Brazilian Anthropologists Say Killing Twin, Disabled, or Transgender Children (Even When Their Parents Object) Ought to Be Tolerated, So Long as the Perpetrators are from One of Those … Er … Unassimilated Indigenous Tribes

And woe to anyone who attempts to inform tribal members that there may be alternatives to their traditional practices.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

An article in Foreign Policy, entitled The Right to Kill: Should Brazil Keep Its Amazon Tribes from Taking the Lives of Their Children?, states:

The Kamayurá are among a handful of indigenous peoples in Brazil known to engage in infanticide and the selective killing of older children. Those targeted include the disabled, the children of single mothers, and twins—whom some tribes, including the Kamayurá, see as bad omens. [A Kamayurá man] told me of a 12-year-old boy from his father's generation whom the tribe buried alive because he "wanted to be a woman."

The article goes on to identify the Suruwaha as another such indigenous group. It states that a few years ago, a couple there to study the Suruwaha language took a 5-year-old Suruwaha child who had hypothyroidism (an easily treated condition) to the state capital for medical attention. The child's parents had committed suicide rather than kill their child as the tribe wanted. The tribe's efforts to kill her by burying her alive had failed. When the couple brought the now-treated girl back to her tribe, nobody wanted her, so the couple adopted her themselves. Meanwhile, the public prosecutor had banished them from the Suruwaha territory. The anthropologist's report that undergirded the prosecutor's injunction argued that they were wrongdoers because they had let the Suruwahas know that there are alternatives to their traditional practices. Apparently, if you are unlucky enough to have been born to the Suruwahas, you must be kept in the dark about the alternatives in the outside world.

As of April, the Brazilian legislature was trying to do something about this issue. The Brazilian Association of Anthropology was opposing the proposal, arguing that "the most repressive and lethal actions ever perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of the Americas … were unfailingly justified through appeals to noble causes, humanitarian values and universal principles."

Call me a cultural bigot if you will, but I am so glad to have been born in a community where the city council members figured they'd get in trouble if they starting insisting that I be killed.

NEXT: Brickbat: Goodbye, Mister Chips

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  1. This opinion brought to you by Europe 100 years ago.

    What could go wrong?

    1. No apologies for bringing civilization to the benighted. Sorry.

      1. If there is a place for cultural imperialism in the world, it is in the idea that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.

      2. I hate that practice. It makes me sick.
        But where do you draw the line?

        Maybe there should be a line. But sussing out a specific policy does not seem to be the purpose of this post.

    2. Or the Progressive Left today.

      I mean, Ahmedinijad did not get shut down while speaking at Columbia U a few years back and they have few problems doing so.

      1. Maybe we should invade Brazil to stop this. And then invade Iran to make sure their speakers are more moral. And then invade Arkansas and get some of their Confederate statues outta there.

        This is a hard case. You guys are pretty enthusiastic to gesture at using it to make bad law, but then actually use it to hate on liberals when they point out what you’re doing.

    3. “This opinion brought to you by Europe 100 years ago.”

      Which opinion?

    4. People could keep burying kids alive?

      1. That we should be the World Police?

        1. Where, exactly, does Gail Heriot come anywhere near suggesting that we should be the World Police?

        2. I agree she didn’t suggest that we intervene, it seemed more she was criticizing Brazil for their hands off attitude, but I can’t think of a worse outcome than deciding to be the World’s Child Protective services to our traditional role as the World’s Policeman.

        3. Actually, what’s being proposed is not that we should be the World Police, but that the Brazilians should pass a law making it clear that murder is illegal. No one is proposing that we force the Brazilians to do so.

          1. Which is separate from whether you should be able to do so if you did.

            Is there not an absolute rigjt of people (free people) to free others? The rest is practicalities.

  2. “We, too, have a custom…”

    1. Ha! I was thinking the same thing.

    2. Supplying additional context…
      “This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

      Hopefully those who continue this “custom” will find themselves in a Brazilian prison.

      1. They no longer hang men who burn womwn alive.

        1. The European custom no longer includes execution, to be sure. European custom is now to put men who burn widows alive in jail for the rest of their lives, or 20 years, or 4 years, or something.

          1. “Mon Dieu, zis steak most certainly does not go with zees wine…send it back to the Warden…no, don’t send back ze wine, only ze steak…”

            1. France is not exactly known for its nice prisons, in Europe or without. French prisons have among the highest overcrowding, violent death rates (both suicide and homicide), etc… and this is in a penal system that is unusually well funded by European standards and in a country that incarcerates a smaller proportion of its population,

              1. Shhh…I’m trying to trick criminals into going to France.

              2. Citation please? I’m not familiar with the subject.

                1. it is known, ie anecdotally, but the people who gave the world Devil’s Island and la crapaudine are hardly famed for luxurious prisons.



                  If you want numbers you need to do your own research but the statistics are suggestive.

              3. How is the food? Do they only get the low quality wine?

        2. They do in India (see Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987, sec. 4).

      2. Additional context is that this was colonial rule and wasn’t treating the natives great itself.

        Oppression in service of cultural enlightenment has a long and sordid history.

        1. Hopefully, banning murder would be on the plus side of the colonialist ledger.

    3. The Brazilians could learn a thing or two from Sir Charles Napier about Indians who murder their relatives.

  3. In a strange conjunction, I can see both American right-wing racists and Muslim extremists lining up behind this philosophy.

    1. Odd thinking. As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of right-wing racists in Brazil’s Association of Anthropology, and it’s been leftist academics who have advanced the notion that disabled babies should be killed. These ideas ensue from the leftist philosophy that all cultures are equal and that we have no right to condemn even the most abhorrent practices.

      1. Nazis might, since it winnows “lesser races”.

        1. Nazis would destroy the whole tribe.

      2. US History is clear that it was Progressive Democrats including those like Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood that push for late term and post birth abortion especially for disabled and “weeds”.

        1. That was before sob stories and realization those put-upon minorities might vote for you instead. /sarc

        2. Do you not think liberals have learned that eugenics is bad?

          1. There are surprising numbers of liberals who believe any analysis that uses biology is bad. Period.

            1. Period!

        3. Sanger was a member of the Socialist Party, and was unhappy with both the Republican and Democratic parties.


          Claims that Sanger ‘pushed for’ infanticide are false. She used infanticide as a foil, as Swift had satirically urged cannibalism as a means of population control… What she actually wrote was

          “It is apparent, that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide”

          in her book “Woman and the New Race”.

