Why is it 'female infanticide' to abort a baby girl on the grounds that she is a girl, but not 'infanticide' to abort the same baby girl on the grounds that she is just a baby?
The strong and provocative language about 'female infanticide' (rather than 'termination') and 'babies' (rather than 'fetuses') isn't my own, it's straight from the front page of the Daily Telegraph.
As you have probably heard, undercover reporters working for the paper have found that a number of abortion clinics in this country are willing to arrange terminations on the grounds that the mother or both parents are unhappy about the sex of the baby - which is illegal.
Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that having an abortion on the grounds of gender is right, or that the abortion law should be changed to include this extra criterion. I'm just perplexed by the selective nature of the moral outrage that has come to the surface in the accompanying comments.
Why is it so wrong to abort this baby on the grounds that she is a baby girl, but not wrong to abort the same baby girl simply on the grounds that she is an unwanted baby? Thousands of baby girls and baby boys are aborted every week, and this doesn't make the front page of the Telegraph. But the fact that some of them are being aborted because they are baby girls suddenly becomes an issue of national concern - even though if the same baby girls had been aborted for different reasons, this would have gone unquestioned.
I know the possible answers: It's because one kind of abortion is illegal, but the other is not; it's because one kind of abortion seems to be chosen for a trivial reason, or a sexist reason, or a reason that arises from an alien culture, etc., but the other seems to be chosen for more weighty and culturally acceptable reasons. It's because, in the terms of moral philosophy, the motivation behind the decision does in some ways affect the moral character of the act.
But this is what lies at the root of my own perplexity at the selective moral response: the outcome is the same in both cases; the harm done to the 'baby girl' (using the language of the Telegraph) is the same in both cases - whether it's done for apparently trivial reasons ('she's the wrong gender') or apparently more serious reasons ('we simply can't cope with another child right now', etc). The motivation doesn't make any difference to what actually takes place in each case.
I'm not making a point here about whether abortion is right or wrong (although I do believe that it's wrong). I'm saying something simpler, in the light of this discussion about sex selection: If it is wrong and morally shocking (because it is wrong to abort a 'baby girl' or a 'baby boy'), then it is still wrong and morally shocking to do it for reasons that are legal, or for reasons than seem more culturally acceptable or serious. It is the same act, the same harm, the same outcome.
Put another way, if we feel moral outrage because a 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the hospital down the road, on the grounds of her sex, why do we not feel a comparable moral outrage because another 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the same hospital on the same day but on different grounds? The selective moral outrage feels a bit narrow, a bit arbitrary - as if there is some kind of wilful blindness. This is the soundbite from Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, quoted in the same article: “Carrying out an abortion on the grounds of gender alone is in my view morally repugnant.” But why only on these grounds?
And here are some comments from Allison Pearson, also writing in the Telegraph: ‘Just imagine the idea that babies are being culled because of their gender in the UK today. Unbelievable. Horrifying. Yet, that is precisely what an undercover investigation by this newspaper has revealed – and today, shockingly, we learn that an expert believes the practice is “widespread”. I actually shouted aloud with dismay when I read the stories. A woman who was 12 weeks pregnant had an appointment with the Calthorpe Clinic and explained to a doctor that she and her partner wished to terminate the pregnancy because they “don’t want a girl”. A certain Dr Raj responded, “That’s not fair. It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?” He then proceeded calmly to fill out a form for the abortion, casually giving a different reason to the mum and dad simply not fancying a baby girl. “I’ll put too young for pregnancy, yeah?” Most appalling of all is that the doctor’s response proves he knows that what the woman is proposing is deeply wrong, even criminal, yet he happily suggests another reason to get the abortion done. It’s as though he were penning some excuse for a work sick-note, not aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby when the only thing “wrong” with it is it hasn’t got a willy.’
Pearson is so outraged that she 'shouted aloud with dismay' when she read the stories. This is a writer who goes on to admit that she supports abortion if it is 'safe, legal and rare' (quoting Bill Clinton). I certainly give her credit for writing about the 'moral coarsening' that has taken place since abortion became legal in this country, and for reflecting on the “slippery slope leads from guilt-free annual terminations – three for two, anybody? – to a “gender-balancing” service, which helps you plan the perfect family by vacuuming away infants of the wrong sex.”
But Pearson doesn't shout aloud with dismay if someone else chooses to 'vacuum away' a 12 week old 'infant' if they are unwanted for another more socially or culturally acceptable reason. That's what really puzzles me. It could be the same 'infant', the same 'vacuuming away', the same 'aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby' (her language) - but without the outrage.
Fr Stephen Wang is a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Westminster, London. He is Dean of Studies at Allen Hall seminary, where he also teaches philosophy and theology. His latest book is Aquinas and Sartre: On Freedom, Personal Identity, and the Possibility of Happiness, published by Catholic University of America Press. He also writes a blog: Bridges and Tangents
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