It’s okay to kill babies after they are born if they turn out to have “defects,” says one of the British government’s leading advisers on genetics. Professor John Harris, a senior advisor and member of the British Medical Association’s ethics committee, said that it was not “plausible to think that there is any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal,” suggesting that there was no moral difference between aborting a fetus and killing a baby. His claim is that in some circumstances infanticide is “justifiable.”
The professor’s comments were made during an unreported debate last week on sex selection, which was held as part of the Commons Science and Technology Committee’s consultation on human reproductive technologies. Professor Harris, who is also a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, was asked what moral status he accorded an embryo and if he endorsed infanticide in cases of a child carrying a genetic disorder that remained undetected during pregnancy. He replied: “I don’t think infanticide is always unjustifiable. I don’t think it is plausible to think that there is any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal.
He declined to say up to what age he believed infanticide should be permissible. Professor Harris, who is one of the founders of the International Association of Bioethics and the author of 15 books on the ethics of genetics, was condemned for his remarks.
Professor Harris said he stood by his remarks, which he claimed had been elicited “in response to goading” from pro-life campaigners.
“People who think there is a difference between infanticide and late abortion have to ask the question: what has happened to the fetus in the time it takes to pass down the birth canal and into the world which changes its moral status? I don’t think anything has happened in that time.”
“It is well-known that where a serious abnormality is not picked up – when you get a very seriously handicapped or indeed a very premature newborn which suffers brain damage – that what effectively happens is that steps are taken not to sustain it on life-support. There is a very widespread and accepted practice of infanticide in most countries. We ought to be much more upfront about the ethics of all of this and ask ourselves the serious question: what do we really think is different between newborns and late fetuses? There is no obvious reason why one should think differently, from an ethical point of view, about a fetus when it’s outside the womb rather than when it’s inside the womb.”
Professor Harris added that it was up to individual families to make a decision on the future of their child and that he was not concerned that such a course of action could lead to infanticide for cosmetic reasons.
The Rev. Joanna Jepson, a Church of England curate who is going to the High Court to try to block late abortions for “trivial reasons” such as a cleft palate case, said: “It is frightening to hear anyone endorsing infanticide but it is shocking when the person is responsible for teaching others.”
“This affirms the need for an investigation into the practice of abortion. We have already seen, in the cleft palate case, how the law needs to provide more rigorous protection for such babies but, with medical practitioners such as John Harris at work, there is no question of our fundamental need to reaffirm the human value of every baby’s life, no matter what its sex or disability.”
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association said: “These views of Professor Harris are personal views and do not reflect the views of the committee or the BMA, which is utterly opposed to the idea of infanticide.”
Editor’s Comment: Ironically, Professor Harris points out an important fact, that there is no normal difference between killing a late term pre-born infant and a born child. Morally, the act is identical, precisely because the child is the same being both in the womb and out. Tragically, his reasoning takes him to the absurd position that since it is legal to kill the almost born infant it could be legal to kill the born, instead of the humane and obvious position that the same reason why infanticide is illegal should apply to the late term pre-born baby. This is a stark example of how grotesquely the pro-abortion mentality has twisted the minds of even those reputed to be leaders in the field of ethics.
BBC News photo, September 11, 2002