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'After-birth abortion'

I can't say I know much about medical ethics, so I'll just offer the unlearned opinion that this article in the Journal of Medical Ethics - After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live? - is chilling and creepy, all the more because it is published in a respected forum. It concludes:

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.

The article does not touch on the legal implications - "after-birth abortion" would be murder.Thanks to the Catholic Moral Theology blog for pointing the article out.[Update] And thanks to Charles Camosy for pointing out today's response from the authors of the "After-birth abortion" article:

... we never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal. This was not made clear enough in the paper. Laws are not just about rational ethical arguments, because there are many practical, emotional, social aspects that are relevant in policy making (such as respecting the plurality of ethical views, peoples emotional reactions etc). But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.


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Peter Singer has been arguing this for years. The difference between him and many other philosophers is that he thinks that a baby is only a *potential* person until it can think rationally. This he thinks (or used to think) doesn't happen until the child is around 3 years of age. Yes, the thought of a post=birth abortion is horrible. But, if you think there is a baby in the womb, then that is just as horrible.Singer is actually arguing in a way similar (though not identical) to the basic argument of the Aristotelian scholastics about "ensoulment". They argued that one knows what a thing is by what it does. If a thing does not do rational thinking, then it is not a person. Singer's argument is the same, except that he thinks that rationality doesn't kick in until around age 3.

Singer's original views supporting infanticide (somewhat inconsistently, in my opinion) were about neonates with serious medical problems. What makes this article different is that it is willing to 'go all the way' in comparing abortion to infanticide in claiming that many of reasons for the former also justify that latter. (Incidentally, he now thinks that there is no good legal way to talk about a cutoff point for infanticide, so he is back to birth as the least from a public policy perspective.)The authors have received death threats directed at them and their families. Check out the Oxford Practical Ethics blog for information on some of it:

If the pre-natal fetus and the post-natal infant before rationality (age 3 or whatever) have the same moral status n this argument, why i would abortion not be infanticide? Isn't this what the pro-life movement has been arguing for some time now? Am I missing something or is the Singer et. al. argument ironically granting the claim of the pro-life movement about abortion?

That should be "why would: not "why I would" in line 2. The typing demons is at work again.

What I find interesting (and I have written about this elsewhere, too) is that the paper argues there's no real difference between abortion and infanticide, and consequently both should be permitted. On the other hand, many pro-life advocates argue that there's no real difference between infanticide and abortion, so they both should be prohibited. So in an odd kind of way, opposite sides are in agreement in that they both see an equivalence between infanticide and abortion. Some pro-life advocates feel this paper will help their cause, because they hope abortion-rights advocates will accept the paper's argument about the sameness of abortion and infanticide and be so horrified by their alleged equivalence that they will reject not only infanticide, but abortion along with it. Some (myself included) initially suspected the paper was a pro-life hoax. I find it difficult to believe that any abortion-rights supporter who does not already support infanticide (and I assume that is the vast majority) will be convinced they ought to start advocating "infanticide rights." I do find it somewhat disturbing that, so far at least, the pro-life advocates' only argument against the paper is that, yes, abortion and infanticide are equivalent, so you have to either accept or reject both. It seems to me there are arguments to be made by those who believe personhood doesn't begin at conception that it begins earlier than early childhood (that is, at or before birth), and it also seems to me there are arguments to be made against infanticide even for those who believe that a 9-month embryo and a newborn baby have the same moral status as non-persons. I found Clement Ng's comment (Mar 1, 2012 4:32:33 PM) over on Mirror of Justice to be very illuminating. I will not reproduce it here, but it is about using self-conscious rather than "bare consciousness" as a criterion for personhood. I am inclined to think that if a line is to be drawn, it should be at "bare consciousness" (which would be before the third trimester, I am reasonably sure) instead of self-consciousness, which would be some time after birth. Of course, some of the arguments in favor of abortion do not depend on the non-personhood of the unborn, such as the "Famous Violinist" argument. It seems to me that those who accept that argument to justify abortion could definitely not use it to justify infanticide. I would love to see responses and refutations of the paper rather than denunciations of it (or denunciations of the abstract by people who have not read it). It seems to me the way to deal with the paper is to answer it in detail, not just start an Internet campaign expressing alarm that it was published.

