It was the issue of abortion that taught me to be suspicious of the word "reform." It was the early 1960s and all right-minded people were in favor of "abortion reform." I assumed I should be too until it gradually dawned on me, slow learner that I was, that people speaking of abortion reform were speaking of making it easier to take human life. That made a powerful impression on me, and ever since I have been acutely aware of the ability of people of liberal persuasion, especially when it comes to life issues, to obscure what is actually going on through artful semantic evasion.
That art has, it seems, taken a great leap forward. In an article entitled "Why They Kill Their Newborns" in the New York Times Magazine (November 2, 1997), Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at MIT, suggests we ought to lighten up about infanticide, and he begins the process of thought reform by eliminating the word "infanticide." In its place he proposes two words: "neonaticide," the killing of a child on the day of its birth, and "filicide," the killing of a child at some later point. You see the advance. Who would not more lightheartedly engage in neonaticide or even filicide than something so off-putting-even, might one say, so infra dig-as infanticide?
Not that Professor Pinker, author of the recent and widely noticed How the Mind Works and currently a hot intellectual property, actually comes out in favor of infanticide, under whatever name. Indeed, he courageously affirms that "killing a baby is an immoral act" and adds that while we can try to understand what would bring a mother to such an act, "to understand is not necessarily to forgive." But he then sets out on a mode of analysis that, forgive baby-killing or not, renders it not much more than a moral misdemeanor. Not much more, perhaps, than abortion.
Pinker's point of departure is the recent spate of headlines regarding young women who, in a variety of circumstances, have killed, or left to die, their newborn babies. Such behavior, it turns out, is built into "the biological design of our parental emotions." For us mammals, parental investment is a limited resource, one we must decide to allot either to newborn or to current and future children. Human evolutionary history, with its record of high infant mortality, has taught us to make hard choices, including, where necessary, consigning the newborn weak to death. "We are all descendants of women who made the difficult decisions that allowed them to become grandmothers in that unforgiving world, and we inherited that brain circuitry that led to those decisions." My hard-wiring made me do it.
Well, not quite. Natural selection does not "push the buttons of behavior directly," but it does endow us "with emotions that coax us toward adaptive choices." Thus it is, Pinker says, that "a new mother will first coolly assess the infant and her current situation and only in the next few days begin to see it as a unique and wonderful individual." (To which Michael Kelly, writing in the Washington Post, responded: "Yes, that was my wife all over, cool as a cucumber as she assessed whether to keep her first-born child or toss him out the window.") Not that those who opt for defenestration don't feel bad about it. Anthropological students of neonaticidal women in hunter-gatherer societies, Pinker reports, "discover that the women see the death as an unavoidable tragedy, grieve at the time, and remember the child with pain all their lives."
It is not just new mothers, Pinker suggests, who come equipped with the brain circuitry to countenance neonaticide. How else explain the leniency with which, he says, society deals with first-day baby killers? "Prosecutors sometimes don't prosecute; juries rarely convict; those found guilty almost never go to jail." Such leniency, Pinker goes on-driving now to the heart of his modest proposal-"forces us to think the unthinkable and ask if we, like many societies and like the mothers themselves, are not completely sure whether a neonate is a full person. …