Over a decade ago, I stumbled upon a guiding principle that has yet to fail me. The principle is this: When you encounter someone advocating for infanticide, chances are extremely high that the advocate also happens to be an atheist. Now, this is not to say that all atheists advocate for killing newborns. But, if you pay attention with the help of some google magic, you’ll find those who do advocate for killing newborns usually end up being atheists.
So I was not surprised at all to see atheist activist Jerry Coyne come out and advocate for infanticide. Of course, he doesn’t want to call it infanticide. He prefers to phrase it as “newborn euthanasia.” Here is his basic argument:
The question of whether one should be able to euthanize newborns who have horrible conditions or deformities, or are doomed to a life that cannot by any reasonable light afford happiness, has sparked heated debate. Philosopher Peter Singer has argued that euthanasia is the merciful action in such cases, and I agree with him. If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born? I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral. After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties). It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.
The reason we don’t allow euthanasia of newborns is because humans are seen as special, and I think this comes from religion—in particular, the view that humans, unlike animals, are endowed with a soul. It’s the same mindset that, in many places, won’t allow abortion of fetuses that have severe deformities. When religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.
My view, then, aligns with Singer’s: a child falling in any of the classes above should be considered as a subject for euthanasia, and it should be legal if the doctors and parents concur. As for the “slippery slope” argument—that this will lead to Nazi-like eugenics—well, this hasn’t come to pass in places where assisted suicide or euthanasia of adults is legal. Since the newborn can’t decide, it’s up to the parents, with advice (and maybe consent) of the doctors.
Coyne fails to come to grips with the slippery slope he is advocating.
First, the slippery slope is already in play. In fact, Coyne himself appeals to it. Reread his argument:
If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born? I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral. After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties).
As Coyne’s reasoning makes clear, the legalization and normalization of abortion has provided the slippery slope toward infanticide. I can’t be sure, but I bet if you look at the arguments of those opposed to legalizing abortion back in the 1960s and 70s, you’d find people warning about this exact development and you’d find such warnings being dismissed.
Second, the slippery slope is on full display in Britain at the moment with the case involving the infant Charlie Gard. Both Coyne and Singer try to peddle their advocacy for infanticide by insisting it would require parental consent. But the case of Charlie Gard teaches us that is a lie. And if you think about it for a moment, there is nothing in the moral case for infanticide that necessitates parental consent. In fact, any culture can easily (if gradually) dispense of the parental consent by mixing socialized state run medicine with “children’s rights” advocacy.
Third, as we might expect, Coyne’s slippery slope is a straw man. I don’t think we have to worry all that much about infanticide leading to Nazi-like eugenics. The slippery slope comes with many different trajectories. Let’s try an obvious one that somehow lies beyond Coyne’s ability to contemplate:
What about a culture were women choose to commit infanticide for all the same reasons they have abortions?