Friday, March 2, 2012

Familiar Road

Back in the 1960s it was argued that a developing child isn't really a person until it reaches viability and that a woman should be permitted to abort up to that point.

In the 70s personhood was deemed to arrive at the moment of birth, and then it was set at the moment at which the entire child is outside the mother's body. Any time before that moment the child could be killed.

Then in the 90s people like philosopher Peter Singer argued that the baby really isn't a person until it can anticipate the future and have wants and desires for the future. All others, in Singer's view, are non-persons.

Now Singer's argument has gone mainstream. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue in the Journal of Medical Ethics that newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”. These academics also argue that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.

The journal’s editor, Julian Savulescu, said the article's authors had received death threats since publishing it and claimed that those who made abusive and threatening posts about the study were “fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society”.

I certainly don't condone death threats, but I have to say that Savulescu has an odd view of what constitutes a "liberal society." A liberal society is one which protects the rights of the weakest of its members. There's nothing liberal (in the classical sense) about seeking to justify infanticide and laying the philosophical groundwork for killing others who don't fit an arbitrary definition of personhood.

The report on all this is written by Stephen Adams for the Telegraph. Adams states that:
In the [Journal] article, entitled After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?, the authors argued that, “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.”

Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”. They explained: “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’.

Giubilini and Minerva define a person as “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.” As such they argued it was “not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense.”
Since there's no significant difference between a newborn and a fetus, and since we feel free to kill a fetus if we so choose, we should also be free to kill a newborn, or so the argument goes.

I happen to think Giubilini and Minerva are right that there's no significant difference between a fetus and a newborn, but quite the opposite conclusion could be, and perhaps should be, drawn from this: Since it's illegal to kill a newborn and since there's no difference between a newborn and a fetus, it should also be illegal to kill a fetus.

Referring to the outraged mail and death threats Savulescu says:
This “debate” has been an example of “witch ethics” - a group of people know who the witch is and seek to burn her. It is one of the most dangerous human tendencies we have. It leads to lynching and genocide. Rather than argue and engage, there is a drive is to silence and, in the extreme, kill, based on their own moral certainty. That is not the sort of society we should live in.
This surely should win some sort of prize for irony. Isn't killing on the basis of their own moral certainty precisely what the authors of the article are advocating? They're presuming to have moral certainty concerning the personhood of the infant and on that basis they're advocating the right to kill it.

If we're going to adopt arbitrary definitions of "persons" perhaps we should define a person as someone who holds to a high view of human life and dignity. We could thereupon declare the authors of "After-birth Abortion" to be non-persons and thus subject to being the recipients themselves of an after-birth abortion. Would the Journal of Medical Ethics publish such an article, do you suppose?

Savulescu defends the writers by declaring that what they propose is not novel among ethicists:
What these young colleagues are spelling out is what would be the inevitable end point of a road that ethical philosophers in the States and Australia have all been treading for a long time and there is certainly nothing new.
He's certainly right about that. This isn't new. Progressives and fascists have been advocating infanticide for almost a century now, but he's wrong about this being the endpoint. History teaches us that it's in fact only the midpoint. Once we accept killing born children there's no place on the slippery slope we can stop. Next it will be mental and physical defectives, then the elderly, then criminals, the indigent, Republicans, anyone who is deemed undesirable.

We've been down this road before. It leads to the holocaust. Apparently people like the folks at the Journal of Medical Ethics don't much care.