“What we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn baby) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” These words, published in the prestigious “Journal of Medical Ethics” by ethicists Dr Francesca Minerva and Dr Alberto Giubilini, sparked outrage around the world.
After-birth abortion is, of course, a nonsensical euphemism; the term ‘abortion’ means to ‘terminate a pregnancy’, it cannot, by definition, apply post-pregnancy. The authors are talking about infanticide: the killing of infants; in essence, putting human babies down. People were shocked and perplexed that ethicists were advocating this and that a leading medical ethics journal was taking this idea seriously.
The outrage the followed has forced the authors to back-pedal; they have since argued that there conclusion was only theoretical, it was only published for Ethicists to read and they were not engaging in political lobbying. This response is odd. The whole point of Ethics is to answer the question of how we ought to do things. If the author’s conclusion is correct then doctors should perform after-birth abortions; they should kill newborn babies on any ground that currently abortions can be performed on, which, in practice, is almost any ground at all. It is precisely this implication that is widely and correctly condemned as outrageous.
Less widely commented on is the argument the authors gave for this conclusion. Minerva and Giubilini note that “abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the foetus’ health.” Taking this acceptance as given they then advance three key claims. First , they argue that an infant, like a foetus, is only a potential person and is not an actual person. Second , that potential personhood confers no right to life upon a biological organism. Third , that the interests of actual people to not be encumbered with the care or financial burden of raising a child (or even adopting) can be significant enough to justify killing potential persons. These claims are all extremely familiar; in fact, ,  and  are simply claims that are already widely accepted in the literature justifying legal abortion, arguments which lead to the legalisation of abortion in the west some forty years ago.
Take ; if merely being a potential person confers a right to life on an organism then foetuses have a right to life because they are at least potential persons. Defenders of abortion deny that feticide is killing an actual person; hence they accept .
Similarly  is accepted, at least implicitly, in New Zealand. Current practice allows people to destroy potential persons for a wide variety of reasons, including the burdens of care associated with child rearing and economic grounds. If one accepts this current practice then potential persons can be destroyed for the sake of relieving all manner of unpleasant economic and social burdens. There is minimal outrage over this; those who express it are generally dismissed as extremist nutters, so  and  appear to be conventionally accepted as mainstream liberal thinking.
In the same way, whilst it may not be widely known,  has been implicitly accepted in pro-abortion literature for the last 40 years. The reason is this: a foetus is clearly and unequivocally a human being. Whilst people sometimes claim that a foetus is merely a clump of cells, this is, at best, only accurate at the earlier embryonic stage of development. By the foetal stage of 6-8 weeks after conception (which is, incidentally, when most pregnancies are confirmed and most abortions occur) one clearly is talking about a living, biological, physiological human animal. To justify abortion defenders of abortion had to argue that whilst a foetus is a human being this fact is insufficient to give it a right to life.
Two reasons lead to this conclusion. Firstly, a widely held position known as secularism contends that religious reasons must be bracketed from discussions of public policy. Hence, one cannot approach the question of abortion presupposing the standard Christian view that human beings have been made in God’s image and as such have been given a special dignity not given to other animals. One can afford human beings such a dignity only if one identifies a non-theological or natural property that human beings possess and which other animals lack that plausibly grounds such a status.
Secondly, once religious beliefs are bracketed then it is very difficult to find any such property. The fact that an animal is of a particular species is, of itself, no more relevant than the fact that someone is of a particular race. The only properties that seem remotely relevant are that mature humans typically possess higher psychological functions that other animals lack such as: sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, ability to use language, autonomy and so on. These functions are relevant because an animal with these properties can be aware of its future existence and value it, judge it valuable, and desire its preservation. In the literature, these psychological properties are referred to as ‘personhood’. Even if there is no God to confer value or dignity on human beings, persons can still have lives that are valuable to themselves.
