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.

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  1. The odd thing to me about this paper is that there’s substantial anthropological investigation into infanticide as a cultural practice (see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book Mother Nature, for example) which concludes that infanticide is an adaptive behaviour in humans, but one that abortion replaces. In other words: abortion doesn’t imply the acceptability of infanticide, it removes the need for it (and the word need is pertinent, where maternal survival would be compromised by caring for a child) and so makes it unacceptable. The limit of personhood is necessarily arbitrary, but as you point out, certainly not meaningless.

    • Yes, I was thinking of introducing some of the anthropological data into the essay but thought it would be too much and too confusing. You’re right: there are rational explanations as to why humans have engaged in infanticide and rational arguments as to why they should not now do so.

  2. My point in that New Humanist piece was not that because the authors were engaged in a thought experiment, they did not think that the thought experiment may not have practical ramifications; any more than when Jarvis Thomson discusses being plugged into a sick violinist, she is not making a practical point about abortion. However, a technical paper in a philosophical journal is more akin to a discussion document than one of policy. Hence my point that the authors were not necessarily calling for after-birth abortions, even if they were mooting the possibility. What seems fairly certain is that they were not genuinely advocating the killing of newborns in any circumstances in which their lives would impinge upon the well-being of the mother, as the argument was presented in the popular press. This is the case despite the fact that they discussed such a scenario.

    Generally though, I agree with what you say. Particularly with regards to utilitarianism which is a vile doctrine. However, I’m perfectly comfortable with letting utilitarians present their ideas in public and granting them the premise that they are not necessarily calling for all their conclusions to be put into action.

    • John, many thanks for your response. I agree that Giubilini and Minerva’s paper was, as you say, ‘more akin to a discussion document than one of policy’. Nevertheless, they were making normative claims: not simply what could be the case if X, but what should be the case since Y; even if by ‘should’ they did not mean that they desired a change (at least immediately) in the law. Given this, it seemed to me, as it still does, that their defence was disingenuous. It is one thing to say, ‘It is outrageous for anyone to suggest that we are calling for the slaughter of newborns’. It is quite another to insist that they all were engaged in was a ‘pure exercise of logic’.

      Where I specifically disagreed with you in your original New Humanist post was in the comparison between Giubilini and Minerva’s paper and the various ‘trolley’ experiments. The trolley experiments are indeed classic thought experiments through which to tease out aspects of moral psychology. Giubilini and Minerva are doing something very different in their paper. In discussing, for instance, the term limits of ‘post-birth abortion’, in suggesting who might be best placed practically to define such limits, and in considering the merits of pre- vs post-birth abortions, they are, at the very least, inching towards practical ideas.

  3. Your deprecation of utilitarianism seems unfounded and gratuitous. You are drawing a quintessentially utilitarian distinction between the infant and the fetus: their respective continued existences have very different effects on other human beings. Indeed, as you deny that there is any essential change in the nature of the being across the threshold of birth, changing from fetus to infant, you would seem to rule out any essentialist construction of the rights of pre-sapient human beings.

    As an analogy, the scientific method is sometimes unfairly deprecated because an unnecessarily narrow construction is construed as essential. The scientific method is not, from a philosophical perspective, just (white) men in white lab coats doing replicable experiments with double-blind controls. That’s one way of doing science, to be sure, but from at a broader philosophical level, doing science is just using experiment and observation to (somehow) justify our beliefs about physical, objective reality.

    Similarly, utilitarianism seems unfairly deprecated because of unnecessarily narrow constructions (unfortunately established not only by its opponents but also all too often by its proponents). In its broadest sense, utilitiarianism can be seen as justifying moral beliefs (somehow) by appeal to the well-being of actual human beings. The utilitarian argument is that we are not better off by permitting infanticide in the same way that we are better off by permitting abortion (especially first-term abortion), for precisely the reasons you mention in your post. Any essentialist challenge to utilitarianism in its broadest sense must consist of an argument that some action was still right even though the action (either provably or ex hypothesi) brought no net benefit of any kind to actual humans. If some benefit of any kind were asserted, then the argument would be not about essentialism or utilitarianism, but rather the proper scope of utilitarian analysis.

    • The idea that utilitarianism means simply ‘justifying moral beliefs by appeal to the well-being of actual human beings’ seems to me a very strange definition. Every moral philosophy from virtue ethics to existentialism could then, by your definition, be considered ‘utilitarian’. It is to render the term meaningless.

      • Greg

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Such a definition of utilitarianism could be contrasted with deontology, which according to Wikipedia “is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to a rule or rules”. So, for example, Kant’s categorical imperative is a moral philosophy that wouldn’t be covered by this “expansive” definition of utilitarianism.

        But I think that Larry might be better off using the term consequentialism for what he’s talking about, if for no other reason than to avoid semantic confusions like this one.

      • It is not simply a semantic confusion. Larry’s definition of utilitarianism was as a philosophy ‘justifying moral beliefs (somehow) by appeal to the well-being of actual human beings’. All secular moral philosophies would claim that they do this, as would many religious moral codes. The real debate, as here, is about how one defines ‘well-being’ and who constitute ‘actual human beings’. Many (including myself) who ground their moral beliefs in the ‘well-being of actual human beings’ nevertheless disagree with utilitarians (and more broadly consequentialists) because we disagree with how they define ‘well-being’ and a ‘human being’. It’s worth pointing out that consequentialists themselves disagree on these definitions.

      • I think that Larry and Greg are on the right track. But at the risk of being pedantic, I think we must distinguish between four approaches to moral philosophy (in increasing order of specificity):

        “Consequentialism” means that the morality of an action is judged by only its consequences. (This is to be distinguished from “deontology”, where the morality of an action is judged by adherence to rigid, abstract rules). As Greg points out, Larry is talking about consequentialism. As Larry points out, Kenan’s moral distinction between abortion and infanticide seems to be based on a consequentialist argument (if I understood it correctly).

        “Humanism” is a species of consequentialism where we judge consequences only in terms of their impact on human well-being. (This is to be distinguished from other forms of consequentialism which might take into account, e.g. the consequences for the environment or a culture or for a “community”, considered as a morally relevant entity in itself). Based on some of Kenan’s remarks, he seems to regard himself as a humanist (he writes, “Many (including myself) who ground their moral beliefs in the ‘well-being of actual human beings’…”). However, some of his other remarks make him sound more like a “communitarian”, who is interested in moral consequences at the level of a “community” rather than at the level of individual humans.

        Kenan claimed that “All secular moral philosophies would claim that they do this [i.e. are humanist], as would many religious moral codes.” This is false. Many religious moralities are clearly deontological, not consequentialist, and they are certainly not humanist. (Religions say that certain actions are right or wrong because God said so 4000 years ago, and all that.) Likewise, some secular philosophies are quite explicitly deontological. Greg mentioned Kant’s Categorical Imperative as one. (Kant famously argued that it was wrong to lie, even if the human welfare consequences of telling the truth would be horrible.) Another explicitly deontological moral philosophy is libertarianism, which argues that personal freedom is the only moral value, and explicitly ignores issues of human welfare.

        “Welfarism” is a species of humanism where “human welfare” is defined in only terms of preference satisfaction, happiness, the absence of pain, etc. This is what I believe Kenan is calling “utilitarianism”, and which he rejects (saying “we disagree with how [utilitarians[ define ‘well-being’ and a ‘human being’.”) This is to be distinguished from other forms of humanism, which have a broader conception of human welfare (recognizing the intrinsinic moral value of, e.g. liberty, autonomy, social relatinships, etc.) The term “welfarism” is due to Amartya Sen, who also rejects it in favour of such a richer model.

