In his 1729 satirical essay “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift suggests satirically that the impoverished Irish allay their financial burdens by selling their young children as food to rich English gentlemen and ladies. Swift was mocking heartless attitudes toward the poor, but modern-day bioethicists linked to Oxford University have proposed something entirely serious. In an article recently published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the Oxford scientists propose that parents should be allowed to have their newborn children killed because they are “morally irrelevant,” and ending their lives via after-birth abortion is no different than early-term abortion.
Babies are not ‘actual persons,’ authors claim
In the Journal of Medical Ethics article, authors Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva suggest in their article “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” that “newborn babies are not ‘actual persons,’ and as such do not have a ‘moral right to life’.” The bioethicists argue that parents should have the right to have their newborns killed if they are disabled at birth, such as with Down Syndrome. They also argue that in any non-disability scenario where abortion would normally be permitted, after-birth abortion should also be permitted on morally relative grounds. In other words, whether the baby is aborted in the womb or at earliest infancy, the article authors see no morally relevant difference.
Journal editor Dr. Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics, noted that Giubilini and Minerva have received death threats since the article was published. Savulescu claimed the threats were made by “fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society,” an assertion that in itself has not been popularly received.
Lacking ‘moral status’
The authors’ primary argument appears to be that infants do not merit a level of moral status that justify the right to individual life, in much the same way that a human fetus lacks the qualification. Newborns are addressed as “potential persons,” rather than “actual persons.” By way of explanation, the authors state that an actual person is one 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.” In a morally relevant sense, the authors claim that an infant cannot be damaged by preventing her from developing the potential for becoming an actual person.
Raising a child with a severe disability could be unbearable for the family and society as a whole, the authors argue. As such, after-birth abortion would give families another choice, as once such a child is born, they are typically afforded no legal choice other than to attempt to raise the child.
The Telegraph points out that Giubilini and Minerva make no point of arguing that some acts of infanticide are more justifiable than others. Instead, they rest upon the assertion that there is, in their estimation, no moral difference between after-birth and early-term abortion as currently practiced.
Not a new argument
Defending his colleagues’ decision to publish, Savulescu told the Telegraph that arguments in favor of killing newborn babies are not new. What Giubilini and Minerva did was to apply the old argument “in consideration of maternal and family interests,” he said. Savulescu also said that while many will likely disagree with the authors’ position on abortion, the Journal of Medical Ethics’ job is to present “well-reasoned arguments based on widely accepted premises.” If someone were to argue effectively that because of there hypothetically being no moral difference between abortion and killing newborns, then abortion should also be illegal, Savulescu said that the journal would publish that article, as well.
Dr. Trevor Stammers, director of medical ethics at St. Mary’s University College at Twickenham, London, called Giubilini and Minerva’s use of the term after-birth abortion as “verbal manipulation.”
“That is not philosophy. I might refer to abortion henceforth as antenatal infanticide,” Stammers exclaimed.
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