Testimony in support of HR 4292 - Born Alive Infants Protection
Act of 2000
by Robert P. George
Statement given July 20, 2000
Washington -- My name is Robert P. George. I am McCormick Professor of
Jurisprudence in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. At
Princeton, I teach courses in constitutional interpretation, civil liberties,
and philosophy of law. I am author of two books in the field of moral and
political philosophy and editor of several others. I have published numerous
articles and review essays in journals of law, philosophy, and political
science. From 1993 to 1998, I served on the United States Commission on Civil
Rights, and in that capacity I previously had the honor of testifying before
My basic philosophy of civil rights is simple. It is the philosophy of the
Declaration of Independence and, I believe, the Constitution of the United
States. At its core is the self-evident principle that all human beings are
created equal. Each member of the human family, as a unique and irreplaceable
child of God, is endowed with inestimable and equal worth and dignity. We human
beings may be unlike each other (or, if you will, "unequal") in various respects
-- some are endowed with greater, some with lesser, intelligence, ability,
physical strength and vigor, etc. -- but none of these factors vitiates the
fundamental sense in which we are truly "created equal" and entitled as a matter
of right to "the equal protection of the laws."
Of course, any of us, by the wrongful exercise of his or her freedom, may
forfeit liberty and certain other rights. But none of us exists at the pleasure
of others or merely to serve their interests or fulfill their desires. There are
no natural slaves or masters. No human being is the mere property of anyone
else, or disposable at others' whims.
Our most basic rights -- including the right to life -- are inherent and in
no way contingent on a grant from the state or any other merely human source. As
an inherent right, the right to life, which, properly specified, is a right not
to be killed either as an end in itself or a means to any other end, comes into
being for us when we come into being. It is not a privilege that we earn by
achieving a certain level of consciousness or intelligence or other ability; it
is not something that comes or goes with age, size, stage of development, or
condition of disability or dependency; it is certainly not something that
depends on whether someone else happens to "want" us or would prefer, all things
considered, that we not exist.
If my philosophy of civil rights were uncontroversial, there would be no need
for me and the other witnesses to be here today or for you to trouble yourselves
with this hearing. Infanticide would be unthinkable. Even those who believe in
abortion, as I do not, would draw the line at birth, if not before, on the
ground that the physical separation of mother and child eliminates any concern
that protecting the life of the child would violate the rights of her mother.
But today the philosophy of civil rights I hold is far from undisputed.
Infanticide is openly defended and even put forward as itself a right. Indeed,
in the academy the intellectual groundwork is already in place to extend the
right to abortion into the post-natal phase.
In an article entitled "Killing Babies Isn't Always Wrong" (The Spectator, 16
September 1995, pp. 20-22), Professor Peter Singer, who has since become my
colleague at Princeton where he is De Camp Professor of Bioethics in the
University Center for Human Values, made the following proposal: "Perhaps, like
the ancient Greeks, we should have a ceremony a month after birth, at which the
infant is admitted to the community. Before that time, infants would not be
recognized as having the same right to life as older people."
Now, I understand that Professor Singer has since backed away from the
proposed ceremony, but he has not altered his view that we should do away in law
and ethics with the principle at the core of traditional concepts of human
rights and equality, namely, that it is always wrong intentionally to kill
innocent human beings; nor has he abandoned his claim that newborn human beings
are not "persons" with a right to life that must be respected and protected by
He continues to insist that human beings only become "persons," and acquire a
right to life, sometime well after birth. He denies that we are "created equal"
and affirms a concept which, frankly, makes me shudder: that of a class of human
beings, including newborn infants, who are, in effect, non-persons.
Is Professor Singer alone in these beliefs or in their public advocacy? Far
from it. In fact, his position isn't even new. Something very much like it was
articulated in a mainstream philosophical journal as early as 1972 by
philosopher Michael Tooley. ("Abortion and Infanticide, Philosophy and Public
Affairs", Vol. 2.) Writing even before legal prohibitions of abortion were swept
away by the Supreme Court's decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton,
Professor Tooley bluntly declared that human fetuses and infants "do not have a
right to life." Only "persons" have a right to life, and fetuses and infants are
not, he insisted, "persons." Like Singer, Tooley expressed no doubt that infants
(or, for that matter, fetuses) are human beings.
He acknowledged, as does Singer, the plain fact that from the beginning of
our lives -- well before birth -- we are distinct, whole, living members of the
species Homo sapiens. But, he insisted, we do not become "persons" -- we do not
acquire the right to life -- until well after we are born. According to
Professor Tooley, a human being (or other organism) "possesses a serious right
to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of
experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a
continuing entity." Infants do not qualify.
Here in Washington, D.C., American University philosophy professor Jeffrey
Reiman, while expressly declining "to settle the issue about the moral status of
infanticide," also claims that infants are not "persons" with a right to life.
(Critical Moral Liberalism: Theory and Practice (Lanham, Md: Rowman and
Littlefield, 1997), ch. 8, "Abortion and Infanticide.") While he offers some
reasons why people might nevertheless think it generally wrong to kill newborn
babies, he promoted the view that infants, unlike more mature human beings, do
not "possess in their own right a property that makes it wrong to kill them." He
denies that infants are members of the community who share equal worth, dignity,
and rights, and explicitly holds that "there will be permissible exceptions to
the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing
adults and children."
I could go on with examples. For now, though, suffice it to say that people
who wish to destroy an "unwanted" child have today in the academy -- here in the
United States -- influential scholars who are willing to say that the baby they
seek to have killed is not, in fact, a "person" with an equal right to life.
Some of these scholars promote the idea that killing an infant at the request of
its parent -- presumably a father as well as a mother in view of the fact that
the physical separation of the child from the mother seems to confer on a father
an equal right to command the death of the child -- is morally acceptable and
ought to be legally permitted.
The legitimization of infanticide constitutes a grave threat to the principle
of human equality at the heart of American civil rights ideals. If weak and
vulnerable members of the human family -- and infants are surely among the
weakest and most vulnerable -- can be defined out of the community of "persons"
whose fundamental rights must be respected and protected by law, the
constitutional principle of equal protection becomes a sham. We must begin now
putting into place bulwarks against this threat.
I therefore respectfully urge passage of H.R. 4292, the Born Alive Infants