I can't believe I wrote that much (and at this hour), but I do have one more thought. I think we need better arguments against this paper than: "Personhood begins at conception, and that's that." It's an argument that has largely been rejected not merely in the United States, but in most or all Western countries (many of whom cover abortions in their national health services). I really don't think anyone is going to be argued into accepting infanticide, but if there is a danger of that, it should be noted that the argument that life begins at conception is not going to work against infanticide if it didn't work against abortion.

Here's the abstract:

AbstractAbortion 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. is logically of a piece with the contraception-insurance thing. It's all about making a more efficient, less painful world - a nicer place for humans to live, free from avoidable waste and imperfection.Thoughts are free. We can think whatever we like. In a democracy, if enough people think this way, what's to prevent its becoming embodied in law?

Julian Savulescu asked me to do a response to the article that now appears online (on the Practical Ethics Centre blog and the JME website) and will eventually be expanded, peer-reviewed and in the actual journal.David, it is really fair to say what you are saying given that this is really just an expansion of what I was already saying in the piece referenced above? People have been offering all kinds of argument for why infanticide is wrong:

Just speaking for myself here (but hoping others agree), but I think I'll find this thread more thought-provoking and helpful if it retains its original focus on ethical, moral, religious, legal, philosophical issues raised by the article that prompted this post. (As opposed to spreading out to other issues---e.g., contraception, insurance regulations, religious liberty, etc.)

Fair enough, Luke. But it all does come down to politics and laws in the end. Few people would object to any proposition as a proposition; it's when social and legal pressures are being applied that it all becomes suddenly real.

Here is an open letter from the authors, claiming that they weren't talking about politics and law. Hmmmmm.

David, it is really fair to say what you are saying given that this is really just an expansion of what I was already saying in the piece referenced above?Charles,Probably not, and I apologize. What was on my mind when I wrote my message above was comments on various blogs, and the kinds of articles I have been getting when I google the topic. It seems to me there is a "popular" reaction to the article that is somewhat set apart from the "adademic" reaction. Upon rereading my comments above and your piece over on CMT, I see I may have even stolen some of your ideas (unintentionally), although you focused on reasons people might support abortion without subscribing to the "nonperson" theory, and I have been thinking more about how people who subscribe to the "nonperson" theory might support abortion but not infanticide. I have a feeling (although I can't cite any data to prove it) that the average supporter of abortion rights (excluding academics and ethicists) believe that the embryo in early pregnancy, and particularly fertilized human eggs, are not persons.

I submit this with some trepidation:...a nicer place for humans to live, free from avoidable waste and imperfection.I just read 'In the Garden of Beasts' by Erik Larsen and the above is very similar to the Nazi view of the world.

As all of us know-- especially those us who have children or relatives or friends or simply are aware of persons with severe disabilites that were diagnosed near birth -- experiences are unque to each individual and family. I defended a Moral Theology Master's thesis at an unnamed Catholic university in 1973 on "The Morality of Amniocentesis and Responsible Genetic Parenthood" with arguments that I only little appreciated at the time, some of which I believe are still valid and others that were naive and mistaken and that technology has long changed. I won't go into a long posting, but I think this article almost sounds Swiftian-- and is compelling at pointing out the criteria that are used in justifying abortion.However, I don't think the "delayed hominization" has to be entirely discarded as being helpful in the overall discussion.

Abortion is abortion. Murder is murder. We have different words for different things. Calling one the other is wrong, incorrect, inexact, inappropriate. For years people have been calling abortion murder. This is also calling women who have abortions murderers, though most who call abortion murder don't want to execute or imprison for life these women -- and they are legion. Those who call abortion murder realize abortion is unique, a special case. Murder laws don't really apply. The reverse, calling murder abortion, seems like a way of strenghtening the argument that abortion is murder, a coming in the back door, so to speak, and surrounding those who maintain that abortion isn't murder. This also suggests where abortion might go -- to murder. If it does, then it is murder, and we have exact laws for that. Let's use our language precisely, especially in discussing very important issues, like abortion and murder, shedding light rather than generating heat.

Jim,I appreciate your comment about correctly using words to shed light. However, sometimes using different words can also hide the truth. The example you use about abortion and murder is a case in point. If you happen to believe that life begins at conception, then abortion is a subset of murder and replacing abortion with murder continues to be a truthful statement. If you happen to believe that life begins at some other point, then the substitution does not fit. By only using the word abortion, there is the appearance of agreement about the start of life where in fact, none exists. And where life starts is the area of disagreement.