    2. Yeah, it’s not like the left celebrates hundreds of thousands of abortions each year, but sure, those damn straw right-wingers.

      1. Celebrates?

    3. There are precious few right-wing racists and those few have virtually no following.

      Meanwhile, the Left feels holding minorities to any standards is racist. So, they seem to be way more racist.

      1. Meanwhile, the Left feels holding minorities to any standards is racist.

        If you’re going to make stuff up, you should probably go for something more dramatic like the Left is harvesting children for there adrenaline.

      2. 28 percent of Republicans think interracial marriage is morally wrong. Opposition to interracial marriage is a pretty good proxy for racist views. I don’t consider 28 percent to be only a “few”.

        (The number among Democrats is 12 percent. Closer to few, but I am not sure even that is a “few”.)

        (By the way, for comparison, fewer Republicans (25%) find the death penalty morally unacceptable. So more Republicans are opposed to marriage between two people of different skin tones than are opposed to state-sanctioned killing of people as punishment (retribution). Just wow.) (Stats from March 2018 YouGov poll.)

  4. I’m not a lawyer, but Heriot’s column here seems to miss an interesting legal issue. In Brazil, indigenous communities have pretty much complete autonomy when it comes to legal matters, but there are always extreme cases that seem to challenge the wisdom of that national policy. Presumably the ABA position is not that infanticide is acceptable.

    Is there a parallel with female genital mutilation — known by a variety of terms? Even anthropologists have drawn a line there, and have argued against allowing the practice to persist in traditional communities. It seems to point to a difference between newly found respect for women in the West, a Liberal value that anthropologists can embrace universally, and the lower value those liberals place on reproduction, especially in settings in which high infant mortality is adaptive to low environmental carrying capacity.

    1. There is a parallel with female genital mutilation. And with male genital mutilation. And with throwing people off cliffs or into volcanoes as sacrifices. And with slavery or torture. And with denying children education, or medical care, or a safe environment, or the like. And with plenty of other reprehensible practices observed across the centuries and across the globe.

      I do not understand what causes people to do it. I do not understand what causes decent people to accept it.

      1. So, maybe “choose reason” isn’t such a good motto, because they all seemed reasonable to those people at the time.

        1. I sense that ritual sacrifice , circumcision, and even torture have generally been based on religion far more than on reason.

          (Fairness doctrine disclosure)

          Superstition-based religion (or a conclusion that storks deliver babies, or that the moon is made of green cheese, or that crossing a black cat’s path is dangerous) does not become less superstitious when it seems reasonable to a believer.

      2. The difference with male “genital mutilation” is that so many studies have found that it reduces the transmission of HIV that the WHO says: “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”

        So while the practice predates the AIDS epidemic it’s not unlikely that the practice came about to reduce other sexually transmitted diseases a few millennia ago.

        But I haven’t seen any claim to support any health benefits from female genital mutilation.

        1. Your speculation on the origins of male circumcision are indeed unlikely. Any such benefit would be so uncommon that no one would notice, and in evolutionary terms the benefit to inclusive fitness would be minimal, since that benefit would be post-reproductive. Moreover, the practice of male circumcision is culturally rare, and emerged in the U.S. only in the early 20th century as an preventive for masturbation (go figure!). Any adaptive benefit would have had to emerge over thousands of years, not just since 1914….

          Philosophically, you might look at Marshall Sahlins classic book “Culture and Practical Reason,” in which he traces our urge to find ‘practical reasons’ for cultural practices.

    2. I think the question is also one of interventionalism. For example, if it were a sovereign nation, a position of “don’t invade their country to stop the practice” would be uncontroversial. But autonomous communities are obviously not exactly the same thing.

      1. Reservations in the US allow great autonomy regarding offenses committed within the community. Unless an outsider is involved, the feds will normally defer to tribal justice. I recall a person convicted of manslaughter in Alaska was sentenced to lifetime banishment.

  5. A society that cannot discriminate against outsiders will cease to be a society. This is why we cannot have open immigration of unassimilable people.

    1. What if that society is already a big ol’ mixed bag of peoples?

      1. It really wasn’t until 1965. And we’ve grown more and more polarized since then.

        1. Yeah, we were more polarized now than we were in 1860 – 1865.

        2. A lot of Irish and Italians and Japanese and Chinese would disagree, except they’re all dead now.

      2. Then you just let a few ten of thousand in at a time, not millions. Western capitalistic consumerist hedonism will assimilate all cultures all given enough time (like the Borg it is)….but there are problems in the meantime, like crime, terrorist attacks, FGM, massive welfare fraud to fund terrorist groups overseas, etc. etc…

        1. As a variation on American Borg Consumerism assimilating the world, we should, if not old-school imperialism, at least twist leaders harder about freedom, especially economic freedom, so countries can ne more like the West and thus less likely to feel so trapped as to make a move to some relatively golden land.

          Perhaps even invite nations to be client territories so you can work on the corruption that hampers economic activity at all levels.

          1. All countries need to become like materially successful like the West is some respect for the rule of law and a “tolerable administration of justice” as Adam Smith noted so long ago. I think imperialism is not worth the blood and treasure. Client territories? Then you get the worst of both worlds…imperialism without the actual benefits.

            I agree, though, that economic freedoms are important and potential immigrants would be better off making their own countries better, and it is cheaper in the long run. Some political scientists noted at some point that every country with a McDonald’s has never gone to full scale war with the another one with a McDonald’s. I don’t know if that still holds true though, but the point is still the same, that countries with economic freedom are less of a problem on the world stage.

      3. Definitionally impossible… society is defined as the people who are here.

  6. Cultures are not static, they are constantly changing, and contact with other cultures affects how those cultures change. That’s why arguments like, “if we keep letting those immigrants in, soon we will have taco shops on every corner instead of pizza joints” or “if we maintain contact with those foreigners, soon we won’t be able to kill the crippled children” don’t hold any water.

