“After-Birth Abortions”

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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.