After Birth Abortion—Revisited

Facebook provided me with a strange “memory” today — a link to website I had thought I deleted (it seems that I got rid of the URL, but let the message board stick around).   Beside the link, I had summarized on the ancient Facebook post the recent discussions on the board for that week.  One of those discussions was called “Discussing: ‘After Birth Abortion’; ethics.”  Below I reproduce main post of the discussion (with a couple updates, because, for example, I didn’t come across the article “last week”).
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Five years ago I came across a peer reviewed article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? by medical ethicists Drs. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. The abstract of the article reads:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

Read, again, the argument put forth by the authors:

what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

I encourage everyone to read the whole article so that there is no misunderstanding when reading the rest of this post—I am not misrepresenting the authors’ position.

The publishing of the article raised a firestorm of controversy. Some of the arguments for and against the conclusion of the argument have been less than cogent. Some have made, at least, logical sense. But, I am not discussing other arguments. I am trying—here—to discuss the argument actually put forth by the authors (as well as two other possible arguments that have the same conclusion when the first premise is adjusted to meet other definitions of personhood).

Up front, I am not advocating the authors’ conclusion. In fact, I find—for good reason—the conclusion of the argument to be morally reprehensible. However, I find that the authors’ argument is logically valid if—and only if—one accepts their first premise or similar first premises (presented below). I do not accept their first premise. I, and many smarter than me, have argued that if one is to accept certain definitions of personhood that the logical end is to accept infanticide, geriacide, euthanasia, and a whole slew of morally reprehensible acts. A slippery slope, indeed, but a logical slippery slope. That, of course, has been pushed against by advocates of abortion who argue that personhood is defined self-awareness or survivability or externally assigned worth etc… saying that, from an ethical standpoint, advocates of abortion are not arguing such things (like infanticide) and the discussion should be limited to the point at which they assign personhood—whether that is after passing through the birth canal, or at 24 weeks gestation, or at the beginning of the second trimester, etc. at which point self-awareness or survivability or worth is assumed.

Other ethicists have argued otherwise (Peter Singer comes to mind), but the view has never —to my knowledge—been peer reviewed, published, and accepted as a viable argument before now. So, now that the argument for infanticide isn’t fringe — now that the argument for the right to kill a child after birth is peer-reviewed and published in a respected Medical Ethics Journal — let’s discuss this view between the two camps.

The authors’ argument is this (see article for supporting arguments):

  • 1. While both fetuses and newborns are human beings, they cannot be said to be ‘persons‘ in the morally relevant sense of having the capacity to attribute value to their lives.
  • 2. Morally speaking, you cannot harm something that does not have value.
  • 3. ‘Possible persons‘ (in the sense of (1)) cannot be harmed in the sense of (2) because their lives do not yet have value.
  • 4. (3) can be qualified when the ‘potential person‘ is valued by an actual person. Actions effecting this potential person therefore have the possibility of effecting actual persons and causing actual harm.

Conclusion: Until a newborn or fetus becomes a ‘person’ in the morally relevant sense, ending its life can only cause harm insofar as the newborn or fetus is valued by an actual person. Should the persistence of this ‘potential person’ cause more harm to actual persons than ending its life, then ending the life of this ‘potential person’ is morally acceptable.

I find this to be logically sound argument if the first premise is accepted. So, I put these question to advocates for abortion: What do you think of the argument? The conclusion? Why?

If you don’t agree that “valued by an actual person” or, what I call “externally assigned worth” is the proper point by which to assign personhood then consider the adjusted arguments below and interact with the questions above in light of these arguments. (I present these two because they are two other views that I have heard or read often).

Adjusted argument 1:

  • 1. While both fetuses and newborns are human beings, they cannot be said to be ‘persons‘ in the morally relevant sense of having the capacity to be self-aware.
  • 2. Morally speaking, you cannot harm something that is not self-aware.
  • 3. ‘Possible persons‘ (in the sense of (1)) cannot be harmed in the sense of (2) because they are not self-aware.
  • 4. (3) can be qualified when the ‘potential person‘ is self-aware. Actions effecting this potential person therefore have the possibility of effecting actual persons and causing actual harm.

Conclusion: Until a newborn or fetus becomes a ‘person’ in the morally relevant sense, ending its life can only cause harm insofar as the newborn or fetus can be determined to be self-aware. Should the persistence of this ‘potential person’ cause more harm to actual (self-aware) persons than ending its life, then the harm caused to the actual person precedes the potentiality of awareness, therefore ending the life of this ‘potential person’ is morally acceptable.

Adjusted argument 2:

  • 1. While both fetuses and newborns are human beings, they cannot be said to be ‘persons‘ in the morally relevant sense of being viable (survivability outside the womb).
  • 2. Morally speaking, you cannot harm something that is not viable.
  • 3. ‘Possible persons‘ (in the sense of (1)) cannot be harmed in the sense of (2) because they are not yet viable.
  • 4. (3) can be qualified when the ‘potential person‘ is viable. Actions effecting this potential person therefore have the possibility of effecting actual persons and causing actual harm.

Conclusion: Until a newborn or fetus becomes a ‘person’ in the morally relevant sense, ending its life can only cause harm insofar as the newborn or fetus is viable, as determined by quantity and quality of care required for surivability. Should the persistence of this ‘potential person’ cause more harm to actual (determined to be viable) persons than ending its life, then the harm caused to the actual person precedes the potentiality of viability (i.e. – carrying the fetus to term or financial and social hardship of child care), therefore ending the life of this ‘potential person’ is morally acceptable.

Here is where the discussion begins.
1) What are your thoughts on the logic of the argument – as put forth by the ethicists (Argument 1)?

2) What are your thoughts on the logic of the adjusted arguments?

3) Do you find the conclusions (any or all) to be morally reprehensible?  Why or why not?

4) Can you see how these arguments could be extended to the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the socially unacceptable, etc…?  How or how not?

Thanks for reading, please engage.

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