As someone's pointed out, just about the only difference between a fetus and a neonate is the location - inside or outside. Birth may be a politically convenient way to separate abortion from murder, but it doesn't stand up to common sense.Societies need to draw the line somewhere. That really shouldn't be difficult. Compromise and consensus are absolute necessities in democracies. Necessities are possibilities. What's possible can be done.

The article is an interesting expose on the morality of abortion by applying the same arguments used to justify abortion to the case of infanticide. It's a wake up call to where this is all going.God Bless

David N. --I suspect that most people's view that the fetus is not a person/real baby/rational animal in the first trimester at least is a culture-wide assumption held over from the middle ages when the theologians thought that the fetus was NOT a person immediately. The English saw it very particularly, holding that the fetus isn't a person until it is felt to move. (Would that the issue were so simple!) Given their honest belief it does the pro-life cause a huge amount of harm to talk about those people as "murderers". First, it isn't true -- murder requires that one understands and intends what is done, and, second, because we cannot judge their consciences, it is unjust of us to try to do so.I wish Grant would ban such name-calling from this blog.

Given their honest belief it does the pro-life cause a huge amount of harm to talk about those people as murderers. First, it isnt true murder requires that one understands and intends what is done, and, second, because we cannot judge their consciences, it is unjust of us to try to do so.I wish Grant would ban such name-calling from this blog.

Interesting distinction, Ann. What about people who kill grown people they're convinced are less than human? What about people who give orders to kill but don't themselves do the killing?

Definition of murder from Websters: the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.malice aforethought from Wikipedia:All that was required for malice aforethought to exist is that the perpetrator act with one of the four states of mind that constitutes "malice."The four states of mind recognized as constituting "malice" are:Intent to kill,Intent to inflict grievous bodily harm short of death,Reckless indifference to an unjustifiably high risk to human life (sometimes described as an "abandoned and malignant heart"), orIntent to commit a dangerous felony (the "felony-murder" doctrine).Since abortion is legal, its technically not murder. There may be some doubt about understanding, but there is none about the intent.

"What about people who kill grown people theyre convinced are less than human? What about people who give orders to kill but dont themselves do the killing?"David S. --If the first question refers to Eichmann, then, no, he was not a murderer because he didn't intend to kill any persons, he thought he was killing only non-persons. This means, of course, that he was mad, but not guilty of murder. (No, I don't know what his thoughts really were any more than you do.)At to giving "orders to kill", I have to ask; are you talking about orders to kill persons? I so, then the person who gives the orders is intending the end, and if he knows they are persons, then, yes, he is a murderer.We don't like to think of Eichman as perhaps in Heaven, what he did was so monstrous; But God's forgiveness is also infinite. And lucky for all of us.

Ann, I think you are being way to relativistic and individualistic. Eichmann was killing people in my eyes. That makes him a murderer also in my eyes. We cant construct a moral society based solely on how individuals judge their own actions; that is anarchy. Besides, my experience with humanity is that we can always construct a seemingly rational basis to justify any action we want to undertake. How God judges Eichmann is between those two; they have much more information than any of the rest of us do. But we should be bound to make choices and judgements on the information we have. And that information makes Eichmann a murderer.

Bruce --The Church teaches clearly that to sin one must have the individual, personal, non-relativistic intention to do the deed or avoid doing what ought to be done.NOTE WELL: no intention, no sin. Eichmann said he thought the Jews were "vermin", that is, non-human beings. So IF he was speaking the truth about that, then he wasn't a murderer as the Church (and some laws) describe "murder". (Check out the common law notion of "with malice aforethought.) It makes no difference how you or I *feel* about somebody else's intentions and deeds. Subjectively, it's his/her intention that establish culpability. And don't tell me I'm being relativistic or individualistic by saying something about the killer's innermost thoughts and choices. The Church has never denied the reality of the subjectivity of individuals. On the contrary (with the possible exception of a pope or two) the Church has been the strongest upholder of the reality of the intellect and will and their relevance in moral theory.

I believe Guibilini and Minerva have unwittingly performed a service: Their ethical and intellectual defense of so-called after-birth abortion is not very different from arguments mustered in support of pre-birth abortion. So if one finds their defense of after-birth abortion repugnant, intellectual and moral consistency demands find arguments supporting pre-birth abortion no less repugant. Read more from a lay Christian who was written for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among other major publications:

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