After-birth abortion

Consider the following claim:

…‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

One might guess that such a claim would be made by pro-life activists trying to ridicule or parody the philosophical logic of abortionists.  But this claim is made by philosophers writing last week in the Journal of Medical Ethics.  Is this a satirical piece, along the lines of A Modest Proposal?  We might hope so, but it is not.

The grounding of this claim is, according to the authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, that “the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.”  The authors also claim (and this foundation goes back to work by Peter Singer and others, so there is nothing new here, which is the argument used by the JME editors in response to the firestorm of angry protests), that not only are not all humans persons, but not all persons are humans.  Non-human animals can be persons as long as they are “capable of attributing to [their] own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

Infants are “potential persons,” but have no right to live because “however weak the interests of actual people [those wanting to kill the infant] can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero.”

The funny part (funny, in a sad, pathetic, horrific sort of way) is that the authors describe their own arguments with language that would be considered uncivil and inflammatory were pro-life activists to use it.  Herein lies the challenge: how can you “flame” people who have so successfully flamed themselves?

The view of personhood espoused here strikes me as extremely jaundiced—the ability to attribute value to one’s own life is neither necessary or sufficient for such a determination, I would say—but, of course, I’m not a philosopher with access to their higher reasoning powers. To me, all living humans, past, present or future, are persons (though not all persons have, in all cases, the same rights).  Such a view may be philosophically naïve, but at least it doesn’t lead to a conclusion that it is immoral to kill a chimp, but not immoral to kill a healthy human baby.

Isn’t there some point where even completely immoral and/or godless people, no matter how intelligent, stop making such claims because they can’t say them with a straight face?  Apparently not.

I am sure that most abortion rights advocates would reject the claims of Giubilini and Minerva.  Yet, can they?  Amidst all the nonsense is a very compelling claim: a human baby just after birth is morally equivalent—as well as physiologically equivalent—to a baby just before birth.  The only thing that really changes is the baby’s address.  It has moved from the mother’s uterus to somewhere near by.

This change of address is not non-trivial as far as the mother is concerned, of course.  We all have (limited) rights over our bodies, what goes on inside of them and what others can legally do to them.  For this reason, making tough calls when, for instance, the life of the baby and the life of the mother are in conflict is certainly a moral challenge and a legal challenge.

But not much has changed for the baby.  Her lungs are now full of air rather than fluid, but she is just as dependent, just as cognizant of her reality, just as human, just as much a person as the moment before she was born.

One can reject out of hand the ghoulish reasoning that leads philosophers to morally ridiculous claims, but the abortion rights activists are very much in the same bed with these folks, whether they like it or not.

8 thoughts on “After-birth abortion

  1. ‘Infants are “potential persons,” but have no right to live because “however weak the interests of actual people [those wanting to kill the infant] can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero.”’

    I believe that James Cameron laid out a pretty strong rebuttal to this logic in 1984.

  2. I would ask Giubilini and Minerva if they consider it moral to kill those who lack empathy. Empathy is the signature trait of humans and the one that distinguishes humans from the other animals. I wonder if hyper-rational, un-empathic creatures as Giubilini and Minerva would even understand the sardonic nature of the question.

  3. Sven, I agree with your overall take that it is hard to know what to say to such arguments. They are so deeply and obviously indecent that it is difficult to imagine a basis on which to see oneself in conversation with them. They are monsters, whether they have philosophical degrees or not.

    That said, I do not think it is true that abortion rights activists must be “in the same bed with them.” A lot depends on the nature of the argument made for abortion rights, and of course the rights one claims. One might, for example, think that unborn fetuses give us compelling reasons to take their welfare seriously (in a way that would block the argument by these monsters), but claim that women’s authority over their own bodies gives stronger moral reason for respect. I am not saying that position is right, only that it (i) isn’t crazy, (ii) provides a foundation for some abortion rights (better: rights to non-interference with abortion), and (iii) provides no support whatever to these guys. As in most such cases, the details in the principles really do matter.

    1. As always, your points are reasonable.

      I think the overwhelming majority of abortion-rights supporters would recoil at the idea of after-birth abortion, but the idea that a fetus is not a person (one reason they never use the simple term baby) is fully-ensconced in the rhetoric of abortion rights, in my observation.

      It is very hard argument to make, in my mind, that the baby goes from a non-person to a person, just by the act of being born. On that point, the “monsters” are making a very solid claim.

      1. There are certainly more-useful and less-useful ways of thinking about the matter. I am not sure that looking for a demarcation of “personhood” is the most helpful, because that assumes that the moral significance of personhood is a binary thing — all or nothing. That might be right or it might not be. If it is, it’s hard to see how being born changes things, as you say. But a more plausible defense for abortion rights might approach things from a more nuanced perspective. Given the richness of the arguments for an against out there, a paper this flatfooted (leave alone its indecency) is hard to understand a case for publication for. (Sorry for the twisted grammar there.)

  4. >It is very hard argument to make, in my mind, that the baby goes from a non-person to a person, just by the act of being born. On that point, the “monsters” are making a very solid claim.

    But an unimportant one. ANY argument that some point on a gradual scale (from sperm to “independence”; where “life” starts) is THE point falls apart on close examination. Granted we may have to choose a point, but we shouldn’t pretend that our choice isn’t arbitrary.

    Off the top of my head, being inside or outside the womb is a lousy criterion, because the foetus can survive if delivered the day before the scheduled birth. A better criterion is the ability for the foetus to survive independently, but this has problems as well, e.g., with or without life support. The criterion of sperm crossing a wall is problematic as well. They’re ALL problematic.

  5. Prayer After Birth (Acknowledgements and Apologies to Louis MacNeice).

    I am now born: please hear me,
    Let not the debt collectors,
    Or the rights protectors,
    Or the seditious insurrectors come near me.

    I am now born, comfort me,
    Else I fear that the human-folk may:
    With clever lies debase me,
    With bad science un-race me,
    And with strong drugs erase me.

    I am now born: please bestow me,
    Among the dancing grass, babbling brooks,
    Swaying trees and singing rooks,
    Undiminished bright light of grace and truth,
    To restore me.

    I am now born, with lullabies lull me,
    With warm cuddles mull me,
    With deep love sustain me, and,
    With silence, not gainsay me.

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