What’s wrong with killing babies?

And apologies in advance for the controversial subject…

Two Melbourne philosophy professors recently caused an uproar when they said that it wasn’t any MORE wrong to kill newborn babies than to kill foetuses in the womb, and that sometimes, it might actually be the right thing to do.  Logically, they argued, what’s the difference?

Ok I know some people think it’s wrong to kill babies OR foetuses (and some of these people think it’s alright to kill adults if they break the wrong law, live in the wrong country or perform the wrong medical procedures).

I’m not weighing in on this. Really.  It’s a minefield.  See below.

But professional ethicists usually miss the point.  Ethics isn’t about rationality.  Ethics is about how we feel.  We have evolved to feel bad about things that don’t help us survive, and good about things that do.  We don’t like killing babies, because as a slow-breeding species, we don’t have babies to spare (unlike, say, rats, who eat theirs at times).  On the other hand infanticide is more common in times when fertile adults have to choose whether to starve to death together with their newborns or live to breed another day – ancient Greece, for example, or biblical Palestine.

Many of us don’t feel the same about something we can’t see (a baby in the womb, pigs in an abattoir, global warming, the Congo, god) as we do about something we CAN see (a just-born baby, a poster of a foetus that looks just like a baby, god?).

How we FEEL is the crux of the matter.  Yes I’ve had an abortion (one).  I cried.  If I had my time over I’d have been a damn sight more careful with contraception and casual hookups.  No I’d never kill my baby (not even now I know he’s going to vote for the right wing party in the next elections).

I’m kind of hoping the more ‘civilised’ we get, the more we extend our feelings of empathy – from our family, to our community, to our country, to other countries, to our species, to other species.  What we don’t want to do is discount those feelings in the name of rationality.

The way we feel about things will change from time to time and place to place, but please don’t give us those long diatribes saying we should make up our minds based solely on what’s ‘rational’.  In some ways, our feelings are more rational than reason.

I’m going to christen this The Week of the Insane Rant. Anyone want to join in?


  1. Hey, Rose, I like it! FEELING is a scary way to live for most people. If you “feel” someone can slap it around and hurt you. Feelings can be distorted and reshaped, and not always for the better.

    OK, beyond that, there is a place for rational (as in laws that, for example, protect us on the highways, etc.) As for capitol crimes, abortion, animal cruelty, genocide and all those other HORRORS, i’m with you on looking to our feelings (our heart and humanity) rather than an “eye for an eye” for example, OR capitol punishment.

    I agree with your idealism. I wish it weren’t idealism. I wish it were realism.

    The other crazy thing is, don’t we all basically feel the same about acts of cruelty? It is a very tricky and complex business that we will never see unraveled in our lifetimes. … Religious wars … these are things that have been in place for so long, it boggles the mind to wonder how we could unwind all the pain and hate.

    Jimmy Carter tried, btw. As much as people gave him a bad wrap, he made some progress in the Middle East back in the 70’s.

    OH YES, and he was a DEMOCRAT! Hmmm, that rings a bell with this lefty girl.

    1. Yeah it’s a pity about Jimmy. Seems the soft ones don’t get far. But I’m not sure about idealism – we’re a hell of a lot more all-round sympathetic than we used to be say 300 years ago – for instance hardly anyone thinks black people are sub-human any more, or wants to burn heretics. Progress?? I agree totally about there being a place for rational. Cruelty though..I’d love it if it disappeared from humanity, but I can see why we have it. Same reason as cats play with mice – it’s an inbuilt feature of the predator which helps to build survival skills. Only we don’t need those particular skills any more. Hey and Melissa, how’s your dad doing? xoxo

      1. Dad is doing well. I received two lucid emails from him. He is looking forward to seeing me and Jen (we hope) on Friday (this Friday). I found out some other health things though that he didn’t mention until they passed! Jeesh! I have learn that he is going to keep secrets, so I MUST get the doctor’s numbers. My brother is my dad’s power of attorney, but i’m assuming that as my dad’s daughter they will talk to me as well.

