The pro-choice case for infanticide.

In 2012 After-Birth Abortion was proposed by two philosophers in the Journal of Medical Ethics. By reopening the ethical debate the pro-choice lobby was put in the difficult position of trying to find arguments to justify why infanticide is medically ethically unacceptable if abortion is medically ethically acceptable.

Just when you thought the religious right couldn’t get any crazier, with its personhood amendments and its attacks on contraception, here comes the academic left with an even crazier idea: after-birth abortion.

No, I didn’t make this up. “Partial-birth abortion” is a term invented by pro-lifers. But “after-birth abortion” is a term invented by two philosophers, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. In the Journal of Medical Ethics, they propose:

[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, 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.

[…]  it isn’t pro-lifers who should worry about the Giubilini-Minerva proposal. It’s pro-choicers. The case for “after-birth abortion” draws a logical path from common pro-choice assumptions to infanticide. It challenges us, implicitly and explicitly, to explain why, if abortion is permissible, infanticide isn’t.

Pro-choice and Pro-life supporters have always disagreed over the cut-off point of fetal development for abortion but even the most extreme pro-choice advocates have drawn the line at birth. Some will allow what is called a partial birth abortion where the abortionist kills the baby during the birth when its head is outside the mother’s body but its body is still inside. However, any baby that successfully manages to be born alive is considered by both groups to have crossed that medical ethical line and made it to safety.

The Giubilini-Minerva proposal changes all that.

[…] Giubilini and Minerva push beyond that limit. They note that neural development continues after birth and that the newborn doesn’t yet meet their definition of a “person”—“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.” Accordingly, they reason, “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.”

Imagine if philosophers in the future decide that personhood isn’t achieved until adulthood. We will be able to abort a three-year-old because it is still growing and has not yet achieved “personhood.” People will then be arguing over an arbitrary age at which adulthood is achieved. Is it 18 years old or 21 years old. Where should they draw the line?

[…]  Prior to personhood, human life has no moral claims on us. I’ve seen this position asserted in countless comment threads by supporters of abortion rights. Giubilini and Minerva add only one further premise to this argument: Personhood doesn’t begin until sometime after birth. Once that premise is added, the newborn, like the fetus, becomes fair game. They explain:

[I]n order for a harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is in the condition of experiencing that harm. If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. … In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions. … Indeed, however weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero.

You may find this statement cold, but where’s the flaw in its logic? If the neurally unformed fetus has no moral claims, why isn’t the same true of the neurally unformed newborn?

[…] Any burden on the woman outweighs the value of the child. […]  Giubilini and Minerva merely push this idea one step further, calling their proposal “‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice.”

“Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of,” they observe. Accordingly, “if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.”

[…] The value of life depends on choice. Pro-choicers don’t accept the idea that the path from pregnancy to maternity, being natural, must be followed. They argue that the choice is up to the woman. Some assert that the life within her has no moral status until she chooses to give birth to it.

[…] Again, Giubilini and Minerva simply extend this logic beyond birth. Since the newborn isn’t a person yet, its significance continues to hinge on its mother’s decision[…]

[…] Discovery of a serious defect is grounds for termination. […]  In the partial-birth abortion debate, pro-choicers extended this rationale, arguing that abortions in the third trimester should be permitted when horrible defects were identified at that stage. Giubilini and Minerva take this argument to the next level, noting that defects often remain undiscovered until birth[…]

[…] 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.

I don’t buy this argument, in part because I agree with Furedi that something profound changes at birth: The woman’s bodily autonomy is no longer at stake. But I also think that the value of the unborn human increases throughout its development. Furedi rejects that view, and her rejection doesn’t stop at birth. As she explained in our debate last fall, “There is nothing magical about passing through the birth canal that transforms it from a fetus into a person.”

The challenge posed to Furedi and other pro-choice absolutists by “after-birth abortion” 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?




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