Thursday, 1 March 2012

"After-Birth Abortions"

Newspapers are bubbling today with the scandalous words of an Oxford University academic who has maintained that doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies, simply because they are disabled. Philosopher and medical ethicist Francesca Minerva argues that killing a newborn is little different to aborting it in the womb. The article, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, says newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”.

The Guardian
The Telegraph
The Daily Mail

The sceptic in me doubts that this is anything more than an effort to prove abortion is "wrong" and "evil" by attempting to evoke human emotion through pushing the idea of killing a baby and then comparing it to abortion.

I can understand, in a way, where these academics are coming from because whether you kill the baby before or after it is actually born, the end result is that it doesn't grow up and this makes the two actions similar at a moral level. If you follow this argument to its natural conclusion, a newborn shouldn't necessarily have the right to life just because it’s not in the womb any more - it's essentially exactly the same as it was inside the womb. After all, in Holland these “after birth abortions” are carried out when a baby is disabled (see here). In the wild it's called culling, and most animals do it to their young.

This argument maintains that the right to life should be related to whether the life is sentient or not. Otherwise it is an unthinking mindless object, killing it would be as morally wrong as chopping down a tree.

Trees are not human of course. Should human status evoke special protection? The pro-choice argument maintains that just because you've got the same DNA and genes as a human doesn't mean you should have the right to life. It's when you attain personhood and sentience. This, the Oxford academics are arguing, occurs several months after birth.

However, babies do think. They have feelings and emotions, they're not like trees. If you shout at a baby it get's scared and upset and cries; if you shout at a tree nothing happens. A newborn baby can feel, it can react, it can recognize, it has a functioning brain. It feels pain, it has emotions, it gets upset, it feels comforted by being held and being fed and soothed (see Lewis. M, The Emergence of Human Emotions).

Ultimately the abortion debate can be viewed as a broad spectrum with two polar opposites at either side. On one hand:

A) Biological definition of human so abortion post-fertilization wouldn't be permissible.

And on the other hand:

B) Philosophical definition of person (sentient) which means killing new born could be justified.

Most people opt for the middle ground: fetal viability. These academics are opting for B. What’s your opinion?

As for the disability discrimination issue, the pro after-birth argument maintains that the cost to society of accommodating disabled people outweighs the benefits. World famous physicist/mathematician Stephen Hawkings might have a thing or two to say about that:

Hawking is considered the greatest scientist of the twentieth century after Einstein (who himself had a learning disability and did not speak until age 3).

If you guys want to read the actual paper as opposed to a summarized version, see here.

8 comments: said...

Hi, thanks for sharing. Of course I feel sick having read it.

Going on the part where the ethicist states that 'after-birth abortion' is chosen over 'infanticide' as a term, to highlight the two as comparable in terms of the moral/ethical status of the individual, I'm assuming they are arguing that 'after birth abortion' should/could be permissable in the same way that abortion is.

What a challenging & brave piece of work to carry out. In my eyes, abortion & infanticide/after-birth abortion would be the same. Abortion is (almost) accepted in the mainstream now, so it seems to me.

I'm presuming you're with me on this going by your picture of Stephen Hawkings...

Áine at

s said...

This philosophical argument isn't new...philosophers often debate who has a right to "life" given the finite amount of resources on the planet. I see this article as nothing more than an extension of older arguments related to eugenics. Philosophers and medical ethicists like to rile people up....

Vicki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vicki said...

Abortion and terminating the life of a birthed, disabled infant are not the same. They are miles apart.

There are several moral imperatives relative to abortion I don't see discussed above. The first moral imperative is always to protect the bodily autonomy of the pregnant woman. She can never be compelled to provide life support to another, whether it is an autonomous human or a tree. She has the inalienable right to have him/her removed from her body at any point (I'm not saying I believe she SHOULD cavalierly have a late term abortion; I'm acknowledging that it is her right).