        ANYHOO, i can’t abide cruelty either. Every time i see a PETA film, or Humane Society, ASPCA commercial i cough up cash. It’s quite beautiful: Much more attractive than upchucking food. (sorry, bulimia [humor])? Thanks for asking about dad. I’ll tell him he has lots of support all around the world. XO

      2. I agree – much better than coughing up food! My mum keeps secrets too – at least, she picks who she tells. Glad to hear your dad’s doing alright! xo

  2. I always thought ethics was more of a morality thing. Though as the world gets more complicated it seems there are more and more attempts to legislate morality, where I think education would be a better path…
    I also think abortion of a fetus that can’t survive outside the body is less morally questionable than that of a late-term fetus or an already living baby.
    Once criteria is established for destroying independently living babies is established, what’s to stop anyone from building a brave new world?

    1. I think ethics and morality are the same, I guess the question is, where do they come from? There are species who don’t think it’s wrong to kill their babies, even humans sometimes don’t. But right now, we do – so I agree totally with you, it’s not a road we want to go down!

  3. I’ve read lots of articles on this subject. If it’s “right” to kill unborn babies, why wouldn’t it be right to kill babies that have been born? Or children? Or people in general? Because it’s not “property” of the mother any more, for it is not in her womb? If so, it should be okay to abandon the baby child or teen – they’re free from their mother! But if a mother still should take care of them until they get more mature, then killing the baby – born or not – is wrong.

    I really like this phrase: “our feelings are more rational than reason”. Very true.

    1. Thanks for thinking about it, mystery! I guess my personal view is that mostly humans don’t like killing each other – but various reasons sometimes override that, such as war, serious crime, revenge, kindness (as in the case of euthanasia), religious dogma (think Isaac and Abraham), etc. So if you have an organism which is a collection of cells without a brain or nervous system (a -12 weeks embryo) vs the interests of a distressed mother, we might feel more concerned for the mother. Whereas if you have a pre-term foetus (basically a baby in all but location) or a newborn, you (might) naturally feel they have more ‘rights’. I mean, why IS an 8 week old collection of cells which isn’t conscious and can’t feel pain, but happens to be human, worth more sympathy than a fully adult living creature who has a social life and fully operating brain and nervous system (say, a pig)? Because we’re the ones thinking about it, and we’re human?

  4. Sometimes I worry empathy is becoming a thing of the past–or at least it feels that way with all of the horrible things that happen in the world and the way we treat each other. My sons are probably so sick of all of the empathy lessons I’ve imparted on them over the years, but if parents don’t teach their kids, who will? Sure, on some level empathy is innate, but it needs to be demonstrated and nourished to take root. I wish more people would recognize that.

    I guess I strayed a little from your topic, but your 3rd paragraph from the end made me think about empathy in the world, or the lack thereof…

    1. I worry about that a bit too. If you can deal with people at internet-length (as opposed to arms length) maybe you don’t develop empathy to the same degree (or you could argue you develop more empathy, because you don’t see the annoying recipients of your charitable feelings). I hate that people do horrible things – I wish I could go round like god and stop them. Animals do horrible things all the time though, and at bottom we’re just animals. I think it’s mainly social systems that stop us letting loose on our less delightful leanings, and they range from imperfect to encouraging (of cruelty). ANyway I hope you’re more successful at teaching empathy than I was – I took Mr F to India when he was 12 and all that taught him was ‘avoid 3rd world countries they’re full of beggars who should know better’.!

      1. Ha! Well, I had high hopes for my kids, but my 15-year-old seems a bit lacking lately. Then again, it might just be the teenager in him. 🙂

  5. I’m in for a week of insane rants. What would you like me to rant about? 🙂

    I agree with what you mean re: feelings vs. rational. It reminds me of that old hypothetical problem where you see two guys stuck in the railroad tracks, one a very old man who’s lived a good life and one a young thug. You only have time to save one, which do you save?

