Contraception and Abortion:
A Utilitarian View

9. Infanticide

Book cover: Abortion and Moral Theory by  L. W. Sumner

It will be evident that what I wrote in the previous section concerning the distinction between killing adults and killing conceptuses also applies to newborn infants. This is to be expected if birth does not mark a morally significant dividing line. This conclusion is not as shocking as it first seems, as will become clear in the course of the following clarifying remarks. Infants born with defects so severe that they have no or little chance of leading a worthwhile life,[28] and whose parents will not suffer immensely if it dies, ought to be killed painlessly. Even in these distressing cases, euthanasia ought to be practised only upon the consent of the parents. My previous comments concerning severely deformed conceptuses (see §7.2 above) apply equally to these kinds of scenarios.

Similarly, my previously stated position on defective conceptuses whose future lives, none the less, would be worth living (see §7.2 above) is applicable to neonates in the same condition. Infants can be regarded as replaceable up until the age at which they become self-conscious. For infants without damage to the central nervous system, as with normal infants, this is unlikely to occur before two years of age. A utilitarian population policy would, of course, need to take demographic account of such deaths.

In some cases, infanticide may be morally and practically preferable to abortion. This is true in circumstances where the defects either cannot be accurately diagnosed, or their extent accurately diagnosed, until after birth. Delaying the decision until then will save some perfectly normal conceptuses and conceptuses with only minor defects. Some parents, quite understandably, may still prefer early abortion, with its attendant possibility of disposing of an otherwise wanted conceptus, to the option of possible later infanticide. As with abortion, and for the reasons given previously, the final decision to kill the defective neonate ought to be left up to the parents concerned.

If the birth results in a healthy baby, the situation is considerably different. Most parents feel a strong natural bond to their newborn. Where such parental ties are lacking, the woman usually would have terminated her pregnancy by this stage. If, perchance, the neonate is unwanted either by both parents or by the mother alone, the balance of interests to be considered will now usually have changed somewhat from the time the neonate was still within the mother's womb. During pregnancy, the mother's interest in maintaining her health, her career, her personal relationships, and so on, may have ruled out alternatives to abortion. However, beyond birth, such conflicts of interest have either disappeared or been greatly mitigated. The risks and disbenefits of pregnancy no longer form an insuperable barrier to, for example, bringing joy to the lives of a childless couple, placing her baby in her parents' care until she is able to care for it herself or handing it over to the care of the state.

Once again, as with conceptuses, just because neonates are replaceable does not licence people to treat them as they wish. Strict laws ought to be in place protecting the welfare of infants; no less strict than those protecting adults. Further than this, laws protecting the lives of infants also ought to be on the books. Once physically separated from their mother's womb, infants are especially vulnerable. The death of a wanted infant due to negligence or malicious intent will result in a terrible loss to its family or guardians and bring about a considerable drop in mixed utility. This type of loss of life is significantly morally different from the justified killing of deformed infants, performed with the intent of considerably increasing mixed utility. Such morally unjustified killing deserves the full prohibitive force of the law.

Consequently, law-makers will also need to legislate for the regulation of acts of infanticide. I am not sure whether it is advisable to set up a medico-Iegal tribunal to oversee applications for approved infanticide. The extra delay incurred in awaiting an approval may cause undue stress in the unfortunate parents, who will already be living a veritable nightmare. Perhaps an informal consultation with their doctor, and possibly one other doctor, may be all that ought to be legally mandatory.

The same problem arises with approval boards for applications for abortions. In some cases, the delay in obtaining an approval for an abortion has resulted in what would have been a relatively safe first trimester abortion becoming a more medically hazardous second trimester abortion. Perhaps all that should be required here also, for the sake of the woman concerned, is an informal consultation with her doctor or via a specially instituted abortion counselling service.

Concluding this discussion on infanticide, it seems that the implications of the utilitarian policy advocated here do not turn out as revolutionary as it first appeared. In fact, the resulting prohibition against the killing of infants is almost as strict as the prohibition against killing adults. In both cases, special provisions must be made for exceptional situations.


  1. [28] Infants with anencephaly (without a brain) are a case in point.

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