Shopping Cart


The Abomination of Post-Birth Abortion

Wednesday, 25 April 2012  | Scott Buchanan

There are certain moments when I am reminded that all is not well with our culture. One such moment occurred recently. As is well known, an academic paper argued for what the authors termed “post-birth abortions” – that is, infanticide. Two ethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva (hereafter, G & M), attempted to philosophically legitimise the killing of infants if they became an “unbearable burden” (the authors’ words) to their families. Their arguments were published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (“After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, 23 February, 2012), a mainstream intellectual forum. The essay’s appearance forces us to grapple with both individual ethical decrepitude, and the present nature of a culture that has enabled such views to be seriously aired. Although leaning on Leon Kass’ notion of “the wisdom of repugnance” is tempting, an unarticulated sense of moral outrage is, I believe, inadequate. No view, regardless of how demonstrably evil it appears, should be espoused with impunity. A cogent reply, exposing philosophical fallacies and academic depravity, is imperative.

Our authors rest their argument on the claim that a child just born is on the same moral plane as a foetus, largely because neither can be called persons. G & M ground this assertion in a certain conception of personhood – namely, that one first has to have the ability to formulate aims and appreciate life. Only then can one be called a person and have a moral right to the life they possess. However, G & M unconsciously reveal a certain confusion regarding their view of the infant. On the one hand, they are compelled to employ the word “person” when speaking of a newborn, even though they consider its personhood morally irrelevant. On the other hand, they make a startling admission, claiming that if they had been killed as newborns, no harm would have been done. And why? Because there would have been ”no one” in existence who could have been harmed. Grudgingly using the language of personhood to describe a newborn, whilst simultaneously denying the existence of a subject (in absolutist terms), represents deeply tortuous reasoning. 

The authors’ claims touch – briefly – on a fundamental issue that forces them into such confusion regarding the newborn’s moral status. Whilst denying it the status of personhood, our ethicists admit that it’s hard to determine exactly when a human baby becomes a person. That’s precisely correct. Personhood is not a static concept, and it would appear to be impossible for an external observer to definitively state when an individual “becomes” a person. No matter: our enlightened pair skates over this detail towards a confident affirmation of the newborn’s non-personhood. Their apparent insouciance in the face of life-and-death issues is shocking. They largely ignore the crux of the debate – namely, the apparent moment someone enters the realm of personhood. If it is so difficult “to determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’”, is it wise to make such bold assertions about its (lack of) moral rights? It appears that G & M have condemned their argument with their own hands.

This is the heart of the matter, for G & M – perhaps unwittingly – have given us a glimpse of the basic philosophical problem: just when does a human subject attain personhood? Of what does personhood consist? Our ethicists argue that one becomes a person upon acquiring appreciation for life and the ability to formulate aims. Personhood as a concept and personhood as an epochal stage of human development are, for our authors, indissolubly linked. But again, I would argue they are working with a deficient definition. Implicit in their argument that newborns are non-persons is the idea that one has to have actualised all the attributes of personhood in order to possess the rights thereof. Yet this ignores the unfolding nature of the concept. Personhood is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. It doesn’t become apparent at one moment in time, fully formed. From conception, a person is a cascading genesis of human development. A newborn is a potential person, containing within itself the seeds of its own individuality. G & M explicitly eschew the notion of “potential personhood”. But why should their static, actualised version trump a philosophical model that seems to accord better with “facts on the ground”? A newborn may not have highly developed goals, or a sophisticated appreciation of the value of life. But the capacity for developing those goals, and appreciating life is intrinsic to it. It is not something imposed, externally, but resides within the individual, emerging, gradually, throughout an individual’s life course. G & M concede the moment of personhood is hard to determine. And so it is, if one adopts the narrow, actualised conception upon which our ethicists rely.

In suggesting that a newborn is not harmed if deprived of life because it does not count as a person, our authors also fail to appreciate the intimate connection between the post-natal infant and the more developed individual. They ignore the fact that the two are inextricably linked—if I were not an infant, for example, I would not be here now. That much is absurdly obvious, but the value G & M ascribe to existing persons is partly based on qualities that were already present, though not yet actualised, in the infant. Again, they may appeal to the non-actualisation of qualities as a way of arguing their case. I would argue, however, that there is something decidedly curious about arguing for the value of so-called “actualised” persons, over-against newborns, when the two are developmentally inseparable. Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith, writing of the unborn (though apposite here, too), states that they are “actively disposed to develop into a mature version of [themselves], though never ceasing to be the same being”. Despite the many and varied changes a person undergoes throughout her life and the unfolding nature of existential reflection she might experience, she is still bound to her earlier, infant self. Thus, there is nothing odd, for example, about referring to myself at the age of two weeks as “me” or “I”. Claiming no harm is done to a newborn if it is deprived of life, inadvertently devalues and relativises the more mature life that grows organically from it.

