The shocking news this week is that two (so-called) ethicists have published a paper in which they argue that the killing of newborn babies is morally acceptable because infants are not “actual persons” and “do not have a ‘moral right to life.'” The article, titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics, has recieved enthusiastic and extensive criticism. I thought about joining the voices of critique to argue for the notorious wickedness of this outlandish proposal, but such critiques abound. So instead I offer this reflection from the scriptures.
The kings of Judah are categorized in scripture in terms of whether “they did what was right in the sight of the Lord” or not. Two of the kings whose reigns were marked by wickedness stand out. Ahaz and Manasseh are infamous for their idolatrous burning of sacrifices to false gods. They engaged in their idolatry in an area south of Jerusalem known as the valley of the son of Hinnom, and as a part of their worship, they burned their own sons as human sacrfices to pagan deity (2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). Because of their evil, that valley was considered cursed and became the place where the people of Jerusalem burned their garbage, a place marked by stench and full of worms, where the fires never cease to burn.
This valley shows up in the New Testament as well. By the time of Jesus that same place was known as Gehenna, and it continued as cursed ground fit only for burning rubbish. The valley dump is further significant because it became one of Jesus’ metaphors for hell, a place so important to avoid that it would be better to lose a hand, foot, or eye than find yourself in that place of curse (Mark 9:42-48). This valley was the source of now common images for perdition: unquenchable fire, never-dying worms, and all.
Now this does not give us any sort of fully articulated doctrine of hell, nor is that the point. But it is quite startling to discover that when Jesus went looking for a terrifying image of damnation, he chose that very place where two Judean kings sacrificed their sons in idolatrous worship to false gods. It is a startling and disturbing diagnostic of our culture when two professional ethicists publish a peer-reviewed article calling for the morality of the sacrifice of our children to the pagan gods of economics and convenience. We are swamped in idolatry and folly befalls us.