    1. What do you FEEL like ranting about right now???Yeah I don’t like that problem, it implies that you should add up impacts etc every time you make a moral decision ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, whereas in fact I think you go ‘which one do I like better’ and that’s ok.

  6. I might be tempted to kill my offsoring if I found out he was going to vote republican…or libertarian, for that matter! Luckily, he’s as much a lefty as his mom!

    Abortions…had two. Would’ve been a terrible mom, too young, drug use, all that…the baby would’ve been all kinds of messed up. But, because my belief system is not based on dogma, I felt glad for the tiny soul, not sad. My feeling was that they would end up inhabiting a more suitable body…infanticide, however, don’t think I could get behind that!

    1. Yeah, whatever you do to make your kids follow your belief systems, didn’t work in my case (except that they’re both riproaring atheists, which is something). It would’ve been a bit of a disaster if I’d had mine too – didn’t know the dad (one night stand), didn’t like him (which is worse almost), was in a precarious financial position and marriage breaking up. I still felt devastated physically though, I had dreams for years afterwards of having lost a child. I think the hormones had already got me ready to be a mum and the loss of that caused severe hormonal ructions. I wouldn’t do it in preference to contraception.

  7. Insane rants are great, and they are so much more socially acceptable, and usually less messy, than spree-killing. If your baby can vote, then he’s an adult, right? So it’s acceptable to slap him about the head till he votes the way his mom (mum?) would, right? 😉 Or maybe something less physical but meaner–delete all his favorite music from his i-pod or whatever, and replace it all with Britney Spears, unless he votes the right way.

    1. I haven’t tried spree-killing. Should I? And yep, he’s about to be an adult. So yeah, slapping about the head is an option, have to reach up a bit though (maybe a wooden spoon?). But I detest cruelty – making him listen to Britney Spears would be just too inhumane.

  8. Funny, I heard a radio doc about the guy that made abortion legal in Canada (Henry Morgentaler). One of the main reason he went public was because all the rich connected women in Montreal were going to him for abortions and then pilloring the poorer women who wanted them. He couldn’t stand the hypocrisy, so he went to jail so all women had choice.
    Whether it’s right or wrong, women will get them. Maybe it’ll be in a clinic, or by some untrained guy in a back room, but women will get them.

    1. That’s really ironic. Good on him! I think most women don’t like to get abortions, it’s a last resort really (for many, not all). And you’re right – actually my very Catholic granma apparently controlled her fertility through very hot baths and falls down stairs. Or so the legend goes.

  9. is it really a favour to bring a child in a loveless world?

    i have read about a woman – her child was rescued eating, sleeping with her dogs, while she puffed away drugs.

    1. Yeah, lthat’s really awful, I’ve read about people like that too. The horrible thing about it is that people who can’t look after their kids, often can’t take the responsibility of contraception either.

      1. thats the thing which amazes me too, if you dont like / want to avoid a baby why cant you think about contraceptives while enjoying your life is a quiz to me, unless you are naive or too young.

      2. if you read about the atrocities against children in poor, developing countries you will feel like imprisoning the parents even though they are mostly hapless.

      3. i can assure you that you get only the tip of the iceberg. its really hellish life that these parents force their children to live.

        i agree with every word you said in your comment and that applies to everyone, not only you.

  10. Rose, I so agree that being logical about decisions, relying on rules etc. just don’t work when you are making life and death decisions, well at least for me anyway. I think you already know this is a subject near and dear to my heart, and it kind of relates to one of my early posts, http://captsavage.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/a-very-challenging-question/

    I think these sort of decisions are very personal and emotional, if someone in my family had have suggested that we (my ex-wife and I) adopt out the twins because of their disabilities I would have punched their lights out!!! It was bad enough that the insensitive doctor coughed up the ‘logical’ options, but you can’t punch doctors, at least I can’t. Also I hate myself when I use the Plus’s and Minus’s or the ‘greater good for the greatest number’ method, which I am forced to do at work. I much prefer the gut instinct, feeling method, at least I know that the decision I make is something I really believe in with all my heart.

