Do infants have a right to life?
Being what I am, I chose Connemara Library over British Council Library merely because Connemara’s annual membership fee is less than 3% of the British Council’s. Of course, one of the problems with going in for the cheaper option is that each time I search the computerised catalog of the Connemara library for a book that I want, and go looking for it in the shelves, the probability of my finding that book is negligible. There have been times when the computer told me that there are about 10 books by Isaac Asimov on the shelves, but I could not find even one. Even worse, “The Big Bang” by Simon Singh, which the computer always says is available, eluded me for the last 1.5 years. Only last week did my search end. But dont jump to the conclusion of a happy end. The climax could not have been more tragic. I was forced to buy it on my own.
But occasionally I do find some good books, and considering my membership fee, I must say the return on investment is reasonable. One such book was “Should the baby live?” by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer. The book is about severely handicapped infants and whether it is better for us to save the children or to let them die. It also tries to answer questions of how to decide what to do and who should decide.
The initial chapters talk about a few high profile cases in the US and UK regarding severely handicapped children, and whether the doctors or parents have the right to let them die, and their fallout. I, of course, cannot cover his entire argument here, but there is one point that struck me as novel and he argues persuasively about it. That is the question of whether infants have a right to life.
You might think this is a stupid question, and that obviously they do have the right. But he argues that they do not. When a child has severe problems like Anencephaly, where the child is born without a brain, is it really right to keep the baby alive? This medical condition is an extreme case, and the problem is that there will always be handicaps that lie in the gray areas, where one cannot be completely clear on what needs to be done. But his argument is that such cases should not be decided on the premise that infants have the right to life. For any entity to have a right to life, it must be self-aware, have a continuous concept of self, have plans for the future etc. One might argue that the fact that the infant has life is a good enough reason to give it the right to life. But if that is the case, what about bacteria. They too have life, don’t they? Would you want to grant the right to life to bacteria too? But it is not merely the fact that our choosing to give a right to life to all living things would lead to absurd conclusions like right of life to bacteria, that should make us decide who should have the right to life. Thinking about it, the right to life should be given to all those, who would fear death, or know the consequences because of it. If an organism is not even capable of doing that, how does it make sense to give it a right to life. So, the criteria that the entity should be able to feel the death, realise its consequences, at least to some extent, should be the ones that should be given the right to life. Not pebbles and keyboards.
Does that then mean that anybody can kill an infant, or let it die? No. As the authors themselves point out, the consequences of such a position are not as dramatic as they might seem to be. What then prevents us from killing infants who have the slightest deformity, or even worse, what if, as in our country, people start killing off female infants? The point is that, when considering what to do to an infant, a lot of other rights, apart from the right to life of the infant comes into picture. The first one, is the right of parents to have a child. This right straight away ensures that infants can be done away with as and when it pleases somebody. In most cases, parents are so attached to their baby, that this right overshadows everything else. But what if parents themselves do not want to have the child. Then, they still need not kill an infant, but can give it for adoption to others. To a childless couple nothing could give more joy. Herein comes the right of other members of the society. The parents can decide that they will not be responsible for the child. But once they decide that, it is upon the society (or the government) to decide what to do. Then on, the parents do not have any say on what is done to the child. Thus the society can decide to put up such children for adoption. Now coming to the case of female infanticide. Here too, the larger interests of the society is at stake, as decreasing female ratios will lead to other social ills. Thus, in such a case, the government can use its right to a good future to prevent such killings by legislating against it.
As can be seen, the premise that infants do not have a right to life does not lead to a social catastrophe. Most things will remain as usual. But what such a stand leads to is that, parents and the doctors can sit together and decide on what needs to be done to children who are handicapped. Thus, the simplistic view of all living things having a right to life, will not be a barrier in deciding on the cases of such children. If the chances of the child leading a reasonably normal and satisfied life are very little, then it is better to let the child die. If that sounds cruel, one must also look at how the lives of the parents of such children are severely impacted because of the child’s handicap. The authors cite studies where parents of such children have a considerably high rate of break-ups. Moreover, for the rest of their lives, or at least for the lifetime of the child, the lives of parents are thrown into complete disarray. Their professional lives will be affected. They will not be able to fulfill their dreams. Moreover, having such a child prevents them from trying for a next child, in the fear that the next child could also be a victim of the same ailment. All these aspects need to be balanced with the possibility of the child leading a normal life and a rational decision can be arrived at.
One thought that could come up is the slippery slope. Since we cannot draw a firm line on when an infant starts becoming self-aware, would that not lead to parents making arbitrary judgments on whether the child is self-aware or not. A solution to that, as the authors suggest, is that we can draw a line at something like a 28 day old infant. Beyond that, the child can be assigned a right to life. It can be argued that a 29 year old infant might not be any more self-aware than a 28 year old infant. At least not much. But it is safer to err on the wrong side. We can be reasonably safe that a child younger than 28 days, will not be self-aware. We are not sure about infants two or three months old. So let us play it safe by drawing the line as early as possible. It is similar to our saying that anybody who is 18 years old can drive, when there is really not much difference between a person 17 years and 364 days old and a person 18 years old.
An important consequence of such a view is that anybody who can envision a future and is aware of one’s own existence, should have a right to life. Thus, all sentient animals, including humans, have a right to life. A chimpanzee or a pig too has a right to life. It might seem odd that we seem to give a chimpanzee or a pig the right to life, but not a human infant. But it follows from the very reasonable assumption that only those who can feel something should have the right not to be deprived of it. Also, there is no reason why we should consider humans to be special. If we do that, we will not be any more different than our ancestors who thought that our caste, race or religion is special when compared to that of somebody else. If we do that, we will be guilty of speciesism.