  7. The tribe is just doing very late term abortions.

    Its really no different than the slaughter of unborn Down’s Syndrome children in Europe and increasingly the US.

    1. “Its really no different than the slaughter of unborn Down’s Syndrome…”

      The article makes clear that the children being murdered are born. So that’s different.

      1. Not to troll, but at what point is it different?

        1. Are you sure this isn’t a troll? Do you not understand the difference, developmentally, between a blastula, an 8-month old fetus, an 11-month old child, a 5-year old, and a 12-year old? There might be difference degrees of blameworthiness for killing (1) a blastula or a cockroach; and (2) an adult human.

          Setting aside the developmental issues, unborn means in the womb, which necessarily means competing rights of the unborn child versus those of the mother who is carrying the child. If she no longer wants to carry the child, and the child wants to live, someone’s rights have to get trampled because they both can’t get their way. You don’t have that competition with a born child. One of the reasons that late-term abortions are considered particularly problematic (besides the developmental differences) is because the burden on the mother to carry to term (a few days, weeks, etc.) is less than, for example, a mother who is staring in the face of a full 9-month pregnancy.

          So, to directly answer your question, birth significantly shifts the competing rights claims. Prior to that developmental milestones make it different, depending on your mileage. I don’t think there’s anything immoral about terminating a blastula. Do you?

          1. Naw, if I was trolling, I would have been rude or something. That was just sloppy Socratic method is all.

            I’m just glad that you recognize there is a distinction between a baby that could survive outside the womb, even though he or she may still be in the mother’s body, and a baby that is not as far along developmentally.

            In answer to your question, I push person-hood back further than you because I don’t think that there is an artificial distraction where we can say: human with rights/not human with no rights (and therefore able to be killed)


            1. I’m not sure I understand what “back further”. To clarify, the distinctions I’m making don’t end with “human with rights/not human with no rights”. In the case of competing rights between an adult mother and, say, a 7-month fetus, they both may have rights, but since those rights can be in direct conflict, somebody has to lose. And I’m not opposed to killing humans with rights, either. My power of attorney empowers somebody to kill me. We kill some criminals. Self-defense is another instance where an attacked may have a right to live, but I’m entitled to interfere with that right to preserve my own right to live.

              1. By back further, I mean the viability of the fetus is not a good distinction between when a person achieves human rights or not, the right to life being the most fundamental. Admittedly, 1 second after the merging of zygotes isn’t either, but when it comes to human life hard lines are preferable because of boundary pushing.

                The problem with your comparisons with regard to completing rights, is that a baby is innocent and has no say in the matter of his or her death or life, even while fully human and thus possessing the right to life. Meanwhile a criminal put to death, or pulling the plug on someone who asked for that in their living will, or even the one killed in self defense, are deaths predicated upon the actions and consequences of the one that died, unlike in an abortion.

                1. Human rights being a threshold question of not is an overly simplistic view, no?

          2. “So, to directly answer your question, birth significantly shifts the competing rights claims”

            In this specific case, however, that’s less clear. Raising an infant to ‘self-sufficiency’ still requires considerable resources from someone. And, in the context of a stone(?) age tribe, those resources probably are scarce enough to matter.

          3. It seems pretty easy and straight forward to conclude that all human beings should have some level of rights, i.e. they should be considered “persons” at some level. And scientifically, a new, complete human being is created upon fertilization. The only reason this straight forward view isn’t put into practice is that it’s just too darn inconvenient. If technology could somehow prevent every unwanted pregnancy without any side effects, things would be very different. I would certainly agree there are different degrees of blameworthiness. Personally, I’d be happy if the U.S. joined most other developed countries at outlawed abortion after the first trimester. Funny how there’s such a big mismatch between popular opinion and what the legislature is willing to do, even when Republicans control both houses of Congress. See the recent failure of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

            1. “The only reason this straight forward view isn’t put into practice is that it’s just too darn inconvenient.”

              No, it’s because it’s a nonsense view. If your theory is that the thing that makes a blastula a morally relevant entity is because it has a future of value as a human, the theory can’t distinguish between fertilized blastulas and unfertilized sperm. (And ignores the non-human creatures that enjoy moral consideration.) You need to develop the theory.

              1. You’re sorely mistaken. A blastula is a human being, a sperm is not. That’s just the pure, straight forward science part, not the moral part.

                The moral part is the claim that every human being should be considered a person — regardless of size, shape, color, mental capacity, etc. I’ve not developed this in detail here, but the simplicity alone is compelling, and your criticisms miss the mark.

                1. You’re sorely mistaking, for you see ML has begged the question and thus needs no cognizable theory.

                  1. It appears that Sarcastr0 does not know what either “begged the question” or “cognizable theory” means.

                  2. Sarcastro, You’re not following the argument at all.

                2. M.L.,

                  You say: “the simplicity alone is compelling”

                  Only to a certain caliber of mind. NToJ has pointed out a number of complicating factors that should concern any morally serious person. And they hit the mark. Precisely.

                  “regardless of mental capacity…” So, someone brain dead must be kept on life support until their body otherwise dies? Yours is a simple, but not a serious, position.

                  1. ML – you are assuming a fetus is a living human, and going from there.

                    That’s assuming the core question’s answer.

                    Which is what begging the question is.

                    1. NOVA Lawyer — With all due respect, it is evident that you are not well acquainted with the ins and outs of this debate, nor what constitutes a “serious” position. First, it is interesting that you raise the issue of brain death. Among serious thinkers, this point is raised in connection with the position that the beginnings and permanent endings of brain activity should define the span of full humanness or personhood. Since brain activity begins at 40-43 days, this is a relatively pro-life position. That’s fairly reasonable, but the problem is that brain death is defined as the irreversible loss of brain activity, and not the mere absence of it. A flat electroencephalogram (EEG) reading may indicate brain death, but it can also indicate a serious coma or result from cardiac arrest, deep anesthesia and other circumstances. A unborn entity which has not yet developed brain activity is like these latter cases.

                      You should also keep in mind that personhood, or the status of meriting some non-zero level of legal protection, says nothing necessarily about the precise level of legal protection that is warranted, relative to differently situated persons, nor about the countervailing circumstances which may override such legal rights.

