Infant Exceptionalism

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By Wesley J. Smith, First Things, 7 . 21 . 17

The Charlie Gard tragedy has renewed public advocacy for legalizing infanticide. Writing in the New York Times earlier this month, Gary Comstock recounted the tragic death of his son, Sam, who was born with a terminal genetic condition. Many years later, Comstock believes that his son should have been killed instead of being taken off of life support:

It seems the medical community has few options to offer parents of newborns likely to die. We can leave our babies on respirators and hope for the best. Or remove the hose and watch the child die a tortured death. Shouldn’t we have another choice? Shouldn’t we be allowed the swift humane option afforded the owners of dogs, a lethal dose of a painkiller?

For years you repress the thought. Then, early one morning, remembering again those last minutes, you realize that the repugnant has become reasonable. The unthinkable has become the right, the good. Painlessly. Quickly. With the assistance of a trained physician.

You should have killed your baby.

We should empathize with Comstock in his grief. But emotion must not tempt us to reject the venerable principles of human exceptionalism. Babies—even those with dire prospects—are precious human beings whose lives have intrinsic dignity and inherent moral value beyond that of any nonhuman.

Acceptance of Comstock’s premise—that parents should kill babies who are “likely to die”—would be culturally catastrophic. It would lead to the legalization of murder. At Nuremberg, the German infanticide program was deemed a crime against humanity. Let’s not abandon that wisdom.

The death of his son is not the only motive driving Comstock’s advocacy. Comstock is a moral philosopher who rejects human exceptionalism and embraces animal rights and transhumanism. From his webpage:

Comstock’s current project explores the central dogma of the humanities, that humans are singular among and superior to other life forms, a belief recent developments in the life and information sciences seem to call into question. . . .

If we may no longer consider ourselves morally superior to all nonhuman animals, there is reason to wonder, too, whether cyborgs might one day be morally considerable. . . . If scientific advances in human self-understanding and developments in computer technology are in fact narrowing the presumed gap between the capacities of humans, animals and machines, dramatic implications for practical ethics follow.

Judging by Comstock’s Times column, it seems these “practical” implications include legalizing infanticide. Indeed, in my decades of work around issues such as euthanasia, utilitarian bioethics, animal rights, transhumanism, and other associated agendas, I have found that the more one rejects human exceptionalism, the more likely one is to declare that immoral and (still) illegal wrongs—like infanticide—are virtuous.

The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is an even more vivid case in point. Coyne authors a blog titled “Why Evolution is True,” where he extrapolates evolutionary theory into highly questionable conclusions of morality, philosophy, and ethics. Using Comstock’s pro-infanticide column as his launching pad, Coyne argues that if we can abort a fetus diagnosed with serious health issues, we should also be allowed to kill born babies with those conditions. He then makes the predictable claim that since we euthanize our sick pets, we should also be permitted to kill seriously ill and disabled babies:

Although discussing the topic seems verboten now, I believe some day the practice [infant euthanasia] will be widespread, and it will be for the better. After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans? Dogs and cats, like newborns, can’t make such a decision, and so their caregivers take the responsibility.

Coyne then brings in anti-human exceptionalism:

The reason we don’t allow euthanasia of newborns is because humans are seen as special, and I think this comes from religion—in particular, the view that humans, unlike animals, are endowed with a soul. It’s the same mindset that, in many places, won’t allow abortion of fetuses that have severe deformities. When religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.

Contrary to Coyne, human exceptionalism need not rely on religionto demonstrate its validity. But here’s the germane point: To reject human exceptionalism is essentially to claim that we are just another animal in the forest, which leads to the logical conclusion that killing should be an allowable remedy to illness and disability. This view has already infected the Netherlands, where babies born with serious disabilities and terminal conditions are allowed by winked-at practice—not law—to be killed by doctors.

Many no longer believe that human life has ultimate, objective value simply because it is human. With human exceptionalism cast aside, our new prime directive is to eliminate suffering, and eliminating the sufferer is now advocated in high places as a moral good rather than a pernicious harm. As a result, dying and disabled babies are in mortal danger of consignment into a killable caste that can—literally—be put down like dogs.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patients Rights Council. His most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine.