Is there no moral distinction between killing a newborn baby and aborting a fetus? And should an academic paper that seemingly advocated the killing of newborns have ever been published? Those are the questions at the heart of a controversy that has erupted after the publication of a paper entitled ‘After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?’ in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Two Australian academics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, argued that the moral status of a newborn baby was identical to that of a fetus. Given that most people view abortion as morally acceptable so, they argued, there is no reason not to see infanticide as morally acceptable too, even in ‘cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk’. Indeed, Giubilini and Minerva reject the term ‘infanticide’, preferring to talk of ‘after-birth abortion’.
The paper, which would normally have been read only by a handful of moral philosophers, was picked by newspapers and websites and caused outrage worldwide. ‘Slaughter newborn kids, say academics’, read the headline in one British tabloid. Australian commentators, American chat show hosts and Catholic bishops weighed in, many claiming that infanticide was the logical consequence of the legalization of abortion. The two authors have apparently received death threats.
There is, in fact, little new in Giubilini and Minerva’s argument. Philosophers such as Peter Singer have long championed similar kinds of claims. Humans, Singer suggests, have no intrinsic claim to life. The interests of an individual, including their right to life, depend upon their cognitive abilities. ‘The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’
Since a newborn, unlike an adult, is incapable ‘of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future’, Singer has written, so they do not suffer by being deprived of a life they could never have imagined anyway. ‘Killing a newborn baby is’, in his view, ‘never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living’. Animals, too, who possess greater cognitive abilities than young children have, Singer insists, a greater claim to life than they do. ‘We should not give less consideration to the interests of animals’, he argues, ‘than we give to the similar interests of human beings.’
Many believers, and pro-life activists, horrified by such arguments, see support for both abortion and infanticide as the inevitable consequence of disbelief in God. In fact many, probably most atheists, would reject the argument for infanticide.
The problem with the claims of Giubilini, Minerva and Singer derives not from their atheism but from their utilitarianism – a philosophical outlook that denies that anything has intrinsic moral worth and views morality in terms of maximising overall ‘happiness’, where such happiness is measured in terms such as that of increasing pleasure, decreasing pain or ensuring satisfaction of individuals’ preferences. It is a theory that is often logical in some abstract way, but is rarely rational within the framework of actually lived human lives.
Humans are moral beings because we live within a web of reciprocal rights and obligations created by our capacity for rational dialogue. We can distinguish between right and wrong, accept responsibility and apportion blame in a way that no other animal can. This is the non-religious case for human moral specialness.
It is true that newborns, and indeed older children, are incapable of acting as moral agents, or of being held morally accountable for their actions. But children normally grow up to be full members of the moral community. This is important because our humanity derives not from our individual selves, but from our membership of the human collective. Humanity is not invested in a single person, but is a collective label, describing our existence as social beings. We exist only in relation to others, and it is only in relation to others that we make sense of every individual’s humanity. The notion of humanity would become meaningless if we did not extend it to a newborn, just as it would be meaningless if we did not extend it to the severely physically and intellectually disabled, too.
Does not the argument that newborns are part of the moral community of humans, and hence require protection, apply equally to fetuses? Or, to ask the question from the opposite perspective, if we accept that it is permissible to kill a fetus why not, as Giubilini, Minerva and Singer suggest, a newborn too? The irony of this debate is that both Giubilini, Minerva and Singer, and their religious pro-life critics, deny that there exists a moral boundary between the fetus and the newborn, though the two groups reach opposite conclusions from this denial. Both insist that newborns should be treated like fetuses. For Giubilini, Minerva and Singer this means the acceptability of infanticide (or ‘after birth abortion’), for pro-lifers it reveals abortion to be as immoral as infanticide.
I disagree with both sides. Abortion is right, and infanticide is wrong, because there is a moral boundary between the fetus and the newborn.
A cell created by a fusion of egg and sperm is (if we ignore the possibility of cloning) a necessary condition of being a human being. It is not a sufficient condition. A human being is created in the long journey from being a single invisible cell to becoming a self-conscious moral agent. That change does not happen at any one instant, but slowly and over time, so that, almost imperceptibly, a qualitatively different being is created. But while this is a process, and there is no point at which a ‘non-human’ becomes a ‘human’, or a ‘non-person’ becomes a ‘person’, there are moral boundaries that mark qualitative shifts. Birth is one of those boundaries.
A fetus is a physical part of woman’s body. That is why we talk of ‘a woman’s right to choose’. Abortion is not about the killing of another human being but about a woman exercising her right to control her own body. The moral status of a fetus that is wanted, and that the woman sees as an unborn child, is different from the moral status of an unwanted fetus that she wishes to abort. Most societies recognize this in the moral and legal distinctions they draw between the abortion of an unwanted fetus and the killing of a wanted one.
Birth transforms that relationship. An entirely physical attachment becomes primarily, and increasingly, social. A fetus is part of the physical body of a woman. A newborn is part of the moral community of humans. Its moral status no longer depends upon the subjective desires of the woman but derives from its membership of the moral community. In that change lies the moral difference between a fetus and a newborn, and between abortion and infanticide.
There are, in other words, purely secular arguments both for seeing humans as morally special and for seeing birth as marking a moral watershed. One does not have to be religious to recognize the moral specialness of human beings. And one does not have to accept infanticide to defend abortion.
What of the claim that Giubilini and Minerva’s paper should never have been published? That it was the equivalent of advocating mass murder or of endorsing Nazi eugenic policy? Questions of abortion and infanticide, of how one defines a ‘human being’ and a ‘person’, of where one draws the most intimate of moral boundaries, are some of the most difficult issues we face, and ones that often create the greatest emotional anguish. That is precisely why they should be debated openly and robustly, not brushed under the carpet, shouted down with invective or, worse, threats. ‘You can’t say that!’ is not a very useful way of thinking about deeply problematic, and divisive, moral issues.
Yet if the critics are wrong in demanding censorship, the defenders of the infanticide paper have also been reprehensible in their response. Giubilini and Minerva, and many of their defenders, have responded to the avalanche of criticism by suggesting that this was simply an exercise in abstract logic or a ‘thought experiment’. In an open letter written after the storm broke, Giubilini and Minerva apologized ‘for offence caused by our paper’ but insisted that ‘it was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y’ and ‘not a proposal for the law’.
Such an argument may be understandable given the vituperative outrage, but it is also disingenuous. Giubilini and Minerva were certainly not calling for the ‘slaughter of newborn kids’ but neither were they engaging simply in an exercise of abstract logic. Their argument, as we have seen, is part of a long-standing philosophical tradition that has pushed to break down traditional moral boundaries and done so for practical reasons. Peter Singer’s arguments, for instance, have transformed attitudes to animal rights over the past four decades, and helped shape contemporary debates on abortion and euthanasia.
Giubilini and Minerva claim that ‘We did not recommend or suggest anything in the paper about what people should do’. But that is exactly what they did suggest. In the abstract to the paper they sum up their argument as being that ‘what we call “after-birth abortion” (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is, including where the newborn is not disabled’. In the body of the paper, they write that ‘when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.’ And in their conclusions, they observe that while ‘we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible’, nevertheless where ‘post-birth abortion’ is carried out because the child is in some way disabled, ‘we do not think that… more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect a any abnormality in the child’. Where it is carried out for non-medical reasons, that is where the child suffers from no disability but the parents simply want to get rid, ‘we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns’. They also add that ‘we do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion. Abortion at an early stage are the best option.’ In other words, as Norman Geras observes, ‘from the opening abstract to the final conclusions the language used by Giubilini and Minerva is for the most part not at all hypothetical but looks like direct advocacy.’
All this is important for two reasons. First, because if you want to claim the right to free speech, then you must also accept responsibility for what you say. Otherwise free speech becomes a game rather than a political and social necessity. Second, because moral philosophy is not an abstract discipline but plays a vital role intellectually, socially and politically. Moral philosophers, from Peter Singer to Mary Warnock, have played a significant part in shaping the way we think of everything from animal rights to stem cell research. In doing so they have helped shape social policy, too. The disengenuity of the Giubilini and Minerva defence, their pretence that they were only play-acting, does moral philosophy a disservice, diminishing as it does its social significance. Both opponents of infanticide who demand censorship of debate and supporters of Giubilini and Minerva who claim that this was no more than a thought experiment do harm to our intellectual and moral lives.