After-Birth Abortions and Euphemisms

March 1st, 2012

This will sound like a bad joke or a “Modest Proposal”-like satire, but it’s not. In the Journal of Medical Ethics, two Melbourne academics argue that infants are equivalent to fetuses and, when the burden they put on their parent(s) or the government is too high, can be aborted:

Nonetheless, 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 fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.

(Via Sven Wilson.)

Let me walk through what Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva are arguing and their logic. They begin with the contention that newborn infants are morally equivalent to fetuses—that is, they have no right to life—and thus people should be able to kill them (they prefer the term “abortion”) if they place too great a burden on the parent(s) or government which pays for medical care.1 They further make clear that this logic not only applies to infants suffering from debilitating, chronic conditions, but also to healthy infants that should expect a healthy life.

Just let that sink in for a second. They are arguing that parents should be able to murder—sorry, abort—children who they believe impose a burden on them. They suggest that other individuals should decide whether a human being will live or not, based on how convenient their life is to them. They are arguing this because they believe that being human does not also mean having a right to life, and thus the parent(s)—who we know are alive—are prioritized.

But how do they decide when a human has the right to life? They argue that a human becomes a person with a right to life when they have the capability to make “aims” (by which they mean intending on accomplishing something for themselves) because killing them would harm them by depriving them of accomplishing these aims:

Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth. On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion (2).

Let’s unpack their logic a bit, because they did not further explain it (which is disappointing, since this is the crux of their argument). What they seem to be getting at with “aims” is that the person is self-aware and actively directing itself. This “test,” though, is an absurd way of deciding such a basic question of whether a person has a right to life or not. Let’s say there is an adult who lives at home with his parents and never leaves the couch. He has no “aims” besides eating the food his parents provide him and sleeping. While he may be capable of greater aims, functionally, his aims are no different than an infant child’s: to eat and sleep. Remember, Giubilini and Minerva are arguing that killing someone who is capable of making aims is wrong because it would prevent them from accomplishing their aims. Substantively, this adult man and an infant child have the same aims, and thus according to this logic, the parents have the right to kill him, because he poses an undue burden on them.2

Perhaps Giubilini and Minerva would respond that the primary consideration is whether the person is capable of making aims, but there is no doubt that infants—as soon as they are born—are capable of making aims. Their aim is to survive and to eat, and they accomplish those goals by crying until their parent provides them what they want, whether that is food or simply being held. That is, they want to eat, and they pursue a strategy to achieve their aim. Maybe the authors would further respond that aim doesn’t count, because the desire to eat and the strategy they use are instinctual, but that’s a rather poor argument to make: how then do we decide when an individual is in fact making an aim that is purely of their own volition? What is the bright-line which decides that this infant is alive, but that one is not? There is no clear line which divides it. We simply cannot know it with any certainty. And if we cannot know with certainty that an infant is alive, shouldn’t we presume that it is?

There’s nothing inherently different between what Giubilini and Minerva argue and a similar argument used to justify abortion—they simply have extended it to its logical conclusion, which is that, if fetuses are not alive, then there’s no reason that just-born infants are alive, either. I have no doubt, however, that many people who support the right to abortion reacted with horror and disgust while reading this paper, and for good reason: because while life may well start when a person becomes self-aware, we also inherently know that each individual, by their nature as a human being, has a right to life. Their right to life is not a societal construct, something created by everyone else and subject to change. It is a result of their nature as a human being, being capable of self-awareness, and when we deny that, we also deny something fundamental about being human.

What this paper illustrates is that when the point where a human being becomes alive is up for debate, and can be legally defined by law, we enter a time where we can allow the legally-sanctioned murder of many, many people, because we have dehumanized human beings, because we have decided they are not alive, like we are. We can do so while assuring ourselves that we are doing the right thing, the moral thing, while all along we are allowing people to be murdered for the parent’s or society’s convenience.

  1. This logic, by the way, is a primary reason I oppose government involvement in health care. Once government pays for health care, they have a perfectly logical reason for deciding whether a person should live or not. In this case, the writers imply that government should be able to decide whether a baby lives or not because it may place a burden on the government to pay for its care. That’s perfectly logical if we believe infants have no right to life. Other cases include the elderly who suffer from mental debilitation with no chance of recovering, or for drugs which extend the life of people suffering from terminal illnesses or increase their quality of life before death but are also very expensive. []
  2. In fact, it’s easy to argue he poses a greater burden than an infant child, because if an adult man still lives at home and has no intention of supporting himself, the expectation is that burden will continue indefinitely, whereas there is a reasonable expectation for infants that they will become capable adults and support themselves after a certain period of time. []