post by Bill Gardner
Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled "After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?"
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
Yes, this is a justification of infanticide. You will not be surprised to read that this has stimulated 'discussion' on the net. You can Google the many condemnations of the authors and the editors of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Let me know if you find a defense of their conclusions.
So I want to briefly defend Giubilini and Minerva's arguments, while disagreeing strongly with their conclusions.
First, G & M are doing what ethicists are supposed to do: pursuing ethical arguments to their conclusions. If those arguments end somewhere that is strongly contrary to your ethical intuitions, that is a valuable data point about the argument. For a wonderful example of this, read David Benatar's superb Better Never to Have Been Born, which argues
Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence. That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people. Creating new people is thus morally problematic.
I don't believe this, but I know so much more about why I value my own life and the lives of my children by talking with Benatar (who, by the way, does not support infanticide) and studying his book.
So what about G & M? As Andrew McGee comments,
Giubilini and Minerva’s argument is stunningly simple. There is no morally relevant difference between a foetus and a newborn baby, because their capacities are relevantly similar. Neither foetus nor newborn is really capable of forming any long-term aims. Only a person can form long-term aims that are capable of being quashed – and this is what differentiates us from other species – so neither a foetus nor a newborn are persons.
And, therefore, if you can abort a fetus you can kill a newborn. I do not think we can kill newborns. And, at the end of the day, I think that aborting a fetus late in gestation is similar to killing an infant.
Unlike G &M, however, I do not think that it matters whether we consider either a fetus or an infant to be a person. Or, if there is a distinction between a fetus and a neonate that makes the latter a person and a former not, then being a 'person' is not important. What matters is the capacity to suffer. Being a neonate is similar to being a fetus is similar to being a dog. I do my best not to kill any of them.
I appreciate that these arguments must be qualified in many ways. Moreover, there are extreme situations where killing animals, late-term abortion, and killing in war are justified. In my view, however, thinking through G & M's argument leads to the conclusion that the moral default is to not kill human beings, fetuses, or other animals. As I think this is the right view, I thank G & M for publishing the argument.