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The Ethics of “After-birth Abortions”, Part 2

[Please click here for part 1, as this just picks up where that left off. Also, another blogger found the article again at a new URL on the same site. I'd searched using their advance search form with no success, but glad that it's back so people can read the whole thing.]

The newborn and the fetus are morally equivalent

The authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, start this section with their definition of personhood.

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.

Thus, to be a person, you have to know you’re a person and be able to value it. The state of not knowing, however, lasts quite a bit beyond newborn status. The authors, again, fail to address this. More than fail to, actually, they refuse to address it, as we shall see.

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.

The equivalence here is somewhat flawed, not the least because they start to blur the moral right to life with the legal right to life. Further, they equate giving up your legal right to life (by, for example, murdering someone else) with a fetus or embryo being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Depending on your morals, all three examples have a moral right to life, it’s just in the last case it was actively forfeited.

Being human, I believe, ascribes you a moral right to life, in and of itself. Having it deprived of you, whether as an embryo being experimented on, a fetus being aborted, or being the victim of a murderer, has moral implications. The legal system has its own concept of “rights” as well, and the murderer (again, actively) gives up his legal right, while the embryo and fetus simply cannot. Therefore, by trying to conflate moral and legal rights, the authors are trying to make their case for their moral definition of personhood by comparing it to legal issues. They are not equivalent.

[I feel it necessary to explain why I, being pro-life, believe that capital punishment is still a valid punishment in certain cases. As noted, there is a great difference between government not ascribing you a legal right to life in the first place (as with an embryo or fetus in our current system of government) and you forfeiting that legal right by actively doing something. Thus, there isn't the equivalence between taking lives in these two cases that critics of pro-lifers assume there is. Further, self-defense is a legitimate cause for killing, both legally and, in many religions including Christianity, morally. I see capital punishment as "societal self-defense" to protect us from the most heinous of criminals and to discourage others from behaving likewise.]

Our point here is that, although it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’, a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X.

And this is where we step across the line into vary murky moral and ethical territory. Indeed, the authors admit, “such a condition depends on the level of her mental development, which in turn determines whether or not she is a ‘person’.” If you can justifiably be killed based on your mental capacity to realize what you’re losing, things don’t look so good for that 3-year-old with autism. If a life was not really taken, this could also become a legal defense for murder; this is not such a stretch. If we’re discussing extending the arguments (and their implications) for abortion to include “after-birth” abortion, we can extend them (and their implications) further to legal defenses, can we not?

Those who are only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure (like perhaps fetuses and certainly newborns) have a right not to be inflicted pain. If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed.

I find a large gap in their logic here. Let us stipulate that those who can experience pain have a right not to have pain inflicted on them, as the authors are saying. Then it follows that those who can experience life have a right not to have it take from them. Now, a fetus and a newborn may not realize that they are experiencing “life” — they may not be that self-aware — but then, do they realize that they are experiencing “pain”? Are they self-aware enough understand what pain actually is? All they know, when in pain, is that they don’t want the current experience, whatever it is. But they are not aware enough of the concept of “pain” to realize what it is, much the same way the experience of the pleasure of life itself is somewhat lost on them. In neither case are they aware of what it is they are experiencing.

Whether or not you understand what you are experiencing has no bearing on whether or not you have a right to or from it. Similarly, whether or not you understand the future prospects for that experience also have no bearing on your rights. The point is, our experience and understanding has nothing at all to do with our rights.

This even works in the legal sense as well. In America, if I don’t know or understand my “Miranda rights”, it doesn’t mean I don’t have them, nor can they be taken away from me.

This is different from animals (or, as the authors put it, “non-human persons”) because animals do not have the same innate moral rights as humans. (This does not mean it does not matter how animals are treated. God has told man to be a good steward of His creation, and few would deny some inner love for animals, particularly the cuter ones, which I believe, too, was put there by God. But they do not have the same moral rights, and thus their use as beasts of burden, for example, are not moral issues.)

Using this flawed definition of “person”, the authors then put it to use to use in their arguments for “after-birth” abortions. Having fouled up their definition, everything else from here on out fails to convince me at all.

The fetus and the newborn are potential persons

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 us 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.

With their definitions of “person” and “harm”, this all makes sense. But those definitions are extremely flawed, and thus so it their conclusion that there is no harm in killing a newborn baby. Most of this section launches from these definitions, so there is no real need to dissect it piece by piece. I will note a this passage.

The alleged right of individuals (such as fetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality, which someone defends, is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

What they argue is that a newborn has no right to life because of, in addition to all the previous arguments, the prevailing economic conditions. I understand that many abortions are done for these reasons, but I don’t consider economics a valid reason to kill a child, before or after birth. Now, I am the first to admit that I’ve never been in as dire a situation, but I hope I would stick with my principles about life over economics when the time came. (Interestingly, people like Sarah Palin, who lived their principles, seem to be castigated more on this than others. Odd, that.)

Whether or not one sticks to one’s principles is, however, not germane to the issue, which is, what moral right to life a newborn may have. And this section of the article does not persuade in the least, because it starts with assumptions that fail its own logic (or fail to be addressed).

Adoption as an alternative to after-birth abortion?

This section is summed up in one sentence from the article.

What we are suggesting is that, if interests of actual people should prevail, then after-birth abortion should be considered a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns for adoption.

That is, if the biological mother might suffer stress or other psychological from letting the baby live, killing it is fine. Not to minimize the psychological health of the mother, but there is a life on the line. The authors and I would not agree on whether the infant’s life is meaningless or meaningful, so we are, again, at a disagreement.

Conclusions

After they restate their position that the criteria for “after-birth” abortions should be the same as those before birth, they point out two considerations that they wish to add.

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.

Here is where they quietly slip out altogether from the question of, having obliterated one fairly bright line, where to draw the new line. I appreciate the fact that they even brought it up, but to say “we do not suggest any threshold” is to play fast and loose with life itself. I go back to that example of a 3-year-old autistic child, and wonder where the line would be drawn. Would there be a line drawn by this society? Living your personal morality is one thing. Inflicting it on a child at the cost of his or her life is another one entirely.

This is where the charge that they are advocating infanticide comes from, in spite of their previous denial. They say that killing a newborn can be justified, they don’t say at what point it wouldn’t be, but then they protest if you call them to account on it. Whatever it is, they insist, they don’t want to label it “infanticide”. Well, call it what you want. The result is that people who want to kill their child legally will figure out a way to do it, once they get a legal imprimatur. One million abortions per year prove it.

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 [sic], 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.

I do not believe that before-birth abortions are a good alternative to adoption, and yet upwards of a million abortions have been done every single year since Roe v Wade. I don’t think that the rate would double if “after-birth” abortions became legal, but what Giubilini and Minerva would release on this society will not at all be curtailed in the least by their personal view of what’s a good alternative. Again, one million abortions per year say otherwise.

This proposal is one that completely ignores essential elements of the history of abortion in this country; namely that, as a political tool used by the Left to supposedly “empower” women, it has become virtually sacrosanct, a sacrament of the Left. It can not be calmly or logically discussed without baseless charges of misogyny or religious fundamentalism getting thrown out and discussion stops before it really starts. The Left simply will not give up the “fundamental right” to abortion-as-birth-control,which, as I’ve noted, the vast majority indeed are. What Giubilini and Minerva would do is simply extend indefinitely the time period in which “abortion” could take place, and expand the culture of death in this country and around the world.

I think they’re proposal is wrong on its face, and when you look at the details, it’s even more wrong. That is why I disagree with it in the strongest terms.

Doug Payton blogs at Considerettes.

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