                      NToJ has raised some good points below, and I responded accordingly. The post above quite non-responsive.

                    2. M.L.,

                      You said “regardless of mental capacity” and now you have acknowledged that mental capacity, or at least brain activity, matters.

                      “this point is raised in connection with the position that….”

                      Yes, in connection with, but not it doesn’t entail your bright line conclusion. Again, you favor simplicity over dealing with the actual complications of a messy world. Rats have brain activity, but there precious few laws against killing them.

                      “A[n] unborn entity which has not yet developed brain activity is like these latter cases.”

                      Except that it isn’t. At all. The person in a coma or in cardiac arrest has been alive with memories, relationships, hopes, desires, and, hopefully, love. Not so a single cell or small group of cells that may one day become self aware. Hinging your entire argument on “potential” is, again, simply simplistic.

                    3. Sarcastro —

                      Is the fetus is not alive, is it dead?

                      If the fetus isn’t human, i.e. homo sapiens, then what is it?

                      This is basic stuff, and these questions have scientific answers are not subject to any serious scientific doubt or controversy.

                      That’s why serious pro-choice thinkers readily acknowledge that a fetus is a human life, but generally make arguments along the lines that it is not necessarily a person entitled to legal rights.

                      Granted, in colloquial usage, “human life” is used as a synonym for human life that has value, that should be protected, a person. I am not using the term incorrectly in that way, so I am not begging the question.

                    4. The simplistic semantic game of ‘human’ + ‘alive’ = ‘human life’ isn’t even a philosophical argument, it’s just sophistry.

                      That’s not how the concept of human life works.
                      You can see this in lots of ways. The lack of huge resources behind saving embryos that don’t implant; the fact that most in the Pro Life movement don’t want to actually treat women who get abortion as murderers; the fact that children have diminished rights.

                      ‘Serious pro-choice thinkers’ is rather in the eye of the beholder. That you go with a particular group that argues from justification/necessity is pretty convenient for your particular worldview.

                      What I see from the subset of pro-choice I’ve talked to varies a lot. For myself, I believe there is some moral moment to the act of abortion, that’s not the same as conceding it gets a full moral parallel to a child. Humanity is a continuum, not a step-function.

                3. “A blastula is a human being, a sperm is not.”

                  These definitions don’t matter to me. A blastula can be a human being or not a human being and I’d still think it’s ok to kill it. You can’t sidestep the ethical issue by stating “but it’s a human” if your definition of a “human” doesn’t include the ethical concerns that make me not want to kill, e.g., other adult humans, dogs, etc. Develop your theory. Is it: “A blastula, if germinated in a womb, will one day become a human with [set of characteristics that makes it morally relevant]”?

                  “The moral part is the claim that every human being should be considered a person…”

                  This is just tautological. You said a blastula is a human being, and therefore it should be considered a human being. I can agree with you and not agree with your moral conclusion re: the sanctity of blastulas.

                  1. NToJ – We’re at a point of agreement, in essence, as I know you understand and can see past the defining terms issues here, which are relevant but only as a starting point. As I stated above, I think it would be sensible for the U.S. to join most other developed nations in a near total ban on abortions after the 1st trimester. But that’s sort of a pragmatic compromise position, not just politically, but morally, socially, economically and everything else.

                    Fundamentally, I see the blastula as having non-zero moral value. My reasons are the same reasons the framers considered certain truths to be self-evident, and Locke before them, for the same reasons Aristotle valued justice and equality before the law, for the same reasons that humans of every stripe around the globe independently developed moral beliefs since before history began, from the story of Cain and Abel, to ancient blood feuds, to the Quran, Buddha, Hinduism, Nancy Pelosi’s “divine spark” and so on. I see no principled reason why some humans should be categorically excluded from this basic paradigm due to their race, size, developmental stage, disability, etc.


                    1. Further, I find this moral value to be based on the unique status and nature of the human creature, as distinct from other animals. I do not ascribe it to some extrinsic qualifier, like the relational value and meaning only found in a person’s relationship to others, or the assumption of some rich inner moral and psychological existence within a person, in part because any reasoning would clearly justify the killing of born babies and adults, under some circumstances, for any or no cause. Of course, none of this is to say that killing, or any lesser offenses, aren’t frequently justified.

                      Maybe you could imagine that humankind undergoes some mutation such that sexual reproduction no longer exists. Instead, you go to the new human facility and submit some genetic material which results in a new human. The new human is incubated and there isn’t really any birth moment. Perhaps the breathing of air vs fluid may happen at some certain point. Perhaps there is feeding through an umbilical cord or by mouth or other method. Perhaps the development stages are accelerated or otherwise quite different, but it would still have to start with a single cell. Assume there are no financial or other resource constraints, and you are not obligated to have any personal responsibility for the new human. Should you have the right to go into the facility and kill the new human, just for fun? Should someone else have that right?

                    2. M.L.,

                      “I do not ascribe it[, i.e., moral value,] to some extrinsic qualifier…in part because any reasoning would clearly justify the killing of born babies and adults, under some circumstances, for any or no cause.”

                      No, it wouldn’t. Only if your semantic sophistry equating a blastula with a “human being/life”. If you don’t accept that identity, then debates regarding what a person/society can do with a non-conscious, non-thinking collection of cells has little to do with what a person/society can do with a born baby or adult.

                      Re your hypo: At the single cell stage, whoever has the right to control the facility (and/or right to the tissue) certainly has the right to stop the replication.

                      As it progresses: Has the new human ever had a thought? Can it feel pain? These and questions like them determine the answer.

                      Imagine a future in which a machine generates fully developed, adult humans when a particular program runs (they appear as from a Star Trek transporter). The program is set to run on repeat for X thousand repetitions (resources are not an issue). May you stop the program from running to completion? May anyone? If it matters, you may assume a particularly bright young person developed the machine and program solely for recreational purposes and it runs off of one fertilized human egg.

                    3. Yes, it would. The scientific definition of a human being is clear. What’s not clear is your “non-conscious, non-thinking collection of cells” — which would include a person in a coma.

                      So, in the hypo, the right to terminate a human life for any or no reason stops when it progresses beyond the single cell stage? That’s a very pro-life position of you to take.

