March 13, 2005

Peter Singer and Baby Personhood

Randy Barnett has linked to a discussion on Peter Singer and the killing of newborns. While it's hard for a pro-lifer to see much distinction between killing a newborn and a later-term unborn baby (they're biologically identical, except location and feeding source), I think I have something to add to the discussion.

Following the chain of links to RightCoast and AmericanDigest, you come to a FAQ on Peter Singer's Princeton site. The third section is on the sanctity of human life, and the first two questions deal directly with terminating newborns.

Singer believes that newborns don't have the proper conscious state of wanting to be alive and having a continuous sense of themselves, and therefore he reasons that they are not persons. Killing them is therefore less wrong than killing a person. Barnett gets a correction and a mild rebuke from readers for posting the RightCoast excerpt.

For the record, the excerpt from RightCoast is correct on quoting Singer (my fingers keep typing 'Sanger' in a Freudian slip), because all the excerpt blames Singer for doing is saying that killing a newborn is not killing a person. That’s really Singer's position, so the excerpt is correct. Unlike the correcting e-mail, Singer includes normal-birth babies as well (see the second question in part III of the FAQ).

He's saying, then, that it's not intrinsically wrong to kill any newborn. It is wrong in Singer's eyes if the baby is WANTED. Killing a wanted baby to Singer is probably something akin to destruction of property. Even if the parents don't want it, it's a waste if others might have wanted the baby. Yes, a waste is the concept he's explaining, and nothing more (again, see the second question I part III of his FAQ). It's a waste of resources, sort of like throwing away an untouched cheeseburger or junking your dependable car is a waste when you could give it to others.

But then, is anyone surprised? He's only taking a pro-choice view to a logical conclusion. It makes no sense that personhood should be based on viability, because there's no substantive change to the child, only to its skin development (it becomes sturdy enough to support itself outside). Viability is just an excuse to bestow greater rights at the point where abortion becomes unnecessary.

A pro-choice point that makes more sense is brain development, because it's at least plausible that being human is based on our brains. I don't subscribe to that view for its horrible lack of specificity and the difficulty of testing for it; it opens up the question to whether those with damaged but functional brains might be partial or lesser humans, as well. Of course, pinning personhood on brain development puts pretty much any late-term abortion out of the question.

I'm strictly a conception/fertilization man - the point at which the gametes cease to be and your DNA is created is the point at which you start. Therefore, all humans are persons - even the weak, the young, the old or the retarded. I could go on for hours about the respect we ought to grant those often denied it (not least of which are the retarded: a largely defenseless, vulnerable minority) but I won't right now. I will leave it to my website issue article on abortion to continue a deeper examination.

So for those who believe that late-term fetuses are humans but not persons, they can't say brain development is the point for personhood. They have to say consciousness development - an even less obvious way to measure personhood. But doesn't it make sense for the sake of consistency? If you're discounting conception and you're going beyond in-womb brain development, why should a newborn be treated any differently than a 7th, 8th or 9th month pregnancy, let alone an overdue 10th month one? There's no substantive change in the brain physiology, only a matter of subtle degrees and development in scope and size. There's not really a major bright line in brain development by this point.

It's simply absurd to place it on a sociological point like birth, because nothing changes about the baby's mind or body, only its environment. Our perception of it may change, but the baby itself is physiologically the same. Therefore, the point of personhood must come before or after birth, not with it.

It's entirely logical for the pro-late-term abortion crowd to come to Singer's position, because he provides a consistent, if stupid, point for life. The problem is that the pro-later-termers usually aren't interested in rights, personhood or consistency, only in cultural politics and access to abortion. Singer is interested in rigorous consistency, if not in particularly believable or credible moral schema. Thus, Singer comes to a consistent but horrid solution while the pro-late-termers come to a slightly more PR-friendly but horribly irrational solution.

I would be surprised if ultimately Singer's position gains wider credibility for one reason - whatever people can tell themselves about abortion rights and feminism and so forth, it's damned hard to kill a baby when you have to look at the truth staring back at you. Everyone has seen a baby, and realizes they are human persons. If only people could look at hyper-accurate pictures to tell that pre-born babies are clearly human persons as well.

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