Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.
I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.
Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?
For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:
How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?
Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.
That said, one thing I do appreciate about Giubilini and Minerva’s article is that they lay out their argument and their presuppositions in clear, open terms. They don’t hide anything and they don’t make emotional appeals (even though they do value the emotional well-being of people). They explain why a newborn is not a person as follows:
(U)nlike 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… 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.
They go on in the next section to say that all human beings are not necessarily persons (emphasis mine):
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.
This is what the argument hinges on. For Giubilini and Minerva, potential persons are only valuable to the degree that they end up finding happiness themselves and/or generate it in other people. If a potential person is going to enhance the life of its mother and family, great. If we perceive that it will detract from the mother’s or family’s overall quality of life and psychological health, then kill him or her. No harm, no foul.
If anything highlights the role that assumptions and presuppositions play in shaping our moral choices, it’s this. I can’t argue with the logic here, I can only disagree with its values, and I disagree on a grounds that is not purely rational. Judging by the response the article gotten across the web, it seems that something deep down inside us, as humans, knows this is wrong. Forget the rational debate for a second, my humanity screams that killing a newborn baby for any reason is wrong—especially if done because its life is not in the best interest of its mother or family.
And I don’t need a medical ethicist to tell me one way or another.
I can say that because I believe in universal moral standards–even though, yes, there are many moral issues for which we do not have any clear guide. The world can be a very gray place. Unfortunately for Giubilini and Minerva, “after-birth abortion” falls into the realm of black and whites. For me, there’s no question on the issue because I believe human life is a worthy end that trumps personal comfort, happiness, or security.
Personally, I cannot find any other way to live. I must let my conscience guide me here. That’s another subject for another post, but what it means in regards to abortion is that we need to be careful about divorcing our innate (perhaps you could even say “gut”) moral sense from high-level scholarly evaluations of ethical issues. You just might end up saying something like Giubilini and Minerva. They’re not insane by any means, but I can’t help but think of something G.K. Chesterton said:
The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.