nation states as we know them today are Godzillas who wreck everything they touch. This isn’t a matter of my wishing how the world should be either, this has nothing to do with purposes and everything to do with causes.

    So in this particular article, author “soncharm” links to a 2012 article from The Telegraph UK, which itself is supposed to link to an article by two Italian ethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, but actually links to… well, not a whole lot. I was about to chalk this up to the most despicable act of allowing linkrot to set in, but then I found that the Journal of Medical Ethics just moved the article. Here’s the whole piece, entitled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” (archived).

    So without further ado, let’s dig a little deeper, let’s dig past whatever initial emotional disgust you might have.


    *If you can look past the fact that it has “wordpress” in its domain name, this blog has its moments, not the least of which is its blogroll. I mean, who doesn’t love a good blogroll ?
    **This, incidentally, is precisely the type of comments I’m expecting from less intellectually capable and more historically naive commenters. But I hope I’m wrong ! []

  2. N.B. This qualification may not include your current habitation. Pretty shitty, eh ? But it’s ok. The Internet is here, and nothing could be more open and just than this. []
  3. Quite possibly Amenhotep II. []
  4. Eventually, the elders became too demanding, however, setting the barrier to entry into Spartan society too high. This leads to collapse in the same way that setting the barrier too low does. It’s a balancing act, this, and one that must be renewed in every generation. []
  5. Particularly if nation states have socialised medicine and taxpayers are coercively forced to fund the disproportionate burden of disabled children for as long as they may live, and often by any means necessary. []
  6. This isn’t to say that all parents would find unhealthy children an excessive or unwanted burden, but some do. It’s to those who do to whom this option benefits.

    As to what “society” wants or doesn’t want, given that there’s no such thing as “the group” in the first place, it cannot possibly have any means of determining what it wants. It’s not a thing that can want anything. “Society” as such is nothing more than the average emotional weakness of all the meatpuppets that happen to populate a temporarily defined geography. I mean, have you ever tried choosing a restaurant with 5 indecisive friends ? Then how the fuck do you imagine that anything of consequence can be determined by the collected grunting and moaning of a few million derps who had nothing better to do with an hour of their day than stand in line at a ballot station so that they can pencil in the name of the person they decided that they hated the least while standing in line ? Seriously, no one gives a shit. []

  7. Original footnote: Condon J. Psychological disability in women who relinquish a baby for adoption. Med J Aust 1986;144:117–19. []
  8. THE DEVIL. And is Man any the less destroying himself for all this boasted brain of his? Have you walked up and down upon the earth lately? I have; and I have examined Man’s wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence and famine. The peasant I tempt to-day eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady’s bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind. In the arts of peace Man is a bungler. I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food. I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat. There is nothing in Man’s industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons. This marvellous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: Man measures his strength by his destructiveness. What is his religion? An excuse for hating ME. What is his law? An excuse for hanging YOU. What is his morality? Gentility! an excuse for consuming without producing. What is his art? An excuse for gloating over pictures of slaughter. What are his politics? Either the worship of a despot because a despot can kill, or parliamentary cockfighting. I spent an evening lately in a certain celebrated legislature, and heard the pot lecturing the kettle for its blackness, and ministers answering questions. When I left I chalked up on the door the old nursery saying—”Ask no questions and you will be told no lies.” I bought a sixpenny family magazine, and found it full of pictures of young men shooting and stabbing one another. I saw a man die: he was a London bricklayer’s laborer with seven children. He left seventeen pounds club money; and his wife spent it all on his funeral and went into the workhouse with the children next day. She would not have spent sevenpence on her children’s schooling: the law had to force her to let them be taught gratuitously; but on death she spent all she had. Their imagination glows, their energies rise up at the idea of death, these people: they love it; and the more horrible it is the more they enjoy it. Hell is a place far above their comprehension: they derive their notion of it from two of the greatest fools that ever lived, an Italian and an Englishman. The Italian described it as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street. The Englishman described me as being expelled from Heaven by cannons and gunpowder; and to this day every Briton believes that the whole of his silly story is in the Bible. What else he says I do not know; for it is all in a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through. It is the same in everything. The highest form of literature is the tragedy, a play in which everybody is murdered at the end. In the old chronicles you read of earthquakes and pestilences, and are told that these showed the power and majesty of God and the littleness of Man. Nowadays the chronicles describe battles. In a battle two bodies of men shoot at one another with bullets and explosive shells until one body runs away, when the others chase the fugitives on horseback and cut them to pieces as they fly. And this, the chronicle concludes, shows the greatness and majesty of empires, and the littleness of the vanquished. Over such battles the people run about the streets yelling with delight, and egg their Governments on to spend hundreds of millions of money in the slaughter, whilst the strongest Ministers dare not spend an extra penny in the pound against the poverty and pestilence through which they themselves daily walk. I could give you a thousand instances; but they all come to the same thing: the power that governs the earth is not the power of Life but of Death; and the inner need that has nerved Life to the effort of organizing itself into the human being is not the need for higher life but for a more efficient engine of destruction. The plague, the famine, the earthquake, the tempest were too spasmodic in their action; the tiger and crocodile were too easily satiated and not cruel enough: something more constantly, more ruthlessly, more ingeniously destructive was needed; and that something was Man, the inventor of the rack, the stake, the gallows, and the electrocutor; of the sword and gun; above all, of justice, duty, patriotism and all the other isms by which even those who are clever enough to be humanely disposed are persuaded to become the most destructive of all the destroyers.

