During the past few days, there has been much discussion of philosophy professor Gary Comstock’s spirited defense of infanticide, in the case of a severely handicapped newborn baby who is likely to die (New York Times, July 12, 2017). Such an infant, argues Comstock, lacks “the things that make a life: thoughts, wants, desires, interests, memories, a future.” And if did have thoughts, its dominant thought about being kept alive on a respirator would surely be: “This hurts. Can’t someone help it stop?”
Bioethicist Wesley Smith has pointed out that the case described by Comstock (who is not a doctor), of an infant suffering excruciating pain as its life is needlessly prolonged, is totally fictitious: “When life support is removed, doctors do not just let patients twist choking in the wind. They palliate — as necessary to alleviate pain and agitation.” The testimony of palliative care physician Ira Byock (whom Smith mentions in his article) is well worth citing: “In more than 35 years of practice I have never once had to kill a patient to alleviate the person’s suffering. When other measures fail, palliative sedation for alleviation of physical suffering is reliably effective. Alleviating suffering is different than eliminating the sufferer.” (Maryland Medicine vol. 17, no. 4; January 2017.) And Dr. Michael Egnor, commenting on Comstock’s article for Evolution News and Views, writes: “The notion that handicapped children intractably suffer is a lie. I’ve treated thousands of these kids. Most of the conditions that cause severe neurological impairment aren’t painful and don’t inherently cause physical suffering. Spina bifida, holoprosencephaly, various trisomies and anencephaly don’t ‘hurt,’ and in fact the children afflicted are often quite content babies. They are loved by their families, and they can enjoy life in accordance with their physical limitations.”
Wesley Smith and Michael Egnor point out that infanticide is a crime against humanity, for which doctors were hanged at Nuremberg. Some of these doctors had euthanized handicapped children. Both authors make a telling point; nevertheless, the question needs to be addressed: exactly why is infanticide wrong?