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?
“Humans have spiritual souls” – why I think this is a bad answer
Professor Jerry Coyne, in a recent article over at Why Evolution Is True, suggests that the opposition to euthanasia of severely handicapped newborns is primarily religious: “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.” Sadly, Dr. Egnor, in his reply to Coyne’s article, adopts a stridently religious defense of the legal prohibition of infanticide, arguing that there is something unique about the human soul, as opposed to the animal soul, whose operations are entirely physical: “Humans have spiritual souls, created in God’s image, which distinguishes them from animals.” I don’t think this defense is legally or philosophically adequate, however.
The beliefs that humans have a spiritual soul, made in God’s image, is a metaphysical belief, as well as being a religious belief. While there are some metaphysical beliefs which are fundamental to our legal system (e.g. the belief that there is an external world, that there are other minds besides my own, and that rational individuals possess libertarian free will), they at least relate to things which we can directly experience. The belief in an immaterial soul which is made in the image of its immaterial Creator is a belief of an altogether different kind. You can’t see a soul, any more than you can see God. If Dr. Egnor is right, then an atheist could have no good reason to oppose infanticide as a matter of principle. On this point, I think Egnor is gravely mistaken.
A purely secular argument for the immorality of infanticide and abortion
Several years ago, I wrote an online book titled, Embryo and Einstein – Why They’re Equal. In my e-book, I endeavored to provide a purely secular argument, free of any controversial metaphysical premises, showing why the intentional destruction of a human being at any stage of development is morally wrong. After citing passages from the writings of atheist feminists who are staunchly pro-life, I went on to argue that any satisfactory defense of the notion that the intentional killing of a human individual is intrinsically wrong has to be grounded in its actual (as opposed to potential) qualities, and should eschew all talk of a spiritual soul:
What distinguishes this essay from other essays written in defense of unborn human life is that I shall endeavor to explain precisely why a human embryo is every bit as valuable as you or I. Moreover, my explanation makes no appeal to the merely potential qualities of the embryo; instead, I only invoke actual properties. Thus my argument is invulnerable to the philosopher Peter Singer’s criticism that a potential X does not necessarily have the rights of an actual X – for instance, a prince (who is a potential king) does not possess the same rights and privileges as an actual king. And unlike the philosopher Don Marquis, who argues that an embryo/fetus matters just as much as we do because it has a future like ours, my account of why a human embryo matters is based principally on its present characteristics. Finally, my explanation makes no appeal to the existence of an immaterial soul, although it is perfectly compatible with belief in one.
In a nutshell, my argument was that anything possessing and running a program for making itself into a rational human adult, has the same intrinsic value as that adult:
In brief, the essence of my argument is that a human embryo is a person, because it is a complete organism, embodying a developmental program by which it directs and controls its own development into a rational human adult, and in addition, it has already started assembling itself into a rational human adult. A human adult is not merely something the embryo/fetus is capable of becoming, in a passive sense; rather, it is the mature form of the organism that the embryo/fetus is currently assembling itself into, by executing the instructions contained in its developmental program, which has already started running. (In this respect, the embryo/fetus differs vitally from a potential king, who is legally incapable of doing anything to make himself king, and who has none of the rights that properly belong to a king.) I shall argue that it is reasonable to regard any biological organism which is currently assembling itself into a rational human adult through a process which is under its control, as being just as valuable as the adult it will become, and as therefore having the same right to life as an adult. I shall also contend that nothing is acquired by an embryo, fetus, newborn baby or child in the course of its development which would add to its inherent moral value in any way; hence a one-cell embryo must be just as valuable as you or I. Finally, I shall argue that a severely defective embryo, which has no hope of developing into a rational human adult, has the same right to life as a normal embryo, because the correction of its defects does not require the addition of any new instructions to its developmental program; all it requires is the repair of program flaws, and that this correction would in no way alter its identity as a human individual, or add to its inherent value. Given that a normal embryo has the same right to life as a rational human adult, it follows that a severely defective embryo (which is just as valuable as a normal one) has the same right to life as well…
All that matters, for the purposes of my argument, is that:
(a) the development of an embryo/fetus is directed by instructions contained within the embryo;
(b) although external stimuli also have a considerable impact on the embryo’s development, no new developmental instructions are added to the embryo/fetus from outside as it matures; and
(c) the instructions in the embryo’s developmental program are extremely complex and contain a high degree of functional information… [I used this term in its standard scientific sense, in my e-book.]
