Ethicists give thumbs-up to infanticide

By Michael Cook

If abortion, why not infanticide? This leading question is often treated as a canard by supporters of abortion. However, it is seriously argued by two Italian utilitarians and published online in the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics last week.

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva are associated respectively with Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, and with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, at the University of Melbourne.

They argue that both the fetus and the new-born infant are only potential persons without any interests. Therefore the interests of the persons involved with them are paramount until some indefinite time after birth. To emphasize the continuity between the two acts, they term it “after-birth abortion” rather than infanticide.

Their conclusions may shock but Giubilini and Minerva assert them very confidently. “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.” This assertion highlights another aspect of their argument. Killing an infant after birth is not euthanasia either. In euthanasia, a doctor would be seeking the best interests of the person who dies. But in “after-birth abortion” it is the interests of people involved, not the baby.

To critical eyes, their argument will no doubt look like a slippery slope, as they are simply seeking to extend the logic of abortion to infanticide:

“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.”

How long after birth is it “ethically permissible” to kill infants? Guibilini and Minerva leave that question up to neurologists and psychologists, but they say it takes at least a few weeks for the infant to become self-conscious, and at that stage it moves from being a potential person to being a person, and infanticide would no longer be allowed.

[An abstract of the Journal of Medical Ethics article can be read at http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/02/22/medethics-2011-100411.abstract.]

Editor’s note. This first appeared at www.bioedge.org/index.php/bioethics/bioethics_article/9950 and is reprinted with permission.  See also “Infanticide: Why Not?”