Infanticide and Sophiology
In 2012, I was teaching a course in college writing, as I have done many, many times over my career as a professor, when a very interesting article made a few waves in the academic zeitgeist. It was short article—easy enough for students to read in about fifteen minutes—and an excellent subject for introducing students to rhetorical analysis. It was co-written by two philosophers teaching in Australia, apparently former students or colleagues of Peter Singer.
The thesis of Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva’s “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” is stated very plainly in the abstract: “what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” You have to admire the clarity of expression here, despite the horror.
I have used this article in the classroom regularly ever since its appearance, but I’ve noticed a change in student reception over the years. In 2012, I would watch my students read the article in class and see their growing horror and outrage at what they were unpacking. They were offended and outraged, incredulous that any professor would propose such a thing. While I hated to be “that guy,” I told them to get used to it: not only would this idea become accepted over time, it would eventually be celebrated as a good. They thought I was being alarmist. However, that outrage and incredulity has subsided over time: now students barely bat an eye.
I mention this because recent bills introduced in California and Maryland are proposing that “perinatal deaths” of newborns not be investigated—a rhetorical move that some have interpreted as opening the door to the legalization of infanticide. As expected, various news outlets have pushed against the interpretation of the proposed laws, saying that the bills do not explicitly legalize infanticide and that “the term “perinatal death” in the bill is intended to mean the death of an infant caused by complications in pregnancy.” On the other hand, the term “perinatal” is very ambiguous and could mean any time from birth to even 28 days later or more.
This is how the rhetoric (read: propaganda) game works. Make things sound innocuous or vague enough to be accepted, dress them up in euphemisms and/or neologisms (like the nonsensical “after-birth abortion”) and incrementally and eventually the goal of popular acceptance will be achieved. This is how the engineering of consent works.
I have certainly received a good deal of scorn for being an opponent of abortion. I wasn’t always against it. But then I started to give it some thought. People years ago were fond of saying that they believed abortion was acceptable, but only until the fetus had achieved “viability,” which, at the time, meant about five months into gestation. I was okay with that (at the time), but then I thought: “what about four months, 29 days, and 23 hours gestation?” So where is the magic moment? It should be obvious: there isn’t one. I was forced to change my position. In The Submerged Reality I speak out against abortion culture, and one online reviewer assumed I have never consoled or listened to a grieving or traumatized woman post-abortion, as if I speak only from an ideological position and not an experiential one. Well, I have done precisely this—and more than a couple of times. I’m still in contact with one of the women, and she may be the most pro-life person I know. She feels the culture betrayed her by telling her it was an acceptable choice. She still bears the pain of her choice over thirty years later.
Of course, now many jurisdictions in the US allow abortion not only after five months, but through all nine months of pregnancy, even to birth. This has not been a slippery slope.
As a farmer and as a sophiologist, I am intimately aware of the delicate dance of life and death, and I don’t take either one of them lightly. I deal with life and death every day. This morning, for instance, I contemplated euthanizing one of our roosters. He seems to have injured one of his eyes recently and the other rooster (who lost an eye as a chick) has capitalized on this weakness and has been attacking the injured one. I didn’t kill him, choosing to wait and see how and if his injury heals. So, I’m not against killing, per se. But I am against killing vulnerable human beings, and I’m against infanticide.
Giubilini and Minerva know their neologism is sophistry, so they try to obfuscate behind arguments such as “the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus”—a statement with which I am in total agreement—though they also argue that “neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense” which is hogwash (and I’ve washed hogs, so I know what I’m talking about.) They try to justify their rhetorical sleight of hand, that what they say is not what they say:
“In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.”
My claim is that the use of the term “perinatal death” works in a disturbingly similar manner.
As anyone who ever studied Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex in high school or college would be aware, exposing an unwanted baby to the elements or the hunger of wild beasts was a standard and socially acceptable practice in the ancient world. Didn’t work out in the case of Oedipus though! The people living in the age of the “Greek miracle”—the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, the poetry of Sappho, the art of Phidias, the rise of democracy, the wonder of the Parthenon—was also an age that didn’t think twice about the problematic morality of infanticide. It was a non-issue. This remarkably sophisticated culture gave no thought to the most vulnerable.
Our own culture is already mired and falling more deeply into this dynamic of a technologically sophisticated culture masking its own barbarity (and not only as regards to infanticide).
It was only with Christianity that this dynamic started to change, and in the Didache we read: “You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor kill a child at birth.” Seems pretty clear, but without the black magic of propaganda.
For the technologies so rife throughout our culture are indeed technologies of death, bent on the domination of Nature: mineral, plant, animal, and human. Call it “The New Black Magic.” As Valentin Tomberg once observed (and as Ioan Couliano later affirmed) what we find in technological and industrial science “is the continuation of the ceremonial magic of the humanism [of the Renaissance], stripped of its occult element.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.
Sophiology is the opposite of this dubious magic, as it affirms life and does not fear it.
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here