                      When a human can feel pain is certainly a good question. Does this mean you support the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act?

          4. “Setting aside the developmental issues, unborn means in the womb, which necessarily means competing rights of the unborn child versus those of the mother who is carrying the child.”

            In many cases, the child was placed in the womb as an act of recreation by the mother. I’m not sure she has many rights, in that case, to balance against the right of the child, who is completely without agency in the matter.

            1. So start with the easy cases. A day-old blastula has more in common with a skin cell than it does with a human adult. So even if it was created through recreation over which it had no agency, that’s true of rats that are bred to feed snakes as well. And surely we can agree that rats are more developed than day old blastulas? (And the snakes they feed, for that matter.)

              The recreational aspect of sex is no moment to me, unless you’re willing to say that having sex is immoral. The agency issue does weigh in favor of the unborn child, but not enough (in my view) to override the adult human being’s right to autonomy. There are procedures to extract my organs that are less invasive than a pregnancy. But I wouldn’t say I have a moral obligation to donate my organs, even if it only resulted in 9 months or less of inconvenience, and even if the recipient had no more agency in their need for organs than an unborn child had in his own creation. And I assume you don’t think the government should be able to require people to hand their organs over to needy people, do you?

              1. “A day-old blastula has more in common with a skin cell than it does with a human adult.”

                If killing a skin cell killed the human being that it belonged to, then this would make sense.

                1. “If killing a skin cell killed the human being that it belonged to…”

                  Well killing the blastula does not kill the host mother that it belongs to, so… Anyway I’m not sure you understand the moral discussion the rest of us are trying to have.

              2. “But I wouldn’t say I have a moral obligation to donate my organs, even if it only resulted in 9 months or less of inconvenience, and even if the recipient had no more agency in their need for organs than an unborn child had in his own creation.”

                However, if you caused the need for organs, such as by injuring them, then you will be liable for the full value.

                When you have children, or children somehow come into your custody, the law imposes broad obligations on you to care for them to certain standards. You have to feed them, clothe them, generally look after their safety and well-being, and even see that they are educated. If you don’t like this, you can eventually dispose of your obligations and give up custody.

              3. Imagine a time before baby formula. In a sense, a mother actually did give of her very being to nurse a child in an manner not so theoretically different than organ donation. Every time a baby nurses on mom, what is part of the mother literally becomes part of the child in what can be described as cannibalism.

                Having the ability to create a new life inside of you is both a blessing and a huge burden. It’s not fundamentally fair on a cosmic scale when you get down to it. Nature itself made it so new life grows inside of a woman, and how is it fair that the woman must give of herself to nurture a life she may not even want? It’s not fair. But it’s hard to say that there are things more important than the human life. They exist, but that is not the choice presented to a pregnant mother either.

                1. The question is about whether it is human life, m_k. That’s not a proveable question, it’s a philosophical one.

                  Which is why all the pro life people here are begging the question and painting pro-Choice people as abortion-celebrating and profiting ghouls. Because they don’t have the facts so they’re pounding out the table.

                  1. Making a moral argument is not table pounding. And such arguments can still be a theoretically fact based. For instance, if I say that a minimum wage is immoral because it doesn’t allow low skilled labor into the marketplace never allowing them to develop the skills to earn higher wages later on, even if I can’t tell you HOW many people are cut out from gainful employment because such a thing is impossible to measure, that does not make such an arguement table pounding.

                    And by way of question-begging, science and biology can’t answer what *is* a human life (since we don’t fully understand consciousness, among other things). Therefore the question of when a fetus becomes a human life can only be debated on philosophical terms. If you try to scientifically parse the question of what is a “human,” for example, down to such things as self-awareness, you get absurd results like a crow is more human than a newborn, because it is smarter and posses a measure of self-awareness.

                    1. When anti-abortion advocates are prepared to send women who seek or have abortions to prison, and to prosecute women who precipitate miscarriages through careless jogging or box-lifting, I will begin to respect their arguments.

                      I doubt I would be persuaded, but at least the proponents would deserve respect for bringing principled, consistent, reality-based arguments to the debate.

                      Until then, it’s superstition-based rubbish built on childhood indoctrination never outgrown.

                    2. “And by way of question-begging, science and biology can’t answer what *is* a human life (since we don’t fully understand consciousness, among other things). Therefore the question of when a fetus becomes a human life can only be debated on philosophical terms. If you try to scientifically parse the question of what is a “human,” for example, down to such things as self-awareness, you get absurd results like a crow is more human than a newborn, because it is smarter and posses a measure of self-awareness.”

                      Sure they can. Humans are just animals, classified in the same way as every other animal. It’s no harder to define a human life than it is to define a crow life. Which is why things like self-awareness are irrelevant to the scientific question of whether something is human.

                      What science and biology can’t answer is when that human life matters.

                  2. “The question is about whether it is human life, m_k. That’s not a proveable question, it’s a philosophical one.”

                    Only in the sense that whether something is a human or a cow is also a philosophical, rather than scientific, question. In the traditional sense, it’s a scientific question, and not a particularly hard one.

                    “Which is why all the pro life people here are begging the question”

                    Seriously, learn what this means and how to use it.

                    “and painting pro-Choice people as abortion-celebrating and profiting ghouls.”

                    All the pro life people are doing that? You just can’t help yourself, can you?

                    “Because they don’t have the facts so they’re pounding out the table.”

                    As opposed to the totally rational and fact-filled arguments the noble Sarcastr0 had been making. No table pounding for the great Sarcastr0.

                  3. Sarcastro:

                    “The question is about whether it is human life, m_k. That’s not a proveable question, it’s a philosophical one.”

                    Dead wrong. Whether something is a human life is a purely scientific question. The philosophical one is whether the human life is a person, i.e. entitled to some level of legal protection.

                    Here is something you can read to understand the terms better:

                    “The question as to when the physical material dimension of a human being begins is strictly a scientific question, and fundamentally should be answered by human embryologists, not by philosophers, bioethicists, theologians, politicians, x-ray technicians, movie stars, or obstetricians and gynecologists. The question as to when a human person begins is a philosophical question.”

