National Post

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Thursday, December 30, 1999

Don't suffer the little children
Our society appears undecided on the ethics of infanticide
Jeff White
National Post

In recent days the RCMP recommended charging a woman who had dropped her Down's syndrome baby off a Vancouver bridge. (Almost miraculously the child survived.) Although her action attracts the attention of the police today, it would not have shocked either the ancient world or many non-Western cultures throughout history. One survey of the anthropological literature on 35 cultures from around the world found that 21 of them killed deformed or sickly infants. These included, in Canada, the Copper Inuit, Blackfoot, Ojibwa and Iroquois. In ancient Europe, Plato, Aristotle and the Romans positively demanded the destruction of disabled children.

All that changed with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity. The new religion held that all humans possess immortal souls equally deserving of Christ's salvation and human respect. Constantine's soldiers swept away Europe's old gods, and, in 318, made it a crime to kill one's child.

But Christianity's prohibition was more superficial than its adherents thought. Even as 19th-century British officials struggled to stamp out female infanticide in India, British juries back home refused to convict mothers of murder or manslaughter. As a result the crime of infanticide was created in 1922, in the hope that jurors would be more ready to convict them of a crime with lighter penalties. The provision was later imported by Canada and remains in the Criminal Code to this day.

Even so, waves of public sympathy are seen for those accused of killing disabled children, even older ones. When a Saskatch-ewan farmer was charged with killing his 12-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy in 1993, public support was so great that disabled activists were outraged. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities rejects any distinction between killing the disabled as infants and killing them as foetuses. It condemns as eugenics the practice of aborting foetuses with Down's syndrome, and complains that 88% of Canadian women faced with the decision decide to terminate their pregnancies. (Their path is eased by a collective social decision not to associate words like "kill" with abortion.)

And in fact the distinction between aborting a foetus and killing an infant is more legal than medical. After all, premature babies are born every day that have gestated fewer weeks than many an aborted foetus. The Catholic Church still insists that abortion and infanticide hang together as "unspeakable crimes." Likewise many feminists insist they hang together as permissible birth control methods. A leading historian of birth control, Linda Gordon, says: "For the same reasons that the Catholics advance against abortion -- that a foetus is as much a living being as an infant -- one might argue that a newborn baby is no more a living being than a foetus." Either position is more consistent than the present law that permits abortion but bans infanticide.

Then there is the problem of the "slippery slope." The Nuremberg trials of Nazi doctors heard that their crimes started small, "with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived." Some feminists have slid down the same slope. In 1928, Emily Murphy, of "persons case" fame, helped Alberta enact the first forced sterilization law in the British Empire.

Taken seriously, the "slippery slope" argument leads to the Catholic position that abortion too must go. At present, however, it looks like it will be a cold day in hell before the majority of Canadians accept that view. Is there a logically consistent alternative?

Maybe. Australian philosopher Michael Tooley would grant the right to life only to organisms capable of knowing they have a life to lose. The question of infanticide usually arises just after birth, he says, when infants surely lack "the concept of a continuing self." In his view, infanticide should be judged as permissible as abortion in the first week after birth.

Under such a law, Canadian hospitals would not have to subject severely deformed infants to slow, painful deaths to avoid prosecution for actively killing them. Yet that is the perverse result of our current half-Christian, half-utilitarian mindset.

After the expected death in 1998 of one such child, Mustafa Dehzad, Toronto police unexpectedly laid a murder charge against a nurse who had merely tried to ease his last moments. That charge was withdrawn last month, ending an attempt to equate the death of a "Do Not Resuscitate" baby with a shooting on the street. Yet would giving easier deaths to children like Mustafa really be taking the first step down a slippery slope?

Those suspected of murdering older children, such as the Saskatchewan farmer and the mother on the bridge, still deserve to be subjected to the criminal process. But the Criminal Code's raggedly enforced ban on infanticide, like its former ban on abortion, is a relic of the fading Christian era. We should forge a new ethic to reflect the fact.

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