An Inconsistent Ethic: Neonaticide and Abortion

One problem with situational ethics (the ethics that most commonly underlines current thinking in the public square) is that it is so often logically inconsistent.

We have had, here in Australia, a very distressing case recently of a mother who has been convicted, for the sake of continuing her sporting career, of killing her newborn babies immediately after birth. This phenomena of “neonaticide”, as it is called, is apparently more widespread than has previously been appreciated, and is leading the states to consider ”baby safe haven” laws which – for the sake of the life of the child – would allow mothers in such distress to anonymously abandon their newborns at hospitals, or police and fire stations, without fear of criminal prosecution.

It is a move that I think should be considered, although there needs to be a lot of thought given to just how it would be implemented.

In the Sunday Age on the weekend, John Elder had two articles on this matter: Victorian moves to protect newborns and Sins of the Mother: the tragedgy of neonaticide. Both articles are worth reading, but I discern a deep logical and ethical disconnect behind the sentiments and ideas expressed in both articles and in the thinking behind the suggestion of such “baby safe haven” laws.

The “Sins of the Mother” article begins like this:

THE day you are born is the day you are most likely to be the victim of homicide. This cheerless statistic holds true whether you live in Stockholm or South Yarra. The perpetrator will almost certainly be your mother.

This statistic is true because, during the rest of life, the moment of death is rather more randomnly scattered – statistically speaking – throughout all the other thousands of days of a persons life. Nevertheless, if we were to extend the question beyond an actual 24 hour period and ask “In which nine months of a person’s life would he or she be most statistically likely to be killed?”, the answer would, without a doubt, be the nine month period before birth.

And hence the logical disconnect in this kind of situational ethics. It totally ignores the statistics and widespread practice of abortion. In fact, the word “abortion” does not occur anywhere in either of these two articles. There is something very strange going on in a society that cringes at the notion of neonaticide, and yet “celebrates” (as one commentator put it recently) a woman’s right to procure an abortion at any stage in pregnancy before the actual birth of the baby. No where in these articles is it pointed out that “simple solution” (of course, it is no “solution” at all, but would mean that the mothers in question would be condemned by neither the law nor by society if they were to take this action) would be for mothers who did not want their babies to have their babies aborted before birth rather than kill them after birth.

Few “ethicists” – other than Peter Singer and the Catholic Church – are entirely consistent on this matter. Singer says that if abortion is okay, neonaticide should be regarded as okay. The Catholic Church, of course, condemns both. At least both Singer and the Church are consistent. But a society that considers the one action to be acceptable and the other to be reprehensible is – at the very least – not consistent in its ethical thinking.

In the “Sins of the Mother”, Elder quotes the associate professor at the University of New England’s School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, Dr John Scott, as saying:

it is easy to dispose of an ”object” that we have no emotional links with. Moreover, he says, if the object threatens to block social opportunities, crime becomes a viable option.

”It is easier to kill animals because they are not ‘human’. At what stage does an infant become ‘human’? Not an easy answer here and [it] is likely to vary between individuals and cultures,” he says in an email.

…”Part of being human is having a social identity and part of this identity is formed from the onset of the pregnancy being made public. If this status is not made public, is it possible for a social identity to adequately develop? If this identity is less developed, it may be easier to commit the crime.”

These statements seem to me to throw as much light on the question of abortion as on the questin of neonaticide.

It is because our society recognises that a new-born baby is “human” that it condemns (both legally and ethically) acts of neonaticide. What can we do to raise the awareness that the human dignity of the unborn is equal to that of the newly born?

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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12 Responses to An Inconsistent Ethic: Neonaticide and Abortion

  1. Tony says:

    I have a real problem with the headline and the substance of your article in logical terms, David.

    The ethic is only inconsistent if you believe a pre-born human is entitled to the same rights as one who is born. Otherwise a position can be quite ethically consistent even though we may believe it to be immoral.

    You recongnise this by asserting that Peter Singer is ethically consistent.

    On that basis, it’s hard to know who it is you are accusing of being ethically inconsistent. Who is the subject of your concern?

    It seems to me that the bottom-line question you ask is the most important question, but I can’t see how the body of your post contributes to that.

    • Schütz says:

      The ethic is only inconsistent if you believe a pre-born human is entitled to the same rights as one who is born.

      Well, precisely, Tony. The inconsistency is in the fact that the “pre-born human” is treated as something different to the “one who is born”.

      Dr Stott says that “Part of being human is having a social identity”. Whether we grant that statement or not, it does seem to identify a major reason for the inconsistency of our society granting “human” status to “born” infants and not “unborn” infants.

      Yet it is an inconsistency, because it grounds the nature of the individual human being in question in the perceptions of other human beings.

      I am saying that both Peter Singer and the Church are ethically consistent, but a society that, on the one hand condemns a mother for murder of her neonatal child and on the other hand defends the right of a mother to kill her unborn child is not consistent.

      Or, to put it more plainly, there is an inconsistency in “belief” if you believe that a “born” baby is human and an “unborn” baby is not.

      • Tony says:

        Well, precisely, Tony. The inconsistency is in the fact that the “pre-born human” is treated as something different to the “one who is born”.

        But that’s not an ethical inconsitency though, is it? That’s a difference of opinion. Given that, that’s where your bottom-line question is the important one.

        And I guess I’d put it this way: ‘How do we convince society that the human dignity of the unborn is equal to that of the newly born?

        Again, if you genuinely believe in a different deliniation mark from contraception — say 14 days, 3 months, 6 months or any time before birth — you can still hold to an ethically consistent position.

        Or, to put it more plainly, there is an inconsistency in “belief” if you believe that a “born” baby is human and an “unborn” baby is not.