Even if G & M’s definition of personhood were accurate, how do they know that newborns fail to meet the relevant criteria? For instance, how do they know that a post-natal infant has no aims? An individual at this stage of life doesn’t possess the more sophisticated aims one might attribute to someone older. A newborn obviously does not dream to be a professor or an astronaut, to write music or to work with disabled children. Nonetheless, we can say that it most certainly does have aims of a more basic nature. A newborn aims to eat, sleep, experience love, enjoy intimacy and absorb whatever information it can about the external world. One could argue a newborn is actively developing towards the point at which it is able to self-reflect and actualize appreciation for life. These are plainly goals, and though the infant may not be able to articulate them, they deeply challenge the central dimension of G & M’s conception of personhood.

Chillingly, personhood, as defined by our authors, risks sliding down the so-called “slippery slope”. Now, it’s true that many progressives hate the slippery slope argument. And, of course, it’s difficult to argue on the basis of something that hasn’t happened (yet). Still, in addition to representing the latter stages of one slippery slope, G & M’s paper stands at the head of another. It opens up the possibility that not just newborns, but also others who don’t fit their definition of personhood, are theoretically liable to their recommendations. How long does the pre-p78ersonhood stage of human development last, given that pinpointing the moment of personhood is so difficult? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What about those who are profoundly disabled intellectually? Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s? Those in a coma who may never emerge? These categories of individuals evidently fall outside the authors’ philosophical zone of personhood. Can they be deprived of life if they become an “unbearable burden”? This line of reasoning may appear extreme, but once the absolute right to life is removed, then there is no logical limit. Indeed, the authors argue something similar, justifying the notion of post-birth abortions on the current reality of pre-natal abortions. My rhetorical questions simply extend the horrific logic further.

G & M’s paper represents the final stage of a process that has moved, inexorably, to this point. Once the attribution of personhood to the foetus was challenged, it wasn’t long before the boundaries of the concept, along with any accompanying rights, were pushed further out. Moreover, once the objective moral status of the foetus (grounded in the “concrete” distinction between life and non-life, before and after conception) was abandoned, any demarcation between person and non-person became arbitrary. Whilst exposing that arbitrariness, our authors have also offered us a ghastly utilitarian ethic that coldly pits the interests of the family against the needs of society’s most vulnerable members.

More broadly, G & M’s paper represents a particularly extreme example of what happens when a society loses hold of certain perspectives that once underpinned the nobility of human dignity and value. In this case, it is the Judeo-Christian notion of the imago dei that has been lost—or rather, spurned. It is clear that the absolute dignity of life, whether in the womb or just beyond it, has been founded upon the metaphysics of Judeo-Christian thought. It is equally clear that we have lost that mooring, to our own detriment.



Ian Hore-Lacy
May 3, 2012, 6:59AM
An own goal for the pro-abortion lobby? Easily extended to euthanasia.
But the thought which strikes me is the case that is made of non-distinction pre and post-natal, and how this very boundary is in fact a lot earlier in marsupial embryo/ foetal development. So on purely biological basis any boundary drawn much after conception looks rather arbitrary.
Michael Boswell
March 5, 2013, 3:48AM
I must disagree with Ian Hore-Lacy that this is an own goal for the 'pro-abortion' lobby.

This article initially angered me. All I could think of was another heartless rejection of abortion. However, the term ‘post-birth abortion’ ignores what most Christians who favour a woman’s right to access a safe, legal and affordable abortion believe. Nowhere in the literature of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (USA) (http://rcrc.org) does it support such notions. Its Christian ethicist point to Genesis 2:7 and the importance of breath (eg Paul Simmons on page 2 of http://rcrc.org/pdf/RCRC_EdSeries_Personhood.pdf and Dr Roy Bowen Ward on page 2 of http://rcrc.org/pdf/RCRC_EdSeries_Fetus.pdf)

The RCRC grew out of a much more radical organisation, The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. A ‘history’ of the service was written by Arlene Carmen (1939-1994) and Howard Moody (1921-2012) called Abortion Counselling and Social Change in 1974 (available http://judson.org/AbortionCounselling). In the days when abortion was illegal in the United States, these two headed a service of about 2000 clergy across the United States that counselled women about abortion and, if applicable, referred them to a vetted abortionist.

In 1989, Moody was interviewed New York’s Newsweek. He said, “When you get to late term abortions, I have a problem but so does everyone else” (Quoted in Joshua Woolf, Ministers of a Higher Law, 1998, p.114 available at http://judson.org/MinistersofaHigherLaw). He agrees with the contemporary RCRC ethicists on the importance of God giving the first man the gift of breath.

Given the Biblical importance of breath, most, if not all, so called ‘pro-choice’ Christians would disagree with Drs Giubilini and Minerva assumption that “the newborn and foetus are morally equivalent” (see http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/04/12/medethics-2011-100411.full). Because the newborn baby breaths, it is a person and has the moral right to have it life protected.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles