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Would You Stop the Murder of a Child?

Updated on June 7, 2009

"If it comes to it, and the baby is going to be killed, what are we gonna do?"

Mark and Olly on the Travel Channel are living with another tribe, more secluded than the last, on the other side of the world in Peru. The Machigenga (also "Machiguenga") of Koran Korata are known for their hatred for outsiders, but they have allowed Mark Anstice and Oliver Steeds to live amongst them almost as equals.

Mark and Olly seek only to learn from the societies they temporarily join; they do not want to impose their outsider ways on anyone.

So they faced a painful moral dilemma when a new child was born in Koran Korata and might have been disabled. In the Machigenga culture, a mother must kill a newborn if there is anything wrong with its head, ears, hands, or bellybutton because, "It's the kindest thing for the child."

Said the chief, "We don't like to talk about these ugly things."

Obviously Mark and Olly, born and raised Westerners, faced a serious inner struggle because of this situation. Their human rights sensibilities were going into overdrive.

Who Decides?

Mark noted that he had been to societies around the world that are more secluded than this, but they had disabled children. Whether or not they can get the care they need is a separate issue, but they would never dream of intentionally killing it. But, he said, "I can't stand in judgment of them because I'm not from here."

This is the point made by many people who study other cultures. We cannot use our own moral sensibilities to judge rituals or ethics of other cultures; it would be like measuring electricity with a ruler.

Still, though, if they don't step in, Olly points out that they would be "complicit in that murder."

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Whose Responsibility?

Luckily for everyone, the baby pulled through whatever ailment he had and turned out to be the newest healthy member of the tribe. Even so, Olly and Mark were clearly shaken from the experience, as they had never come to a conclusion on what they should actually do if they got word that the woman was going to have to kill her child.

Of course, any issue where a parent may kill his own child rings echoes of the story where God asks Abraham to kill Isaac, his only son. As Kierkegaard points out, a parent/child relationship is different from all others because a parent has an ultimate duty to preserve the life of his child. But the Machigenga feel that taking the life of a disabled child when it is young will prevent it from experiencing all of the pain of the rest of its life.

Is this reason enough to kill it? Could Mark and Olly (or anyone) possibly step out of their own shoes enough to make an impartial judgment of this? And if it had come down to it, would all of this intellectualizing even have mattered? Or would they have lost control of their actions and saved the child, against the will of its mother?

As with most moral examination, questions bring more questions and few answers.


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    • profile image

      ROB 6 years ago

    • sunflowerbucky profile image

      sunflowerbucky 7 years ago from Small Town, USA

      Very interesting! I loved the line "It would be like measuring electricity with a ruler"

    • Eastern Rainbow profile image

      Eastern Rainbow 8 years ago

      The thanks share

    • helenathegreat profile image

      helenathegreat 8 years ago from Manhattan

      Thanks for your comments, guys.

      Teresa, I always wonder the same thing when I watch nature documentaries. "How can they just sit there while those crocodiles eat that baby water buffalo??" But... it would be happening whether they were photographing it or not, and it is happening somewhere else at the same time. In the same way we cannot impose our ethics (in this case, that a baby water buffalo should not have to get eaten) on animals, we cannot impose our ethics on other cultures.

      That doesn't mean it's not tempting, though!

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 8 years ago from The Other Bangor

      I have often wondered how photojournalists can live with themselves when they photograph situations where they know they could be helping save lives instead of taking the photos. The overriding moral imperative is to let the rest of the world know that this is what is happening; like the tv show presenters, their responsibility is to record events and educate us. Must be bloody difficult, though.

    • hafeezrm profile image

      hafeezrm 8 years ago from Pakistan

      Horrifying !!! I admire your courage to up it in writing.