                    1. ML,

                      You do realize that you just made Sarcastro’s point. This entire discussion is about when a blastocyst, embryo, fetus, baby, etc. should have legal rights / protections of its own. So, using the terms from your article, the debate is over when a human person exists.

                      You agree with Sarcastro that the question is a philosophical one, not a scientific one.

                      I think they call that an “own goal” in football (soccer).

                      (Nobody is really debating that a fertilized egg has a newly unique mix of DNA, i.e., it is a “human being” in the particular jargon of the philosophy article you cited. But should that single cell be treated the same as a 20 year old woman? You appear to say yes, but then acknowledge it is a philosophical, not a scientific, argument. But punt based on “simplicity” that you find compelling but which the rest of us find only simple.)

                    2. Yes, of course, I completely agree with Sarcastro that the ultimate question is a philosophical one. Just like every other moral question that underlies each core assumption of criminal and other law.

                      However, there are subsidiary scientific facts and questions that are pertinent to the discussion. For example, a fetus is a human being or a human life, strictly scientifically speaking. And yes, people really debate against these basic scientific facts. This is not just me being pedantic, such distinctions are a predicate for any clear discussion.

                      Personally, no, I do not think that an embryo should be treated the same as a 20 year old woman. But that’s simply not the same thing, it’s not even in the same ballpark, as saying that a lesser developed human life has no legal or moral status whatsoever.

      2. “So that’s different.”

        A distinction without a difference.


  8. Infanticide is a pretty good reason to disregard the anthropologists urge to treat the isolated indigenous as experiments or zoo exhibits.

    From the indigenous viewpoint, however, eliminating resource drains is not irrational.

    1. How is a boy that wants to be a girl a resource drain? Or a child with a easily curable ailment (hypothyroidism)? By killing them at 5, you’re robbing the rest of the tribe of their adult (i.e. most productive) years. And since the cultural practice in one instance resulted in the parents committing suicide, the tribe lost those resources, too.

      Not every cultural practice has some it’s just so adaptive explanation. People behave irrationally all the time. Cultural practices can have this feature, too.

      1. The tribe is ignorant of hypothyroidism, so from there perspective, she was a drain, from ours, she isn’t. Even if she was, there is still the lingering respect for life Christianity has inculcated in the West, so we don’t just off kids with cystic fibrosis, for example

        As for the boy who wants to be a girl, that is considered unnatural, and perhaps contagious? The ancient Jews believed being a cripple or leper was a punishment for a sin. Not sure, but in a culture with low tolerance and respect for life, why put up with it, must be the thinking.

        1. “The tribe is ignorant of hypothyroidism…”

          Which is to say that the tribe is ignorant of the extent to which the kid is a drain, meaning even if the cultural practice is designed to eliminate drains, it’s not functioning as intended in this case.

          “…there is still the lingering respect for life Christianity has inculcated in the West…”

          *EYE ROLLING INTENSIFIES*. How much of The Bible have you read????

          “…that is considered unnatural, and perhaps contagious?”

          A fear of “unnatural” things is irrational. No telling if they thought it was contagious, but I have serious doubts that this tribe is sophisticated enough to even truly understand the concept of contagion. And “wanting to be a girl” is not contagious, anyway.

          1. The fear of unnatural things is perfectly rational in a society without the scientific method. From our perspective, gender dysphoria is a disease, and a disease are part of nature, so that kid is by definition natural. But from the perspective of the tribe, I don’t think they see it as a disease, but rather as an unnatural aberration that could perhaps be contagious, like a sheep born with two heads, given they have not the way to explain the child’s condition by it’s true nature.

            I’m no theologian, but I suspect you’re thinking about war and godly punishment in the Bible (how much have you read, btw). I’m referring to how the practices of exposure of infants was stopped by Christianity. We can argue till the cows come home about if the Christian west is more or less violent then other cultures, but in the context of exposure of infants and abortion, etc, yes, it is quite true that Christian respect for life was responsible.

            1. W’ere going to need to define unnatural. In one of the pictures from the original article, there’s a picture of an indigenous person wearing shoes that presumably did not germinate naturally. A selective rejection of unnatural things needs justification to become rational.

              1. In animist tribes, “unnatural” would be anything the deviates from the norm they currently inhabit. Just like Western civilization until very recently they have a reluctance to rock the boat and prefer to keep status quo. In most cases they assume that the status quo is good because spirits or gods keep it that way as long as they please them. In order to keep them pleased they have to do their part in keeping the squo. That usually means fighting changes and abnormalities tooth-and-nail. Meso-American religions were more organized and their society more developed, yet they were just as fervent in trying to keep change to a minimum. Whenever a tribe goes through a rough patch they’ll ascribe it to whatever they did differently recently, no matter how minor. It becomes a self-perpetuating squo.

                You’re not using the idea of rationality very well. Rationality just means the application of reason; it doesn’t mean that they’re correct or seem reasonable to us. They have two fundamental principles, and everything else follows from there:
                P1 The gods/spirits reflect their pleasure or displeasure through the non-human world.
                P2 The non-human world is pretty conducive to our society right now.
                C1 The gods/spirits are happy with us.
                Corollary Making the gods unhappy with us would be bad.
                C2 We should keep things as they are in order to preserve this.

                1. Thanks for the fun psychological analysis. It’s just as likely from where I’m sitting that individual members of the tribe use irrational social taboos to rationally further their own social standing, and murdering kids is just an offshoot of that. It’s hard to diagnose. In the case at hand involving the developmentally disabled kids, your theory doesn’t make much sense; the tribe buried the girl alive but it didn’t take, and then rather than killing her to satisfy their animist gods, they just left her to starve to death. This suggests the motivation was not animist gods, but resource-protection, although even that theory is belied by the fact that her brother found sufficient scraps to keep her alive. That brings me back to my first theory.

                  If the insistence is that every cultural practice is necessarily rational, we aren’t going to agree.

                  1. A lot of animist tribes have the belief that killing one of your own tribe members is a terrible sin and contaminates you. It is common in such societies for these tribes to exile them to certain death rather than to try to kill them themselves. Almost all societies have the taboo to some extent.

