Born Alive but Still at Risk

One of the big new stories coming out of Congress this week was the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to receive the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to come up for a final vote. The bill was intended to protect infants who survived abortions. Medical professionals would have been required to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age.” In addition, the bill would “ensure that the child born alive is immediately transported and admitted to a hospital.”[1]

The failure of this bill comes on the heels of high-profile legislation in New York that legalizes abortion for the entirety of a pregnancy. As we can see from these situations, the lines regarding abortion are growing starker. On one side, there are people who continue to work for further limits on abortion and even to ban it entirely. On the other side, there are people who are working to expand access to abortion up to the point of birth or beyond.

What the failure of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act tell us is that those who support abortion are moving closer to what was once considered an extreme position. This position is one of supporting abortion at any moment up to birth and perhaps even after birth.

The progression of this view can easily be seen in the work of Peter Singer. Dr. Singer is the longtime professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His writings on issues of life espouse infanticide and abortion. However, he also offers great insight into the debate regarding the right to life. Here is how he casts the argument over the search for a point at which new human life achieves personhood and thus has a right to life:

The central argument against abortion, put as a formal argument, would go something like this:

First premise: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
Second premise: A human fetus is an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

The usual liberal response is to deny the second premise of this argument. So it is on whether the fetus is a human being that the issue is joined, and the dispute about abortion is often taken to be a dispute about when a human life begins.

On this issue the conservative position is difficult to shake. The conservative points to the continuum between the fertilized egg and child and challenges the liberal to point to any stage in this gradual process that marks a morally significant dividing line. Unless there is such a line, the conservative says, we must either upgrade the status of the earliest embryo to that of the child, or downgrade the status of the child to that of the embryo; but no one wants to allow children to be dispatched on the request of their parents, and so the only tenable position is to grant the fetus the protection we now grant the child.[2]

Singer notes the difficulty in determining “a morally significant dividing line” between conception and birth. He then suggests that if one cannot be found, then the embryo must be upgraded to the status of the newborn child or the newborn child must be downgraded to the status of the embryo.

This is the main sticking point in the discussion today about abortion. At what point must abortion be outlawed. For a couple of decades, the idea was that abortion would just not be allowed in the final trimester of the pregnancy. In recent years, those restrictions have been backed up closer to the point of viability. Abortion proponents have reacted against these restrictions by pushing for relaxing the restrictions to the point of birth. Some have even proposed that an abortion could be completed after a baby is born. This position may seem extreme, but it is the logical conclusion of Singer’s argument. Singer writes, “It seems peculiar to hold that we may not kill the premature infant but may kill the more developed fetus. The location of a being—inside or outside the womb—should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it.”[3]

Since the location of the infant—“inside or outside the womb”—does not make a difference to Singer, then where does he ultimately draw the line? He goes on to write, “In attempting to reach a considered ethical judgment about this matter, we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants. . . . If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby, we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.”[4] Singer ultimately suggests that infanticide should be legalized for the first month after birth even though he admits that the month-old infant still does not have the rational capacity to be threatened by this policy.

There was a time when Singer’s views were considered extreme, but that time has passed. Those who support abortion are finding Singer’s logic sound and are willing to accept his position. In the past they might have found his logic sound, but they were swayed by the “emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects” of the argument.

Just when we thought the battle over abortion was turning in the direction of life, we find a new extreme position entering mainstream thought. Therefore, we must redouble our efforts to protect the most helpless and vulnerable members of our society.


[2] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 125-26.

[3] Ibid., 126.

[4] Ibid., 152.