    From George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. []

6 thoughts on “The case for infanticide.

  1. […] Yesterday’s piece brought up a lively debate in channel about parenting. Most every perspective was representedi : has children and is happy with them, has children but isn’t happy with them, has children on the way, doesn’t have children but wants them, doesn’t have children and doesn’t want them, and any other possible combination I haven’t considered. As ever, the discourse is diverse and dialectic. […]

  2. funkenstein says:

    The issue at hand gives me the excuse to recommend a great read: Florinda Donner-Grau – “Shabono”.

  3. Relevant :

    Not only do mothers sometimes kill their own children, they are almost never insane when they do so. On the contrary, for a mother to murder her own child is an evolutionary adaptation without which our species would not have survived some of the environmental and social disasters of the past. What’s more, the actual reasoning behind this is so simple that a straightforward simple equation in four variables is sufficient to provide a reliable estimate of the probability that any particular mother will murder any particular infant: the age of the mother, whether or not this child is the gender that the mother wanted (which, itself, turns out to be easily and universally predicted based on only two variables, the mother’s social status and the predicted reliability of the food supply), the child’s birth weight (and to a lesser extent other indicators of long-term viability), and her estimate of whether or not attempting to nurture this particular child will only get both her and the child killed. When she took her early estimates for this equation to the 1990 conference, she discovered that epidemiologists studying SIDS, primatologists studying infanticide (following her 1976 tip), historians digging through old records to try to quantify infanticide throughout the ages, criminologists and social psychologists trying to come up with statistical models to predict mother-on-child infanticide, and anthropologists trying to statistically analyze what variables are most consistent with cultures that have high versus low rates of infanticide, had all independently discovered the same equation. And from her viewpoint as an evolutionary biologist, Hrdy demonstrates that any sane, healthy, normal, intelligent mothers who weren’t capable of coldly murdering their own infant children almost certainly had no surviving descendants at all to be our ancestors during some of the species-wide threats that have been demonstrated to have happened from the fossil record and from studies of rates of genetic drift.

    I mention SIDS. One of the researchers, she says, was an epidemiologist who, in the process of trying to quantify his hunch, initiated a study in which social workers and police very, very intensively interviewed and background checked a long string of crib deaths that had been explained away as unexplained random respiratory failure. It turns out that his equation was able to predict, with high (but not absolute) reliability, which infants had actually been the victims of homicide or malign neglect. If the infant was a boy when the mother wanted a girl or vice versa, if the infant was born weighing less than 8 pounds, or if the mother was in any kind of economic or physical danger if this child survived, then the baby was doomed. His final estimate, from that initial study, was that seventy five percent of all SIDS cases are actually homicides. But, he admitted, just acknowledging this possibility puts us in an awful dilemma. To catch the 3 out of 4 women whose babies suddenly die that were actually murderers, we have to treat all SIDS cases as potential homicides, therefore piling yet more heartbreak and tragedy on the 1 out of 4 who just randomly went through the worst tragedy any family can know, the sudden and unexpected death of a beloved child. Even using the predictive equation to narrow the field of homicide investigations, we’d still be casting a very scarily public accusation of homicide on an uncomfortably large number of grieving mothers.

    I also mention social psychology. The central tenet of the field of social psychology is that if under a given situation, all or nearly all individuals will engage in the same unwanted behavior, then there is less to be gained by stigmatizing those individuals and lauding the ones who don’t than by studying the situation with an eye towards changing it. And you can see in a heartbeat how that applies here: if infants are at extreme risk whenever one or more of three variables are present, then we can reduce the rate of (massively under-reported, intentionally under-investigated) maternal infanticide by decreasing the economic and evolutionary pressures behind gender preference, by providing mothers with as much economic assistance and physical protection as it would require for them to feel safe providing for this baby, and by intensify supervision for the first several months of life of mothers of infants who are born weighing less than 8 pounds or looking otherwise sickly. But addressing the issue in this way, and looking into the roots of the equation that predicts maternal infanticide, makes social psychologists confront the queasy implication of all of their work: if it’s that sane and natural for them to do this awful thing, if this awful thing is so hard to resist, how can we justify stigmatizing and punishing them? And if we can’t, then how can we live with ourselves having just (the historian points out) joined the 85% of all known historical societies, up to and including Christian western Europe as late as the late 19th century, that socially tolerated infanticide any time in the first couple of days after birth? There’s pro-choice, I mean, and then there’s being so pro-choice as to join the ranks of societies that have denied the humanity of a breathing infant up to 48 hours old … are we willing to go there? Or to at least show understanding and compassion and tolerance towards societies that did or that do? The anthropologists at the conference were especially terrified of releasing their research findings, because they knew that the accusation that a society or tribe kills children has been used to justify no shortage of genocidal invasions.

  4. […] the saying “You can’t choose your parents” but not the converse ; the converse isn’t true ! […]

  5. […] and gasps, doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.xiii So not only will there be no “accidental infanticide,” but even the warring Spartans of Ancient Greece couldn’t have brought themselves to […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>