How the embryo builds itself
To support my claim that a one-cell embryo is a true organism, with its own developmental program, I cited an online paper by Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, titled, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper, Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):
The embryo is not something that is being passively built by the process of development, with some unspecified, external “builder” controlling the assembly of embryonic components. Rather, the embryo is manufacturing itself. The organized pattern of development doesn’t produce the embryo; it is produced by the embryo as a consequence of the zygote’s internal, self-organizing power. Indeed, this “totipotency,” or the power of the zygote both to generate all the cells of the body and simultaneously to organize those cells into coherent, interacting bodily structures, is the defining feature of the embryo. (p. 11)
From the moment of sperm-egg fusion, a human zygote acts as a complete whole, with all the parts of the zygote interacting in an orchestrated fashion to generate the structures and relationships required for the zygote to continue developing towards its mature state. Everything the sperm and egg do prior to their fusion is uniquely ordered towards promoting the binding of these two cells. Everything the zygote does from the point of sperm-egg fusion onward is uniquely ordered to prevent further binding of sperm and to promote the preservation and development of the zygote itself. The zygote acts immediately and decisively to initiate a program of development that will, if uninterrupted by accident, disease, or external intervention, proceed seamlessly through formation of the definitive body, birth, childhood, adolescence, maturity, and aging, ending with death. This coordinated behavior is the very hallmark of an organism. (p. 7) [Emphases mine – VJT.]
There are, of course, many objections to the view that a one-cell embryo is a human being with a right to life. I’ll discuss a few of them here; I answer these and many more objections in my e-book.
Are skin cells people, too?
The philosopher Sam Harris sarcastically quips that if embryos are people, then so are the skin cells you scrape from your nose when you scratch it: “Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings.” However, a human skin cell does not qualify as an organism. Its epigenetic switches, unlike an embryo’s, are not fully activated. As Dr. Condic puts it:
A human skin cell removed from a mature body and maintained in the laboratory will continue to live and will divide many times to produce a large mass of cells, but it will not re-establish the whole organism from which it was removed; it will not regenerate an entire human body in culture. Although embryogenesis begins with a single-cell zygote, the complex, integrated process of embryogenesis is the activity of an organism, not the activity of a cell.
I also mentioned that a skin cell can be artificially converted into a human embryo, by “rewinding” its epigenetic switches back to an embryonic state, essentially turning it back into an embryo again. I then argued that if a scientist were to do that and if the adult skin cell were rewound back to a totipotent stage, then he/she would indeed have created a new human being. However, until the switches are reset back to “embryonic mode”, an adult stem cell is not a human being.
The twinning argument
The “twinning argument” is also cited as a supposedly unanswerable objection to the view that embryos are people, but all it proves is that humans have two modes of reproduction: sexual and asexual. Strictly, the parents of a monozygotic twin are actually its grandparents. The parent is the one-cell embryo that cleaved to form two new human individuals.
The helplessness of human fetuses and infants: information vs. meta-information
Finally, many of my readers have pointed out that an embryo / fetus / infant will never grow into a rational human adult without lots of external assistance: babies need to be nourished, nurtured and taught to talk and think, before they can reason as adults do. This is perfectly true, but what it overlooks is the distinction between information (which a human individual receives from other people in the course of its development) and meta-information (i.e. the genetic and neurological instructions in that individual’s brain and body, which enable him/her to process the information it receives, and make sense of it all). What makes us inherently valuable, I would suggest, is not information as such, but the meta-information which enables us to process that information.
There’s a lot more in my e-book for those who are interested. At any rate, the point I wanted to make is that you don’t have to be religious in order to oppose infanticide. The practice of killing newborn babies, even severely disabled ones, has no place in any human society.
The slippery slope is real
The slippery slope is all too real, and if we legalize the practice of euthanizing severely handicapped newborn babies, it will warp our attitudes towards children, causing us to view them as less than fully human. Abuses will inevitably creep in if euthanasia is legalized, as Dr. Byock warns us, citing the example of the Netherlands:
One need only look at Belgium and the Netherlands to glimpse the future. In both countries suicide by self-administration of life-ending drugs and euthanasia by doctor-administered lethal injections have been available for several decades and are increasingly prevalent. According to the annual report from the Dutch Euthanasia Review Committees 3.9% of all deaths in the Netherlands were intentionally hastened, including 5,277 people who were euthanized by physicians.  Dutch people are being euthanized at their request by their public health system for non-terminal conditions which include chronic pain, tinnitus or blindness. In excess of 50 of those euthanized in 2015 suffered from psychiatric disorders. Many mentally ill patients who request euthanasia suffer from personality disorders and socially isolation; depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders are common. [5 – Olie E, Courtet P. The Controversial Issue of Euthanasia in Patients With Psychiatric Illness. JAMA. 2016;316(6):656-657.]
Dr. Byock is writing about the elderly here, but the same potential for abuse exists with the very young, who are also helpless and vulnerable.
To sum up: euthanizing newborn babies who are severely disabled might sound “compassionate,” but it is a barbarous practice that will not relieve any suffering, and will serve only to dehumanize us all, by deadening us to the horror of destroying a human being.
What do readers think? Over to you.
Recommended reading: Deliberate termination of life of newborns with spina bifida, a critical reappraisal by T. H. Rob de Jong. (Child’s Nervous System, 2008 Jan; 24(1): 13–28. Published online 2007 Oct 10. doi: 10.1007/s00381-007-0478-3.)