                    We know from the outside that infanticide and child murder practices are ultimately “intended” (in the same sense as anything that’s evolved) to preserve scarce resources, but from the inside they just “know” that killing these children helps to protect their society. They merely ascribe it to the wrong source.

                    What do you think rationality is? I won’t insist that every practice is rational but most of them are, especially in less developed societies. More developed societies have an easier time forming contradictory beliefs, simply because of writing. It doesn’t really matter either way: rational does not mean right or wrong without reference to the accuracy of the premises. The problem is that we as individuals and the societies we form don’t have access to all of the information that determine accuracy. That problem is compounded with small tribal societies that do not seek new information or even actively avoid it.

          2. And “wanting to be a girl” is not contagious, anyway.

            Even if that’s true — even if it really is a question of pure biology — the expression of that preference almost certainly is contagious. (Socially contagious, I mean.)

            1. Sure, but infanticide is socially contagious, too. So its mere “contagion” cannot be their objections.

      2. “How is a boy that wants to be a girl a resource drain?”

        No subsistence farming or hunting society can afford to tolerate mental illness.

        1. I like how mental illness in this context is defined to include a 12 year old who wants to be a boy, but not the adults who bury him alive.

          1. *12 year old boy who wants to be a girl

        2. History is replete with societies in absolute poverty who could do just that. North American tribes did just fine with people suffering from gender dysphoria.

          1. “History is replete with societies in absolute poverty who could do just that. North American tribes did just fine with people suffering from gender dysphoria.”

            Hmm. I think these incredible statements need some evidence.

            1. Look up Two-Spirit. It’s one of the reasons “gender as a social construct” became an common academic interest.

      3. “How is a boy that wants to be a girl a resource drain?”

        He won’t hunt, but he can’t have kids.

        1. In hunter gatherer societies, women have responsibilities besides hunting, and those responsibilities aren’t drains on resources. If he won’t have kids, he won’t create more mouths to feed. But he will feed others’ mouths.

    2. The ancient Greeks and Romans would expose infants with deformities for much the same reason. However, killing twins because they are “bad luck,” I would say, is irrational. One would have a very hard time attributing a spate of bad luck (which happens) to the presence of twins in a village.

    3. Twins: A cave-mother will struggle to properly care for twice as many infants. There’s twice the load on her limited resources. Rational. Killing both however? Maybe not so rational. You’ll have to ask the tribe.

      Boy who wants to be a woman: Since she can’t do the most important thing that women do in the tribe (i.e., have babies), then he’s a drain. Granted she may contribute in other ways, but that’s like saying Justin Bieber deserves a spot in the Warriors’ starting line-up because he can fly the team plane.

      1. I’m not so sure about that first points, given that we have archaeological evidence of skeletons of cave men who had massive wounds, like losing an arm, and that they lived for many years afterwards. Imagine 20,000 years ago losing an arm and being nursed back to health because the tribe considered you worth it. It must be entirely contextual.

        As for the kid with gender dysphoria, he could work and earn his keep, but if he wanted to be a woman, what luck would he have finding a mate? We are all conjecturing here, but I see you’re point.

      2. “Since she can’t do the most important thing that women do in the tribe (i.e., have babies), then he’s a drain.”

        It’s a boy who said he wanted to be a woman. He was never going to be able to do “the most important thing that women do in the tribe (i.e., have babies)”, unless the tribe had figured out how to impregnate men. To know if this was the tribe’s fear, you’d have to know whether they also had a (killable) taboo against celibacy. It seems unlikely, since hunter-gatherer tribes routinely have non-procreating adult members. Finite resources drives that structure in human and non-human animals alike. If you have an environment where there are not enough resources for every mother to have children, you’re necessarily going to have some non-breeding adults (including men).

        1. “It’s a boy who said he wanted to be a woman. He was never going to be able to do “the most important thing that women do in the tribe (i.e., have babies)”, unless the tribe had figured out how to impregnate men.”

          Sex-based division of labor usually exists for a reason. Men typically do other work, like hunting and defense. If you’re admitting you’re not useful as a man, and in the tribe’s view you’re not useful as a woman, than the tribe might think you’re a drain on resources. You can, of course, argue about whether or the the person is truly a drain, but you can understand why the tribe might think so.

          1. Not all women in hunter gatherer tribes breed. In a world with finite resources, it would be a bad idea them to all to breed. Why do you think they killed twins? An efficient allocation of resources would assume some women (and men) who never breed. That’s the structure in most primates, including our closest relatives.

    4. I remember taking a sociology class in the early ’90s where we had a reading about the terrible disruption caused by the acquisition of metal knives by an Australian Aboriginal group. Apparently in this stone age society only the maker of a tool could own it and women were forbidden from making stone tools, so every time a woman needed to use a blade, which was apparently often and part of normal women’s labor, she had to ask a man to let her use his. Men used this interaction to aquire women’s labor, sexual favors, etc…

      Upon the arrival of Europeans metal knives became widely used but it was only when a market developed among European settlers for various handicrafts that women began to acquire their own knives. This proved very disruptive to the society because women began to become more independent of men during daytime activities, their failure to provide sexual services for the men was particularly mentioned as disruptive. The overwhelming consensus of the class, of which I was the only male student, was that this was a terrible case of cultural imperialism. The only other dissenter was a self proclaimed “militant feminist” who was a devoted fan of Andrea Dworkin who was widely, though wrongly, regarded as a lesbian by most of my fellow classmates. She later switched majors to history, while I went to natural sciences.

      Anthropology is a singularly depraved discipline.

      1. That is very interesting, thanks for sharing.

      2. That is very interesting, thanks for sharing.

      3. It was steel axes, but the point is the same. It changed the culture.

        Or to put it in “Star Trek” terms, they — yes — once again violated the prime directive.

    5. “From the indigenous viewpoint, however, eliminating resource drains is not irrational.”

      Murder is often rational, from the viewpoint of the murderer.

      1. Yes, exactly. And sometimes it’s rational in the eyes of the whole society. Can any of the students here think of an example from a ‘civilized’ culture? Maybe like for doing something really bad? Anyone? Bueller?

  9. “The anthropologist’s report that undergirded the prosecutor’s injunction argued that they were wrongdoers because they had let the Suruwahas know that there are alternatives to their traditional practices”

    That seems like blatant colonialism. Why not give the Suruwahas the information and let them decide what to do with it? Surely, they have the same right to self-determination as any other group.

