There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

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American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

39 thoughts on “There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

  1. 2

    Step outside the western world, dominated by the christian commandment to go forth and multiply, and you’ll find cultures which practiced various forms of population control, including infanticide. These were sometimes a contributor to the survival of those cultures, as evidenced by their success, and in contrast to the failures of cultures which overtaxed their local environment through overpopulation, and hence died out.

    An example given by Jared Diamond (of Guns, Germs and Steel), in his book Collapse, is the highland tribes of Papua New Guinea. One of only 7 cultures to independently invent agriculture, they maintained a sustainable population, and therefore a sustainable society, for over 7,000 years before being discovered in the early 1900s. Without modern birth control methods, they maintained their population at a sustainable number through ritual warfare and infanticide.

    The historical practice of maintaining a sustainable population via self sacrifice or infanticide has been noted in communities living in marginal circumstances, like small islands, where starvation is a constant threat.

    Nowadays we have the luxury of contraception and abortions available, but the christian imperatives of multiplying and proselytizing have become the capitalist imperatives of growth and expansion, and it’s going to be a long and difficult struggle to change those cultural attitudes so that humanity can choose to live sustainably.

    Until then, I’ll get back on the real topic of this piece, and add my voice to the chorus: I appreciate the work Silverman does, but he flubbed this one big time.

    1. 3.1

      Ooh, you beat me to it!

      Aside: I still don’t understand how Ollie North can show his face in public without being tarred and feathered.

  2. 4

    > Ann Coulter’s call to “organize the death squads” if amnesty is granted to undocumented immigrants

    I thought they hated those.

    Oh wait, that were the Death Panels. It’s hard to keep these things straight

  3. 5

    Infanticide was well known and practised throughout the world.
    In ancient Rome a newborn had to be presented to the pater familias and only when he accepted the newborn they were then cared for. Also cue “Angel Makers” or numerous not so subtle ways to simply let a child die from malnutrition and disease because you couldn’t afford to raise them.

    But yeah, the point is that Silverman singled out reproductive rights as up for debate. He cannot NOT know the stupid, unconvincing secular arguments against marriage equality. They exist as well. But they’re not up for debate, but women’s rights, oh they are.
    And then there’s of course the dudebros who proceed to tell women that they should stop being so hysterical when nice men decide that there’s a case against their humanity. First and foremost of course, again, JT Eberhard, always happy to throw people who are not him under the bus.
    I’m totally not interested in working with people whose opinion on whether I’m a full human being is different from mine. And if JT Eberhard thinks that this is a price worth paying then I’m not interested in working with him either.
    Here’s some news: Lie back and think of the movement doesn’t work anymore.

  4. 6

    This was brilliantly written. I have the strangest feeling most people won’t get it and it will be quote mined to death, but excellent.
    I can understand sending a presence to CPAC, but giving wiggle room on the rights of over 1/2 of the population is weak-willed to progressives. On the other hand, giving an exemption to one of the largest and most emotional issues on the Right would seem disingenuous to conservatives. They were already pissed enough to rescind their invite to have an American Atheist booth after some comments Silverman made. I wonder if he’s cozying up to the NRA.
    I’m sure that Silverman is a nice guy, but his ineptitude at winning hearts and minds (Saying “The Christian Right should be threatened by us” after AA was invited to CPAC) and his inability to pick his battles when his resources are limited (fighting the 9/11 beam that some people think is a cross, but really isn’t. Whatever the religious significance some people see in it, it still is part of the history of the event) makes me question his leadership.
    If he really wants to attract closet conservative atheists, he might want to stress things that really are common ground–secular government, science education, scientific progress, birth control, environmental sustainability, etc. At least he should save the snark for after the CPAC circus.

  5. 7

    Oh my goodness, you just cut right past all the bullshit and got to the core of the problem. So. Much. Agreement.

    Particularly: “To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?.”

    And that wrap-up pretty much knocked it out of the ballpark. Pewpew.

  6. 8

    You have done a good job of pointing out the moral hypocrisy of most of us. We should either have no objections to infanticide OR start treating many other animals a lot better than we do. We do have some cruelty to some animals laws, thus acknowledging some moral responsibility, but they don’t go nearly far enough to counter the hypocrisy you have exposed.

    Still, I can predict the rebuttal from the anti-choice people: “Two wrongs don’t make a right. Granted we treat other animals badly, and we should change that, but does that mean we should treat fetuses badly too?”

    Perhaps you will say their hypocrisy gives them no right to make this statement. But suppose they treated other animals in a way that removed this hypocrisy. This would seem to take the infanticide argument off the table.

    As a debator, I always have to try to predict what the other side will say. So, please, gentle readers, don’t attack me for my prediction. Address your comments to the prediction and let us know how you would respond.

  7. 9

    I’m going to put a strikethru on my whole comment because TRIGGER WARNING: I am making light of the death of babies, and I don’t want to hurt people who have been hurt by that, but I still want to speak my mind.

    B4 I start here, I’ll say that I recognize the joke here and all that, but I’d like to take the argument at face value to get across a feeling I’ve had on the matter:

    There used to be an attitude when infant mortality was higher that babies weren’t so very precious. This was a mercy to the families that could lose them over and over again, and it’s a shame that our culture has started valuing babies so highly because it makes their loss sadder. What should make you more sad? The loss of an animal whose survival was very tenuous and whose ability to even recognize you as an independent mind is negligible (the human infant) or the loss of an animal that recognizes your fellow animal-hood, knows you, and likes you (the dog)? Some times and places, babies aren’t/weren’t even given names for a year or more after birth.

    I can’t tell people how to feel, but I personally do not value the lives of infants as highly as those of adults. I feel like there’s sound ethical reasons to offer them full protection and even some legal protections adults do not receive, but I don’t feel like people should feel obligated to go through the full-on grieving freak-out when a baby dies because society had played up the value of our larva so much.

