It was the issue of abortion that taught me to be suspicious of the word “reform.” It was the early 1960s and all right-minded people were in favor of “abortion reform.” I assumed I should be too until it gradually dawned on me, slow learner that I was, that people speaking of abortion reform were speaking of making it easier to take human life. That made a powerful impression on me, and ever since I have been acutely aware of the ability of people of liberal persuasion, especially when it comes to life issues, to obscure what is actually going on through artful semantic evasion.

That art has, it seems, taken a great leap forward. In an article entitled “Why They Kill Their Newborns” in the New York Times Magazine (November 2, 1997), Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at MIT, suggests we ought to lighten up about infanticide, and he begins the process of thought reform by eliminating the word “infanticide.” In its place he proposes two words: “neonaticide,” the killing of a child on the day of its birth, and “filicide,” the killing of a child at some later point. You see the advance. Who would not more lightheartedly engage in neonaticide or even filicide than something so off-putting”even, might one say, so infra dig”as infanticide?

Not that Prof. Pinker, author of the recent and widely noticed How the Mind Works and currently a hot intellectual property, actually comes out in favor of infanticide, under whatever name. Indeed, he courageously affirms that “killing a baby is an immoral act” and adds that while we can try to understand what would bring a mother to such an act, “to understand is not necessarily to forgive.” But he then sets out on a mode of analysis that, forgive baby-killing or not, renders it not much more than a moral misdemeanor. Not much more, perhaps, than abortion.

Pinker’s point of departure is the recent spate of headlines regarding young women who, in a variety of circumstances, have killed, or left to die, their newborn babies. Such behavior, it turns out, is built into “the biological design of our parental emotions.” For us mammals, parental investment is a limited resource, one we must decide to allot either to newborn or to current and future children. Human evolutionary history, with its record of high infant mortality, has taught us to make hard choices, including, where necessary, consigning the newborn weak to death. “We are all descendants of women who made the difficult decisions that allowed them to become grandmothers in that unforgiving world, and we inherited that brain circuitry that led to those decisions.” My hard-wiring made me do it.

Well, not quite. Natural selection does not “push the buttons of behavior directly,” but it does endow us “with emotions that coax us toward adaptive choices.” Thus it is, Pinker says, that “a new mother will first coolly assess the infant and her current situation and only in the next few days begin to see it as a unique and wonderful individual.” (To which Michael Kelly, writing in the Washington Post , responded: “Yes, that was my wife all over, cool as a cucumber as she assessed whether to keep her first-born child or toss him out the window.”) Not that those who opt for defenestration don’t feel bad about it. Anthropological students of neonaticidal women in hunter-gatherer societies, Pinker reports, “discover that the women see the death as an unavoidable tragedy, grieve at the time, and remember the child with pain all their lives.”

It is not just new mothers, Pinker suggests, who come equipped with the brain circuitry to countenance neonaticide. How else explain the leniency with which, he says, society deals with first-day baby killers? “Prosecutors sometimes don’t prosecute; juries rarely convict; those found guilty almost never go to jail.” Such leniency, Pinker goes on”driving now to the heart of his modest proposal”“forces us to think the unthinkable and ask if we, like many societies and like the mothers themselves, are not completely sure whether a neonate is a full person.”

Our problem is that while we need “a clear boundary to confer personhood on a human being and grant it a right to life,” we have a most difficult time, as the abortion debate reveals, marking that boundary. Up till now, Pinker concedes, most everyone has agreed that the line must be drawn no later than birth. But “neonaticide forces us to examine even that boundary.” “To a biologist,” he cheerily informs us, “birth is as arbitrary a milestone as any other.”

Moral philosophers instruct us, Pinker says, that a right to life must come from “morally significant qualities that we humans happen to possess.” “One such trait is having a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people. Other traits include an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death, and to express the choice not to die. And there’s the rub: our immature neonates don’t possess these traits any more than mice do.” That being the case, Pinker reports, “several moral philosophers have concluded that neonates are not persons, and thus neonaticide should not be classified as murder.” But most people, he concedes, flinch from following their brain circuitry to that logical endpoint.

“So how,” Pinker wonders, “do you provide grounds for outlawing neonaticide?” The “facts,” the reader by now is not surprised to learn, “don’t make it easy.” Some philosophers have argued, for example, “that people see neonates as so similar to older babies that you couldn’t allow neonaticide without coarsening the way people treat children and other people in general.” But again, “the facts say otherwise.” Studies show, Pinker insists, “that neonaticidal women don’t kill anyone but their newborns, and when they give birth later under better conditions, they can be devoted, loving mothers.” So it is that “the baby killers turn out to be not moral monsters but nice, normal (and sometimes religious) young women.”

By this point, Pinker’s whole analysis would lead to the conclusion that neonaticide is not the “immoral act” he called it at the outset but rather, at worst, the “unavoidable tragedy” that the hunter-gatherer women endure. But at the brink, Pinker blinks. Just as the reader steels himself for a proposal for “infanticide reform,” Pinker retreats to a dying fall. “We will probably never resolve” the dilemmas surrounding neonaticide, he lamely concludes. “We will most likely muddle through, keeping birth as a conspicuous legal boundary but showing mercy to the anguished girls who feel they had no choice but to run afoul of it.” If I were one of those “anguished girls,” I would feel justified in suing Pinker for breach of implied intellectual promise.

Just why Pinker pulls back from the brink one cannot tell. Perhaps because he recognizes that his argument has led him further than he originally intended. He wants to maintain a clear distinction between neonaticide and filicide. But consider the “morally significant traits” he invokes as necessary to a claim of a right to life: “a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people . . . an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death, and to express the choice not to die.” Those are traits unavailable not just to mice and newborn babies, but to all people up to several years of age. From such a brink only a moral idiot would not pull back.

But no doubt future moral explorers will venture where Pinker, for now, fears to tread. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you start “thinking the unthinkable.” Which is a good reason for people possessed of moral common sense politely to refuse invitations to such thought experiments.

Abortion on demand, neonaticide, filicide. Next thing you know”to echo Everett Dirksen in a different context”you’re talking real people.

Articles by James Nuechterlein

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