Scary, Vile, But Logical: On Abortion, Infanticide and Medical Ethics

In the year AD 1000, Iceland converted to Christianity. According to Njal's Saga, when the Althing accepted the conversion, Thorgeir proclaimed:
'Our first principle of law is that all Icelanders shall henceforth be Christian. We shall believe in one God -- Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We shall renounce the worship of idols. We shall no longer expose unwanted children.'
The introduction of Christianity and the end of infanticide went hand-in-hand.

Now, a millennium later, the idea of infanticide sounds like something from ancient history. Well, it did; but no longer. Last week the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article entitled 'After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?' (by Alberto Giubilini and Francesa Minerva). Whilst the authors would prefer to avoid the term infanticide ('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 ... rather than to that of a child.'), that is essentially what they are advocating.

Giubilini and Minerva argue that a newborn, although a human being, is not a 'person'. (Remember the thing about dolphins being 'persons' last week.) One of the two major arguments on which their case rests is that 'The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.'

But Giubilini and Minerva have actually got this half right; the moral status of an infant and a foetus are equivalent. (Where they go wrong is in denying them personhood.) They recognised something true which seems to be largely ignored in practice and built a logical case upon it.

A pro-infanticide argument is disturbing in what it advocates. The idea of it being advanced by serious scholars in a serious (and peer-reviewed) journal is scary. Even the suggestion of infanticide being legalised is vile. Yet, the argument is completely logical. If a newborn baby is the moral equivalent of a foetus why shouldn't they both be treated the same way? Why shouldn't the same rules apply to both?

The logic is fine, but it goes both ways. If infanticide = abortion, then abortion = infanticide. Those who are appalled by the idea of killing newborns have to think very carefully about how they can possibly justify abortion in the face of such logic.

But Giubilini and Minerva only argue in one direction. They only put forward a position in favour of both infanticide and abortion. Their logic only goes in that direction, but that's because there's a flaw in the initial premise. The flaw is in their denying of personhood to unborn and newborn children (the article refers to both as potential children).

To put it in the form of an equation, the article posits that:
newborn = foetus  person, \ no moral problem with abortion/infanticide Q.E.D.
However, changing one aspect of the equation leads to a different conclusion:
newborn = foetus = person, major moral problem with both abortion and infanticide. Q.E.D.
The logic that a newborn is the moral equivalent of a foetus leads to the logical conclusion that abortion and infanticide are indeed morally equivalent. But whether that equivalence is morally positive or morally negative  depends on personhood.

Giubilini and Minerva's article isn't in some obscure journal. It's already been picked up by the media (see this article from The Daily Telegraph). Joe Carter gives a helpful '60 Second Summary' of it at the Gospel Coaltion, and calls the article 'Necessary reading. While this argument isn't new, it is gaining traction in academic bioethics.'

I pray that as people read the Journal of Medical Ethics article, they'll be convinced by the logic of the moral equivalence of newborns and foetuses, but they'll be equally unconvinced of the arguments denying them personhood.

I've just seen this by Will Heaven on the Telegraph blogs - 'After-birth abortion' is logically sound: that's why it will boost the pro-life movement.