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(Endeavour Forum acknowledges Quadrant in putting up this article.)

Human babies are not born self aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives would seem to be no more worthy of protection than the life of a fetus.

Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death

THERE IS A NEW NOTE Of triumphalism, even of impatience, in Professor Singer's latest book Rethinking Life and Death. It opens with a flourish:

After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed.

Here, as elsewhere, he makes the Western ethic contiguous with Christendom ("Perhaps it is now possible to think about these issues without assuming the Christian moral framework which has, for so long, prevented any fundamental reassessment") and their mutual demise means that "we have an historic chance to shape something better, an ethic that does not need to be propped up by transparent fictions no one can really believe".

Nietzsche had the best line, but Singer comes to declare dead and to bury one of the chief legacies of the late Deity, namely the sense of the sanctity of life. In both cases rumours of death have been greatly exaggerated. Singer's rigorous atheism has no time for "efforts to understand imaginatively and humbly the complex moral and religious tradition that informs the sense of what is at issue for those who resist the calls for more liberal laws", as Raimond Gaita wrote in the April Quadrant. One aspect of this "liberalisation" is Singer's defence of infanticide on demand. Gaita rejected his claim to the moral high ground of "compassion and common sense" on this matter:

God help us if it is now regarded as no more than common sense to argue that infanticide may be permissible under much the same conditions as abortion now is.

The chief concern of this article is to consider Singer's defence of infanticide in the light of recent events in Queensland, over which his shadow looms, which show the attempt to move beyond theory to practice, introducing social infanticide on a continuum with social abortion. I write as a specimen of the old tradition, for whom the sanctity of life ethic, properly understood, has not collapsed, and for whom the "something better" heralded by Singer gives no joy. This millennial sense of a new post- Christian ethic, so opposed to in particular the sanctity of the life between mother and baby, is strangely found in the last lines of Yeats' "Second Coming":

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born'

If the dominant image of Christendom twenty centuries has been the mother and child, then Singer's desecration of the life between them strikes deeply into those nurtured on Bethlehem's "transparent fictions", and invites a response.

Singer has been laying the theoretical basis for infanticide on demand since at least 1979, writing in Practical Ethics:

If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee ... ·In thinking about this matter the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee ... In thinking about this matter we should put aside feelings based on the small helpless and - sometimes - cute appearance of human infants ... If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants. 

The call to "put aside feelings" recurs in Singer's work. Gaita saw in this "an impoverished understanding of reason and its relation to feeling, of the distinction between knowledge of the head and knowledge of the heart". C.S. Lewis, who may have crossed paths with the philosophy student at Oxford, made the point in "Men without Chests": "It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

The coldly cerebral Singer is not talking here of the lethally handicapped infant, but of any infant ("they are not persons") who is unwanted. As with his defence of abortion, infanticide is "right" purely if that is what the parents desire, for whatever private reason; it is "wrong" if it is done against the wishes of the parents - a shining example of what Jenny Teichman, in this journal, has called "adultism". The 1993 edition of Practical Ethics puts it this way:

My comparison of abortion and infanticide was prompted by the objection that the position I have taken on abortion also justifies infanticide. I have admitted this charge ... In cases of abortion, however, we assume that the people most affected - the parents to-be, or at least the mother-to-be - want to have the abortion. Thus infanticide can only be equated with abortion when those closest to the child do not want it to live ... Killing an infant whose parents do not want it dead is, of course, an utterly different matter. Utilitarian justice means being true to the desires of the adults alone, since the infant has no meaningful desires to be weighed against them. A man of "compassion and common sense", however, realises that the law must at some point step in to limit adult freedom and recognise the "interests" of their young:

If we must have a point at which the developing human being has the same right to life as you or me, then, as I have suggested elsewhere, it is plausible to base this on the capacity of the being to want to go on living - and this needs at least a minimal awareness that one is a being existing over time, with a past and a future. On this basis, neither the early nor the late fetus has a full right to life - and neither does the newborn infant. This right, I would suggest, emerges gradually during the first few months after birth.

It takes a remarkable man to achieve such empathy with infants only a few months old, enabling him to discern the first humanising flicker of joie de vivre in their hitherto lifeless faces, and to know with a deep inexplicable knowing that they now want to go on living. Now, as persons, they are no longer free to be killed. Singer made these latter comments at a conference he convened in Melbourne, August 1994, on "Ethical Issues in Prenatal Diagnosis and the Termination of Pregnancy". In the audience was a man more familiar with babies a few months before birth, a man at the cutting edge of the Singerian ethic.

The medical director of Planned Parenthood of Australia, Dr David Grundmann, had given an address two hours earlier on late-term abortions, including babies older than the youngest infants in our premature baby wards. Infants now survive from twenty-three weeks, while he practises abortion at twenty-four weeks;

Singer's continuum from social abortion to social infanticide is finding practical expression. "This exciting topic presents a number of interesting challenges," Dr Grundmann said. "It is my belief that abortion is an integral part of family planning. Theoretically this means abortion at any stage of gestation." Grundmann deserves to be considered in the avant garde of Singer's "something better", for few other people defend abortion as a form of family planning up to birth. Equally remarkable is the list of five special categories he gives to justify late abortion, and his claim that "abortion beyond twenty weeks is unavailable anywhere in Australia, except at our clinics for the last five categories". Heading the list is: "Minor or doubtful abnormalities", where the baby may or may not have something minor wrong. There is no indication of how minor an abnormality needs to be before a doctor should decline to do a six-month abortion. Another category: "Women who do not know they are pregnant", with examples of where women might think their five missed periods were due to anorexia, athletic training or exam stress. At the end of the list: "Major life crises or major changes in socio-economic circumstances. The most common example of this is a planned or wanted pregnancy followed by the sudden death or desertion of the partner who is in all probability the bread winner."

None of this would upset Singer, who might point out that no justification at all is needed beyond the stated desire of the adults to abort the foetus. The practice did, however, upset many less enlightened citizens when Grundmann's lecture was tabled in the Queensland parliament in October last year. The Courier Mail reported Dr Grundmann as saying that "the graphic nature of the speech was intended only for the benefit of medical professionals, not lay people". The most graphic aspect of Dr Grundmann's practice, which would upset even Singer, was the distressing nature of the technique used for abortion - "cranial decompression". He described this technique, his "method of choice", on the ABC 7.30 Report as: "essentially a breech delivery where the foetus is delivered feet first and then when the head of the foetus is brought down into the top of the cervical canal, it is decompressed with a puncturing instrument so that it fits then through the cervical opening". To make it a breech delivery, which means legs first - and. babies almost always lie head first - the doctor first reaches into the womb with grasping forceps and pulls the baby's struggling legs round and down into position. By being careful to dilate the birth canal to only three-quarters of the skull diameter, the doctor can deliver the legs and back but be confident of lodging the baby's head in the cervix, so it can be dealt with before birth is complete. Decompression involves removing the skull contents under high pressure suction so that, as Grundmann puts it, there is "no chance of delivering a live foetus" - but that is too unpleasant to describe on television. The interviewer responded: "Sounds rather barbaric really," and the doctor replied: "Well it's, eh, I don't consider it barbaric. It's a technique which is designed to protect the woman, who is indeed my patient." Singer would approve this extreme "adultism" but would object, I believe, to the pain suffered by the small animal. The procedure is' virtually painless for the mother, with Grundmann specifying that she has "no need for narcotic analgesics", but the baby's head is pierced without any painkiller.

There is no doubt about the baby suffering pain. A recent article in the Lancet observed the full range of pain responses in unborn babies given needles in utero for blood transfusion at twenty-three weeks - not only "vigorous body and breathing movements" but "a hormonal stress response to invasive procedures". Grundmann seems to be indifferent to the "sentient" nature of these babies. On ABC Radio AM he was asked: "So at what point do you believe the foetus does become a sentient human being!" and replied: "When it is born." With the right attitude, any action is possible.

The procedure of cranial decompression takes place a few blocks from the Royal Women's Hospital, where I recall assisting at the birth of a baby just under twenty-four weeks. It seems to me that if I had taken that baby from its mother's arms and pushed a puncturing instrument through its skull, that would be murder. Even if it had some minor abnormality, even if the mother wanted it dead and threatened suicide if I did not kill her baby, it would be violent murder. But when another doctor does this to another twenty-four-week baby while it is being delivered at his clinic, that is family planning. Such is the divergence of outlook between the old ethic and the new.

The patient information brochure for the Brisbane Planned Parenthood Clinic has one instruction repeated and underlined: "Please do not bring babies ... we have no facilities to cater for them."

Above the clinic entrance, words of fire, which burned our eyes on entering, boldly said:

Blind hope and desperation here conspire... Here, too, a ghostly plenitude of dead, who died because they were not suffered birth - some, at the very brink of being, sped Clear of the barbed entanglements of earth, while others lived five months or even more (slept, woke, kicked at times, heard music, mirth) Before being hustled off ... We turned and saw within that place a surgeon whose dark skill it was to do the hustling. He wore A green gown, and his specialism was to kill by puncturing infant skulls and diligently suctioning out the brains. We stood stock-still Shaken by cries the world would never hear, from those forbidden voices by decree (the cost of living proving much too dear). Returning from that nether-region, still those cries pursued us: endless, indignant, shrill.

Bruce Dawe

THE NEW ETHIC is not new, but is as old as Moloch and Gehenna. Bethlehem was already threatened by it; one of its transcendent fictions recounts Herod's episode of infanticide on demand, with one infant escaping by the warning of the Magi. The Three Wise Men today do not show the same concern with saving strangers' babies. Three pillars of civil society: the philosopher, the physician, and also the lawmaker. Queensland's Attorney-General, Dean Wells, was co-author with Singer of the book The Reproduction Revolution, and a journal article dealing with IVF, abortion and the moral status of the embryo. At his feet was laid the request for an enquiry into this practice of aborting premature babies, and the request was refused. The Shadow Minister for Health, Mike Horan, was not alone in calling for an enquiry "in the interests of basic humanity"; the head of the AMA in Queensland, Dr Rob Hedge, said Dr Grundmann "stood alone in Australia in justifying his practices" and called on the Government "to pursue the due processes Of the law".

On the 7.30 Report Queensland's most prominent advocate and practitioner of abortion, Peter Bayliss, was asked of Grundmann's late abortions, "Do you think it's murder!" and told the viewers, "Yes." Four months later, when a petition of 17,000 had been presented to parliament asking for an enquiry, ABC Radio reported: "The Goss Government says an enquiry is not needed but the Attorney-General Dean Wells declined to explain why to AM." His response on previous occasions had been that there was no evidence of illegality, an opinion that persisted despite a finding by the Supreme Court on 19 May. For the first time files from Dr Grundmann's Townsville clinic had been inspected in court, and Justice Freyberg found that he "has per formed abortions; on numerous women at his Townsville clinic when there was no necessity for him to do so in order to prevent serious physical or psychiatric injury to the patient".

The judge's words reflected the McGuire ruling of 1986, whereby an abortion may be lawful in Queens land if the doctor honestly believes on reasonable grounds that the act is necessary to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or to her physical or mental health. That is a test of legality particularly with late abortions, and Justice Freyberg said: "I disbelieve Dr Groundsman's assertions that he honestly and sincerely applied that test before each and every abortion which he performed."

However, Dr Grundmann was not on trial. He was the plaintiff in a defamation hearing brought against a Rockhampton doctor, and in the context of this civil hearing the judge made no criminal findings:

I make no finding as to whether Dr Grundmann has carried out illegal abortions at his clinic at Townsville because that would require a detailed examination of the provisions of s.282 of the Criminal Code. In my judgment, it would be quite inappropriate for me to embark upon such an examination in the present context, when it is unnecessary for me to do so for the purposes of the decision. However I do find that the plaintiff has performed abortions on numerous women at his Townsville clinic when there was no necessity for him to do so ... The Attorney-General might have arranged for review of the evidence in a context where criminal questions could be considered, but he did not. In Parliament on 25 May, when asked to act on the Supreme Court findings, the Premier dismissed the request as a "cheap point" and said: - This is my advice. Although Justice Freyberg made the observation to which the Leader of the Opposition referred, he also specifically said that he made no finding as to whether the doctor had carried out illegal abortions. He made no finding. He specifically said that. Such unresponsiveness is bewildering and dispiriting. Mike Horan expressed this feeling in parliament: What will it mean, Mr Speaker, for the conscience of our society and its respect for the law, if people are vividly aware of such brutality, such illegality, and then they see their leaders do nothing about it! More importantly, what will it mean for all the defenceless babies who, unlike their peers in the hospital nurseries, will never see a human face, never feel a human touch except that tight grip on their legs and that stab to the head! Is that of no concern to the men and women in government.' This is a question of the most basic humanity and decency. It is too great a matter of public concern for a responsible government simply to walk away from.

The government seems to have walked away from it; repeated requests over five months by a delegation of doctors wishing to discuss the matter further with the Health Minister have not been honoured with a reply.

Perhaps this is a sign of the times. Perhaps Singer's ethic and Grundmann's practice will prevail and we will become spiritually a society of dingoes, amongst whom no baby is safe. Nevertheless, Herod could not slaughter all the innocents, and Singer will not corrupt the love of innocence in every reader. As long as some hearts are softened by the image of an infant stirring in its sleep, or even by their baby's sleepy movements on ultrasound at sixteen weeks, Singer's call to "put feelings aside" in killing babies will reek of decay. Aldous Huxley's "normalisation of the de-individualised", which Singer serves, can be passionately resisted.

A new Name is spoken at conception, which takes a lifetime to be fully expressed; a Name known to God if not yet to us. A new character is scripted into our common story, which no other poor strutting player has the right to erase. As long as there are hearts which sense this and will submit to their duty of care rather than asserting their power to kill, then there is life in the old ethic still.





Member Organisation, World Council for Life and Family

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