by Dean Wallraff



Does life begin at conception? At birth? As a matter of public morality, no one argues for earlier (twinkle in the eye stage) or later, but infanticide was and is practiced in ancient cultures such as Greece, and modern ones like China. We don’t condone it now in western cultures, partly because we’ve become so sentimental about children, but also because we need a rigid standard that determines who has rights as a human being, one that provides no slippery slope down which one group can push another group it doesn’t like.
      As the animal rights folks are fond of pointing out, a mature chimpanzee, or even a dog, is more advanced in every way than a baby. If we don’t have a religion that gives a soul to the baby, but not to the chimp, on what philosophical grounds will we insist on full human status for the baby? I’d argue against it. Seen through the lens of societal utility and fitness, which I think is the real basis for public morality, a human being’s value increases in a more or less linear fashion from conception to around ten years of age. There is a bit of a step function at birth, because it’s risky and expensive, but having the baby outside rather than inside the mother is hardly an explosion in utility, though it may be a physical explosion for the mother and an explosion in trouble for the parents.
     I think our society is taking the right position: babies are people with full rights, and fetuses aren’t people, and have no rights. But from my personal moral point of view, I can’t see that killing a month-old baby is much worse than killing a fetus that will be born in a month.
     The traditional method of infanticide is exposure – leaving the baby outside where it will eventually die on its own, but has a chance of being saved by piteous strangers. Busy marketplace town squares were popular for this in ancient Greece and modern China. It’s not seen as murder, but rather leaving the baby to its fate. In myth and folklore, the babies are mostly found and saved, as were Moses and Paris. In real life, they mostly aren’t.

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.