March 2, 2012

Ethicists argue there’s no difference between aborting fetuses and killing newborns

The Journal of Medical Ethics recently published a paper by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” that, as the title implies, explores the ethics of killing newborn children. From the abstract:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

They go on to explain:

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.

Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims. However, this consideration entails a much stronger idea than the one according to which severely handicapped children should be euthanised. If the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.

Two defenses are offered for this particular claim. First, a newborn baby and a fetus are “morally equivalent” in that “both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” More:

Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.

Second, a newborn baby and a fetus are both “potential persons”, not “actual persons”, and therefore, cannot actually be harmed.

If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.

Giubilini and Minerva then conclude:

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.

Part of me can’t help but wonder if Giubilini and Minerva’s paper isn’t actually a covert pro-life piece, given how the authors pursue the condoning of abortion to its logical end. Or, as the Journal’s editor, Julian Savulescu, puts it: “If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject.” (Another theory: the paper is actually a practical joke by The Onion. I know I kept waiting for some mention of the “Abortionplex”.)

From this perspective, I'm actually thankful for the article — in a reductio ad absurdum sort of way — as it highlights, as Matt Archbold puts it, “the absurdity of the pro-abortion argument”:

The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn’t, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand.

Indeed, based on the paper’s logic, there's actually nothing wrong with killing a baby for any reason, so long as that reason alleviates a real burden placed on the family, society, etc. Giubilini and Minerva explain:

The alleged right of individuals (such as fetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality, which someone defends, is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. Actual people's well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

Killing a baby would be acceptable it were discovered to have some previously undetected illness or disorder (the authors discuss this with regards to Down syndrome). Killing a baby would be acceptable if the parents hadn’t learned the gender of the baby in utero, and they decided, post-birth, that the baby’s gender might prove too much of a burden. Furthermore, the paper makes no claims as to when after-birth abortions would no longer be acceptable. If such an abortion was requested for non-medical reasons, then determining an acceptable timeframe would require assessing the newborn’s neurological development. In other words, killing an otherwise healthy baby would be acceptable were its neurological development somehow deemed less than desirable, regardless of the baby’s actual age (since the authors “do not suggest any threshold”).

Not surprisingly, the paper has generated a huge amount of controversy, much of it centered around the notion of a medical ethics journal publishing such a paper. Savulescu, himself no stranger to controversy, has spoken out against the criticism and defended the paper’s publication. Here's the best part:

What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.

[...]

What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.

Now, I’m not one for Santorum-like digs at academia, ivory towers, and whatnot, but you’ve just got to let your mind be boggled a little bit by that statement, by Savulescu’s shock and outrage at the shock and outrage. It goes without saying that death threats and whatnot in response to the paper, though not surprising, are poor responses. I’m actually rather impressed with many of the comments on the editor’s blog entry which, despite the controversial topic at hand, are rather thoughtful, intelligent, and informative, even when Godwin’s law is inevitably enacted (example).

As for the paper’s authors, they were recently interviewed by Simon Conway and defended their arguments (you can listen to the awkward exchange here). One statement that I found rather interesting, albeit naïve, was Minerva’s statement that “We didn’t write a proposal for a law. We’re not saying that it should be legal to kill newborns.” Be that as it may, ideas, however theoretical, have practical, “real world” consequences. This paper and its language, reasoning, etc. may have been purely academic in nature, but those who ultimately enact and uphold laws rely on academics like Giubilini and Minerva to help them navigate murky ethical waters. When that occurs, theoretical reasoning and academic language ceases to be just that, and they begin exacting actual material effects.

Indeed, given that there are already things like The Netherlands’ Groningen Protocol (which lays out the criteria for performing “active ending of life on infants”), as well as court rulings like last year’s Katrina Effert ruling in Canada (in which Effert was given a three-year suspended sentence after strangling her newborn baby boy with her underwear), one can’t help but think that Giubilini and Minerva’s utilitarian logic will attain some measure of legal support sooner rather than later.

May God have mercy on our souls…