        Finally, “utilitarianism” is a species of welfarism where moral decisions are made by adding up the happiness/ unhappiness of different people in some arithmetic fashion. This is to be distinguished from other sorts of welfarism, which aggregate human welfare in other ways. (E.g. “Rawlsianism”, which is concerned with the least well-off agents only).

        When most people complain about “utilitarians”, it seems to me they are actually attacking one of these broader categories. Even Peter Singer I don’t think is a “utilitarian” in the strict sense —he is perhaps some sort of “welfarist”.

      • ‘”Humanism” is a species of consequentialism’

        It is not. Some strands of humanism are consequentialist, many are not. There is, of course, considerable debate about how one defines ‘humanism’, and the meaning of the term has changed enormously over the past few centuries. It is nevertheless highly tendentious to suggest that only consequentialists can be humanists.

        ‘Kenan claimed that “All secular moral philosophies would claim that they do this [i.e. are humanist], as would many religious moral codes.” This is false.’

        That is naughty. What I actually wrote was that ‘Larry’s definition of utilitarianism was as a philosophy “justifying moral beliefs (somehow) by appeal to the well-being of actual human beings”. All secular moral philosophies would claim that they do this, as would many religious moral codes.’ ‘This’, in other words, clearly refers not to ‘humanism’ but to the attempt at ‘justifying moral beliefs (somehow) by appeal to the well-being of actual human beings’. All secular philosophies, and many religious ones, claim to do just that. That does not mean that they are right in so claiming – but that is a different debate.

        ‘Many religious moralities are clearly deontological, not consequentialist, and they are certainly not humanist… Likewise, some secular philosophies are quite explicitly deontological.’

        Of course they are. But that is irrelevant to the debate about humanism. The problem is your tendentious definition of humanism as a species of consequentialism. That is what is false.

        ‘Kenan’s moral distinction between abortion and infanticide seems to be based on a consequentialist argument’

        It is not. The reason that it seems to be to you is that you, like many consequentialists, confuse two ideas. The first is the idea that consequences are important in making moral choices. The second is the idea that only consequences are important, and that the consequences that matter (for every act has a myriad consequences, some of which are relevant to a particular moral debate, others not) can be easily be defined by some simple formula that can subsequently be applied irrespective of context. Many moral philosophies accept the first idea. Only consequentialists accept the second. I think that consequences are hugely important in weighing up moral choices. But I reject the claim that it is all that one has to take into account. I reject, too, the claim that we can measure consequences according to some simple, context-free formula. That is why I am not a consequentialist.

      • “Some strands of humanism are consequentialist, many are not…. It is nevertheless highly tendentious to suggest that only consequentialists can be humanists.”

        Fine, I grant you this was a somewhat nonstandard use of the term “humanism”. My fault for making up ad hoc terminology. Perhaps I should have called it “humanist consequentialism”, but that seemed kind of clumsy.

        “That is naughty. ”

        Actually, I don’t think I misrepresented what you said at all. (Modulo our disagreement over the correct use of the term “humanism”. ) You claimed that “All secular moral philosophies would claim that they [justify moral beliefs (somehow) by appeal to the well-being of actual human beings], as would many religious moral codes,” and I pointed out that this is false. It is still false. Religions justify themselves by reference to God’s will, not human welfare. Libertarian justifies itself by reference to freedom, not welfare. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is not about welfare; it is about the idea that any ethical law must be universally applicable (because universalisability is a defining condition of the word “ethics”).

        As for your remarks about consequentialism: I think most serious consequentialists recognize that the consequences for any action are myriad, and can never be fully known or understood. Reality is complicated. But it seems to me a similar criticism can be applied to any ethical system. In fact, deontological systems are generally much more vulnerable to this criticism than consequentialist systems, since deontologies are generally based on a relatively simple system of sweepingly general rules, which tend to be very poor at dealing with the context-sensitivity, complexities, uncertainties, and nuance of real life. So presumably you are not a deontologist, either.

      • Sure, libertarians talk of maximizing individual freedom, Kantians of adhering to universal law, just as some consequentialists talk of maximing pleasure, others of ensuring the satisfaction of preferences. The point is that in each case that is how they define ensuring the ‘well-being of actual human beings’. You happen to define it in a different way (as I do). But that does get away from the fact that, as I said, the real debate is about how one defines ‘well-being’ and ‘actual human beings’.

        It is also true that most consequentialists ‘recognize that the consequences for any action are myriad, and can never be fully known or understood’ but consequentialism is about reducing that complexity into a measure of moral worth that is often abstractly rational but is rarely rational within the framework of actually lived human lives. (The same criticism can, of course, as you point out. be levied at other ethical theories, but we are talking about consequentialism here.)

        To get round this problem that consequentialist theory rarely deals with human lives as they are lived, consequentialists have advocated all manner of workarounds, from JS Mill’s distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures to Richard Brandt’s suggestion that preferences be limited to informed desires that remain informed desires after a course of cognitive therapy. The cumulative impact of such workarounds is to diminish the consequentialism of consequentialist theory. What comes to matter is less the consequences of the action than its intrinsic value.

        Consequentialists have to decide which goods to maximize and why. Which of the different ways of maximizing those goods is to be preferred, and why? How does one define a consequence and why? Why are certain consequences relevant, and others not? How do we define the cut-off point beyond which we no longer consider consequences to be relevant, and why? Does the consequences of my actions upon my family and friends have different weight to the consequences upon people living on the other side of the world, and why? And so on. It is not that consequentialists cannot answer these questions. They clearly can. It is that when they do so, they have to step outside the consequentialist framework, though they rarely acknowledge that. What the history of consequentialism reveals is the difficulty in thinking about moral acts without passing judgment on the intrinsic worth of those acts.

        Consequences are, in my view, immensely important in judging an act. But they cannot be the sole criteria. And in practice they cannot be even for consequentialists.

  4. Richard Young

    Well written and well reasoned. I disgree however with your reasoning regarding the moral boundary between the fetus and newborn.

    Firstly, you explain the long journey from a single invisible cell to being a “self-conscious moral agent”, and that somewhere along that journey, we cross one or more moral boundaries. You suggest that one such boundary is birth. This seems to imply that you agree with any abortion before birth, even in the third trimester.

    The fact that many babies are born prematurely and survive (even before 30 weeks) and that in theory a woman could be delivered by C-section at any time in the last few weeks of pregnancy, makes birth much less of a defined boundary as you suggest.

    It would mean, by your reasoning, that a 34 week old prem baby who has been born but is still in an incubator, is part of the human community, and has a right to life, while a 34 week old unborn baby is still “part of the mother’s body” and has no right to life, and is not part of the human community. This is absurd.

    Most countries that allow abortion seem to differentiate between first term abortions and later abortions. Your argument indicates that they should be treated the same. One could try and argue around viability or survivability of the baby as a possible boundary, but that is also a grey area. As you say, there is no specific developmental point at which a fetus changes from being non-human to human.

    The most obvious point at which a human being starts life, is at conception. This is the only boundary that is easy to define and defend by reason. At this point, although there is a journey of physical growth and development which continues well beyond birth, the unborn human has all the genetic qualities that qualifies them as a member of the human community. Beyond this, there is no specific point that changes a fetus from non-human into human, and certainly most people would agree that birth is also not the point at which a baby becomes human. The only reason people would argue like that, is to justify the convenient practice of terminating unwanted pregnancies by abortion. Prevention is better than cure, but if we failed to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, we need a legal and morally acceptible cure, because otherwise the consequences of that oops are life-changingly huge. So let’s legalise abortion, and reason that a fetus is not a human and has no right to life.

