A leading British medical journal this week has published an article calling for the introduction of infanticide for social and medical reasons.
The article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, entitled ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’ states in its abstract: ‘After-birth abortion (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.’
In other words, the authors’ philosophical and logical argument is that, since it is currently permissible to kill babies in the womb because they are only potential persons and do not have full moral status, then we should be able to kill newborn babies for the same reason:
‘…feotuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons’ consequently a law which permits abortion for certain reasons should permit infanticide on the same grounds.
The same logical arguments also apply for disabled newborns: ‘To bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds the fact that a foetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore… when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.’
At one level these demands for infanticide should truly shock and horrify us. How can it possibly ever be justifiable that a newborn baby can be killed if the mother decides she doesn’t want him/her? How can a newborn child have no right to life at all? How can it be possible that a newborn baby is not a human ‘person’ but simply a burden?
Yet on another level these demands should not be such a shock to us. Indeed, we should even agree with the authors on one of their founding points, that the newborn baby and the foetus in the womb are morally equivalent. Thus their argument is utterly logical, that we should treat one the same as the other.
These academics are simply using the same reasoning that is already used to justify abortion pretty much on demand – that human beings at the very beginning of their lives are not fully human persons and so we can end their lives – and are following the logic to where it leads. This simply highlights the difficulty in assuming birth, or some other arbitrary point of development, as the moral boundary instead of the actual beginning of human life, conception.
Even so, the authors do come to a point where they begin to struggle to know where to draw a line, because why stop at ‘after-birth abortion’? At this point they begin to fudge their arguments and say they have to leave such decisions to others: ‘…we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess’.
It is fascinating to see that some commentators have suggested that this might be a clever article written by some anti-abortionists to argue their pro-life position! This is highly unlikely but it does illustrate the effect that taking such an apparently extreme position could have, in that it draws attention to the popular (and legal) position that abortion for social reasons anytime up to 24 weeks, or to birth for disability, is based on exactly the same logic as arguing for infanticide. Those who accept abortion because they believe that an unborn child is not fully human, or does not have an inherent right to life, invariably struggle to give clear reasons why killing a newborn for the same reason is not acceptable. Interestingly, the paper draws attention to the fact that infanticide is now practised in the Netherlands under the Groningen Protocol (2002). That is the logical outcome of abortion.
The authors can see no inherent value in human life: ‘…individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Hence the paper is also a reminder to us that once we discard the fundamental principle of the inherent dignity and value of all humans from conception, anything we decide to do to an embryo or infant becomes ‘ethically permissible’. How far removed this is from belief in the sanctity of all human life and from biblical theology, which places the emphasis on what human beings are by creation, in the stuff of their being, and not on what they can do, on their attributes or functional abilities (John Wyatt: Matters of Life and Death). See also John Wyatt’s useful 2004 Nucleus piece ‘What is a Person?’
Lastly, this article reflects the tendency to manipulate and play with terminology. So here, infanticide becomes ‘after-birth abortion’ and we see the same old play on the distinction between human ‘being’ and human ‘person’, which simply allows people to claim that some human beings are not yet persons thus it is not morally wrong to kill them. Words are powerful tools of persuasion and we need to watch and be aware of how they are being manipulated and used to make something shocking and unacceptable appear more palatable.
The article has generated a great deal of coverage and no doubt will become a key study text for students of philosophy and ethics. Let’s hope that this article does not just shock people at one level, but also challenges them to think through the logic of their own beliefs and on what premise they are grounded. Most of those who accept abortion, if they are honest, should struggle to give clear reasons why killing a newborn for the same reasons is not acceptable.
Read also: CMF Chief Executive Dr Peter Saunders’ blog post on this story Leading bioethicists conclude infanticide no different from abortion
Posted by Philippa Taylor
CMF Head of Public Policy