A- A A+

Infanticide and the spectre of eugenics

Michael Mullins |  04 March 2012

Right to kill newbornsFor many, it would have been alarming to read on Friday that 'killing newborns is morally the same as abortion and should be permissible if the mother wishes it'.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, the idea is that around a third of infants with Down syndrome are not diagnosed prenatally, and mothers of children with serious abnormalities should have the chance to end the child's life after, as well as before, birth.

There is a lot that could and should be said about such a proposal, except that it is not a proposal, but merely a 'reasoned argument'. Arguments don't have legs unless they're greeted by popular acclaim, or perhaps contempt.

There is a danger that expressions of community outrage at the idea of infanticide could put it on the agenda for serious discussion.

Indeed that has perhaps already occurred in this instance, in which case organised community outrage could be appropriate. A lack of such an expression would then be a poor reflection on our society if we accept that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members.

Julian Savulescu, who edits the British Journal of Medical Ethics says the two Melbourne academics who wrote the original article putting the argument for terminating newborns did not seek to 'present the Truth or promote some one moral view', but 'to present well reasoned argument'. He added that 'if others made a similarly refined case for recriminalising abortion he would also publish that'.

To an extent, his point is a good one. It's that academics operate in a laboratory of ideas, and it's their task to experiment with a variety of arguments in their attempt uncover the truth.

However some arguments are like dangerous viruses that should not be allowed to escape the lab, and their justification for infanticide seems to have done just that. It's therefore legitimate to suggest that this could be a matter of professional negligence.

A frightening example of a dangerous idea that made it out of the lab and into Victorian Government legislation is that of eugenics, the science of improving the race. It was promoted by a number of Melbourne academics such as the influential and well respected Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University Richard Berry. 

State Parliament unanimously passed a bill legalising eugenics in 1939, but it was never enacted due to the embarrassment of the Holocaust. The bill aimed to institutionalise and potentially sterilise groups such as Aborigines, slum dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes and alcoholics, as well as those with small heads and with low IQs.

Actually the very point about taking a stand against infanticide is that it is a form of eugenics, which by definition has no place in a society that cares for its most vulnerable.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.




Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Dealing with a lot of disabled people including those with Downs' in my daily work, I sense the profound insult towards the disabled in this eugenic push. Of course, the eugenics starts in the womb, when children are killed, often the woman feeing pressured to do so because of lack of help surrounding her. Thank goodness for the pregnancy help counsellors and for those who stand outside abortion clinics - I have heard that in the past 10 years well over 1,000 babies have been saved that way. It is a sign of our decreasing compassion as a society, that people can contemplate 'killing' the unwanted' and especially the vulnerable. Professor PHillip Ney, a Canadian psychiatrist says that the term 'wanted' in relation to a human being is one of the most destructive terms ever invented. As my myself I think the term 'non person' is the worst expression of the human rac - used by Nazis, Soviets and now the 'pro choice' lobby. All human beings are persons and are our brothers and sisters.

Skye 05 March 2012

I can't imagine what was going through the minds of the Medicos and Academics mentioned in this article, no-one likes abortion - least of all the mother involved - but the folk who stand outside the abortion clinics need to understand that too! Respect for all goes a long way.

Felicity Costigan 05 March 2012

On my reading of history, demagogues only propose nasty actions after some philosopher has given a reasoned argument for them. Hitler's nasty actions required the ideas of Nietzsche.

Michael Grounds 05 March 2012

Yes, I did indeed feel some disquiet in reading the SMH story on Friday about infanticide. I do voluntary work with disabled children and adults and am privileged to be part of their very valuable lives. Every abortion is a great tragedy: for the lost life of a child, for the mother and father, and for society. Increased support, and empathy, for families who are struggling with caring for a disabled family member should be a given for a healthy society.

Pam 05 March 2012

In Benin if a child shows certain signs at birth - or later - they are declared to be witches and a 'professional' comes along to kill them by dashing their brains out against a tree, thus averting the disaster of raising a witch in the family. Some of us thinks this is a barbarous practice and Christian folk are there at this very moment saving someof the children and trying to educate the people and begin to make changes in the prevailing culture. How would we explain this 'reasoned argument' to the natives of Benin?

Pirrial 05 March 2012

When I first read last week’s front page article in the SMH, "Philosophers Claim over moral right to kill newborns sparks outrage" , it seemed such a ridiculous, extremist, ill considered, pernicious piece that I felt it didn’t deserve a response; I’ve changed my mind. Initially, like others it seems, one is tempted to lash out and get personal; but, in lieu of that, and of screaming and swearing, let me get this off my chest before proceeding: #!*%!! One has to question the wisdom and morality of a Journal, and its editor, in canvassing an idea that is so profoundly destructive, de-humanising, repugnant, and contrary to sanctity of the human person. It intrigues me how whales, legless lizards, exotic parrots, exported cattle, and old growth forests attract armies of pro-life crusaders; yet infants, particularly those with disabilities, are too easily abandoned and written off as millstones ‘round our collective necks: bring on the National Disability Insurance Scheme … quickly, please. Meanwhile, perhaps the philosophers in question, Drs Giublini and Minerva, might like to consider this: the termination - before and after birth - of ideas that disable and undermine human dignity.

Peter Day 05 March 2012

America's first Nobel Prize winner, the surgeon/scientist Alexis Carrel was the most prestigious of intellectual contributors to the emerging scientific world in the early 20th century - until he published his famous world-wide selling book 'Man the Unknown'. In this, he proposed (or perhaps simply foresaw) a eugenic future for Mankind in the Utopian search for a disease and disability free human race. The unwanted, the criminal, the mentally and physically disabled and the non-contributary would ideally be exterminated by the State. This philosophy was embodied in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Communist States around the world, China's one child policy and in numerous dictatorships in today's world. To date in the Christian West we have applied this only to the most vulnerable in our society, the unborn child, through State sponsored extermination in abortion clinics with government support through the law and through Medicare.(Some services employed in abortion are rebateable from the public purse). Alexis Carrel paid a big price for his eugenic stand. In today's France his name has been removed from 20 steets and plazas and from the medical faculty in Lyon named in his honour. This current tilt at eugenics from Guibilini and Minerva in the 'Journal of Medical Ethics' will hopefully be similarly condemned and consigned to the philosopical garbage bin. They have, however, confirmed that "killing newborns is morally the same as abortion". Let us hope that this truth stated in their treatise awakens our society to the barbarism of killing the newborn, a barbarism of the same inhumanity as our "legalised abortion". While such an awakening can't be avoided by any human being with a mere modicum of human understanding, it is highly likely that despite any such awakening, our society of the "culture of self" and the "culture of death", as described by Pope John Paul II, will ignore the truth and our lawmakers will not seek to protect any human life that imposes on self interest and will not recriminalise abortion. Welcome to the new barbarian age!!!

john frawley 05 March 2012

Eugenics is alive and well and enshrined in law. Just look how many jurisdictions which permit legal abortion include termination of pregnacies when genetic abnormalities are detected as a justification for the procedure. Selective abortion of a male or female foetus to provide for family balancing or social and cultural factors is eugenics in a form. The community is right to be outraged about infanticide but why is there not outrage that people with disabilities may be terminated before birth? Is our lack of outrage a sign of complicity in eugenics and the undervaluing of people with disabilities. The academics have at least exposed the hypocrisy of our society and our laws and medical practices with regard to; abortion, disability and our embrace of eugenics.

Anthony 05 March 2012

It seems to me too reductionist and unsophisticated to say that abortion (before 14 weeks) and infanticide are morally the same...but they are not too far away from each other either. That, surely, this is the core argument against the social acceptance of easy abortion. If one is "plainly wrong", then what of the other? ...it is the abortion lobby which should now be cringing!

Eugene 05 March 2012

If you can make a 'reasoned argument' one way, then shouldn't you also be able to make the same argument the other way? If killing a child outside the womb is unacceptable, no matter what the parent wishes, then killing a child in the womb must also be unacceptable, no matter what the parent wishes. I think the authors have an ethical point - they just made it backwards. If you don't believe that killing a child in the womb is acceptable, you can't make the argument that they made.

