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  • Paul Stark

How opposition to protecting abortion survivors points to growing specter of infanticide

In late February, the U.S. Senate tried to pass legislation requiring ordinary medical care for newborn babies who survive abortion—the medical care any other infants born alive at the same age would receive.

Abortion advocacy groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL opposed it. Forty-four senators successfully filibustered it. Meanwhile, a majority in the U.S. House has refused to consider it. The bill has not passed either chamber of Congress.

Why not? It doesn't seem controversial. It doesn't affect abortion access or women's health care in any way. It simply prevents abortion practitioners from abandoning or neglecting living babies who are already born.

Opponents have offered various explanations for their position. But none of them are plausible reasons for opposing the bill. There's definitely more going on here.

Objections to the born-alive bill

Consider the stated reasons for opposition to the born-alive legislation. One very common claim is that the bill infringes on "decisions about women's health care," as Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) repeatedly said in a speech on the Senate floor. That's a bald-faced lie. Infant health care is not women's health care because infants are not women.

Some say the bill requires doctors to take unnecessary or extraordinary measures. That's also plainly false. The bill doesn't specify the care that is appropriate in any given situation. It simply says that physicians can't treat certain babies differently just because of the circumstances of their birth.

Others say that cases of abortion survival don't happen—they are "imaginary," as NARAL puts it. This would be news to the hundreds of known abortion survivors living today. The Centers for Disease Control also reports that, between 2003 and 2014, at least 143 babies were "definitively" born alive after abortion (and the actual number is certainly higher). A handful of such cases are reported here in Minnesota each year by the state health department.

But is protection for born-alive infants really necessary? Don't the people paid to kill these human beings care for them when they survive? Unsurprisingly, the answer is: Not always. Nurses have testified to seeing babies left to die after surviving abortion. Undercover investigations have produced additional evidence that born-alive infants are sometimes killed. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia abortionist, routinely killed newborn babies after delivering them alive. Texas abortionist Douglas Karpen has allegedly done the same.

Finally, many people say the new bill isn't necessary because the law already protects infants who are born after failed abortions. Some states do require appropriate care for abortion survivors, but other states do not. At the federal level, the 2002 Born-Alive Infants Protection Act recognizes these babies as "persons," but it does not explicitly require care, nor does it include any enforcement mechanisms to effectively prevent neglect (or worse). That's why the current bill is necessary. That's also why so many elected officials and groups like Planned Parenthood complain about the bill's requirements. They recognize that it does what federal law doesn't already do.

The march of infanticide

If all of these reasons are easily refuted, though, what's the real reason for unwavering opposition from abortion advocacy groups and allied politicians? Why oppose equal treatment for babies born as a result of abortion? Many politicians are probably just following the talking points they are given (the points addressed above). But what's the basis for the underlying position taken by the abortion industry? Is the "right" to abortion, according to Planned Parenthood and the others, a right to make sure an unwanted child ends up dead?

In an essay published in the Atlantic, Michael Wear, who worked in the Obama administration, suggests that abortion advocates oppose the born-alive bill because "support of ... [the] bill requires the acknowledgement of realities that threaten uncomplicated support for the pro-choice position." Indeed, "If a failed abortion is one that results in a baby that is born alive," he asks, "what does that say about the purpose and effect of a successful abortion?"

That might explain why some abortion defenders pretend the bill says something other than what it actually says. It makes abortion look bad. So, forced to choose between casting abortion in an unflattering light and rejecting infant equality, they choose to reject infant equality.

Barack Obama's comments about this issue were more explicit. In the Illinois Senate, he repeatedly voted against protection for abortion survivors because, as he explained in 2001 on the Senate floor, he thought protecting the rights of "previable" newborn babies logically undermined the right to kill those babies while still in utero. After all, if newborns deserve protection, then unborn babies at the same age deserve protection too. And he wasn't okay with that.

Many pro-choice philosophers and bioethicists actually follow similar reasoning. "The location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make such a crucial moral difference," write Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse. "We cannot coherently hold that it is all right to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive."

The two ethicists add: "The solution, however, is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus ... [has] the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite: to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth." (The New Yorker calls Singer "the world's most influential living philosopher.")

Most philosophers who defend abortion think unborn human beings don't have rights because they lack certain characteristics, such as the current ability to perform abstract mental functions. But infants, among others, may also lack those characteristics. While some ethicists struggle to find ways to avoid the disturbing implications of this view, a number of the foremost pro-choice thinkers—like Singer, Michael Tooley, and the late bioethics pioneer Joseph Fletcher—are willing to accept them.

"After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?" is the title of a widely read 2012 article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Infanticide, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue, is permissible for all the same reasons as abortion, including socio-economic reasons.

"Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings," the authors acknowledge, but "merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life." Unborn and newborn babies are morally equivalent, Giubilini and Minerva contend, "in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual."

This intellectual support for infanticide isn't just academic theory. It has a real-life effect—especially when it comes to sick and disabled infants.

Consider two cases that drew international attention in 2017 and 2018. Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans were infants born in the United Kingdom with serious and mysterious health problems. Authorities denied both children medical care (against the wishes of their parents) in order to cause their deaths—based on the judgement that their disabled lives weren’t worth living. This was intentional killing by omission.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's comments in late January—which helped spur the consideration of the born-alive bill in Congress—seem to endorse a similar ethic. Northam explained that babies born alive in the context of abortion should be "kept comfortable" but only "resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired." He later said he was talking about babies with disabilities or terminal conditions.

The Netherlands, which pioneered the practice of euthanasia, goes one step further. Dutch doctors have an accepted protocol for active killing (i.e., lethal injection) of newborn babies with severe diseases or disabilities—infants who are judged by others to be better off dead.

Make no mistake, though: Infanticide advocacy isn't just about killing for the purpose of euthanasia. That's only the tip of the spear.

"While some defenders of infanticide have focused on cases of severe disability," explain Calum Miller, Daniel Rodger, and Bruce Blackshaw in the journal The New Bioethics, "this focus has only pragmatic grounding." After all, the typical position of pro-infanticide ethicists isn't merely that killing disabled or sick babies is permissible. It's that no newborn babies, disabled or not, count as "persons" or bearers of rights. So killing any of them could be justified for many different reasons.

Miller, Rodger, and Blackshaw note that this position has implications for the treatment of infants that go far beyond killing. Philosopher Jeff McMahan (who has been called "the most intellectually sophisticated" supporter of abortion), for example, thinks killing healthy orphaned infants in order to harvest their organs is morally permissible—or even obligatory. Peter Singer says there's nothing wrong with breeding children to use for spare parts.

This is the unfolding of "pro-choice" logic. As Singer succinctly puts it in his book Practical Ethics: "If … the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either."

An ethic of exclusion

Despite the views of some philosophers, politicians, and advocacy groups, most people recognize that infanticide is truly horrible. Yet infanticide is very difficult to avoid once we divide humanity into those who matter and those who are expendable. If a society excludes from protection human beings in utero, it's going to exclude other vulnerable members of the human family too.

There's only one alternative. The alternative is to include everyone. Our value doesn't depend on how others feel about us. It doesn't depend on health or ability. And it doesn't depend on a certain level of cognitive functioning. All human beings have human rights simply because they are human beings.

Infants matter. And that means unborn children matter too.

This article appears in the May 2019 issue of NRL News.


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