Home > Ethics, Medicine > Do infants have a right to life?

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.

  1. Lakshmi
    November 29, 2011 at 08:10

    A very interesting blog. A few comments.

    1. The problem is that in many situations, there is no crystal ball to know if the child will have limitations later on or not, and how severe the limitations will be. Conditions such as anencephaly, and other severe congenital malformations with a clearly known poor neurologic prognosis are rather rare. More common are issues such as prematurity-related brain damage, oxygen deprivation related brain damage, etc. The problem in these situations is that there is a spectrum of outcomes, where it is not so easy to predict if a child will just have mild cognitive delays or more severe limitations. It is in these gray areas that parents and healthcare providers struggle the most with making decisions.

    2. Yes we are guilty of ‘speciesism’, I see nothing wrong with that. As a society, we do innately place a value on human life for the mere fact that it is human. Our laws and codes reflect this concept, and do not provide the same punishment for killing of non-humans. T

    3. I disagree with your premise that a human who is not self-aware at the moment does not have the right to life.The better question to ask while trying to make this difficult decision is “what is in the best interests of this child”. “If I could put myself in the shoes of this child and think for this child, what would my decision be”. The same questions apply when we act as surrogate decision makers for an adult who is in a coma, on a ventilator, etc. We do not say “they have lost self-awareness, therefore they have lost their right to live.” Instead, we weigh the pros and cons, the likelihood of recovery, the quality of life following recovery, and MOST importantly, whether that quality of life is something that person would be happy with. In other words, when making a decision for another human, we need to try to put aside our own prejudices and value judgments, and think about what would be in the best interest of that person – “What would they have chosen if they could?”

    4. There is another type of illness where it is difficult to make decisions. What about people whose brains are functioning normally, but who are trapped inside paralyzed or non-functioning bodies. There are infants born with diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy (Lou Gehrig’s disease), skeletal dystrophies, congenital myopathies who have normal brains, but such weak bodies and muscles, that you know that they will need a ventilator and a wheelchair for the whole of their lives. How does one make decisions in those situations when you know that the brain will develop normally, and the baby has just as much potential to become self-aware as you and me? Are parents justified in deciding that the burden of the illness is too much for their child to bear, and decide to withdraw life support in those situations when the brain is intact? I believe they are justified in doing so if they are making that decision in what they perceive is the “best interest” of the child. But the “self-awareness” theory would fail to help us in making this kind of decision.

  2. November 30, 2011 at 05:50

    That is some comment :-). Let me reply point wise, though I think points 1, 3 and 4 assumes that the post sets out to provide a complete solution.

    1. This post does not provide a solution to the problem of decision making. The crux of the post was to do away with one of the arguments that could be brought up which is that infants have an inherent right to life. My only point is that that particular argument is invalid. Nothing more. All the remaining complications persist. Every other thing like the unpredictability of the progress of the disease, is surely bound to complicate matters, and there is no denying that. As you say, the decisions are definitely not easy. But this particular “right to life” argument need not be a part of that decision making process for new born infants.

    3. Let me state one thing clearly. That the child does not have the right to life, does not mean it HAS to die. I only mean that this particular aspect need not be given much importance. Again, the questions of quality of life, the interests of the child and all those are definitely important points to be considered. At the risk of repeating myself let me say that what I wanted to convey was: if everything else tells us that the child will not have a good or even a decent quality of life, we should not hold back on taking a decision to end the life, JUST ON THE PREMISE that, the child has a right to life.

    4. The case of normal brains in weak bodies, as you say, should probably be better terminated. But the self awareness develops only after a certain period has passed since childbirth. If before that we know the outcome clearly, we should not hesitate to terminate the life. That is the point I am trying to make. That the child has the potential sometime in the future to be somebody capable of self-awareness need not stop us from taking a decision when the child is not yet self-aware (again if everything else tells us that things are not going to be ok) any more than the fact that a fertilised egg has the potential to be self-aware in the future should prevent us from aborting a pregnancy.

    2. The point of speciesism is a separate one and hence I am replying to it at the end. I think there is something wrong with speciesism. Imagine a scenario where an anencephalic infant is about to die and a fully self-aware chimpanzee is to be killed. You have the option to save only one of them. Which one would you choose to save? The human baby or the chimp? I think the chimp should be saved. The next situation is an orphaned but fit 1 day old infant and an adult chimp. Again which one would you choose? This is slightly trickier, but I still think saving the Chimpanzee is the right thing to do, because the pain or distress that the chimp, its family and friends would have to undergo on the chimp’s death is greater than the distress on the death of an orphaned child. Of course it gets complicated if you consider a baby much adored by parents and a chimp. But the first two examples, if you agree with my choice, should tell us that human lives are not inherently superior to lives of other species. Of course, we are innately biased towards our own species and that our laws impose more punishment on killing a human than on killing a non-human. But the law could be wrong. We are all inherently racist and at some point of time in the past, there were laws upholding racism. Neither of these facts mean that racism is right. In the same way, we might be innately hardwired to favour our own species and our laws might also be in sync with that idea, but that does not mean it is the right thing to do.

  1. August 6, 2012 at 08:30
  2. August 6, 2012 at 08:34

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