Joseph Vine 05 March 2012

Of course killing newborns is morally the same as abortion. Both of them are the killing of innocent human beings. How can we in Australia object to 'honour killings' in other countries, when we allow killing of the handicapped in our own country. Here the unborn are the most disregarded and oppressed members or our race, and if an individual is thought of as a future life-long burden we (meaning our governments) think it's OK to kill it. It's 'damaged goods'. In some societies females are the most disregarded and oppressed members, and if one is raped she no longer has the chance of attracting an honourable husband, and will be a life-long shame and burden to her parents. Morally there's not much difference between them.

Gavan Breen 05 March 2012

Breaker Morant's last words before the firing squad were: "Shoot straight you bastards". But Breaker had the choice of a quick death or a slow one, a choice that the near-born (late term) or the newly-born don't have.

Claude Rigney 05 March 2012

Might I refer you to the article by Breda O Brien, in today's, 4/3/12 Irish Times, where she succinctly makes it abundantly clear that in fact the article in question , is a satirical piece where the authors are in fact stating that abortion is the same as infanticide. She quotes from Dean Swift , of Gulliver's Travels fame, where in a satirical piece relating to solving the over population of the Irish peasant;that the problem could be solved by selling the one year fattened babies as meat for the wealthier classes and in this way also improve the income of the impoverished peasant. Having read the article myself, previous to her article , it was apparent that this was in fact the intention of the authors.

Eddy O Sullivan 06 March 2012

I agree with Anthony that the ethicists have exposed the hypocrisy of our society. Eureka Street is guilty of this very same hypocrisy as well. It was good that they featured this article and forthrightly condemned the ethicists. However, until I read an similarly unequivocal condemnation of abortion on this site (and I am not holding my breath), they are guilty of the hypocrisy just as Anthony named it.

MJ 06 March 2012

If the killing of new-borns is defended, how far will it be extended? Toddlers? 4 year Olds? 10 or 20 year olds? all those with mental problems? the frail aged?

Robert Liddy 06 March 2012

As I understand Church teaching, people complicit in abortions are automatically excommunicated. If infanticide is carried out this is a grave sin but no excommunication. I believe one is as bad as the other.

Chris P 06 March 2012

I have had various interests in human ethics for more than 50 years and in 1937 I was one of the smallest babies born to survive.Consequently I developed an interest in the lives of impregnated human eggs, embryos and neonatal babies. I am quite sure that at least 14 days after human sperm penetrates a human ovum no identifiable human life is present. And naturally [does nature = God?] around 50% of these fertilised eggs are aborted, as are more in the following months. When I was born Nurse Molly Minogue was determined to keep me alive and baptised me as well.I lived. And I ask why does God [nature] terminate pregnancy after pregnancy and apparently dictate that humans may not do likewise. I do find a huge ethical difference between early and late terminations.

Gerry Costigan 06 March 2012

An excellent and incisive article, Michael. This is a point of view heard from many contemporary philosophers previously, including Peter Singer. Unlike Swift, these people are deadly serious, I see no satirical intent in their piece, although, as philosophers do, they would say it is only meant to make people think. As they appear to be tenured academics, I suspect in the special field of Ethics, I wonder, if one of their students objected to their position on this matter on equally valid philosophical grounds, how impartial in this person's case they would be? Would they sponsor this person's academic career as much as someone who followed their line? I think we have gone beyond the contraception and abortion debates to a much wider one about the basic value of human life. This ties in with the work Margaret Somerville, a medical ethicist who works at McGill University, does on bioethics. Once this matter has entered the public arena it needs to be countered clearly and calmly by people such as yourself and Professor Somerville. This is not merely an intellectual game of chess.

Edward F 06 March 2012

Dear Gerry Costigan The spermatozoan and the ovum are both living cells. They are identifiably human and can be positively linked to their origins in a particular human being through their DNA imprints and gene identification. After fusion these cells remain human but are now genetically different (half from sperm half from ovum in rough terms). These cells, spared misadventure, will indubitably continue as the same identifiable human life just as the earliest shoot from a seed, barely visible, is a living plant, the same living plant that fifty years later is a massive gum tree. Destroying such developing life is morally/philosophically the same, regardless of the stage of development at the time when it is destroyed. It is difficult to justify abortion even in the first 14 days of this new human life.