The second moral imperative is to prevent suffering. For example, in cases were the fetus has a congenital abnormality inconsistent with life outside the womb, continuation of the pregnancy is correlated with increased suffering for the fetus and increased maternal risk.

This issues of viability and sentience come into play in consideration of how abortion can occur and whether or not life support is offered to a fetus.
Thankfully, more than 85% of women in the US who seek abortion do so prior to twelve weeks. Therefore, sentience and viability are not at issue (recent studies published in peer reviewed medical journals address the question of when sentience occurs). Viable, sentient fetuses (about 24 wks gestation) born alive have as much right to appropriate life support as anyone. Induced abortion must consider the potential for pain at this point.

The question of whether aborting fetuses where pregnancy is desirable but the fetus has a non-life-threatening disability is relative to both moral imperatives outlined above. First, a woman may determine that she does not care to have her body used in order to produce a disabled infant. This decision could have an economic or psychological basis. It could also be made in consideration of not wanting to put such responsibility on her other children or extended family after her death. Many disabled children have significant health issues that require special care that is chronic and expensive. She may not believe that she can afford to raise such a child. Before you judge, consider that programs that support families in need in the US are being slashed. She may be aware that special needs children placed for adoption languish in the system. She may not want to endure the psychological hell of relinquishment. She may also just determine that such an infant would have a hard life and that it is irresponsible to bring someone into the world so they can experience a life of suffering (not everyone is Stephen Hawking). She has a right to make this decision as her body is the incubator and she is the one who will pay the psychological, physical and, in many cases, the economical costs of her pregnancies.

After birth, the moral imperatives to protect bodily autonomy and to prevent suffering shift solely to the infant. Terminating life support when such fetus after birth when the odds of survival are minimal is a medical decision that is currently made. I have ethical concerns about a move to active euthanasia type practices in addition to termination of life support. However, the discussion about whether or not euthanasia is an ethical/desirable or a creepy practice of eugenics should be kept entirely separate from the discussion about abortion, which involves the use of a woman's body and resources for life support. They are not the same thing.

SRumzis said...

The pragmatism of your argument is the exact reason people believe as you do. They leave emotion at the door. This is fine for business, but when you're talking about who has the right to life or death, the argument inherently turns toward our humanity, and our emotions. Without emotions or morals, why would we keep anything alive that caused an unwanted burden to us, be they young or old? It's a classic example of survival of the fittest, the strong abusing their power to flush out the weak.
"She can never be compelled to provide life support to another, whether it is an autonomous human or a tree. She has the inalienable right to have him/her removed from her body at any point" Why is this right inalienable? So you are saying she has the God-given, irremovable right to destroy her child? Where is the compassion and the humanity? According to the latest study, for every baby born in the US, there are 36 adoptive parents waiting. Why do we automatically have assigned dominion over a life simply due to it's location? It's not a tree... it's a baby. Dogs produce dogs, cats produce cats, etc.. Stop deluding yourself and others.

Erin said...

All your points about a pre-born infant with congenital defects... costs, emotional aspects, a hard life... would those not also apply to a just-born baby discovered at birth to have a severe disability? So why is it not okay to "post-birth abort" that baby if it is okay for the one in utero? None of the reasons you gave would change, even the mother not wanting to "use her body to produce a disabled infant," because either way, she has already produced it.

sarahxsyanide said...

I am not for this but hear me out. Have you ever heard of an anacephlatic child? It's a child born without a brain. It has not capability to feel. Think. Reason. Or even swallow. It is a vegetable. These parents are given the choice to let that child die after birth as its quality of life is non existant.

Secondly. Stephen Hawking was not born the way he is now. He has ALS also know as Lou Gerrings disease. It didn't start to affect him until his 20's. This disease usually kills you within 5 years. Stephen Hawking is the longest living survivor.

Richard Horrocks said...

Just to echo a comment made earlier: Stephen Hawking is a particularly bad example to use to illustrate this, given he lived pretty much unaffected for the first couple of decades of his life.

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