    Now the question that I’ve never actually wanted to face up to is, in fact squibbed on last time we had this discussion was, what would I have done if I’d been told about the kids disabilities very early in the pregnancy. At the time I said that I wouldn’t have opted for termination no matter what. But having now experienced the full extent of difficulties some parent go through to support extremely disabled children, I am honestly not sure anymore.

    Yep Rose, it’s a very personal decision, and I can understand yours and anyone else’s decision to opt for a termination. It is a hell of a responsibility, a lifetime commitment actually, to bring up kids. You shouldn’t go through with it unless you’re ready to go the distance.


  11. P.s. Rose, I think this level of thought is what differentiates us from many of our animal co-residents, they act instinctively, whereas we act with reason for some and emotion for others. And yep I hate cruelty to any creatures, even humans, although some right wing bigots, neo-nazis, etc. not so much. My emotional attachments to humanity only extend so far…


      1. We don’t know I believe for sure, although scientists keep doing tests etc, and yes I know it’s arrogant to assume that ‘humans’ are the only ones to think or have emotions… Point taken, I only have to look into Coffee’s, Coolac’s and even Gucci’s eyes to know that they can feel too…


  12. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    An interesting point of view, arguing against the legitimacy of the infanticide, even without appeal to a higher moral instance (God, etc).
    Point (on ethics being more about feelings than about rationality) taken (even if it can lead easily to ethical relativism). Yet, I can’t help but think that, rationally, the Melbourne philosophers mentioned in the text seem to make a logical conclusion when they say:
    ‘it wasn’t any MORE wrong to kill newborn babies than to kill foetuses in the womb, and that sometimes, it might actually be the right thing to do. Logically, they argued, what’s the difference?’

  13. Hi Rose,
    Thanks for the interesting blog/rant. It provided me a day of thought…

    From my side… my mother was very ill at my birth and was advised I may be partially or severely disabled from birth, and so given the option of my termination, she says she prayed and decided to leave it in God’s hands.

    There is (in my opinion) a tremendous difference – morally and ethically – between a non-viable fetus and a living person – new born, elderly or convicted felon. There is also (in my opinion) a big difference between morals and ethics.

    In the first case, in our modern world, an unwanted birth generally means a lifetime of poverty for the mother, child or both. Is this “right” (acceptable and to be encouraged)?

    In the second, the difference is between what I (as an individual) feel is “right” and what my pack (tribe, club, society, workplace, church, country) feel is “right”. These may not agree / coincide – as a parent who teaches one’s children not to lie or steal but as a business person misrepresents a product and overcharges their customer (in essence, lying and stealing).

    I was raised a Roman Catholic so I am burdened by all the usual morals of a Hispanic / Irish up-bringing. But, I have lived long enough to have them tempered by economic reality.

    I will remain pro-choice until we, as a society, are committed (in law) to protecting and raising and educating every child above a poverty/subsistence level. I am not as bothered about supporting the parents at the same level – but I do think that any parent willing to work should be able to work at a pay level which allows their spouse (male or female or same sex) to remain at home during child-rearing years (up to age 15). I don’t know how this would be managed legally – because I also believe in equal pay for equal work, but there must be a way.

    I will remain pro-life (non-capital punishment) until such time as we, as a society, are committed to justice in our courts and lifetime incarceration for those who have committed a heinous violent crime. I believe there is a long history of bad justice against the poor and of execution because it’s cheaper than lifetime incarceration.

    Having said this last part, I realize part of society’s ethical role in justice is to protect us from ourselves. If someone violently assaulted and murdered my wife or kids, no sentence of any length would protect them from me. I would want to pull the trigger or flip the switch or whatever sent the person to God for further handling… But this is why a life’s sentence must mean “a life sentence”.

    My final comment (yes, this does end), has to do with comparing human life to “other” life. I am a confirmed omnivore. I choose to eat lower on the food chain most of the time, but not always. Morally, there is a clear difference to me between a human fetus (viable or not) and a pig. This does not mean I would support the mistreatment of the animal simply because they are potentially food. This is probably one of the rare instances where my ethics exceeds my morality – probably because of a liberal (societal) view of the importance of all life. Of course, I don’t mean American society is liberal. I mean I was raised with a liberal view (some would say “secular atheist”) view of nature and the equality (“unique value”) of all forms of life.

    This does not mean it is acceptable to mistreat the animal just because it will be killed and slaughtered. It does mean humane treatment in both the raising and eventual slaughtering of the animal. Even when something is born and fed “only” because it is intended to be food, we must judge ourselves (and each other) by how we treat those other lives which are completely at our mercy.

    Again, thanks for the rant – and keep them coming…

    1. Thanks for the interesting and detailed reply. I’d have to say I agree with you on most of your ethical or moral stands. I’m not sure I really understand the difference between morals and ethics though – what is it? I do think it makes a difference when one person stays home and looks after the kids – pity our society increasingly farms them out, as a boring, thankless task no one seems to want. The other thing I don’t understand is, why is there a moral difference between a person and a pig? If a pig had a moral/ethical system, would a human be lower on it? Is it sort of semi-arbitrary – ie just because we’re human, or is morality tied to the intelligence of the creature? (in which case babies ought to be pretty low down on the chain) I think logic fails when we try to analyse morality. And thanks for YOUR thoughts, and rant – I appreciate a good rant!

      1. Without looking both up for a better understanding, I’ll tell you my difference: morals are what you incorporate into your understanding of the world – your paradigm. Morals are what you personally accept as good and bad. Of course most of these are “taught” to you by your family, friends and early schooling, so there is (to me) a fine line between morals and ethics. But ultimately, you must accept them before they are truly your moral code.

        Ethics are “group think”, that is morals applied by groups to their members. Ethics may be of a “higher” or “lower” standard than your personal morals. For example, celibacy for Catholic clergy (priests and nuns) is an ethical standard; monogamy for married Catholics is another ethical standard. In theory, to remain faithful to the group, you must accept the standard – regardless of whether or not you actually agree with it.

        A similar example was the child raised to not lie or steal who grows up to be the used car salesman selling clunkers to the unsuspecting. His work standard (ethic) is to do what you gotta do to make a living.

        As you can see, there is a fine line between morals and ethics because are you living up to your morals if you live your life down to your professions ethics? (or vice versa)

        Now, as to pigs and people – the moral difference is completely arbitrary, because it is my own. Had I been raised a Hindu and given a morality which values all of life, I would not eat cows or pigs. I would eat as low on the food chain as possible – hard luck for all the plants. Please remember the vast amount of human based terra-forming has been done to promote the species of plants we consume (mostly as food, but also as housing). Non-favored species (flora and fauna) are mostly driven to extinction.

        If a pig had a moral/ethical system (like humanity’s) is seems reasonable to assume we would be lower on it. After all, pigs already will eat humans given the opportunity even without (known) morals or ethics. And no, I don’t believe morality is tied to species intelligence, but I’m not aware of any way to test this opinion. Curiously, I think your statement “babies ought to be pretty low down on the chain” underestimates the intelligence of babies. I don’t think intelligence equates with personal helplessness.

        And of course, there is no way to know if an animal would develop morals or ethics – those may be uniquely human concepts irrespective of intelligence.

        Finally, while I completely agree with you that logic fails when we try to analyse morality, I add that so does an over-reliance on “feelings” – but, in the end, those are the only two things we have to go on whenever we make any decision, particularly those of consequence.

      2. Thanks, I didn’t know there was a difference but I see what you mean. I would have called morality ‘personal ethics’ – but that’s just splitting hairs. For the rest, I think the points you make are very valid, and thanks for the discussion.