JOHN FRAWLEY 07 March 2012

And yet our shepherds refuse to speak from the pulpit against abortion. (see Eureka articke "Why I don't preach about Abortion").

Claude Rigney 07 March 2012

THANKYOU PETER DAY- my thoughts exactly.

pamela 09 March 2012

I would be more sympathetic to the anti abortionists if they were also pacifists & totally against capital punishment.The whole idea of a 'just war' seems more repugnant to me than abortion - or are our 'enemies' somehow less human that a foetus? Let's be consistent about all this.

rosemary w 09 March 2012

It is symptomatic of our post-Christian post-modern world that we now have no lodestone or compass for moral choice. We, the church, have a responsibility to articulate love as a foundational cornerstone of the Christian experience of God, to give this jaded and lost society some opportunity to see beyond self and wealth.

graham patison 11 March 2012

Thanks Michael for this comment, I was surprised that an Aussie state would legislate eugenics, could you kindly send me more details. When I was a state & federal election candidate in Rev Fred Nile's team in the 1980s, he gave me some readings showing historical connection between Darwin's evolution theory, eugenics and its expression in Nazism (Darwin's cousin Galton was founder of eugenics movement if my memory is correct?) I am now a more progressive or liberal Christian in some ways, maybe partly reacting to my SDA fundamentalist (and sadly anti-Catholic) first 30 years of life. I get inspiration thru Borg, Crossan and their ilk. but I'm conservative in other ways..... e.g. equality & justice for all must include the most defenceless, the unborn person. Spong seems so weak on that. I worship in the Uniting Church, Morisset, and ecumenically at times. I maintain some of my former SDA friendships. I am amused by a minority of my SDA friends who hold to a "Jesuit conspiracy theory" claiming Jesuits, as the Pope's fully obedient front-line agents devoted to the destruction of Protestantism, have already infiltrated into the SDA church's ministry to white-ant its distinctive apocalyptic theology. Have you heard of that one? But personally I admire the Jesuits' absolute dedication to the justice and compassion of the Kingdom of God in Christ, reflected in Eureka and lived risk-fully in Sth America and other places.

Tom Toogood 02 April 2012

these souls are brought here to teach humanity lessons. Just because the parasites aka elite dont see any use for them and are viewed as a hindrance to society only shows how limited parasites can evolve.

kim 08 December 2013

Similar articles

Wayne Swan, Clive Palmer and the gospel of wealth

Binoy Kampmark | 09 March 2012

Clive PalmerMining in Australia has assumed the mantle of the untouchable, so much so that taxing its proceeds is deemed by some to be unpatriotic. What matters to Swan is maintaining the idea, however illusory, that Australia remains an equal country. 

Women chained to the human dairy farm

Catherine Marshall | 08 March 2012

International Women's DayWomen have fought the long, hard fight, marching into battle with a baby tugging on one heel and a man hanging off the other. And while the man has largely loosened his grip, the baby never will. Many women are still forced to submit, if not to patriarchy then certainly to maternal instinct. 

The truth about airborne asylum seekers

John Menadue | 07 March 2012

Asylum seekersThe High Commissioner for Refugees has warned Australians about 'populist explanations ... and fears that are overblown'. He clearly had the Coalition in mind. One-liners and slogans don't make for credible refugee policy. Neither does recycling failed policies of the past.

Benefits of Australia's UN Security Council bid

Benedict Coleridge | 07 March 2012

UN Security CouncilCritics of Australia's bid to join the UN Security Council have either a narrow view of what constitutes Australia's national interest, or a view of Australian taxpayers as shareholders who should expect a financial return on every investment.

Cold showers for unprincipled Labor

Zac Alstin | 06 March 2012

Hot water tapLabor must have anticipated the negative response to its axing of the solar hot water rebate scheme, yet it went ahead. Does this suggest determination, arrogance or desperation? One thing's for sure, the decision contributed to the impression this government has lost its way.