I know this is kind of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel stuff, but it’s gotten enough attention that I thought I should break out the logic elephant gun. You’ve probably heard about the article that appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics about infanticide “after-birth abortion” (the writers are apparently seeking to murder the English language as well as babies). A pair of medical ethicists named Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini advocate a return to the ethics of the late Roman Empire:

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.

Such an issue arises, for example, when an abnormality has not been detected during pregnancy or occurs during delivery….One example is the case of Treacher-Collins syndrome (TCS), a condition that affects 1 in every 10 000 births causing facial deformity and related physiological failures, in particular potentially life-threatening respiratory problems.

Read the description at the National Institutes of Health Genetic Home Reference page, and check out the pictures of TCS sufferers. The GHR says that the “potentially life-threatening respiratory problems” are in “severe” cases, not all, and gives a description that suggests that surgery can correct the problem. The authors chose this genetic abnormalityI suspect, not just because it is rare enough to not typically be tested for, but because parents would respond so harshly to an infant who looked like the children in some of the those pictures. So, they are essentially arguing that parents should have the right to kill their children if they are abnormally ugly.

However, such rare and severe pathologies are not the only ones that are likely to remain undetected until delivery; even more common congenital diseases that women are usually tested for could fail to be detected. An examination of 18 European registries reveals that between 2005 and 2009 only the 64% of Down’s syndrome cases were diagnosed through prenatal testing. This percentage indicates that, considering only the European areas under examination, about 1700 infants were born with Down’s syndrome without parents being aware of it before birth. Once these children are born, there is no choice for the parents but to keep the child, which sometimes is exactly what they would not have done if the disease had been diagnosed before birth.

“No choice but to keep the child”? What, they don’t have adoption where these people live? They are apparently unaware that there are many potential parents who would jump at the chance to adopt a Down’s Syndrome child. In any case, anyone who has ever known a victim of Down’s Syndrome knows that they are some of the happiest, warmest, most caring people living. The idea that abortion of them has become routine is sickening, and the idea that you’d kill a new-born just because of Down’s is barbaric.

Euthanasia in infants has been proposed by philosophers for children with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to be not worth living and who are experiencing unbearable suffering.

Minerva and Giubilini, however, plan to go beyond that. Way beyond.

Nonetheless, to bring up such children [as those with Down's Syndrome] 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.

They are right about this. In the West, the fact that a person may have a perfectly wonderful life is of no consequence. If a woman or her family is inconvenienced, she can dispose of an unborn child as she wishes. For years, Christian ethicists and pro-life leaders have made the argument that there is no logical way to prevent infanticide if you permit abortion on demand, and have been derided for using a “slippery slope” argument. Apparently Minerva and Giubilini are more than willing to grease the skids. Oh, and did you catch the reference to “the state”? That makes the logical next step that the government can require abortion in those circumstances where it believes it would be compelled to bear an “unbearable” burden. Think China’s one-child policy. hailed by enlightened statists everywhere, and especially in Western media and academia.

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.

Actually, they choose this language because abortion is acceptable in the West, whereas infanticide is not. Words that come to mind to describe this rhetorical device are “nonsensical,” dishonest” and “Owellian.”

Minerva and Giubilini recognize that the only way this makes sense is if new-born children have no more moral worth than an unborn one. They proceed to that argument next.

The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.

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.

The implications of this are truly staggering. This kind of reasoning can be used to justify the killing of pretty much anyone who does not view life in the same way that the authors do. What is the “basic value” that a person must recognize in order to justify not being killed, and who gets to decide what qualifies as a “basic value”? Is this something a person has to be able to verbalize and explain to the satisfaction of a philosophy professor, an employer, a middle-school teacher, a nanny, or a parent? Is it enough to be able to draw a picture of that value with a crayon? The truth is I’ve known plenty of teen-agers who would fail this test, let alone new-borns.

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.

I’d say that a new-born infant, who if given so much as a moment’s opportunity begins to bond with his or her mother, will be harmed if that relationship is then taken from her. Problem solved.

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. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth. On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.

These are clearly people who don’t have any or know any children. “Aims”? “Plans”? This is the way adults speak. They seem to be suggesting that Tommy had better say, “When I grow up I want to be an asparagus farmer” as soon as possible after he’s born, or else his parents won’t know whether he has any “aims” or “plans” and can dump him in the wood chipper  at their whim. As for children “having expectations” and developing “a minimum level of self-awareness,” this is the kind of vague, pseudo-psychological gobbledygook that the authors want to use to determine whether a human being is worthy of being allowed to live.

There is one other philosophical move Minerva and Giubilini have to make to think they’ve clinched their argument. They have to make the case that killing a new-born does not “harm” it:

If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.

So, let me get this straight: having decided on the basis of ethereal notions like “self-awareness” that new-borns are not “persons” (the authors admit earlier, remember, that they are human beings, but “personhood” is a special category reserved for the “self-aware”), they become “someone who does not exist.” Kind of like your Aunt Mildred once you put her in the nursing home (and yes, I have no doubt that they say Mildred should be killed as well once she no longer measures up to their standards of “personhood”).

I think it interesting that Minerva and Giubilini say that they are “actual persons.” They do so on the basis of a purely arbitrary set of criteria. Why is being “self-aware” so important? Why are “aims” and “plans” so crucial? What if I decided–oh, I don’t know, pick something obvious–that if one weren’t Aryan that one was not a person, and therefore had no right to life? Or, to be a little less realistic, if one decided that the sum total of what one wanted from existence was to play video games and drink Ripple? Would that deprive one of “personhood”?

There’s one more thing that needs mentioning here, and that is that the authors do, in fact, recognize the possibility of adoption, but dismiss it. This needs to be quoted in full:

A possible objection to our argument is that after-birth abortion should be practised just on potential people who could never have a life worth living. Accordingly, healthy and potentially happy people should be given up for adoption if the family cannot raise them up. Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone’s right but possibly increase the happiness of people involved (adopters and adoptee)?

Our reply is the following. We have previously discussed the argument from potentiality, showing that it is not strong enough to outweigh the consideration of the interests of actual people. Indeed, however weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero. On this perspective, the interests of the actual people involved matter, and among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief. It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible’.

We are not suggesting that these are definitive reasons against adoption as a valid alternative to after-birth abortion. Much depends on circumstances and psychological reactions. 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.

So, a child who might well bring joy to someone else, and who may certainly live a full and productive life, can be killed after being born if the birth mother would be saddened to give her little one away.

So, what we have hear is an argument that only Alfred Rosenberg and Peter Singer could love, but it appears in a supposedly reputable international scholarly journal. Because there is decency still left in the world, it provoked a rather strong response, one that the editor of said journal, Julian Savulescu, thought was awfully illiberal. He took to the JME blog yesterday to explain his problem:

This article has elicited personally abusive correspondence to the authors, threatening their lives and personal safety. The Journal has received a string abusive emails for its decision to publish this article. This abuse is typically anonymous.

Death threats and the like are never the right response to an argument one doesn’t like. It’s wrong, and makes one look like a thug. The proper response is to destroy the argument.

He goes on to quote some of the comments from an article about the uproar that was published by The Blaze (one of which calls for the authors “immediate execution,” which is horrendous and absurd, but one of which calls the article “vile,” and another of which says, “The fact that the Journal of Medical Ethics published this outrageous and immoral piece of work is even scarier,” which I think is absolutely correct). He then proceeds:

As Editor of the Journal, I would like to defend its publication. The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defence of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion.

That Singer, Tooley, and Harris can be referred to as “the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world” says far more about the state of philosophy and bioethics than it does about their defenses of infanticide.

The novel contribution of this paper is not an argument in favour of infanticide – the paper repeats the arguments made famous by Tooley and Singer – but rather their application in consideration of maternal and family interests. The paper also draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practised in the Netherlands.

Again, more’s the pity that the Netherlands has withdrawn from the circle of civilized nations at this point. The fact that infanticide is practiced there says nothing more about its legitimacy than does the fact that euthanasia was routinely practiced in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Oh, and the “novel contribution” of this paper is not that it applies arguments in favor of infanticide to considerations of women’s or families’ interests. It’s that it takes the logic of abortion-on-demand and extends it on in such a way as to make clear just how morally loathsome the latter is.

Savulescu then makes the case that the JME doesn’t support substantive positions, but is an open forum for the discussion of all points of view on bioethical subjects. But by picking out bottom-feeding anonymous comments from one article, and treating those as if they are some kind of threat to freedom of speech, he gets to this:

What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.

So arguing in public fora for infanticide doesn’t show the “deep disorder of the modern world.” That is found in the hostile reactions that some people have to those who make those arguments. Okey-dokey.

I know I just used this one last month, but it came back to me unbidden as an apt description of what this stuff represents:

UPDATE: John Harris, mentioned by Savulescu in his blog post, responds to the editor’s post:

I wish to clarify my position on infanticide to correct the impression that infanticide is something I defend or advocate.  There is a big difference between an analysis of the moral symmetry of some abortions and some cases of infanticide on the one hand,  and the defence of infanticide or indeed the advocacy of infanticide on the other.  I have always drawn a clear line between what I call “Green Papers” and “White Papers” in ethics.  Green papers are intellectual discussions of the issues, white papers are policy proposals.  I have never advocated or defended infanticide as a policy proposal.

I would not and do not advocate the legalization of infanticide on the basis of any alleged  ethical parity of infanticide with abortion.

Draw from that what you will.

UPDATE: If you believe that this thinking has no consequences in the real world, or that it’s all just academics blathering, I’d suggest you take a look at Patrick Brennan‘s article at National Review Online in which he discusses then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s opposition to the proposed Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which he voted against in 2001, 2002, and 2003. There are strong suggestions that now-President Obama would agree with at least some of the logic of  Minerva and Giubilini.