by Kate Conroy
I have often been asked if Peter Singer’s defense of infanticide is a joke. The response to his argument is usually, “Is he being serious?” or, “This is satire right?”
Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and he is very serious. Although many find his arguments for infanticide repulsive and dismiss him as crazy, they are wrong to do so. Singer’s argument is based in the scientific evidence that there is no significant difference between a fetus that cannot be aborted and a newborn child. He questions why we consider one precious and the other disposable. You might be thinking this sounds a great deal like the pro-life movement’s argument – it does, except for one big difference: Singer believes that “after-birth abortion” should be legal.
Singer believes that the error the pro-life movement makes is that we equate a human being with a human person. He posits that a human being needs to be self-aware in order to be considered a human person with a right to life (or any other rights for that matter). However, he does not give any reason that makes this distinction more than an arbitrary line in the sand.
Even if we were to imagine that it is okay to draw an objective line in the sands of human development to mark the change from human non-person to human person, we could not. The lines of human development are and always will be blurred. As with any sort of continuum of development, there is no identifiable moment when a baby or fetus ceases to be a non-person and becomes a person. The only moment when there is a definite change is the moment of conception. At this moment there is something new that was not before. The fertilized embryo is not simply a development of the sperm and egg, but the beginning of a human being. Thus the only clear line occurs at conception.
Still, perhaps this young human being is not a human person and thus not deserving of any rights. Pretending that we could define a moment when a non-person changes into a person, what would that moment be? The question this raises is how we define human person if being a human being is not enough. If our definition of human person does not include all human beings then naturally it will exclude some.
Historically, whenever we define the human person to exclude certain human beings from being considered full human persons we allow atrocities to occur. The most notable circumstances of this are slavery, women’s inequality, and the holocaust. Denying a state of personhood to a human being is nothing short of dehumanization and objectification. Is this a road we want to go down again?
Singer’s argument – despite his intentions and conclusions – supports the pro-life argument more than the pro-choice. His reasoning is sound up until he claims that a human being is not necessarily a human person. In a just society, can we allow for the possibility of murdering humans simply because it is possible that they might not truly be persons? Excluding some human beings from the domain of human persons will always be an arbitrary definition. The only reason to do so is to take advantage of the ones who are being excluded.