After-birth Abortion: Atheist Ethics at Work

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
10th March 2012

Tagged: abortion

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For some years I have pointed to the awful outcome of atheistic thinking by referring to Professor Peter Singer’s views on euthanasia, bestiality and especially infanticide. He does not accept the basic proposition of humans being created in God’s image, and so finds no special place for humans compared to animals. He critiques his fellow humanists as having “on the whole been unable to free themselves from one of the most central of these Christian dogmas: the prejudice of Speciesism”.

A key point in his argument is his promotion of ‘personism’. Within this philosophy a person is somebody who is "capable of desiring to continue as a subject of experience and other mental states". This enables him to accept abortion, euthanasia and infanticide, while opposing killing animals. Killing, like all ethics, comes down to outcomes. If a mother’s quality of life is improved or preserved by killing a newborn, then there is no inherent reason against it.

Whenever I mention Professor Singer’s views, I am assured that he is an extremist who in no way represents atheism itself. In some ways that is a fair response, because not all atheists believe the same things and atheism itself cannot be blamed for every weird view that an individual atheist holds. Christians know how irritating it is to have media opponents interview some extremist redneck Christian as if they represent all Christians.  However, Professor Singer is a leading ethicist and atheist, holding the chair of Bio-ethics at Princeton University and in 2004 voted as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. His views are those of reasoned atheism. He recognises that if there is no God, humans are not made in God’s image. Therefore, ethics based on being created in God’s image can no longer stand.

His views are not held by him alone. Just last week, the British Journal of Medical Ethics published an article from two Melbourne academics arguing on the Peter Singer line for infanticide. There was so little new in the argument, I’m not even sure that it was worth publishing in such a prestigious journal. There was a new ‘spin’ given by calling infanticide: ‘after-birth abortion’. But the arguments and resultant position were the same as what atheists have advanced before. Basically their point is: If it is all right to kill the unborn foetus for social, economic or psychological reasons, then it is alright to kill the newborn baby for the same reasons. Animals are more ‘persons’ than newborn babies, and therefore, have a greater right to life than human babies.

Most people, who justify abortion, do so on the quite false premise that foetal life is in some significant way different to human life. “A scrap of tissue” or “part of the mother’s body” is the usual emotive and inaccurate language. These are inaccurate because they do not rightly reflect the nature of foetal life. A foetus is much more than a scrap of tissue; even as an embryo its development makes it much more than merely “a scrap of tissue”.  And a foetus is not part of the mother but is always genetically and immunologically distinct from her. It is human, it is living and it is not her. Even the argument based on ‘potential’ life will not save the newborn as neither the foetus nor the newborn can survive on its own.

Professor Singer and his colleagues are quite sanguine about the status of the foetus as a living human; they just don’t think being a living human is sufficient reason to be kept alive. And just as any social, economic or psychological inconvenience to the mother or society is sufficient reason to be killed in the womb, so also such a reason is sufficient for the child to be killed out of the womb.

The logic is simple, but logic alone does not give any answers other than its premises. The argument is not about logic but about the basic premise of ethics. It is just as logical to argue the reverse case: given that killing the newborn is murder, so is killing of the unborn. If infanticide is “after-birth abortion” then abortion is “pre-birth infanticide”. If you find killing a newborn unacceptable, then killing the unborn should be unacceptable as well. The difference in opinion is not a difference of logic, but a difference of basic premise. The atheist has to answer the question: “If God did not create us in his image then what is the basis for our right to life?” Professor Singer and his colleagues say it is not that we are human, but that we are persons.

Teaching children atheistic ethics is not a harmless alternative to teaching scripture. It may be the choice people want to make in a ‘free’ society but it is not harmless.