    I also disagree with your statement that an unborn baby is part of the mother’s body. This argument shows a complete lack of biological knowledge. The fetus is genetically different to the mother, is not an organ or a vital part of the mother’s own body, can be removed from the mother’s body without harm to the mother, and is only attached via the umbilical cord and placenta, in order to receive ogygen and nutrients from the mother. A prem baby in an incubator receives oxygen and nutriets from the machines it is attached to, yet we do not consider the baby part of the machine. Conjoined twins are physically attached to each other, yet they are separate individuals and the one does not have the right to kill the other (even though genetically speaking they are much closer than a mother and her baby). This is a basic fallacy of the pro-choice position, that somehow the fetus is part of the mother’s body, and therefore the mother’s choice is the only choice at stake.

    Giubilini and Minerva have highlighted the biggest moral and ethical problem in the abortion debate – which is that there is no difference between killing an unborn baby or a newly born infant. Morally, it is the same thing. I also disagree with Singer’s extreme view that infanticide is therefore also morally acceptible. My own view is obvious from my comments above – that abortion at any stage is morally equivalent to killing a newly born infant; both are wrong.

    • I think Richard’s reply illustrates the difficulty of the essentialist approach to morality. It seems like we must engage in considerable mental contortions to locate an “essential” distinction that conforms to our simpler utilitarian intuitions. Richard is more-or-less correct: the “watersheds” in incipient human development (birth, viability or “quickening”) don’t really correspond to properties of the incipient human in isolation. Furthermore, those same properties, when applied in other circumstances, don’t yield acceptably intuitive results. (Of course, by personal and professional inclination, philosophers seem to enjoy considerable mental contortions, a characteristic possibly less prevalent among non-philosophers.)

      The problem with utilitarianism is, of course, that it doesn’t give us any kind of consistent determinability of moral propositions. Well-being is a completely subjective notion, susceptible to both the widest individual variation as well as social and cultural construction. I believe it is neither possible nor desirable to try to “objectify” utilitarianism. The point of utilitarianism is simply to get us thinking in the right direction: what are the effects, in the broadest terms we can imagine, of some action on the happiness and suffering of beings that can feel happiness or suffering. The watershed events regarding incipient human development are not where the status of the incipient human change, but rather precisely those where the effects on the happiness or suffering on other people happen to change abruptly. Considering the issue from a broad utilitarian perspective makes those watershed events obviously morally relevant.

    • Ethan

      I don’t think conception can be reasonably defended as the “watershed event” that marks the beginning of life. Consider a zygote just after its male and female chromosomes have merged. Compare this to an egg adjacent to a single sperm just prior to reaching the egg. In both cases, the full genetic identity of the potential person is fully determined. It is just a matter of their mechanical rearrangement that leads from single-sperm-adjacent-to-egg to zygote. Richard argues that upon fertilization “the unborn human has all the genetic qualities that qualifies them as a member of the human community”. Why stop there? The genetic qualities of an egg with a single sperm at its doorstep are also fully determined, because the DNA of sperm and egg recombine in only one way. (Note that crossing-over happens at gamete formation, not combination.) Does life begin when a sperm becomes the clear winner of the race to reach the egg?

      Let’s suppose sperm A is the clear winner of the race to the egg, and is on the verge of touching the egg. Sperm B is far behind, but way ahead of C and the rest. B will certainly arrive at the egg, but far too late to beat A to fertilization.

      Since A is the clear winner of the race to the egg, a unique human genome has been selected. What are the moral consequences of imposing a mechanical barrier around sperm A (a microscopic, one-sperm condom) at this time? Imposing a mechanical barrier on A destroys the selected genome, and thus destroys life by Richard’s definition. B will arrive and fertilize the egg instead of A, and a different unique genome (that of a sibling) will develop instead.

      What are the moral consequences of imposing a mechanical barrier to ALL of the sperm BEFORE there is any clear winner, as a conventional condom does? None whatsoever by Richard’s definition, since no uniquely selected genome is destroyed.

      So, by Richard’s definition, blocking A and instead allowing B to develop ammounts to the destruction of life. But blocking A and B and C and …, allowing nothing to develop, is not the destruction of life. Please explain how this is not absurd.

      A related thought experiment:

      My two children are drowning on opposite sides of a large ship. They are not old enough to be reasonably expected to act morally. I have only one child-size life preserver, sufficient to save one child. I am physically incapable of swimming and will certainly drown if I jump in. My choices are:

      1) Pick a child to save,
      2) Let them both drown,
      3) Drown myself and let them both drown.

      It is clear what I should do.

      • Bob

        You are right to point out that defining conception as the watershed moment is nearly as difficult as defining birth as such a moment. However, your analogy breaks down because sperm actually have to chemically burrow through layers of the ovum. When a sperm reaches the layer where it can be considered “inside” the egg, the egg’s membrane changes to prevent other sperm from entering. Thus the egg is already doing what you propose as a problem.

    • steve oberski

      Conception is not as obvious a boundary as claimed.

      One has to consider the case of monozygotic twinning, which occurs after fertilization, which I suspect in your world view (but not mine), although they share the same genetic code, have distinct and separate (and non material) souls. Which I think is the entire basis of your argument and the rest is but post hoc rationalization. It would be fascinating to hear your explanation for the process of soul acquisition and how it interacts with the varied paths that embryological development can take.

      And then of course there are chimeras, who acquire parts from their dizygotic twin (also possible with a monozygotic twin but impossible to detect) or their mother.

      And we also see monozygotic twins who develop differently due to different genes being activated during development and then there is the case where an unfertilized ova clones into 2 identical ova which are then fertilized by different sperm.

      So conception is not as much of a definite boundary as you would imagine.

  5. Richard Young

    Quite correct, Larry, which is why I do not subscribe to utilitarianism as the philosophy on which to base my life and choices.

    I would argue that among the watershed events in discussion, Malik might be correct that birth seems the most obvious watershed event from a utilitarian point of view, that heralds a rather abrupt change to the well-being of other people (not just the infant). Between conception and birth, I do not see any specific watershed event that can be said to represent a sufficient change from a utilitarian point of view so as to change the morality of the choice to abort.

    And if we do look at this from a utilitarian point of view, there are two further arguments that can be made against the case for abortion. The first is that while you do not deprive a conscious being of immediate happiness, or cause perceivable suffering to the fetus by killing it, you are depriving it of the potential joys, happiness and reward of living out his or her human life. No doubt some will argue that you are saving it from a life of despair and suffering, but by such logic many successful and brilliant people who were born into terrible conditions should have rather been aborted. We don’t know what someone will make of their lives, or what potential they might have, or happiness they might enjoy, until you have given them the opportunity at life which they deserve. A well-known and sometimes distorted example is Beethoven, who might have appeared a justifiable case for abortion. Had Beethoven been aborted, not only would he have been robbed of the joy of living, but all the millions of people who have enjoyed his music would have been robbed of that enjoyment (without knowing it, of course).

    I admit, we are back at the mental cortortions again, but that is what utilitarianism does.

    The second is that it is well documented that aborting an unwanted baby is very often a lot more traumatic to the mother than was expected. Many wish later they had never gone through with aborting their pregnancy, and some suffer guilt and pain for a lifetime. So from a utilitarian point of view, the intended happiness the action should have brought, or suffering it should have avoided, is nullified by the unexpected emotional trauma and suffering experienced by the post-abortion mother. Again, one may not know this in advance, but clearly a utilitarian approach to the morality of abortion is a confusing web at best, and a dead end street at worst.

    • Richard:

      Quite correct, Larry, which is why I do not subscribe to utilitarianism as the philosophy on which to base my life and choices.

      Two problems here. First, I don’t know about you, but I base my own life and choices on what’s actually true, not what I want to believe. I want to believe that there really is an objectively determinable morality (one that is, of course, entirely compatible with my subjective preferences), but I am convinced that there is no such thing as an objectively determinable moral system.

      The second problem is that ethical philosophy is not just about one’s own life and choices; it’s about decision-making in a social, political environment. Ethical philosophy is also about what choices we impose on other people’s lives. Until we live in some Randian utopia, the ethical and the political are inexorably linked.

      We need to be very careful, I think, to place our discussion here firmly in the political. We are not talking about how you personally should live your life, we are talking about what choices we want to impose on pregnant women, parents of infants, physicians, and other people.

      Unfortunately, I have to go to work. I will respond to the remainder of your comment when time permits.

    • Richard, I find your arguments unpersuasive. Conception itself is a poor watershed event – because it’s not a single event, but a sequence: fertilisation, implantation, then growth. And though a foetus has the potential to become a full-grown human with all the societal obligations due to it, at this stage its complete dependence on the pregnant woman for survival and its lack of consciousness make it morally different to a human.

      You raise conjoined twins as a comparison, but they are mutually dependant, and so not a good analogue with unwanted pregnancy, in which the pregnant woman sustains a parasitic entity (the foetus) which is liable to harm her – either physically (childbirth is potentially lethal), mentally (you point to the alleged traumatising effects of abortion, but my understanding is that they are insignificant compared to the trauma of having and being made responsible for a unwanted or unsupportable child), or indirectly by impinging on her ability to care for herself as well as the child. The lines of personhood are hazy and moveable, but they rely on two things, I think: when the pregnant woman thinks of herself as a mother to the potential child, or when the foetus is considered to have a reasonable chance of survival ex-utero, and so enters the care of society as a whole (rather than the sole care of the woman carrying the foetus/baby).

      I think the problem with the paper Kenan writes about is that it’s got the relationship between abortion and infanticide ass-backwards. Abortion doesn’t imply the acceptability of infanticide, because if we were culturally happy with infanticide, there would be no need for abortion at all. We would simply continue with the pre-medical methods for dealing with unsupportable children: murder, abandonment and neglect. The existence of abortion implies disgust at infanticide, not acceptance of it.

      • Richard Young

        Sarah, I take your points. Just a couple of thoughts in reply. If complete dependence and lack of consciousness are the defining qualities that make a first trimester fetus morally different to a human, then one would have to argue, as Giubilini and Minerva appear to do, that a newly born infant is not too different, and should also be morally different to a conscious, adult human. At the very least, one may need to work from the view that the progress from being unconscious and dependent to being a conscious and independent human is a gradual process, and there should be a sliding scale of moral significance. This is in fact common (I would say mainstream) thinking among proponents of abortion, although when exactly abortion becomes morally problematic is a matter of some debate, even in the pro-choice camp.

        My point is that within that process, there is no clear watershed event or point in development that heralds a clear moral change, and that the most obvious watershed is not the point of birth, as Malik has argued, but the point of conception (by which I mean fertilization). Because at this point the embryo has 46 chromosomes and is genetically a human, in spite of being unconscious, completely dependent, and as yet unformed.

        Dependence and unconsciousness as criteria of moral significance would then also raise questions about killing the severely mentally disabled, or someone in a coma on life support. For someone like Peter Singer this may be perfectly acceptible – he has written extensively about such examples and how euthanasia and infanticide may be considered in a similar light as abortion.

        Regarding the trauma and suffering involved, I think we all recognise that there are very difficult cases where giving birth to an unwanted baby will indeed bring about much trauma and suffering for the mother as well as the child. However I would point out that since abortion has been legalised, the vast majority of abortions are abortions of convenience, and had the mother chosen to keep the baby there would have been minimal suffering and trauma of the kind that you refer to. Some hardship, yes. Lessons to be learnt, of course. Sacrifice, adjustments and adaptation to this new inconvenient reality of raising an unwanted child, absolutely. But there must be many thousands of successful, happy people walking the earth today who were unwanted pregnancies, and surely very happy today that they were not aborted. Likewise, there are many who were born into poverty, war and dire circumstances, where mom and baby experienced much trauma and suffering, who came through and emerged stronger as adults.

        This is not a strong argument either way, but I made it in the context of the utilitarian point of view, which seeks to avoid suffering and harm, and choose actions that would promote happiness and well-being, of self and others. My point was simply that abortion is not a solution void of trauma and suffering, or which brings happiness. At best, it may bring relief to a mother, but with that possibly a lot of guilt and emotional trauma. And it robs the unborn human of any chance at happiness and a fulfilling life, no matter how unlikely that may seem in the desperate context of the unplanned pregnancy or the mother’s terrible circumstances at the time.

        In closing, and related to the above, I would present another argument why not aborting may be a preferable choice to aborting. A gambit of sorts. There may even be a gambit like this, I don’t know (never studied philosophy, I’m afraid). The argument is that if there is an absolute moral right and wrong on the topic of abortion, which position does more harm if we happen to be wrong? Especially in the context of deciding on legislation regarding abortion. If I opt against abortion but I am wrong, and abortion is morally justified, by not legalising it I have taken the conservative route, and saved many millions of lives that may otherwise have been aborted, while on the downside I have encouraged a number of unsafe, traumatic backstreet abortions, and allowed the birth of some very unfortunate unwanted babies into a life of rejection, suffering, poverty, malnutrition, whatever. If I opt for abortion but I am wrong, and abortion (by some absolute standard which we will not define here) is in fact morally wrong, by legalising it I have become complicit in the taking of millions of unborn human lives, while on the upside I have reduced backstreet abortions and unwanted children being born into lives of suffering. Which is the greater wrong? Of course, we each need to decide that for ourselves.

        As it stands, in most Western countries the more liberal pro-choice option has already won. Abortion is already legal, millions of abortions take place each year, and what many people in the pro-choice camp fail to grasp is that many in the pro-life camp are deeply troubled by this. They view this as legalised genocide, mass slaughter of unborn humans at a scale that dwarfs anything Hitler ever did. Peter Singer rightly points out the hypocrisy of pro-life activists making death threats in order to make their point about not killing unborn babies (it is indeed very ironic), but if you understand how evil abortion is in their eyes, one can perhaps understand the harsh reactions, and the willingness of some to kill in defense of the defenseless. I am not among those, I hasten to add. Please don’t read this as a death threat :-) I am quite happy to keep the debate pleasant and civil.

        Would love to hear from the more knowledgeable philosophers here if there perhaps is such a gambit already related to abortion (similar in a way to Pascal’s gambit on belief in God, I guess).

    • steve oberski

      “it is well documented that aborting an unwanted baby is very often a lot more traumatic to the mother than was expected”

      The existence of “post-abortion syndrome” is not supported by the bulk of the literature.

      This tired old canard is a staple of anti-choice advocates and ranks up there for odiousness with those pictures of late terms abortions that get waved in the faces of women seeking abortions and if there is any trauma associated with the procedure this would qualify as a prime candidate.

      Study after study (John Hopkins, US Surgeon General, UK Department of Health, etc.) have shown that there is no evidence that shows a difference in mental health between women who have had abortions and those who have not.

  6. A minor quibble: you say that “Abortion is right, and infanticide is wrong, because there is a moral boundary between the fetus and the newborn.”

    I don’t think that that this is the best phrasing: it would be very strange to say that abortion is right – rather, the claim is that it is A right, or that it is permissible. To say that it’s right implies that it would be blameable not to abort.

    • Point taken. I should have written ‘Abortion is morally permissible’. But this is a blog, the phrasing sometimes slips… Thanks for pointing it out, though.

  7. SZK

    I must say, I find it somewhat strange that discussions about the permissiveness of abortion focus on the status of the fetus.
    Most people would agree that no person is entitled to use an other person’s body against their will. But banning abortion is just that: giving the fetus rights over someone’s body – rights you would never give to an adult. So: why should a fetus have actually more rights than a newborn?
    Killing a newborn is not wrong because of the newborn’s moral status, but because it is not necessary to kill it to maintain the integrity of the mother. From birth, anyone can care about the kid.
    If the choice is between killing the newborn or leave it in the woods to die, the former may be more humane.
    As to late elective abortions: at this stage, the mother wouldn’t benefit much (most of the pregnancy is already over, and giving birth is not much easier), except in certain medical conditions-when they actually do take out the fetus prematurely.

  8. Good to know I’m not being threatened with death. Smiley face. Thing about Pascal’s wager is, it’s win-win. There is no abortion equivalent. If abortion banned then foetal lives are saved and become live births, but there is a cost: maternal mortality, death through illegal abortions, subsequent neglect of unsupportable children (I wrote a piece for the Guardian with figures on neonate mortality after abortion bans. It’s quite chilling if you fancy looking it up.), harm to siblings of the unsupportable child due to resource scarcity (and parental attention is a finite resource). Those are immense costs by any standard.

    I strongly dislike the term “convenience abortion” because it implies children are a mere inconvenience, rather than a cataclysm. (A marvellous cataclysm in the right circumstances. I know, I have two. But a cataclysmic marvel all the same.) Motherly feelings do not simply arise out of labour pangs. They are cultivated through social support and material security. Withdraw abortion rights, and you might force more babies into existence, but their happiness and security will be contingent on women who have already judged themselves incapable of parenting. Compared to that mess, approving of abortion is a doddle.

  9. Justiniano de Managua

    Hi Kenan,

    Here’s your hoary old “RCC believer friend” back again to throw my two cents into the pot.

    First off, kudos for your statement: “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.”

    As “a believer” I must admit that despite what many people claim and write, the RCChurch has never “infallibly defined” the time when a human person becomes present in a zygote, embryo or fetus. The recently deceased Padre Bernard Haring, during his life known of as the “Prince of Catholic Moralists”, wrote “simply because it is not within the competence of the Church”. So for us “believers” we have THE MOOT QUESTION: Just WHEN IS A HUMAN PERSON PRESENT in the result of human fertilization, fecundation or conception?

    Today the science of bio-ethics considers that only until about 12 weeks after conception is there sufficient substantive density to sustain the presence of a human person. In the jargon of R. Catholic Moralists, there is sufficient acceptance of this thesis to make it a solid probable opinion that can be safely followed in forming moral judgments. Consequently, FOR A BELIEVER THERE IS A 12 WEEK SPAN AFTER FERTILIZATION OR “CONCEPTION” when “very probably” there is HUMAN LIFE PRESENT BUT NOT NECESSARILY A HUMAN PERSON. After 12 weeks of gestation I would consider any “direct abortion” the crime of murder on the same plane as infanticide or “after-birth abortion.”

    This bio-ethic solution to this admittedly thorny question (A 12 WEEK SPAN AFTER FERTILIZATION OR “CONCEPTION” when “very probably” there is HUMAN LIFE PRESENT BUT NOT NECESSARILY A HUMAN PERSON WITH HUMAN RIGHTS) has many concrete applications in real life. Here are a few of the far too common occurrences in the various cultures in our Mestizo America in which I happen to move daily:
    1. An eleven year old girl-child becomes pregnant by her own father, or her step-father, her uncle or her half-brother etc. — the “sin of incest”. After her menses skips a month the mother of the child comes to you and asks for advice. The CERTAIN HUMAN RIGHTS of the girl child to have a proper “childhood” and the health of her “just developing female body ”trump” any rights of the NOT probable human person forced into her “child-womb” since 4 weeks previously.
    2. Forced sexual violations in many of our common situations of military imposition, which is a common practice in today’s battle fields, e.g. Africa, Iraq, etc., etc., etc.
    3 Forced violation by abusive “husbands” under influence of alcohol and drugs, etc. etc.
    4. Common rape where the victim of the abuse has the certain right to resist the onslaught of the criminal during the act and after the act if and when a pregnancy becomes evident.
    5. The many medical cases involving the certain rights of the mother in relation to the only probable rights of the probable human person prior to the 12th week of gestation.
    The list could go on and on. But the point is: in a conflict of rights we must look for the more appropriate way to solve the problem, respecting the human rights of the persons involved.

    Justiniano de Managua el 7 de marzo, 2012

    • Justiniano de Managua:

      It’s certainly pleasant that the Church does not have quite as antediluvian mentality towards abortion than I might otherwise have expected. On the other hand, why should I care one way or another what a bunch of privileged, delusion-peddling parasites in ridiculous hats have to say about morality?

  10. I’m pleased, Richard, that you are taking seriously my exhortation to think along utilitarian lines. It is much easier, I think, to discuss the moral value of potential in consequentialist, utilitarian terms. Potential is, at heart, a present lack (“Potential,” as the saying goes, “means you ain’t worth a damn yet.”); thus it seems difficult and contorted to discuss the moral value of potential in essentialist terms. The happiness and suffering of sapient beings is what matters, the only thing that matters.

    Utilitarianism is, I think, dialectical rather than calculable. It is not about plugging parameters into an equation and getting good or bad out of it. It’s about socially constructing not only matters of law and politics, but about socially constructing what we conceive to constitute suffering and happiness itself. It’s almost (almost!) irrelevant that you have a different conception of well-being than I do; I’m inordinately pleased that you have decided to focus on the well-being of human beings.

    But almost irrelevant is relevant, and I do disagree with you.

    One of the most important utilitarian considerations I make is the value of autonomy. I’m no Libertarian — I have a brain — yet I still very strongly value the concept of autonomy, that coercing someone contrary to their highest will has an extremely strong negative value.

    All the talk about the moral status of infants and fetuses seems largely irrelevant to me. It is enough for me to say there is a true conflict of rights between a fetus and a pregnant woman, and the fetus does not have equal, much less superior, standing as the pregnant woman. The pregnant woman can invoke autonomy; the fetus cannot.

    Because there is no even remotely similar conflict of rights between an infant and anyone else, that an infant does not have the standing as a full person (and even sapient children do not have all the rights of adults) does not seem particularly problematic to me. Because protecting the rights of an infant does not seem to me to present much of a conflict, we have far more room to socially construct prohibitions against infanticide. I cannot see any possible case where not killing an infant would cause me harm or risk of harm.

    To my mind, all the abstract, contingent, uncertain, and risky potential of some hypothetical future person cannot begin to outweigh violating the autonomy of not only an individual pregnant woman but by implication the billions of women who see the coercion of one woman as the coercion of all.

  11. It has been interesting following this debate. The key issue underlying much of the discussion is ‘What does it mean to be human?’ It’s a complex question to which there is no straightforward answer, partly because the answer depends upon the context of the question. The problem with both religious and utilitarian responses, it seems to me, is that they attempt to erode the complexity of both question and answer. There is a further question at the heart of this debate: in defining what it means to be human in a particular way, what are the moral consequences of treating X in a fashion that you would not treat those whom you consider to be fully human? (This is not, by the way, before Larry jumps is, to adopt a utilitarian viewpoint. All moral philosophies ask such questions; what distinguishes utilitarian (and, more broadly, consequentialist) theories is that this is the only question they deem worth asking and the answers they give are constrained by impossibly narrow conceptions of how to define the good.) So, Richard thinks that aborting a fetus has devastating consequences for our moral lives, because a fetus is fully human. Sarah and I think that depriving a woman of autonomy over her body has equally grave consequences, and that defining the fetus as fully human is in reality a means of depriving the woman of her rights. Rather than write a long comment on these issues, I might write a short post instead in the next few days.