To defend abortion rights, a distinction was drawn between being a human being and a person. Whilst foetuses are actual human beings they are not actually persons as the psychology of a foetus is extremely primitive. Foetuses do not appear to be conscious at all until around 28 weeks, and even then the consciousness is primitive. Most mature non-human animals are far more developed psychologically than a human foetus, and even though the foetus has some minimal consciousness, it certainly is not yet self-aware or rational or so on. Hence, foetuses are only potential persons, and according to , have no right to life.
There are several problems with this argument. First, it implies that only those who value their life and desire its preservation have a right to life. This is subject to some obvious counter examples. Consider the depressed suicidal teenager who has broken up with his girlfriend or consider some mad and deluded person who believes the gods will reward him if he is the victim of a human sacrifice. In both cases the person has a right to life despite lacking a desire to live.
But the most serious problem is that, by this definition, infants are not persons either. In “A Defence of Abortion”, leading defender of abortion David Boonin notes that “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant”. Human infants have a very rudimentary form of consciousness, which is similar to that of other animals, but they are not rational, autonomous, self-aware and nor can they speak a language. These capacities are acquired by human beings sometime after birth. Infants are human beings, but are only potential persons. Hence, by parity of reasoning, infants do not have a right to life either.
This problem with the standard pro-abortion position is, within ethics, well known. In one of the most important defences of abortion rights, which is now widely used in first year ethics texts, Mary Anne Warren noted this problem. She conceded that a foetus is not a person, and does not have a right to life. However, she argued, infanticide is still wrong because other persons (adults and society) value infants and desire their preservation. This is not merely a fringe position; it is the mainstream pro-abortion position of writers such as Joel Feinberg, Michael Tooley, Louis Pojman, Tristram Englehardt, Joseph Fletch, Peter Singer and many others.
So, if one accepts the standard arguments used to justify legal abortion,  seems unassailable. If infants are only potential people then they have no right to life and are protected only because their parents or society want them to live. The implication, of course, is that if these infants are unwanted or if their existence proves burdensome on parents or society, they can be aborted or terminated just like a foetus.
What is novel about Minerva and Giubilini’s position is their frank admission that raising children is burdensome and that if parents really believed infanticide to be no more problematic than abortion then many would not want their children.
Consider the burdens typically used to justify legal abortion. We are told that abortion prevents unwanted children who are likely to be poor, abused or engage in crime. It is hailed as a solution to over-population and the existence of more handicapped people. It prevents adult and teen women from falling into economic hardship and stress. It enables them to complete their education and pursue their careers. However, all of this is equally true of infanticide. Infanticide prevents the existence of unwanted children and their associated social costs, lowers the population, prevents the handicapped existing and save women and teenagers from the economic and emotional stresses of parenthood. The case for abortion and infanticide are on par.
Minerva and Giubilini propose a morally outrageous conclusion that it is permissible for women to kill their newborn infants for any of the reasons by which society currently permits abortion – which in reality is almost any reason at all. This is obscene. Yet the argument flows logically and quite naturally from the claims upon which the philosophical case for legal abortion has been based. These assumptions are taken for granted going by New Zealand’s current stance. New Zealand faces a dilemma; if it accepts these assumptions then it must logically accept child-killing. If this is unacceptable then those assumptions are mistaken and legal abortion needs to be rethought. Burying ones head in the sand and chanting “keep your rosaries off my ovaries”, or putting sappy uninformed sound bites out into public debate does not cut it.
Matt writes a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the April-May 2012 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.
Letters to the editor should be sent to:
Contra Mundum: When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists
Contra Mundum: Separating Church and State
Contra Mundum: Consenting Adults and Harm
Contra Mundum: Pacifism and Just Wars
Contra Mundum: Religion and Violence
Contra Mundum: Stoning Adulterers
Contra Mundum: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Contra Mundum: “Till Death do us Part” Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage
Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
Contra Mundum: In Defence of Santa
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament
Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro
Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus