The logic of infanticide

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The Journal for Medical Ethics has caused quite a stir by publishing an article by Giubilini and Minerva which argues for the validity of infanticide (or “after birth abortion” as they try to euphemise it). I actually had a recent discussion on this very issue, and so I thought I’d add my thoughts on the issue (and indeed, why articles like this may actually serve anti-abortion arguments)

The basic drift of the piece is to say that a newborn and a foetus have the same moral status, therefore, if there was sufficient justification to abort the foetus, it would be justified to kill that entity after birth as well.

Their argument, in fact, shares some common ground with many opponents of abortion, who likewise recognise that there is no difference in the moral status of the born and unborn. Of course, where the opponent of abortion will argue that if we shouldn’t kill infants then we shouldn’t kill foetuses, the authors of this article argue that if we can kill foetuses, we can kill newborns. So in that regard the article serves to help underscore the fact that location makes no difference to the nature of the entity involved.

It is a basic fact of biology that a foetus is a living member of the human spieces, that is to say, they’re a human being. Advocates of abortion should, like the writers of this article do, recognise that abortion kills a human being. The question that is up for debate is whether it  is morally justified to do so in certain circumstances.

Well known utilitarian ethicist and advocate of infanticide (in some circumstances), Peter Singer, says roughly the same thing:

The central argument against abortion may be put like this:

It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
A human foetus is an innocent human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human foetus.

Defenders of abortion usually deny the second premiss of this argument. The dispute about abortion then becomes a dispute about whether a foetus is a human being, or, in other words, when a human life begins. Opponents of abortion challenge others to point to any stage in the gradual process of human development that marks a morally significant dividing-line. Unless there is such a line, they say, we must either upgrade the status of the earliest embryo to that of the child, or downgrade the status of the child to that of the foetus; and no one advocates the latter course.

Those who wish to deny the foetus a right to life may be on stronger ground if they challenge the first, rather than the second, premiss of the argument set out above.

Well, now people are advocating the “latter course”. Singer agrees that a foetus is a human being – a member of homo sapiens, but argues that the first premise ought to be challenged by invoking the idea of ‘personhood’ (which he seems to suggest is what most people really mean when they talk about a human being), as Giubilini and Minerva do in their article as well.

The idea is that having recognised that a foetus is in fact a human being, killing that human is justified by arguing that the right to life is granted, not by virtue of being a member of homo sapiens but by virtue of being a person.  Giubilini and Minerva 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. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the 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.

What they haven’t done, however, is give any justification for their definition of personhood, or indeed, why personhood rather than being a human, is the basis of a right to life. After all, historically, being a human being was precisely the basis for inalienable human rights. Indeed, the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has the following clause:

Article 6

1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.

The biggest problem with the concept of ‘personhood’ as presented here is that it’s arbitrary. It’s very easy to say, biologically, that a being is a human being, but on what objective basis do we say that a human being is only a ‘person’ with rights if they have reached a certain stage on the human development spectrum (a stage which is not exactly easy to measure in any case)? Why not some other point on the spectrum? If we can say that a given human being is only a ‘person’ when they gain the ability to self-reflect on their own value, then why not some other ability, such as walking, speaking, or sexual reproduction?

I am very uncomfortable with the idea of one group deciding just which human beings deserve human rights and which humans don’t*. A quick look at not-so-distant history shows us that the last few times we arbitrarily decided that certain human beings weren’t quite persons, things got pretty ugly. It ought to serve as a stark reminder that we should not divorce human rights from being human beings. Either human rights are inalienable, or they’re arbitrary. We can’t have inalienable human rights based on an arbitrary and unjustified add-on concept of personhood.

Giubilini and Minerva are right – there is no difference in the moral status of infants and foetuses, what’s goes for one goes for the other. I just wonder how many people will see that logic point in the opposite direction from where the authors see it.

* The authors also mention how a foetus gains the moral status of a person ‘subjectively’ by the desire of the mother:

“It is true that a particular moral status can be attached to a non-person by virtue of the value an actual person (eg, the mother) attributes to it. However, this ‘subjective’ account of the moral status of a newborn does not debunk our previous argument.”

It doesn’t ‘debunk’ their argument, but it certainly carries with it the same problems that their arbitrary definition of personhood does.

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3 Responses to The logic of infanticide

  1. AndrewFinden says:

    Be sure to also check out Nathan's article on this:

  2. Mike says:

    I agree with your assessment of the argument. It just says
    "If pre-birth abortion is morally permissible in some circumstances, then post-birth abortion is morally permissible in the same circumstances."
    You can then run Modus Tollens or Modus Ponens on this by either plugging in 'It is never permissible to kill an newborn' or 'it is permissible to abort in circumstances xyz'. Really, this argument is running in favor, politically, of those opposed to abortion because of most people's intuitions on infanticide.

    I wish you were right about the arbitrary charge on personhood, but sadly you are not. There is a wide body of literature in philosophy dealing with the question 'what is a person.' And there are some answers that at least need to be engaged and cannot be outright dismissed. It is no more an argument to just assert 'a person is a human being' then to assert 'a person, among other things, must have aims.' They did not address this question further in this article because it is being actively discussed in other areas of philosophy. What we can do, and I am someone trying to do this, is to have christian philosophers engage materialist philosophers within the rules and bounds of academia – that is at conferences and in published journals, and to argue against their position.
    Anyways, just some further thoughts

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