        I guess that’s what I was getting at; it’s not so much about ethics as, for want of a better word, belief.

        • Schütz says:

          But that’s not an ethical inconsitency though, is it? That’s a difference of opinion.

          Okay, now I see what you are getting at. I jumped on “difference of opinion” and then noted that you changed to difference of “belief” at the end of your comment. And granted, the “ethical conclusion” does rest on the “belief” that an unborn baby is essentially the same thing as (and therefore has essentially the same dignity as) a born baby.

          Only I am not quite sure it is a difference of “belief” or “opinion”. It is a difference of attitude and thinking, but most people have simply not thought about their attitude enough to actually call it a difference of opinion or belief. I mean it almost beggars belief that anyone could believe – in the full sense of the word – that a baby is something different before it is born to what it is after it is born.

          I guess I am asking for a bit of reflection on the issue at hand. When the effective outcome of an abortion at 30 weeks (for eg.) is the same as killing the baby immediately after birth, do you not agree that it is hard to see why the one is acceptable ethically to our socity and the other is not?

          • Tony says:

            Short answer: I agree.

            More broadly, I wonder if you’re asking the right question, David.

            I’ve only known one woman — in fact it was her partner — who I felt I could ask. She was the only one from my personal knowlege who was open about her abortion (not in any sense a boastful openess) and her reasons for it.

            She had been working in a chemical lab and had a fear that she’d been contaminated with chemicals she would have been at pains to avoid if she knew she was pregnant at the time. In other words, she believed there was a good chance that she’d give birth to a damaged baby.

            What’s the ethic there? I didn’t quite get that far, I wasn’t that close.

            I guess it was an ethic of quality of life that she felt she had a duty (and a right?) to make.

            That’s a very different ethic — albeit with the same consequences — that says a pre-born human is, as it were, not human.

            I’ve known of a few other women but with more ‘degrees of separation’.

            In all I’d say that ‘but most people have simply not thought about their attitude enough to actually call it a difference of opinion or belief’ is perhaps a convenient but unjustified assumption.

            In a sense you objectify those you disagree with or lump them together as ‘not thinking much’ — well, that’s the danger anyhow.

            I think it safer, not to mention more charitable, to assume women who have abortions think about it a lot and try to apply an ‘ethic’ to that thinking.

            The polarisation of this debate means that on a one to one level it’s just too difficult to talk about and you can’t find out what ‘ethic’ is being used let alone build the groundwork of trust that will result, hopefully, in them thinking in a different way.

  2. Terra says:

    David – You are absolutely right about the inconsistency.

    And Tony – oh dear, a life is a life, murder is murder whenever it occurs!

    Did you catch the excellent article about Lord Nicolas of Windsor pointing out that abortion is worse than Al-Qaida:

  3. Paul G says:

    Hi David,
    lots of things happen in the public square, and unfortunately not much thought goes into a lot of it. There are a lot of a cases, and I am concerned more about the commonly accepted reaction rather than judging the individuals involved, eg
    – Liz Hurley and Shane Warne are photoed in an embrace. “Who cares” says everyone, they are divorced or separated, so it is their own business. Ummm Shane has a wife and children who he occasionally indicates he will try to return to. Doesn’t honesty and commitment matter?
    – a successful ABC TV show is called Rake, which repeatedly shows the “hero” snorting drugs in a toilet. Many people I know find it hilarious and good entertainment, and it is apparently based on the life of a real barrister. What about the people who have less money or luck than the barrister who ruin their own lives and others with drugs?
    – TV shows like Spooks show the “heroes” killing people with a little sadness, but accepting that it is necessary in the pursuit of patriotism.
    etc, etc.
    As I say, judgement of individuals is bad, but the consequences of this cavalier disregard of morals has consequences, and it is our and the Church’s duty to point this out.

    • Tony says:

      … Who cares? …

      Your reading of the Zeitgeist is interesting Paul. I think I’ve sensed that there is a strong anti-Warne sentiment too. I think there are many who think he’s a fool. Cricket is his thing and I think fans of cricket are (rightly in this fan’s view) in awe of his talent and his cricketing brain, but frustrated that so much of his brains are in a place other than his head.

      Remember that he was also punished by cricketing authorities for his misdemeanors and, perhaps more importantly, was never chosen to be Australian Captain because of his off-field exploits. Not exactly ‘who cares’?

      I’ve also watched Rake too and while I admit my expectations started low, I’ve been suprised how, as a character, he has developed more depth and complexity. There’s no chance of him ending up a saint, but there is character developement, even moral character development.

      I’ve only seen ‘Spooks’ a couple of times and have found the acting poor and the plots implausible, but not particularly breaking new ground in depravity. The Americans have been doing ‘my country right or wrong’ for decades.

  4. Matthias says:

    an interesting article David. In previous posts I have spoken of running an operating theatre and allowing my Catholic and Lutheran colleagues to exercise their conscience when a termination of pregnancy was ever scheduled,but frequently sought to also not be present. I can remember asking one doctor what advice did he give to one young lady who was having her second termination in 6 months! He could not answer. sadly i noted that a great majority of those who were having terminations at the hospital where I worked -this is over the space of a year- usually put as their religion “Catholic”. you would have to say inconsistent ones.
    My sister in law was pregnant with her 1st child when she found out that the poor wee thing had spina bifida- a condition that many people have- but also anencephaly- the skull had not closed fully and major parts of the brain are missing. she went ahead and had a termination at 16 weeks,and you know she has never talked about that experience nearly 20 years on. I do know that this is a health professional who believes that all children with Down’s Syndrome in her words “should be killed”-you can choose your friends but not your relatives.

    • Tony says:

      I think your story illustrates some of the complexity of this issue Matthias. To me, it’s more real than the sweeping generalisations of both sides.

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