The argument from unwanted children

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Katharine Birbalsingh asked on Twitter:

As a pro-life person who very much respects Katharine Birbalsingh, and the way she has chosen to engage with people on Twitter, I thought I would write a very quick response (likely full of typos etc., sorry in advance). If the writing comes over as curt or hostile, that is not intended, I’m just trying to be logical and direct (and I’m not afraid of challenging people that I know do not shy from being challenged!)

The linked article on The tragedy of the unwanted child basically argues along these lines: if we don’t have abortion, we’ll have lots of infanticide or abandonment, and so we should allow abortion instead as its not as bad as those. Plus it’s natural, based on arguments from evolutionary biology/history/anthropology. To quote:

Safe abortion, then, is the modern cure for the ancient heartbreaks of neonaticide and abandonment.

If I understand the article rightly, it is basically saying that infanticide/neonaticide/abandonment etc. are not morally bad, just unfortunate because they are more upsetting for mothers.

So, by “cure”, it means not a way of tackling a moral evil, but a way of making us not feel as bad. The article doesn’t quite put it as bluntly as that, but at points it comes close.

If you want someone to articulate this position even more clearly, see people like Peter Singer, who rightly recognise that there is no fundamental biological difference between the born and unborn child. The life of a new human being begins at fertilisation, and there is no serious scientific dissent on this matter.

So, there are two ways it can go:

First, if you really believe this argument, you should be in favour of legalising both abortion and infanticide. The article even pointed out that in some parts of the world, neonaticide is safer than abortion for mothers. So, if you allow abortion for some mothers, but not infanticide for mothers where that is safer, why not?

The moral argument in the article appears to be that killing young children is “natural”, based on reasons drawn from evolutionary biology and the practices of cultures across the world.

Is this a sound argument? I reject it on logical grounds (as well as religious) for the same reason I reject arguments for legalising rape, and many other things we might call “natural”, including all murder. If, as a non-religious person you want to claim something is not “natural”, what is it – supernatural? Everything is natural, because it exists in the natural world.

It is simply impossible to build moral views out of arguments of things being natural or not, nor on accepted practices across the world (but that’s a longer post).

If you accept this article’s argument, you must be willing to say that you take Singer’s position, or you are being dishonest about what you believe (or deliberately living with intellectual muddiness on this issue, which is probably more comforting).

The other way we could go, is to agree with the article that infanticide is bad, but not primarily because it is distressing for parents and others, but because of a belief in the sanctity of human life (wherever you get that from). And if you believe that, then abortion is bad for the same reason infanticide is bad – it’s killing a human being. There can be times when that is justified (saving the mother’s life and perhaps some other cases), but ultimately a human life deserves legal protection.

The next point to make is that the article fundamentally presents a false dichotomy. Either we allow abortion, or we have to live with infanticide.

But as the article rightly points out, Christianity changed our attitude to infanticide. We came to recognise infanticide as bad, and it stopped happening (as much as before). Early Christians rescued children that were exposed. Society became more compassionate. We found ways to help those who struggled to look after their children. We took on the burden of looking after the unwanted, as continues today with adoption agencies.

So, it turns out we do not simply have to live with evil things! We can change attitudes towards it, and change society.

In summary, you have to choose:

  • Abortion and infanticide are the same thing (as the article explicitly points out), they are the same morally, and we should legalise both. We prefer abortion because it is less distressing (to us) and often safer for mothers. But if mothers are safer/less distressed by infanticide, that should be both permitted and encouraged.

    Also, the right response to the poor and vulnerable, who are more tempted than others to kill their children, is to encourage them to do so with cheap, legal options. This will result in disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities/poor people being killed by abortion (which is no surprise, given the origins of agencies like Planned Parenthood).

  • Abortion and infanticide are the same thing, and we should legislate against them in basically the same way. (The main difference is that while pregnancy is ongoing, the unborn child can affect the life/health of the mother in some ways that it can’t after birth, and that changes some things).

    The right response to those are struggling to provide for their children is that the whole of society, in some way, helps them bear that burden, and provides them with the support needed to look after their families, or the option of adoption if that fails.

Which one is it? I’d love to hear your answer Katharine!


Things I could have added but didn’t have time to this afternoon:

The attitude of compassion that drove the early Christians should also characterise society’s behaviour now. Also, the one area that the article linked above can really help us is pointing out that, very often, those seeking abortions are people in desperate circumstances who are pushed into it by great physical/financial need, and possibly social pressure as well.

So, part of society compassionately bearing the burden is to ensure free medical health care for mothers and their children, at the very least (as it is here in the UK). Health systems where having an abortion costs $750 but giving birth costs about $15,000 sound like something concocted by Satan himself.

Legal implications should also reflect these truths. Making abortion illegal doesn’t mean you have to criminalise women who seek or have abortions, you could limit that to those who do the abortions. There should be recognition that in most cases, when women seek abortions or expose their children, it is usually more of a societal rather than individual failure.

For me, as well as for saving the mother’s life, I would make an exception in the case of rape, at least on the legal level. Laws are very important, but not everything you think is wrong will be best addressed by laws.

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