  8. 10

    Why stop at infanticide? What about using infants as test subjects in labs? We already use adult monkeys and chimps who, as you point out, are more sentient, sapient, and aware than human infants. And the benefits would be far, far greater to society than mere use of infanticide as a clunky population control. [/clean cut secular argument] I think Silverman is being negligent by not seeking out and courting the advocates for human experimentation.

    1. 10.1

      Nah, infinks are too labor intensive to take care of compared to monkeys – and they cry when not getting attention which is a distraction while monkeys quietly masturbate.

  9. 11

    Well European tradition opposes infanticide completely – just read Hansel & Gretel.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Middle Ages
    Whereas theologians and clerics preached sparing their lives, newborn abandonment continued as registered in both the literature record and in legal documents.[4] According to William L. Langer, exposure in the Middle Ages “was practiced on gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference”.[41] At the end of the 12th century, notes Richard Trexler, Roman women threw their newborns into the Tiber river in daylight.[42]
    Unlike other European regions, in the Middle Ages the German mother had the right to expose the newborn.[43] In Gotland, Sweden, children were also sacrificed.[44]
    In the High Middle Ages, abandoning unwanted children finally eclipsed infanticide.[citation needed] Unwanted children were left at the door of church or abbey, and the clergy was assumed to take care of their upbringing. This practice also gave rise to the first orphanages.
    However, very high sex ratios were common in even late medieval Europe, which may indicate sex-selective infanticide.[45]”

    “In the United States the infanticide rate during the first hour of life dropped from 1.41 per 100,000 during 1963 to 1972 to 0.44 per 100,000 for 1974 to 1983; the rates during the first month of life also declined, whereas those for older infants rose during this time.[122] The legalization of abortion, which was completed in 1973, was the most important factor in the decline in neonatal mortality during the period from 1964 to 1977, according to a study by economists associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research.[122][123]”

    Kindly note that last sentence in particular.

  10. 12

    Lauren, I think you left out something important: it’s already happening, and it’s widely supported, as long as it’s only autistic and/or disabled children who are being killed. As long as this is going on, with murders, with medical abuse, with people like Peter Singer advocating the murder of disabled people, with groups like Autism Speaks dehumanizing autistic people, with systemic discrimination, and with the portrayal of disabled people as burdens on society, it is at best an ill-chosen example.

  11. 13

    Ah yes, the first person to chime in with the valid point that this sort of humor is harmful to some people. (Not in the sense of inspiring infanticide because that’s rather absurd, but in the sense of upsetting people who have been affected by infanticide IRL.) Perhaps it should have come with a trigger warning?

    I do think there is a place for satire like this in public discourse, but I’m in favor of flagging it for the sensitive to keep on walkin’.

  12. 14

    This was a very well thought out article. It could reach a lot more people if only you made a You Tube video about it. Not many people have the time or patience to read a very long article like this one. If you’re always asking for PayPal donations on your Tumblr page isn’t the least you could do is make a video (a serious one) once in a while? You really seem to be taking most of your audience for granted. I’m sure the next time you do a fund raising drive (ebegging) you will certainly make the time in your busy schedule to record a you tube video. Don’t forget this weekend to always go window shopping at your favorite mall or go again to your favorite restaurant. You always have time for bullshit like that.

  13. 16

    The secular movement has a number of flaws, not least amongst them their marginalization of free thinkers who adhere to non-collectivist political paradigms.

  14. 20

    I do not think this piece is meant to be humor or satire (ala “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift). Of course, it does not advocate for infanticide either. Rather, it is a serious piece that points out the hypocrisy and double standards we have when it comes to human infants vs. some other animals. Its primary purpose is to rob anti-choice people of their self-perceived moral authority to criticize abortion. However, it also has the effect of calling upon all of us, and society in general, to treat other animals far better than we do.

  15. 21

    I think that people should see this, so I am posting it where applicable. If anyone else wants to repost it, feel free:

    Two other arguments advanced by Kristine K in the past:

    1) “”I don’t think the rape victim is responsible in terms of the ultimate
    responsibility if pregnancy was forced on her against her will. Nevertheless, by basic biology of reproduction her body initiated and welcomed a new life into existence even if she didn’t choose or will it. “”

    2)” On the one hand the fetus is not an intruder – the uterus invited him/her into existence and he or she is now in his/her natural and rightful environmen,…”


    Biology = destiny is not exactly what I would consider to be a ‘humanist’ viewpoint.

    1. 24.1

      Depends on your definition of murder if the definition of murder is the killing of a human then yes it is. If it is the killing of a person then no killing a newborn human wouldn’t be murder since it had no right to life to have been depraved of under the infanticide argument. This is why if a shot you in the head it would be murder not because you were a human but because you were a organism that had a right to life that was depraved of so you were a person. This is why when you do out fishing and catch fish and kill and cook them at home your not charged with murder since the fish were not persons and the same could be said of the mouse you killed through the mouse trap.

      So with us knowing that, the notion of a person is COMPLETELY different from being a member of the human species as a person is a organism that has rights like the right to life while a human is just that JUST a member of the human species.

      It’s sad with this debate going on 40 years in your country, you still got pro lifer’s saying ”what is the difference between humanity and personhood?” If your going to comment on a certain topic please do keep up with the current info on it.

      Anyways, Science Fiction has giving us plenty of entities that could qualify as persons despite the fact they’re not humans. Here are some examples,

      The Na vi from the movie Avatar

      Jenny from my Life as a Teenage Robot

      Casser from Planet of the Apes

      Mewtwo from the Pokémon the First movie


      Fairies especially Tinkerbell

      Gray Aliens




      And the list goes on really

  16. 29

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  17. 30

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