    Perhaps the problem is that unassimilated indigenous tribes are important resources for ambitious anthropology professors?

  10. From the self-ownership angle, there’s no question the tribe’s intent is actionable. But I wonder what it means to say “the tribe” in this context. Someone decided, not this vague “tribe”. A council of elders? A shaman reading goat entrails? Show of hands of the entire tribe?

    If the child is too young or disabled to object, and the parents do, they are the victims and surely they should be able to complain and hold the elders or shaman or even the actual murderer accountable.

    If the parents don’t object, and no one else in society will step forward and object, I suppose you could say there is no victim; but I find it hard to believe that absolutely everyone agrees on killing the child, and if that really is the case, then there is no controversy. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one cares, where is the noise coming from and who does it harm?

    1. “… I suppose you could say there is no victim…”

      You mean, besides the kid?

      1. Yes, obvious from context. No need to search for strawmen.

        1. You don’t know what a fucking strawman is stop saying it. This place is getting infested by STRAWMAN STRAWMAN STRAWMAN. It’s childish.

    2. The isolated tribes in South America aren’t like those in North America or on the Brazilian coast. They have a few hundred people at most (the tribe in question only has 150) and often only a few dozen. They don’t do government in a recognizable sort; they operate on common beliefs and the pressure to conform. When the baby is born pretty much everybody will know immediately if it has a problem that warrants infanticide.

      The parents in question killed themselves in order to not be forced to conform. Even if they did not object the child would still be a victim, no matter if everybody agreed they should die.

      There’s a similar problem in Anabaptist and Fundamentalist communities today, minus the killing. People are pressured into negative arrangements by community expectations and are shunned if they don’t conform. If they were killed we would still recognize them as victims.

      1. One death is a tragedy; a few dozen deaths is anthropology.

        1. The issue is line-drawing. If we step in for these dozens, why not those over there? Soon that logic requires that we live in a police state.

          1. Be still my heart, the king of calling out slippery slope arguments does it himself (even if I generally agree).

            Quick, somebody needs to bring up Star Trek and Prime Directive right about now.

            1. It’s not a slippery slope argument, it’s a ‘your logic proves too much’ argument. It’s not about what will happen, it’s about the lack of a cognizable policy system.

              1. My argument does not prove too much: it proves nothing–because it’s not an argument, only a quip.
                But that being said: how is your argument not a “slippery slope” argument?
                1. If we intervene here, we must intervene in many other places.
                2. That much enforcement infrastructure will necessitate a police state;
                3. Police states are bad.
                Therefore: We should avoid intervening here lest we end up at the bottom of the slippery slope.

  11. This has been the standard take in American anthropology for decades – who are WE to judge THEM? Get with teh times.

  12. It seems pretty clear that the government should intervene to prevent infanticide, which is repugnant to all right-thinking people.

    But then we run into slippery-slope problems. if 51% of San Franciscans think that infant circumcision is deplorable, should the government intervene to prevent it, even if it’s the choice of the parents? If the majority is appalled by the idea that I’d let my 10-year-old ride its bike to the park without adult supervision, should the kid be removed from my custody, at least until I’ve been through parent-reeducation camp?

    Let’s agree that government should protect children from certain indisputably serious abuses; but let’s not get so enthusiastic about it that we wind up outlawing any practice that presents a threat to minors, however trivial and however improbable that threat.

  13. I rely seriously on a concept I picked up from a television comedy series?Strange Foreign Lands.

    I can’t imagine why anyone would think the world would be a better place, or a more interesting one, if outlandish conduct in Strange Foreign Lands could somehow be set to rights, and aligned with the Ohio Standard.

    Nor does it seem likely that ever could happen. I expect Ohio to disappear first. In fact, if I had 2 buttons, and had to choose either the first button, with the power to rectify en masse all the world’s Strange Foreign Lands, or the second button, with the power to disappear Ohio, button number 2 would be the unhesitating choice. I can’t imagine anyone outside Ohio would say otherwise.

    1. I saw that movie, it was called The Day After.

      (OK, Kansas not Ohio, anyway, they’re both flyover states)

    2. “I can’t imagine anyone outside Ohio would say otherwise.”

      Certainly the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Alabama wouldn’t object.

  14. Gail you are a cultural bigot. And the city council fucked up.

  15. Fifty years ago, such a claim could be taken seriously. But today, death with dignity has become such a ubiquitous concept, and parents who fail to give their children death with dignity have had their children taken away from them so many times, that our own culture today is essentially indistinguishable from the Professor Heriot complaints about. She quibbles that the Amazon tribe’s concept of death-justifying dignity is different from hers. But personal narrow-mindedness in that regard can hardly be attributed to America culture.

    The tribe’s concept of dignity is just as defensible as ours. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, the difference between contemporary civilization and traditional human life is similar to that between a lion in the wild and a caged lion in the zoo. It is eminently understandable, from this point of view, why the wild animal or human might prefer to die rather than suffer the sort of caged, domesticated, utterly undignified life we call civilization, notwithstanding its ready food, healthcare, and entertainment.

    We take parents from their children for purposes of letting them die in peace if the parents insist the children continue living a life we think insufficiently dignified, rather than having the decency to let them die in peace. Why can’t the Amazon tribe do the same? And what makes its concept of dignity any less worthy of respect than hours?

  16. (Cont)

    A generation ago, in a right-to-die case called Cruzan vs. Harmon, Justice Scalia famously said that Missouri’s approach was “about physics, not philosophy.” We’ve since totally abandoned that approach, and fully embraced the Amazon tribe’s instead. Professor Heriot’s attempt to find a difference between our approach and the Amazon tribe’s Is based on nothing but aesthetics.

    in particular, we today think that a life based on “artificial nutrition and hydration” is inherently undignified and it’s perfectly reasonable to prefer death to such a life.

    The tribe thinks the same. But to the tribe, which obtains its food in a more natural way than we do, everything every one of us eats and drinks is artificial, and grossly lacking dignity. It’s therefore understandable, from their point of view, why they would rather their members die than live like us. We do the same.

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