The Challenge of “After-Birth Abortion”

Today’s UK Telegraph published an explosive article titled, “Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say”. When I saw the link on the Telegraph web site, I did a double take and then opened the article, certain that I would find that the title was misleading. It was not misleading. The authors of an academic paper published in a respected academic journal on medical ethics, Dr. Alberto Giubilini of the University of Milan (Italy) and Dr. Francesca Minerva of the University of Melbourne (Australia), took the position that abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent.

After a quick search on Google, I found the Journal of Medical Ethics web site, and located both the original paper and a considerable number of blogs discussing it. The abstract to the paper reads as follows:

Abortion 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.

Here are the relevant links:

I don’t need to dwell at length on my opinion of this paper, or that of most other people who oppose abortion-on-demand. For the record, the paper was difficult to read, and the conclusions were an abomination. At the same time, I think that the reasoning in the paper on one critical point is correct. Specifically, there is no clear and convincing reason to put the boundary between a potential and an actual human being at birth. The laws in the United States and many other countries put the boundary at birth because of convenience, convention, and custom, not because of science or reason.

I don’t fault science or reason for failing in this task. Science deals with facts, not values. It has no answer to the question of how to distinguish human life from other life because, as that question is usually asked and meant, the answer requires making a value judgment. Reason can deal with values as well as facts, but only if first given the necessary presuppositions. In this case, it needs a definition of “human” that includes the value placed on being human and how that differs from non-human. The answers that reason provides are meaningful only to those who accept the presuppositions that were used. In other words, people who don’t agree with your definition of “human” also won’t agree with you on when a fetus or an infant becomes a human being.

I could not disagree more with the authors’ conclusions in this paper. However, given their presupposition that there is in fact and science no significant difference between a fetus and an infant, and their belief that abortion-on-demand is morally acceptable, their conclusion that there is no ethical reason to forbid infanticide follows.

In the U.S. most supporters of abortion rights avoid discussing the question of what distinguishes a fetus (potential human) from a human being. I can easily understand why. Most are decent human beings; most could not reconcile their respect for the value of human life with their support for abortion rights if they believed that there was no essential difference between an unborn child and an infant after birth. It is that often-unexamined belief that authors of this paper challenge. In so doing, they throw a monkey wrench into the comfortable consensus among those who support abortion-on-demand that a fetus becomes a human being at birth.

Since I accept the authors’ contention that there is no meaningful scientific distinction between a late-term fetus and a newly born infant, I can oppose their conclusions only because I reject the values that led to those conclusions. I am watching with interest to see what the pro-choice community makes of this paper, and how they might oppose the conclusions it draws.

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