Peter Singer: The Ethics of Infanticide


 Peter Singer: The Ethics of Infanticide


Peter Singer was named by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2005, so it might be interesting to look at some of his ideas and how they have permeated the pro-life landscape in the last ten years.

As Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor to the University of Melbourne, Peter Singer is in a position to influence this new generation of value-challenged young people. A proud atheist, Singer is very articulate in forming arguments to disprove the existence of God. He also believes in equal rights for animals, enforced financial aid for our poorest citizens and, fortunately for his opponents (since it gives his proponents cause to question his philosophy), believes sex with animals is fine as long as the poor creature isn’t harmed.

Something that might come as a surprise is that Peter Singer doesn’t believe that an unborn baby is a blob of cells, or simply tissue. In fact, to Singer, there is no doubt that a life in the womb is human. But he holds what he believes to be an iron-clad position on why it is permissible to abort babies, which is mentioned  below.

Before we get to Singer’s argument, I want you to consider the growing phenomenon of abortion advocates who agree with him: with advances in ultrasound technology and the science of foetology, there is little doubt left as to whether or not the unborn child is human.

The question has become one of ‘wantedness.’ A ‘wanted’ child is deemed worthy of life, but an ‘unwanted’ child is often believed to deserve the death penalty in utero. This status of wantedness is even beginning to be extended to born children, as shown in this paper from the Journal of Medical Ethics. Part of the paper’s argument rests on the evidence of grief suffered by mothers who relinquish their children for adoption. No-one can deny that birth-mothers do experience such grief. But while this is a painful circumstance to have to deal with, there can be consolation for a mother in knowing that her child has gone to a better life in a stable home. By contrast, I doubt the English language could find a word to express the trauma suffered by a mother who chose death for her born child if infanticide ever became a ‘safe, legal, and rare’ practice.


The following extract is taken from Peter Singer’s book Practical Ethics.

“There remains one major objection to the argument I have advanced in favour of abortion. We have already seen  that the strength of the conservative position lies in the difficulty liberals have in pointing to a morally significant line of demarcation between and embryo and a newborn baby. The standard liberal position needs to be able to point to some such line, because liberals usually hold that it is permissible to kill an embryo or fetus but not a baby. I have argued that the life of a fetus (and even more plainly, of an embryo) is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-awareness, capacity to feel and so on, and that because no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. Now we have to face the fact that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-aware being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-awareness, capacity to feel and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week or a month old. If, for the reasons I have given, the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either. Thus, although my position on the status of fetal life may be acceptable to many, the implications of this position for the status of newborn life are at odds with the virtually unchallenged assumption that the life of a newborn baby is as sacrosanct as that of an adult. Indeed, some people seem to think that the life of a baby is more precious than that of an adult. Lurid tales of German soldiers bayoneting Belgian babies figured prominently in the wave of anti-German propaganda that accompanied Britain’s entry into the First World War, and it seemed to be tacitly assumed that this was a greater atrocity than the murder of adults.

I do not regard the conflict between the position I have taken and widely accepted views about the sanctity of infant life as a ground for abandoning my position. In thinking about ethics, we should not hesitate to question ethical views that are almost universally accepted if we have reasons for thinking may not be as securely grounded as they appear to be. It is true that infants appeal to us because they are small and helpless, and there are no doubt very good evolutionary reasons why we should instinctively feel protective towards them. It is also true that infants cannot be combatants, and killing infants in wartime is the clearest possible case of killing civilians, which is prohibited by international convention. In general, because infants are harmless and morally incapable of committing a crime, those who kill them lack the excuses often offered for the killing of adults. None of this shows, however, that the death of an infant is as bad as the death of an (innocent) adult.


Similarly, the preference utilitarian reason for respecting the life of a person cannot apply to a newborn baby. Newborn babies cannot see themselves as beings that might or might not have a future, and so they cannot have a desire to continue living. For the same reason, if a right to life must be based on the capacity to want to go on living, or on the ability to see oneself as a continuing mental subject, a new born baby cannot have a right to life. Finally, a newborn baby is not an autonomous being, capable of making choices, and so to kill a newborn baby cannot violate the principle of respect for autonomy. In all this, the newborn baby is on the same footing as the fetus, and hence fewer reasons exist against killing both babies and foetuses against killing those who are capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.


If these conclusions seem too shocking to take seriously, it may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude, rather than a universal ethical value. Infanticide has been practised in societies ranging geographically from Tahiti to Greenland and varying in culture from nomadic Australian aborigines to the sophisticated urban communities of ancient Greece or mandarin China or Japan before the late nineteenth century. In some of these societies, infanticide was not merely permitted but, in certain circumstances, deemed morally obligatory. Not to kill a deformed sickly infant was often regarded as wrong, and infanticide was probably the first, and in several societies the only, form of population control.

Singer, Peter. PRACTICAL ETHICS. Cambridge University Press. NY. NY. 1980. Third Edition. 2011. p 151-152.


Check out my other articles on Peter Singer: The Utility of Euthanasia and What Does it Mean to Have Intrinsic Worth?


Author: genericmum

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  1. I applaud Peter Singer for having the courage to discuss such a taboo subject. It’s a fascinating discussion. I don’t know what I would do when confronted with news that my unborn child tested positive for a debilitating disorder, like Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disorder (SCID). At this point in human history, and with the advances in medicine, infanticide doesn’t appear to a morally justifiable position in all but the most extreme cases. And the decision to terminate the life of a newborn could only be made with a parent(s) consent. It would be an unimaginably difficult decision for them to make, but consider the moral dilemma some parents face if they knew their child may only live to the age of 3 and experiencing nothing but pain and suffering. I couldn’t endure the daily struggle of witnessing my child in that state.

    Dismissing Singer’s position on the religious concept that there is a sanctity to all forms of life is preposterous. Consider: 99 percent of all species that have ever lived on this planet are extinct. Statistics show that today, millions of children under the age of 5 die every year because they lack food and clean drinking water. The infant mortality rate was shocking until only recently. Prior to 1900, it would fluctuate sharply according to the weather, the harvest, war, and epidemic disease. In severe times, a majority of infants would die within one year. So great was the pre-modern loss of childrens’ lives that anthropologists claim to have found groups that do not name children until they have survived a year. And according to a federal report, 17% of pregnancies in 2010 were miscarried and 18% ended in abortion. So it appears nature is as complicit as humans in denying the potential for human life.

    I wish people thought more about such a complicated ethical subject, instead of an appeal to scripture, or claiming they know the mind of an invisible deity who either cannot prevent the deaths of millions of innocent children throughout the world every year, or cares not to intervene.

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    • Thank you for your comments, John. I don’t agree with several of your premises, eg, if medicine is so advanced, then children with disabilities should be able to live out their short lives without pain, surrounded by love, and without the threat of being killed by their parents. As far as your dismissal of my dismissal of the sanctity of human life, I wonder where you draw the line which protects life? At 3 months, at 12 months, or should we be free to eliminate people with whom we don’t agree? I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that. As to knowing the mind of an invisible deity, that is simple: He told us in His book, the Bible, exactly what He thinks about the taking of innocent lives. Complicated moral scenarios become crystal clear, if seen through the lens of faith.

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