Infanticide – a consistent option of abortion? (PART 2)

Dr Minerva

Now that we took a look at the arguments for abortion in part 1 of this post, I think it would be good to analyse the thought process of the author of the article for justifying after birth abortion in the Medical Ethics Journal.  We will not analyse every statement but rather take a look at the over all premise.  Given that the main author Francesca Minerva  is a medical ethicist, I find it hard to believe we will find much wrong with the article from a consistency perspective.  My fear is that Dr Minerva, is one of the few consistent Pro-Choicers in the world, and just as I tried to show what a consistent position on abortion looks like, so to has Dr Minerva.   The problem is not Dr Minerva or others espousing such things as the killing of infants.  The problem is the visceral response to this argument from Pro Choice Advocates who believe this is wrong.  Those who are for the killing of fetuses are not for (in most cases) killing of infants.  Why?  Dr Minerva’s argument nicely follows from the evidence and it is disingenuous at best to reject her logic given the fact that Pro Choice logic will eventually lead us there regardless.

Severe abnormalities of the fetus and risks for the physical and/or psychological health of the woman are often cited as valid reasons for abortion. Sometimes the two reasons are connected, such as when a woman claims that a disabled child would represent a risk to her mental health. However, having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children,1 regardless of the condition of the fetus. This could happen in the case of a woman who loses her partner after she finds out that she is pregnant and therefore feels she will not be able to take care of the possible child by herself.

A serious philosophical problem arises when the same conditions that would have justified abortion become known after birth. In such cases, we need to assess facts in order to decide whether the same arguments that apply to killing a human fetus can also be consistently applied to killing a newborn human.

The good doctor is right one here.  As I noted in my previous post, location is of no consequence to the argument.  Dr Minerva has noted the same thing.  If we are to be consistent, then those advocating the killing of a fetus should not be booing her but applauding her for her good logic.  Note that Dr Minerva does nothing to discuss the moral aspects of such a position nor does she attack the outcome on society for such claims (at least not yet).  She is simply looking at the arguments used for abortion and taking them out to their logical conclusions.

Although it is reasonable to predict that living with a very severe condition is against the best interest of the newborn, it is hard to find definitive arguments to the effect that life with certain pathologies is not worth living, even when those pathologies would constitute acceptable reasons for abortion. It might be maintained that ‘even allowing for the more optimistic assessments of the potential of Down’s syndrome children, this potential cannot be said to be equal to that of a normal child’.3 But, in fact, people with Down’s syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy.5

Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.

It is important to understand that  Dr Minerva is making a very specific claim here.  She is NOT stating that there seems to be justification for killing an infant based on a medical condition.  She is stating that in many cases children with medical conditions can and do live happy lives. She is actually saying is that using the happiness of the child as a litmus test is not necessary but instead the happiness of the mother is the standard.  If the mother experiences psychological problems due to having a child, then that is all that is needed as justification for killing the baby.  I see two problems with this.  First, why stop at infants?  Why not kill a two year old or a ten year old.  Certainly the older the child becomes the more psychological issues arise in the parents.  I know I’m personally not looking forward to the teenage years.  Secondly, her standard of the well being of the mother is actually no standard at all.  Anyone who has had a child has experience a major change in their lives.  Most changes are for the good, but postpartum depression, sleep deprivation, changes in income, and an over all sense of being out of your element are all parts of having a baby.  Dr Minerva’s standard is an open call to infanticide on demand and thus is not an objective standard at all but a subjective stance that is up to the individual to decide.  Classical abortion is a foreshadow of infanticide as classical abortion advocates use the same arguments as Dr Minerva giving the woman’s right to choose regardless of medical condition or social status.

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.

Though I have been reluctant to use the word “moral” in this article, since Dr Minerva saw fit to bring this word into her argument, I feel it is necessary to give a response.  Dr Minerva uses the concept of the moral status of a fetus.  To be honest, I have no idea what this actually means, but I suspect her definition of morality is not of an objective morality the transcends all people groups.  The classical definition of morals are the type I referenced however, I suspect she is using a set of “society says” morality.  This means that whatever the majority of society feels is moral, then it’s moral.  However, her definition (and the definition of much of society today) is, in fact, not moral at all.  A large majority of society may pay lip-service to this definition of morality, but I have yet to see a single individual live by it.  Take for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.  against the will of the United States, protested the immoral aspects of segregation laws.  Are we to say that MLK was immoral for doing so?  Hitler was acting within the laws of Germany when he exterminated the Jews.  Was this moral?  In fact the perception of classical abortion shifted in the USA in 2009 where 51% of the population believe abortion is wrong (See Gallup Poll).  Is Dr Minerva, willing to now state the abortion is immoral (at least in the USA)?  In reality morals are vastly more complex than Dr Minerva’s definition.  It appears that morals are objective and instilled upon us all.  Though we may argue over the details, when something appears to be wrong, we know it deeply and act in a way adverse to even the laws of the land in these situations.  For instance, we opposed Hitler, and backed MLK because the people knew deep down that killing Jews and oppressing blacks is wrong.

Let me request that you give me the benefit of the doubt with my moral argument.  I am cutting corners and leaving holes because this article is not a treatise on morals but on infanticide.  Given this, I have chosen not to attack every argument regarding morality’s source.  Perhaps in another article we can explore that in more detail.

Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.