    • The problem with both religious and utilitarian responses, it seems to me, is that they attempt to erode the complexity of both question and answer.

      Only a philosopher would see eroding complexity as a problem. ;-)

      It’s important, I think, to distinguish ethical philosophy, and philosophy in general, as part of the humanities, from ethical philosophy as a component of political philosophy underlying the implementation of public policy. Because I’m student of political science, I tend to approach ethical philosophy from the latter position. I’m not indifferent to the influence of philosophy-as-humanities and humanities in general on political philosophy, but to me the influence is considerably more indirect. However, when considering ethical philosophy as a direct component of political philosophy and public policy, we really do need to reduce complexity. We must actually make definite public policy, even while philosophy-as-humanities makes its millennial inquiry into human nature.

      In defining what it means to be human in a particular way, what are the moral consequences of treating X in a fashion that you would not treat those whom you consider to be fully human?

      I don’t think asking this question entails adopting a utilitarian or consequentialist viewpoint. Specifically, a consequentialist is going to ask, I think, what the moral status is of the physical consequences of an act; the phrase “moral consequences” has, I think, a much broader meaning than what a consequentialist such as myself would consider as consequences. You seem to be thinking along the same lines, when you express Richard Young’s position in terms of moral consequences.

      If you think the terms “utilitarianism” or “consequentialism” denote ideas or approaches that are too limiting, I’m happy to use secular humanism as an alternative. The underlying idea is the same: what is of moral consequence is the well-being of sapient beings (i.e. consciously self-aware) and to some extent sentient beings (i.e. capable of feeling at least pleasure and pain, satisfaction and distress, happiness and suffering). Secular humanism still has a strong consequentialist bias simply because we presume that sapient individuals are fully competent to see to their internal happiness (and if not, they are best advised by mental-health professionals, not philosophers); what requires analysis is the effects that individuals’ actions have on each other.

      Also, if you follow up on this discussion with another post, I would be much obliged if you would link to it here.

  12. Charlie

    Here is my reply to the G and M article, which takes the position of the Catholic Church (which, some of the bigoted comments on this thread notwithstanding, is simply based on the ‘natural kind’ position of Thomas and Aristotle) against this conclusion of the article, but seeing many similarities in the reasoning as well. Sure, one may take the gradualist position, but both G and M and the Church agree that there is no reason to think that birth is an important dividing line. (It may be important in determining when and how a mother has a duty to sustain her child, but that is a question that is quite different from the moral status one.)

    I’d be interested in your feedback:

    • Thanks for this. Yes, I saw the response in Practical Ethics. As I wrote in my essay, there is a certain irony in both the religious and utilitarian viewpoints agreeing that there is no moral distinction between the status of the fetus and that of the newborn, though, of course, coming to opposite conclusions from this. My view is that both sides erode the complexity of what it is to be human and how we become human.

  13. Charlie

    I think everyone knows how we become human, Kenan, the argument is about why or how it is morally important. Lots of beings that have a heartbeat, brain, and even independence from their mother are not persons. In your view, why should a newborn infant be considered a person, but a pig not be considered a person?

    • Charlie, I am surprised, if you had read my essay, that you would feel the need to ask this question. I spent much time in the essay explaining why 1. humans are morally special by virtue of living in a unique web of reciprocal rights and obligations created by our capacity for rational dialogue, and by being ble to accept moral responsibility and apportion moral blame in a way that no other animal can; 2. a newborn is distinct from a fetus by virtue of belonging to the moral community of humans; and 3. while it is true that newborns, and indeed older children, are incapable of acting as moral agents, they normally grow up to be full members of the moral community; and this is important because our humanity derives not from our individual selves, but from our membership of the human collective, being a description of our existence as social beings.

      In your Practical Ethics response you raised this issue in relation to the utilitarian claim that cognitive ability should be a measure of moral status. But I explicitly rejected that claim in my essay. Part of the problem in this whole debate is that people simply imagine what someone else is arguing, rather than listening to what they actually say.

      Finally, I don’t think the attempt to short circuit the debate by simply insisting that ‘everyone knows how we become human’ is very useful. As I said, part of the problem in the religious argument is the way it tries to erode the complexity of what it is to be human and of how we become human.

  14. Charlie

    Let me respond to each:

    1. Unless you take the substance view for which I argue, this requires cognitive function which you claim isn’t necessary for personhood. On the basis of this claim, how can you possibly think an infant is a person? If you think the infant is a person, then how is a pig not a person?

    2. How does an infant belong the moral community of humans and a fetus not? Fetuses dance and interact with the outside world all the time. The outside world gives them value and even mourns their death (even in funerals). If you want to describe ‘belonging the moral community of humans’ in a stronger way than this, then you will be forced to exclude the newborn child.

    3. This applies to the fetus as well as the newborn.

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough: everyone (worth engaging in debate at least) understands how we become human in a biological sense.

    It is my view that those who sufficiently understand the complexity of moral status questions while eventually either end up with Peter Singer or John Paul II.

    • In my opinion, an infant belongs to the community of humans in a way that a foetus doesn’t because the foetus is *inside another human’s body*, and the human carrying the foetus is the ultimate arbiter of that foetus’ wellbeing and sufferer from its presence. Until there is some degree of physical separation between the two parts of the child-rearing unit, the foetus/potential child is a subordinate part of that unit rather than a member of society as whole. Consequently, we apply certain protections to the foetus from the point at which ex-utero life is considered possible, whether the foetus is ex-utero or not, because the principal of separate existence is critical to our understanding of human-ness.

    • Charlie

      ‘Everyone (worth engaging in debate at least) understands how we become human in a biological sense’

      Of course, everyone understands that. My point is that to be human is not simply a biological issue. Certainly there are physical, biological, genetic markers and boundaries that define us as human. But one also becomes human through a process by which we are socialized into the human community. The idea that a single, fertilized egg constitutes a ‘person’ seems to me, frankly, absurd. How ironic that you as a theologian should insist on the most reductionist of biological accounts of what it is to be human.

      ‘Unless you take the substance view for which I argue, this requires cognitive function which you claim isn’t necessary for personhood’

      These are not the only possibilities. One can also take a relational view of humanness – that is, view our humanness as deriving from the ensemble of social relations which helps define each individual. As I put it in my essay:

      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.

      These three views of how we are, or become, human – substance, cognitive function, and relational – are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One is physically a member of the species Homo sapiens by virtue of possessing a particular genetic inheritance. One acquires full personhood by virtue of becoming a self-conscious moral agent. But one is human, too, through the relationships that exist between members of that moral community.

      ‘How does an infant belong the moral community of humans and a fetus not?’

      A fetus is physically attached to the mother’s body. Its relationship to the human world is primarily neither social nor moral but through that physical attachment. Hence its moral status derives from the way that the woman views it, as an unborn child or as an unwanted fetus. Insofar as ‘the outside world gives them value’ it normally takes its cue from the woman. If a woman sees the fetus as an unborn child, so usually will her partner, family and friends. If she suffers a miscarriage, she may well grieve in the way she would have for a child, and so probably will those around her. On the other hand, if the woman aborts the fetus, they are unlikely to grieve for it as they might have had they seen it as an unborn child.

      A newborn may be physically helpless but it is not physically attached to another human being, and there is a qualitative change in its relationship to the wider human world. That relationship is now primarily, and increasingly, social and moral.

      Yes, boundaries are often fuzzy. But even fuzzy boundaries often tell us something highly significant about the nature of a change that is taking place.