  14. Great post. What is the difference? Ethically, not much, emotionally so much. What we can see, we find harder to harm. We can’t see the unborn child and so we can justify it’s demise ethically. There is the distance of disassociation going on that we can’t have once the child is born. It’s a tricky thing.

  15. It’s weird to hear “logical” arguments that equate an unborn fetus with a baby that lives outside it’s mother’s body. Just based on pure “logical” thought, these are two different entities. One lives independent of its mother’s body, the other cannot. So how can they be equated in a logical discussion?

    1. Good point. But maybe the location of the ‘being’ isn’t the point, maybe it’s that it IS a ‘being’. Looking around the blogs, I’ve found lots of people who think that once a sperm fertilises an egg, you have a human with the full range of rights and perquisites. Defining ‘rights’ and ‘human’ is a minefield in itself.

    1. Me too, Katharine! Although, sometimes what I want “done unto me” is not something you might want done unto you. That’s where it can get tricky.

      1. I guess what I meant was that I would not want anyone to kill me, thinking I would automatically be too dumb, sick, poor, or unimaginative to enjoy being here, without giving me a chance to see for myself, to prove myself. It’s too much like guilty until proven innocent with a death penalty added. 😐
        But who am I to think life could be fun in spite of a bit of hardship?

      2. Well, no. But then, 99.9% of potential people die anyway somewhere along the line from being, for instance, a wanked-out sperm, an unfertilised egg, a fertilisation that was judged unviable by nature (a percentage of all pregnancies that go completely unnoticed as pregnancies), a miscarriage, etc. And each of those possibilities could have been a ‘you’. It’s only the fact that you are here that allows you to be potentially disappointed in being deprived of existence (much like the argument that, if the earth weren’t suited to life, we wouldn’t be sitting here discussing how lucky it is that it IS, if you see what I mean).

  16. Love your topics, your intelligence & your minefield 🙂

    Do you live in Melbourne? Maybe I’ll just look around your site, see. I do too! Moved from Perth mid 2008.

    I remember this item of news, I do! I do! Isn’t it funny how things are so outrageous at the time, but die away in time. It’s not like they’re any less “outrageous”, but just people’s attention span doesn’t hold, gets diverted.

    You’re a scream – “…decide whether to starve to death with their young or live to breed another day” 🙂 hee hee hee hee I’m so surprised you didn’t mention China and infanticide (though that’s only female babies that are tossed on the garbage heap). I didn’t know about ancient Greece… or about rats eating their own, for that matter. What random facts…

    BTW, Rose, I appreciate your pet causes on the rh side greatly. It’s true we don’t FEEL about what we don’t see. Yes, it’s about what we feel. I believe in gut instincts, being inner wisdom.


    1. Thanks Noelene. I would’ve mentioned all sorts of things, I could have gone on for ages, but I was trying to be concise – it’s bloody hard! I WISH I lived in Melbourne. I used to have a boyfriend there and had such fun on my visits, and I love Melburnians compared to Canberrans – they’re so diverse and sometimes eccentric, like me. But I’m so glad to have found another person who thinks a bit like me.

  17. I think that love goes a little beyond genetics, science and evolution. To try and put everything down to rationality and logic is one step away from being a robot.

      1. We are not robots. We all have choices to make. Will I be fully human or will I allow myself to turn into a monster? And where is the strength to stay fully human? And once I find it, do I really want it or do I deserve to be subhuman? Does love exist? And if so, what is it? And once I accurately define it, will I be wise enough to walk in it? And how? And once I discover exactly how one manages to walk in love, will I have the nerve to do so? Or will I wimp out? Be lazy? Be egocentric? Fail?

      2. I don’t believe we’re robots, but when you think about it (and I’m not coming from a faith based perspective here, obviously), it’s actually rather hard to prove that we’re not. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – we’re here, and we have to act ‘as if’ we have choices, and I’d rather live in a society where people made what I call ‘good’ ones. Sorry about the quote marks – it’s not to belittle ‘good’ but I think people’s perception of what IS good varies very widely.

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