We now getting to the crux of the argument and as suspected, the argument is the human non-person argument that I spoke of in Part 1. Dr Minerva is not proving anything in this paragraph but rather making an assertion.  She is assuming that there is a distinction between a human non-person and a human person.  She defines the latter as someone that is able to attribute value to their own life.  She quite boldly puts the fetus and new born in a category actually lower than “non-human animals”.  Of course she does nothing to prove such a claim but instead uses circular reasoning to justify her assertion.  She justifies her argument but giving examples of other types of abortion that she assumes are morally justifiable.  “spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted”.  This is a circular argument given the fact she is attempting to prove that there is a difference between a human person and a human non-person.  She uses one non abortion example to make her claim where she states:

criminals where capital punishment is legal.”

This example does nothing for her case.  Her claim is that condemned prisoners are no longer human persons.  This is, by her own definition false.  Condemned prisoners are able to attribute value to their own existence, so either her definition of a morally justifiable killing is false or there is another morally justifiable reason for killing a condemned person.  The difference is, of course, the concept of innocence.  It is morally justifiable to kill a condemned man, not because they are no longer human but because they are no longer innocent!  She will not bring in the concept of innocence given that the concept will destroy her argument for abortion of any kind given the innocence of the un/new born.  We may want to reconsider this standard for killing prisoners but let me make clear that the reason we kill them is not because of a change in their human status.   Killing prisoners is a form of punishment for wrong doing, not because they are less than human.  She also prove my point regarding her definition of morality.  She ends each example with “where permitted”.  It seems to me she is stating if it’s legal it’s moral.  If that is indeed the case, infanticide is not moral given that it is illegal in most (not all) countries in the world.

The fact is, humans and person are one in the same (see Part 1).  Person-hood is something we receive because of what we are, humans and humans have intrinsic value just because they are human, not because they have reached a certain level of value to humanity.   In addition, Dr Minerva for some arbitrary reason gives protected status to mentally retreaded people but leaves out old people.  I firmly believe this is purposeful.  Dr Minerva is no dummy and certainly she is able to see the logical consequence of her argument.  Old people have far less potential value to society than a new born.  Old people, drain society financially, and produce nothing.  Old people are irrelevant and suck up vital resources.  Given her argument, it should be morally justifiable to kill an old person no matter what their physical status may be.  If an old person is retired, they are worthless (given they don’t have a high enough net-worth to pay taxes) and thus it follows that killing the old is a good logical step.  It in fact makes more sense than killing the un/new born.  Babies become productive at some point in time.  Old people are done being productive and are now a drain.  Unfortunately ideas have consequences and Dr Minerva’s arguments logically lead to genocide of any unproductive human.  Either we leave a subjective standard for person-hood where genocide is the probable outcome or we find a consistent objective standard that protects people with intrinsic value no matter what there level of productivity and identity!

It might be claimed that someone is harmed because she is prevented from becoming a person capable of appreciating her own being alive. Thus, for example, one might say that we would have been harmed if our mothers had chosen to have an abortion while they were pregnant with us7 or if they had killed us as soon as we were born. However, whereas you can benefit someone by bringing her into existence (if her life is worth living), it makes no sense to say that someone is harmed by being prevented from becoming an actual person. The reason is that, by virtue of our definition of the concept of ‘harm’ in the previous section, in order for a harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is in the condition of experiencing that harm.

Though this is yet another attempt to segment people into human person and human non-persons, I want to focus on the concept of harm.  Dr Minerva claims “in order for a harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is in the condition of experiencing that harm.”  She accepts in her argument that a infant or fetus will eventually be able and capable of experiencing harm but is not willing to attribute responsibility to a person causing such harm.  So she is stating that the fetus’ and infant’s inability to understand the hard is, in fact, a temporary state.  Given the temporal state of the fetus’ and infant’s understanding, one should apply this standard to the law regarding anyone not able to “experience hard” no matter how temporary it may be.  It is not absurd to then conclude that a person killed in a coma is no longer a human person, nor the severely drunk, nor the severely mentally ill, nor the deep sleeper.  Anyone, no matter how temporary that status may be, is unable to experience “harm” in that state and therefore they are not harmed by being killed.  This is, of course, absurd but it logically follows from her argument.  To apply ones temporary status of the inability to experience harm as the only rule that must be applied to killing is ridiculous at best.  She is stating that when you are not able to experience harm you cease to be a human person and instead take on a state of nonperson-hood.

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the foetus and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.

Two considerations need to be added.

First, we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible, and we do not think that in fact more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect any abnormality in the child. In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.

Second, we do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion. Abortions at an early stage are the best option, for both psychological and physical reasons. However, if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.

Dr Minerva’s conclusion simply proves my point perfectly.  Note her inability to objectify the number of days where an infant changes from being a human non-person to a human person.  This shows the subjective standard of her claims.  Though I applaud her for seeing the absurdity of allowing abortion in the whom but not out, she fails to see the point that there is, in fact, no difference between killing a ten year old over a 10 day old.  Her arguments for infanticide show the problems with abortion of any kind.  Dr Minerva has simply asserted a concept of nonperson-hood status on a segment of people and justified her assertion by stating that classical abortion is “morally justifiable”.  This is nothing more than circular reasoning.  Given that the moral justification for abortion is the crux of the argument, one cannot look at abortion as the proof of the argument.  By stripping away the location of the baby from her argument she is now mired in a pool of problems where each of her moral justifications for infanticide can quite easily be applied to other people groups.  In order for her to remain consistent she MUST leave open the door for genocide as well.  Given humanities long tradition of genocide, I see no reason to assume that leaving open this moral justification will not be exploited again just as it has been in the past.

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