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Why Are We Pretending to Disapprove of Roman Infanticide?

Category Articles
Date July 23, 2010

One of the most striking characteristics of our era is our unassailable belief that we are better and more civilised than those who lived before us. No other age has been as enlightened, as clever, as wise, as good, as ours. We Know Better. The characteristic insult of our age is to be described as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘mediaeval’. Numerous people begin arguments with the tedious and meaningless assertion that ‘this is the twenty-first century . . .’

CS Lewis, an extremely perceptive and thoughtful writer, coined the term ‘chronological snobbery’ to describe this, criticising the ‘uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.’

He continues:

. . . our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

I thought of this when the news broke last week that archaeologists have discovered a mass grave dating back to the Roman era containing dozens of bodies belonging to newborn children. Their theory was that a building close to the grave was a brothel, where for obvious reasons there were numerous unwanted pregnancies. Some media outlets noted that the Romans believed that personhood only began at two years of age.

There was a strongly self-congratulatory note in some of the media coverage of this discovery. The Romans casually killed unwanted newborns? How ghastly! How horrible! We see the same trend in reactions to other cruel ancient cultures: the practice of exposure in ancient Sparta, or human sacrifices in pre-modern Latin America. Thank goodness that we have moved on from such barbarism, we say to ourselves.

But is this view of our own age as a better, more enlightened one really as straightforwardly true as we like to think? Just two days after the mass grave story broke, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists published a ‘comprehensive review’ of the evidence on foetal pain, having been asked to do so a couple of years ago by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. The main conclusion was that, since unborn children could probably not feel pain before twenty-four weeks’ gestation, there was no scientific case for changing the abortion law. Unborn children will continue to have their lives ended, in their hundreds of thousands, in most cases for no other reason than that their continuing existence is inconvenient.

Ah yes, says the clever modern philosopher, but the Romans killed live babies, real persons, ones who had already been born; this is different from abortion, which ends the life not of a human person, but simply of a potential person who is not yet fully human.

This is a common argument, and a superficially convincing one – for the person who does not wish to think too hard. It is also exactly the same argument that a Roman philosopher or lawyer would have made to justify the killing of infants below the age of two years old, and it is hard to see why it is false when put forward by a Roman, and correct when made by a modern philosopher.

The modern argument only makes sense if there is some reason to view birth as a significant ethical boundary. Is this correct?

Obviously birth is a significant social and legal boundary. We have birthdays, birth certificates, we count age from the day of birth, not the age of conception. But what about the ethical perspective? Are there any good reasons to think that birth marks a significant moral boundary, that the simple fact of being born upgrades your moral status and establishes your right to life?

Professor John Harris is one the world’s best-known bioethicists, an author of numerous books who sits on a number of prestigious committees, including the British Medical Association and the Human Genetics Commission. He is a supporter of abortion, because he believes that the right to life is only possessed by human persons, and that unborn children are not persons. However – and here’s the tricky part for the pro-abortionists who use his arguments and cite him as an authority – he also sees no problem with infanticide in certain cases on the same grounds. As he says:

People who think there is a difference between infanticide and late abortion have to ask the question: what has happened to the foetus in the time it takes to pass down the birth canal and into the world which changes its moral status? I don’t think anything has happened in that time . . . I don’t think it is plausible to think that there is any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal.

This implicit advocacy of infanticide is unpalatable to many, even those who consider themselves pro-choice. But all John Harris – and those like Dr Peter Singer who agree with him about human value – is doing is taking the pro-choice arguments about wantedness and personhood to their logical conclusion. If being a full human person involves the capacity to think for oneself, to form relationships, to be self-conscious, then a newborn lacks these capacities just as surely as does an unborn child. If a child’s value, its right to life, depends on whether or not it is ‘wanted’, then why should this stop at birth, unless there is something morally important about birth?

We come back again and again to this question of what it is about birth that is important. The glib answer is that at birth the child is no longer part of the mother, that it is no longer restricting her freedom to choose what to do with her own body. But the very notion that the child is ‘part of the mother’ is misleading. That formulation implies some similarity between an unborn child and an organ, which from the biological perspective is total nonsense. An unborn child is a whole functioning organ in and of himself. He is genetically unique, i.e. he carries neither his mother’s nor his father’s DNA. He is immunologically distinct from its mother. He has his own blood group.

He is within the mother’s body; not part of it.

While we continue to abort 200,000 children every year, on the justification that they supposedly lack personhood, our society’s criticism of Roman infanticide is just so much self-serving hot air, designed to reassure us of our own virtue and negate the need for us to re-examine our own behaviour.

From Life, July 1, 2010 with permission.

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