      • Charlie

        You are essentially arguing that one gets one’s dignity from the social value another gives to it–but I’m assuming this doesn’t apply to, say, girls who are trafficked by others into sex slavery or GTLB folks whose lives are threatened in some countries, right? Now, you you might say this is because these kinds of entities have self-awareness and can form desires and plans of their own, but an human fetus cannot do that and thus her value comes from something outside herself. (Despite the fact that a fetus can and does interact with the outside world beyond her mother–and those besides her mother interact with her.) But if her mother can decide what value her prenatal child has, I see no reason at all for ruling out a mother deciding what value her postnatal child has. As I argue in my commentary, she might not be able to decide how she wants to relate to the child until far after birth: she might find out she is a bad mother, or wants to go back to school, or she discovers that the baby is mentally disabled and has (in her view) a life that isn’t worth living, etc. Discriminating against women who do not happen to be physically attached to their children seems arbitrary and unjust in these circumstances. Indeed, caring for a child is often far more burdensome (and emotional-attachment-producing) on a woman post birth than prebirth.

        My view is not reductionistic, it is simply biological. Human beings are a kind of animal. (This is a very important doctrine in Catholicism–which focuses heavily on embodiment–the fact thatJesus’ BODY was raised is very important, for instance.) We don’t have some short of ‘ghost in the machine’ view of personhood. Your view actually implies a kind of dualism/ensoulment where something magical happens to the human animal later that infuses it with personhood.

        I wonder if, as many do, you are confusing questions about the moral status of the fetus with questions about whether a woman has the duty to sustain a fetus with her body? It is a source of tremendous confusion in this debate.

      • I fear that you are the one who is being confused here. On the one hand, in your debate with Sarah, you argue against the idea of ‘autonomy’ on the grounds that we are social beings, that as you put it ‘“Dependent on the other” is the condition of all human beings’. On the other when I make the same argument with respect to its implications on what it means to be human, you suddenly argue against it by bringing in some bizarre claims about sex slavery and GTLB.

        I find it astonishing that you seem not to be able to distinguish between having a biological definition of what it is to be human and having only a biological definition. I find it equally astonishing that you imagine that having a social view of what it is to be human somehow entails ‘a kind of dualism/ensoulment where something magical happens to the human animal later that infuses it with personhood’. That really is reductionist. I wonder if you think that to talk of the ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘subjective experience’ is equally ‘a kind of dualism’?

        You write that ‘If her mother can decide what value her prenatal child has, I see no reason at all for ruling out a mother deciding what value her postnatal child has’. Of course you can’t – your whole approach is based on denying that distinction. I have explained more than once why such a distinction exists and I am not going to do so yet again.

  15. Charlie

    Hello, Sarah. As someone who is sympathetic to feminism, I’ve always found this a strange argument. Don’t most feminist critique the idea that somehow we are in some kind of “separate” or “independent” existence from each other? A feminist relational anthropology would understand that the mother/fetus relationship as the paradigmatic example of the radical dependency that all of us have on each other. “Dependent on the other” is the condition of all human beings, not just our prenatal children.

    Feminists would also be quick to reject the hierarchical language of “ultimate arbitrator of another’s well-being” and “subordinate part of that unit.” They are also generally slow to use violence to solve problems (especially when directed against vulnerable populations) and tend to examine the social structures underlying “choice” rather than focusing on the (supposedly) voluntary will of a (supposedly) individual agent.

    What do you think? Do I have this wrong?

    • You do have it wrong, perhaps because you’re starting from the position of accepting a foetus’ personhood as a given – which I don’t think it is (it will potentially become a living person, but it is also potentially going to end up miscarried or stillborn). Society is a collection of interdependent units. The foetus is dependent on one other person, not a community, and the existence of the foetus (and carrying it to full term) may well be perilous to the existence of the pregnant woman or her existing dependants. I don’t see the moral argument for putting the needs of a potential-person above those of an existing person, on whom other already-existing people depend.

      From a harm reduction point of view, I don’t see any evidence that restricting legal abortion does more than increase illegal abortions, deaths through complications arising from those illegal abortions, and the birth of unsupportable children who are more likely to experience deprivation and early mortality. So you don’t have to be a feminist to approve of legal abortion, just a moderately humane statistician. But I think the most misguided thing about your comment is the idea that the logical conclusion of feminism is to say “I must sublimate my physical self to another body’s needs, at great expense to myself”, when the starting point of feminism is that women should have control over their own bodies.

  16. Charlie

    That is the starting point of a feminism, in my view anyway, which has already bought into the male-centered focus on the individual as somehow separated from the other. It isn’t a true feminist critique which understandings the individual as totally dependent and as always already in relationship. None of us “have control over our bodies”…our bodies (and even our understanding of our bodies) are constantly being impacted by things and relationships over which we have no control. Control in this regard is a myth of the secular Enlightenment–something that has been critiqued by postmodern feminists for many decades now. A more authentic feminism would start with the flourishing of women (and men) in relationships, not with the male-centered myth of the autonomous individual.

    You originally said that a fetus didn’t count as a person, but an infant did. Can you explain to me what sorts of relationships an infant engages in that a pig does not in which you would consider the former a person but the latter not?

    The issue of regulation of abortion is complex, and I think we would do well to leave it out of the discussion for that reason, but I do think any discussion of it would have to take into consideration Ireland and Poland and the fact that most illegal abortions were/are done by trained physicians.

    • I don’t believe I am buying into the myth of the autonomous individual (please note the emphasis on the welfare of existing dependants of a pregnant woman). I am rejecting the notion that anyone should be impelled to place their body unwillingly in the service of another living thing. An infant differs from a foetus because it’s outside the pregnant woman’s body, and care and responsibility can then be shared with other people. It’s also unlikely to kill the mother, whereas pregnancy and birth are non-trivial causes of mortality.

      I don’t think the fact that illegal abortions are often performed by physicians does much to improve the harm reduction credentials of banning abortion. Trained physicians regularly abuse and blackmail their patients when given the illicit authority of illegality, while the business of finding a sympathetic criminal in the medical profession makes access unfairly inaccessible.

  17. ned

    Kenan, here’s a relevant and succinct post that adds to this conversation:

    “Newborns are not inside the mother’s body, but fetuses are. This is a morally relevant difference … the mere fact that there is no difference in moral status of a child immediately before and immediately after birth does not make ‘after-birth abortion’ of equal moral standing as abortion. When the autonomy argument no longer applies, one strong case for abortion is no longer available. The physical health of the mother is also now independent of the survival of the child, so that reason is no longer available either. Since the presumption should be against killing (even a fetus), there would have to be a good reason to perform an ‘after-birth abortion’, and given the physical independence of the mother from the child, a good enough reason will be difficult to come by.

    Regarding the mental distress that allowing the born child to survive may cause the parents, this problem can be relatively easily dealt with by giving the child up for adoption. This does not, however, apply in the case of a woman who is contemplating having an abortion. If this option is exercised, the woman is going to have to go through the taxing, risky and painful process of pregnancy and birth, and then give the child up for adoption. When an ‘after-birth abortion’ is being contemplated, however, the child is already born, so the problems with putting the child up for adoption are merely practical (e.g. lack of adoption agencies nearby). The prospect of a continued unwanted pregnancy and childbirth are there in the first case but not in the second.”

    In short, to be pro-choice even on late-term abortion does not automatically mean one thinks infanticide is morally permissive. There isn’t even any need to talk about the newborn’s social relationships. The newborn’s existence no longer depends on the mother’s body — that alone is enough of an argument against infanticide for any reason, and there’s no need to muddy the waters with additional philosophizing.

