by Liz Klimas Liz Klimas
Two ethicists working with Australian universities argue in the latest online edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics that if abortion of a fetus is allowable, so to should be the termination of a newborn.
Alberto Giubilini with Monash University in Melbourne and Francesca Minerva at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne write that in “circumstances occur[ing] after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”
The two are quick to note that they prefer the term “after-birth abortion” as opposed to “infanticide.” Why? Because it “[emphasizes] 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.” The authors also do not agree with the term euthanasia for this practice as the best interest of the person who would be killed is not necessarily the primary reason his or her life is being terminated. In other words, it may be in the parents’ best interest to terminate the life, not the newborns.
The circumstances, the authors state, where after-birth abortion should be considered acceptable include instances where the newborn would be putting the well-being of the family at risk, even if it had the potential for an “acceptable” life. The authors cite Downs Syndrome as an example, stating that while the quality of life of individuals with Downs is often reported as happy, “such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care.”
This means a newborn whose family (or society) that could be socially, economically or psychologically burdened or damaged by the newborn should have the ability to seek out an after-birth abortion. They state that after-birth abortions are not preferable over early-term abortions of fetuses but should circumstances change with the family or the fetus in the womb, then they advocate that this option should be made available.
The authors go on to state that the moral status of a newborn is equivalent to a fetus in that it cannot be considered a person in the “morally relevant sense.” On this point, the authors write:
Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.
Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.
Giubilini and Minerva believe that being able to understand the value of a different situation, which often depends on mental development, determines personhood. For example, being able to tell the difference between an undesirable situation and a desirable one. They note that fetuses and newborns are “potential persons.” The authors do acknowledge that a mother, who they cite as an example of a true person, can attribute “subjective” moral rights to the fetus or newborn, but they state this is only a projected moral status.
The authors counter the argument that these “potential persons” have the right to reach that potential by stating it is “over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence.”
And what about adoption? Giubilini and Minerva write that, as for the mother putting the child up for adoption, her emotional state should be considered as a trumping right. For instance, if she were to “suffer psychological distress” from giving up her child to someone else — they state that natural mothers can dream their child will return to them — then after-birth abortion should be considered an allowable alternative.
The authors do not tackle the issue of what age an infant would be considered a person.
The National Catholic Register thinks that these authors are right — once you accept their ideas on personhood. The Register states that the argument made by the ethicists is almost pro-life in that it “highlights the absurdity of the pro-abortion argument”:
The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn’t, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand.
First Things, a publication of the The Institute on Religion and Public Life, notes that while this article doesn’t mean the law could — or would — allow after-birth abortions in future medical procedures, arguments such as “the right to dehydrate the persistently unconscious” began in much the same way in bioethics journals.