A newborn baby doesn't seem significantly different from one that is similarly developed but yet to be born. We might say they are 'morally equivalent' - if one is a person deserving of rights, then so is the other. Pro-lifers typically use this to argue that since infanticide is immoral, so is (late-term) abortion. However, I wonder if we could turn this around, and instead argue that since abortion is morally permissible, so must be infanticide.
It's counterintuitive, I'll grant. As a species, we're very protective of our young, and our instincts (and intuitions) reflect that. However, since I think there's a gap between emotions and morality, I'd prefer to see some further reasons here.
First of all, let me be absolutely clear that it is certainly immoral to kill someone else's child. Most babies are immensely valuable - priceless - in the eyes of their parents, so to hurt them would be to commit a grave harm against the parents, at the very least. Instead, what I want to consider are cases when the parents are the ones who want their baby to die. So we can assume the baby doesn't have any instrumental value. The question becomes: does it have any intrinsic value, i.e. is it of independent moral worth, simply in itself? Is it a person, worthy of moral consideration?
I don't know. This is the old question haunting the abortion debate, of when a bunch of cells becomes a person. Probably the only sensible answer is that it is a gradual progression. A single-celled zygote is morally worthless, an embryo is perhaps on a par with a rodent, a foetus (and perhaps a newborn) is more like a household pet. As their cognitive skills develop (by which I mean not just intelligence, but also communication, emotion, desires, consciousness, etc.), they become more and more intrinsically valuable - more and more of a person.
According to Daniel Dennett, consciousness is not 'hardwired' into us, but rather is a sort of 'software' program that is culturally developed over our early childhood years. (I plan to write more about this in a future post.) I take it this implies that babies aren't really conscious. If he's correct, how should that influence our moral views about the treatment of foetuses and infants?
By the way, please don't mistake me as suggesting that people can kill their babies as they please. I'm really more interested in the abstract question of moral worth. In practice, unwilling parents can always give a born child up for adoption, which would presumably do far more good than killing it, regardless of whether the baby has instrinsic moral worth (or how much). Also, for the record, I'm not entirely comfortable with late-term abortions. Here I'm just exploring some possibilities - I don't necessarily endorse all the assumptions being made along the way. Lastly, I am not in any way denigrating the worth of the parental bond - I am certainly not suggesting that parents shouldn't value their babies. Of course they should. I'm sure that special bond is immensely rewarding, and perhaps even crucial to human 'flourishing' and the well-lived life (for some people anyway). But that is all quite independent of whether those little critters we adore so much actually have any instrinsic moral worth purely in themselves.
So, with the disclaimers out of the way, what do you think? Is there any moral difference between a newborn and the foetus it was moments before? Is moral worth bestowed some time before birth? Or might newborns be not as intrinsically valuable as everyone tends to assume?
Though even if one concedes that babies don't yet have interests or desires to be thwarted (and I'm not sure about that), one might think that we should take their future interests into consideration. Kinda like how pro-lifers like to pretend zygotes are inherently valuable in virtue of being potential persons. But a potential person only has potential moral worth, and I'm inclined to say something similar about future desires. It's not entirely clear-cut, however, and I need to give that one some more thought. Any feedback/suggestions in the meantime would be most helpful.
What brought on this post was a recent case here in New Zealand, where a father was acquitted for killing his baby child, whose brain had stopped developing when she was a 13-week-old foetus. Central to the defence was that the father 'snapped', and had no rational intent to kill the baby. But I think what he did was probably permissible in any case. With such an underdeveloped brain, this case really seems closer to abortion than infanticide. But given the circumstances, it probably has even more in common with euthanasia - an interesting topic I'll have to save for a future post...