  18. Barb Simmons

    Thank you for an intelligent and thoughtful discussion on these issues, that didn’t descend to name-calling and irrational assertions. just – thank you all for that.

  19. Alex George

    Defining birth as the watershed event that confers personhood on a fetus is problematic, in my view. A fetus is viable long before birth. If physical separation from the mother’s body is the criterion for personhood, shouldn’t viability have an effect on personhood? And if one were to say that the process of natural birth is the significant event, what about fetuses delivered by induced labour or Caesarian section?

    I think the potential personhood of a fetus should confer certain rights upon it independent of its mother. While these rights of potential personhood may not trump those of the mother, perhaps they might justify some restrictions on the right of the mother to abort the pregnancy for any reason

    • I’m not saying that birth ‘confers personhood on a fetus’. It doesn’t. All I’m saying is that a newborn is part of the moral community of humans in a way that a fetus is not. Hence our duties and obligations to a newborn is different from our duties and obligations to a fetus.

  20. sean matthews

    I think it is difficult (actually pretty much impossible) to condemn absolutely any practice that has a documented history in a decent range of different human societies. Exposure of infants is a fairly regularly practice historically – in classical Greek society for one – so you can’t argue against it on any sort of ‘natural law’ (pardon the expression) grounds. You can only argue against it as incongruent with local cultural values.

  21. I have two things to bring to this discussion. I am a women who had an abortion and I have Asperger’s, a type of autism. The relevance of the first point should be obvious, but allow me to explain the second.

    As an autistic, I have to contend with interacting in a world that is structured to how other people sense and perceive things. I sense and perceive things differently. My brain filters, or just as often doesn’t filter, things different than other people’s brain and sometimes that is overwhelming, and I might withdraw, but other times it can lead to seeing things in ways that non-autistics haven’t considered. Consequently, this makes me very aware of how I sense and perceive and how that make me an individual. Moreover how I sense things and my own perceptions are constantly challenged, either by simple day-to-day living or the ongoing debate over whether we with autism can sense and perceive the world around us in a way that the rest of the non-autistic population must respect as different yet equally valid and thus respect us an autonomous persons just like them (i.e. are autistics human? I vote yes.)

    Autism is categorized as a developmental disorder. Many of us with autism challenge that, saying it’s broader than the disorder label and encompasses non-disabling traits that lend to a different way of sensing, perceiving and ultimately being that is simply different from neurotypical persons but not necessarily “disordered”. In short, how we autistics sense and perceive defines us as individuals, and it’s OK.

    As a woman who’s had an abortion and who has talked openly about it in hopes of encouraging more civil and respect discussions, I’ve been called everything from brave to a slut, psychopath and murderer. I had my abortion because I had a rare type of ectopic pregnancy that had a far greater chance of killing me than being carried to term. Before having my abortion, I did ponder whether I was ending the life of a distinct individual separate from myself, but could not, either logically and rationally nor intuitively, as a pregnant women, come to conclusion that the 4-week-old embryo threatening to rupture my uterus was in fact a distinct person. I’ve had may years to think over why I felt and thought this at the time.

    You see, as someone who’s been made very aware of how we sense and perceive as individuals in the world defines us as persons, it’s just doesn’t seem rational to me to consider an embryo or a fetus as a distinct person. Embryos/fetuses cannot sense and perceive world. Yeah, sure, there is evidence of fetuses responding reflexively to sounds, but there doesn’t seem much evidence that any sensory experience within the womb encourages genuine development towards individuality the way that it does once that child emerges from the womb, detaches for good from the umbilical cord and enters this world, where their brains have to begin immediately to make sense of all the things filtering in through their senses. That to me is key–when the baby’s senses trigger that first step toward developing brain pathways that will have all those traits we associate with personhood. No, a newborn may not possess all the traits we associate with personhood YET, but the developmental process that lead to it have begun, with that first sense of another person’s hand, the sensation of breathing air into her lungs, hearing the sound of herown voice in that first baby cry and all those other , completely new sensations that a newborn’s senses are flooded with in those first few minutes after birth. And even in cases like autism, where we do not know how that development will proceed, whether it will result in someone who is profoundly disabled or someone like me who is more different than disabled, that baby is on the road to personhood. And it is that potential of personhood in newborns that we most recognize, that potential that is now very real as the brain has begun taking those first steps on that journey–this is what makes a newborn distinct, morally and biologically, from an embryo or a fetus.

  22. Wander

    The authors of the paper do not posit a moment at which the extinction of the life of the fetus or baby becomes murder as opposed to pre or post-birth abortion. They want to leave this matter to neuroscientists and others who can precisely tell us when personhood is achieved. This is just kicking the can down the road. If we don’t know it’s conception, and we don’t know at any time during fetal development, and we don’t know at birth, why would we suddenly know because some neurologist or psychologist gives us a number that matches some level of brain activity.

    The truth is that there is no point in the continuum that satisfies our desire to separate existence from awareness from personhood.

    Birth is a pragmatic boundary, and one I happen to accept and agree with. But it’s intrinsically no less arbitrary than conception, viability outside the womb and various potentialities of the conscious creature. There’s no magical moment.

  23. Wouldn’t the discussion open up if you expanded the question of moral boundaries to include the species boundary?
    For example, what are the moral limits on killing dogs? If the right to life depends on cognitive abilities, on self-consciousness, then we could kill our pets without pain. Yet the attachments that we form with them are clearly comparable to those we form with our children. It is a difficult decision to euthanise a pet, especially when making a determination of its ‘quality of life’ is difficult. It may be in pain, but it may also still be making sensible contact with you, even trusting you to do the right thing.
    Similarly, many people feel revulsion at the idea of drowning newborn kittens; they haven’t made the same kind of emotional connection with you that a grown animal does, but we still feel that it is wrong to do it.
    These observations of how humans sometimes behave towards other species suggest that we draw our moral boundaries along lines other than just birth.

  24. Abby Cole

    I have enjoyed the debate about when a life begins with respect to the moral acceptability of abortion, however there has been little discussion of the repercussions of banning abortions from a global and societal perspective. What about population control? Consider if pro-lifers had their way and all governments made abortion illegal. It’s one thing to ponder the individual right of a woman over her own body (a position I support); it is another to imagine the collective damage of banning abortion in a world where population growth is projected to expand to 8.9 billion by 2050: a 47% increase.

    That is why for me, if you want to talk utilitarian considerations, advocating banning abortion is absolutely absurd.

  25. All of the arguments presented so far are underpinned by the idea of the existence of a human being as an individual – an entirely arbitrary assumption. It’s equally valid to look at human individuals primarily as subsidiary components of a larger universe. In such a ‘big picture’ view, concepts such as rights and morality become meaningless. Moral choices therefore have no independent existence, and become simply whatever we decide is “right”. The only important moral question then, is “Who decides?”

  26. Asperger

    Personally I do not believe that the paper in question is moral philosophy at all. It is a modern version of Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ where he satirically argued that eating babies of the poor would be morally right. That is – a parody. I think that the paper was intended as exposing the pro-choice arguments by reductio ad absurdum. (I am neither pro-life nor pro-choice, I am rather ‘pro-good-contraception’).

    • It would make sense as a reductio ad absurdum if legalised abortion did lead to infanticide, but there’s evidence that when abortion is available, it’s *protective* against infanticide. (See first link here: It’s not like abortion invented the issue of unsupportable or unwanted children. That’s a perpetual problem of human fertility. Abortion is just the least horrific answer – and one I consequently support.

      As for pro-good-contraception, that is laudable. But until we have a situation where relationships never break down, rape never happens, contraception never fails, jobs are never lost and foetuses are never a danger to the pregnant woman’s health, abortion will remain a necessary legal right.

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