Following the logic: ‘After-birth abortion’

By Paul Stark

A new article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics has already received a good deal of attention, and the title explains why: “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”

Two Australia-based ethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, argue that infanticide is morally permissible in the same circumstances as abortion (that is, for elective reasons, including the convenience of the parents) because a newborn baby, like a fetus, is not yet a “person” with a right to life. The authors prefer to call infanticide “after-birth abortion” 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,” though they concede “the oxymoron in the expression.” (Matthew Cantirino at First Things calls after-birth abortion “the euphemism of the decade.”)

Giubilini and Minerva correctly acknowledge that “both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings,” but claim that “neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.'” “Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life,” they explain. “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

So what are those properties that serve as criteria for having a 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.” So “many non-human animals … are persons, but … all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.”

And that’s why it is okay to kill newborn babies. The authors “do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible … as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.”

The article hardly argues (presents and defends reasons) for grounding moral worth in the ability to value one’s own existence — a view that is not at all new or original. Rather, the authors simply draw out its disturbing implications regarding the status of newborns. Well-known philosophers such as Michael Tooley and Peter Singer have come to similar conclusions.

And in drawing out these implications, Giubilini and Minerva — like Tooley and Singer before them — are surely correct. After all, birth is not a morally significant milestone. And the same “personhood” criteria that pro-choice thinkers use to exclude unborn human beings (thereby justifying their killing by abortion) also exclude newborns (justifying infanticide).

The mistake is not in the reasoning, but in the starting premise: that each of us has a right to life, and merits full moral respect, by virtue of acquired (accidental) properties, such as developed mental capacities (e.g., the present ability to value one’s own life). This view, as Giubilini and Minerva explain, entails that not all human beings have a right to life. But it also entails that human beings can gain or lose rights as they gain or lose the requisite properties (via growth, old age, injury, disease, temporary coma, etc.). And it entails that those who do have a right to life have that moral status in varying degrees, since the properties said to confer it come in varying degrees. (Even the valuing of one’s life is a degreed property.) So there is no human equality; nor is there equality even among those who are deemed rights-bearing “persons.” Some people are just superior to others.

The only way to avoid these implausible and morally unacceptable conclusions — including the conclusion that infanticide is permissible — is to reject the above premise (held by virtually all pro-choice philosophers and bioethicists) that basic rights apply to only some human beings on the grounds that they possess characteristics we (that is, “experts” such as Giubilini and Minerva) decide are relevant. Rather, basic rights apply equally to all members of the human family by virtue of the fact that they are human beings, the unique kind of being who by nature possesses the inherent capacities (whether developed and actualized or not) for rationality, choice, the valuing of one’s own life, etc. In other words, there really is such a thing as human rights — had by humans by virtue of being human — as affirmed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and every just and decent society.

But if this is true, then not only infanticide but also abortion is wrong, for both are the intentional killing of innocent human beings who as such deserve to be respected and protected.

The editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Julian Savulescu, writes: “The authors [of “After-Birth Abortion”] provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible.”

Thus the authors, committed to abortion, conclude that infanticide is permissible. But the obvious moral fact that infanticide is not permissible should lead us to reason in the other direction. Since there are no morally relevant differences between unborn and newborn human beings, and since newborns have a right to life, it then follows that unborn humans also have a right to life.

So if infanticide is wrong — and it is — so is abortion. That is the unintended pro-life apologetic of Giubilini and Minerva’s “After-Birth Abortion.”

Editor’s note. Paul Stark is Communications Assistant for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. This appears on MCCL’s blog at http://prolifemn.blogspot.com/2012/03/following-logic-after-birth-abortion.html