Thinking inside the box: a rationale for infanticide

16 July 2009 by Jeremy Bentham, posted in Uncategorized

Greetings my friends.

I hear that Parliament, some time ago, debated the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill and decided not to reduce the time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. I see that this Bill covers other highly contentious issues, but in this particular communication I wish to discuss the question of dealing with unwanted children. This was an issue upon which I wrote but, as with much of my work, never published. Why never published? Well, I was persuaded by my friends that my views, utterly rational and wholly unsentimental as they are, would outrage the sensibilities of the religious and well-meaning people of my day, and would, quite possibly, lead to my imprisonment if broadcast widely. These views, I dare say, will still now, in the twenty-first century, be viewed by many with horror.

At issue, it is said, is the right of the child versus the right of the mother to control her own body. I, however, insist that speaking the language of rights is unhelpful, because it introduces to the arena of law-making ideas from religion and metaphysics, and these, most emphatically, have no place in legislation.

In my time abortion was a dangerous affair, procured by dangerous potions or self-inflicted violence, such as women throwing themselves downstairs. There were no secure medical techniques as there are now. Unwanted pregnancies were often dealt with by simply abandoning the infant on the street or the ‘dunghill’—the annual number of such foundling children in London was estimated at 800 in 1740—or, in effect, infanticide. I was prepared to advocate infanticide, and I will tell you why. All social sympathy was directed towards the new-born child, whereas, from a utilitarian point of view, it was the mother who should receive it. To the physical pains of parturition was added in her case the social stigma imposed on the mother of a bastard. If she spared the child, the popular sanction would destroy her reputation utterly, and pile contempt and misery upon her for the rest of her days. In contrast, the new-born infant lacked any sense of self: it had no anticipation of the future, no reflection on the past. If it survived, the exclusion of its mother from the good offices of the community held out only the prospect of a short life in which pain predominated massively over pleasure. The termination of such a life might be achieved quickly and painlessly, with the collateral benefit of preserving the mother from the loss of her good name. A proper application of sympathy would indicate that it is more conducive to the general happiness to destroy the baby than the mother.

What I contend is, that it is the attitude towards the unmarried mother that is at fault. Of course, the modern view of bastardy is, happily, less censorious that it was in my time. However, it appears to me that the issues are linked through the dangerous and irrational notion of sin, with its equally dangerous and irrational attendant, the notion of God-given, and thus absolute, moral principles. The evils produced by the elevation of personal tastes into prohibitions on the actions of persons with different tastes, in sex, and in many other areas of life not meet for the intervention of penal law, are legion. I had hoped that progress towards the sober calculation of costs and benefits might have banished theological name-calling from policy debates by now, but I always recognized that social attitudes are resistant to change.
In the face of a continuation of a punitive attitude to the fact of bastardy, I would accommodate both mothers and offspring in my projected poor panopticons, where each mother would give suck to another child in addition to her own, and where all inhabitants would be usefully employed. The economic prospects of bastard children could thus be improved beyond recognition, and their mothers protected from the temptation to commit crime in order to secure subsistence for themselves.

I may return to this theme in the future, both because the question of the role of law in regulating sexual affairs, and thereby population, was one to which I devoted considerable time, and because I hear that observers predict that this debate will be revisited if the Conservatives win the next general election. Anti-abortionists think they will have a better chance of winning a majority in such circumstances, which would be a most retrograde step in my view.

Your ever laborious and devoted Servant

One Response to “Thinking inside the box: a rationale for infanticide”

  1. Bronwen Dekker Reply | Permalink

    I heard an program on the radio a few months back that was commenting on women who chose to take Down’s Syndrome babies to term (there had previously been a swing towards aborting after having a positive amnio test).

    In general, for the record, my position is (still) anti abortion. But there is certainly a “baby is for life, not just for Christmas” type of thing to consider. I used to think, very strongly, that unwanted babies should be brought to term and then adopted into other homes. But then, I spent 3 weeks in a ward full of women in early stages of labour, and decided that that also might be a “big ask” for someone who had no intention of keeping the child.

    The Radio 4 programs for reference:

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