12 March 2012

Renaming Infanticide: is it more frightening than satire?

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The Journal of Medical Ethics recently published a paper titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” that, as the title implies, explores the ethics of killing newborn children. The authors argued that there’s no difference between aborting an unborn child and killing newborns.

Was it an act of cynical ethical kite flying or was it a rather clever exercise in satire?

Amidst all the outrage and horror that greeted the publication, it is understandable that some readers of the venerable British Journal of Medical Ethics simply did not believe that the article in this year’s March 2nd edition, entitled bluntly: “After-birth Abortion: why should baby live?”, was for real.

The article is full of tangled assertions, which are undefended and often unsubstantiated. There are many bald statements, rather than arguments, that “new born infants” (not defined - so it could mean a baby of one hour or an infant of three months) are simply non persons because they cannot really be said to have “aims” for their own lives nor can be said to have anything but a rudimentary experience of life: “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”1

The two authors, Alberto Giubilini and Franscesca Minerva (associated with the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University and the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne), propose points which are like clumsy caricatures of arguments for which Peter Singer and Michael Tooley have become well known. Singer and Tooley argue that “personhood” gradually evolves with consciousness and “plan-making” abilities in the developing human being. This article extends the Singer lethal logic even further—not only are infant humans (born or pre-born) not people at all, they have no more ethical weight or status of their own than “projections” of other peoples values and desires. Babies it seems, in the strange minds of the authors, are only the blank screens onto to which we “real” people cast our hopes and dreams.

Their logic is remarkably crude in parts and goes far more deeply into the valley of death-dealing than the regretful neglect of tribes who abandon newborns or the mistaken “compassion” of those who advocate “merciful euthanasia” for suffering infants (such is permitted in the Netherlands).

There is no pretence in the article that the act of “killing baby” is a desperate survival measure nor in the best interests of the suffering child, but simply a helpful option if the baby’s existence is a burden (not quantified or qualified) to any person it seems who is lucky enough to have earned the status of person: “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.”2

The authors seemed to express a double-standard of “shock” and alarm that their paper was greeted not only with outrage but with death threats. One of the authors said in hurt tones: “This is pure academic discussion. I wish I could explain to people it is not a policy and I’m not suggesting that and I’m not encouraging that.”

While not in any way condoning the threats of violence posted in response to Giubilini and Minerva’s paper, Canadian (and Australian-born) ethicist Margaret Somerville3 and several other writers have commented upon how far these two authors have apparently travelled from the “common-sense” reactions of the wider community. Giubilini and Minerva have also seemingly failed to comprehend the full implications of their own cavalier use of both ‘lethal’ words and logic. As one astute commentator remarked: “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.”4

While many in the global community remain divided about the “personhood” of the unborn, Professor Somerville points out that there is a widespread ethical intuition that a baby once born is somehow automatically a member of the community of “persons”—and the homicide laws in most countries enshrine that fact.

However, she also highlights how fragile that intuition and its reasoning are.

There is an ethical slope down which the utility logic of Giubilini and Minerva is pushing our communities. Their paper therefore serves as a Dorian Gray portrait, showing us that our human sensitivity and our ethical imagination is already in the process of being decomposed and deadened. Somerville writes: “. . . a cause of the enormous difference between the outrage at infanticide and the absence of that at abortion is that many people have so normalized abortion that they’ve lost their ethical sensitivity to what it involves, but that isn’t true with respect to infanticide.”5 Yet…


1 Alberto Giubilini and Franscesca Minerva, After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?, Journal of Medical Ethics, Published online 23 February 2012
2 Ibid.
3 Margaret Somerville, Infanticide Controversy: Why the outrage?, http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/why_the_outrage
4 Jason Morehead, http://opus.fm/blog/ethicists-argue-no-difference-between-aborting-fetuses-killing-newborns
5 Op cit, Margaret Somerville.