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Do Infants Really Have a Right to Live?

Some argue that children who are not yet self-aware do not have a right to live

In last week’s podcast, “Jonathan Wells on Why a Baby Should Live,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviewed molecular and cell biologist Jonathan Wells on that topic, which he discussed in articles at Evolution News and Science Today: (here and here). It’s becoming a hot topic now that a bill to protect babies born alive from abortions from being killed or left to die was recently defeated in the Senate. There is an academic debate about whether babies, post-birth, have a right to live. Meanwhile, a number of countries are also moving toward child euthanasia, with or without parental consent as well.

A partial transcript follows. This portion begins at 01:13. Show notes and links follow.

Michael Egnor: Where did that title question “Why Should a Baby Live?”, come from?

Jonathan Wells (pictured): I adapted it from a 2012 article by two philosophers, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, titled After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? And their article, as the title implies, is a defense of after-birth abortion, what some people might call infanticide. They’ve turned the logic of Catholic doctrine around. Catholic doctrine says that unborn babies, fetuses that is, have the same rights as babies that have already been born.

And these two philosophers argue that since babies that are already born don’t have these rights, why should fetuses? So they’re in favor of abortion and — as it turns out — infanticide.

Michael Egnor: What sort of reasoning do they use to arrive at such a conclusion? Why would anyone ever conclude something like that?

Jonathan Wells: Well, their main point seems to be that abortion is now largely accepted. Those are their words. So because it’s largely accepted, therefore it must be good, and therefore fetuses have no value.

Note: In Belgium and The Netherlands, child euthanasia is accepted and Canada is slowly moving toward it. Wesley J. Smith writes, in an article discussing the Canadian situation, that some medical ethicists argue that minors should be able to consent without their parents being informed. “Can you imagine visiting your sick child, only to learn that hospital doctors killed her because she asked to die and wanted you kept in the dark?” (2018).

Michael Egnor: Well, if they’re equating the moral status of a newborn with the moral status of a fetus, and they are saying that the idea that fetuses can be killed by the will of the mother, wouldn’t that seem to argue that, in fact, we’re making a mistake? That if the moral status of a fetus is analogous to the moral status of a newborn, we all acknowledge that newborns have a right to life. Wouldn’t it imply that fetuses also have a right to life?

Jonathan Wells: Well, these two philosophers do not believe that a newborn has a right to life. And apparently, judging from their article, they’re following on the heels of Peter Singer (pictured), who many years ago, wrote something to that effect. He is an advocate of infanticide and so are they. So they argue backwards and say that therefore, the fetus likewise has no value.

Michael Egnor: How does Singer arrive at an opinion that newborns and fetuses don’t have a right to life? What criterion does he use for that?

Jonathan Wells: Well, I have not read enough of Singer’s work to comment authoritatively on that. But basically because of evolutionary theory, which Singer totally accepts, he argues that human beings and animals have the same rights. We kill animals, therefore, why shouldn’t we kill human beings?

Note: Here are some sourced quotations from Peter Singer: Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all. – Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1979.

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him. – Peter Singer (2011). Practical Ethics, p.163, Cambridge University Press

Surely there will be some nonhuman animals whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans. – Peter Singer “Animal liberation: a new ethics for our treatment of animals” (1975).

Michael Egnor: My understanding also is that Singer believes that the ability to understand that one is alive, the ability to look to the future, are criteria that confer the right to life. And if you’re a creature that doesn’t have that ability, then killing you doesn’t really cause you any particular harm because you don’t know what you’ve missed.

So he feels like a well-trained dog has more of a right to life than a newborn baby, because a well-trained dog is closer to rationality than a newborn baby is.

Note: In 1979, Singer wrote, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” – Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1st ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 122–23.

Michael Egnor (pictured): When do you believe that life begins?

Jonathan Wells: For me, the question is not, when does life begin, but when does human life begin? And as a developmental biologist, it seems to me to be pretty clear that it begins when the human sperm unites with the human egg to make a single-celled embryo. And at that point, human life has begun.

Note: At the University of Western Ontario in Canada in 2015, Singer’s ideas were celebrated. But in New Zealand in 2020, his talk was cancelled, due to an outcry over killing children with disabilities — an outcry sponsored by adults with disabilities.


The next instalments are here: When does “human-ness” really begin? Jonathan Wells notes that issues around “personhood” are now purely semantic, especially when the case is being made that many animals are persons too. Michael Egnor: It seems odd to say that a zygote isn’t fully human when, as human beings, we have all been zygotes.

Is there bias in terms of which babies are aborted? Abortion is made easy for Black American women, with abortion clinics strategically located within easy walking distance. Very high abortion rates will reduce the significance of Black voices over time. It’s called “demographic sunset.”

Do babies really feel pain before they are self-aware? Michael Egnor discusses the fact that the thalamus, deep in the brain, creates pain. The cortex moderates it. Thus, juveniles may suffer more. Jonathan Wells recalls, from when he was a lab technologist, how very premature infants would scream when he took a drop of blood for tests.

Note: The photo of Peter Singer in 2012 is courtesy Fronteiras do Pensamento Porto Alegre CC BY-SA 2.0

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Jonathan Wells
  • 01:13 | The reasoning behind after-birth abortion defenses
  • 03:00 | Peter Singer and human sentience
  • 04:36 | At what point does human life begin?
  • 07:28 | Do all human beings have personhood?
  • 09:29 | Abortion statistics in the U.S.
  • 09:55 | Racial disparities in abortion
  • 11:44 | Can the fetus feel pain?
  • 14:57 | The Silent Scream
  • 18:44 | The legal future of abortion
  • 21:20 | Arguments for Roe v. Wade from evolutionary biology

Additional Resources

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Do Infants Really Have a Right to Live?