Last week an article appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled, somewhat controversially, ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’ Unsurprisingly, this article has provoked a lot of reaction ranging from embracement of liberal philosophical and ethical discourse to abhorrence and anger at apparent immoral detachment from reality.
The basic thrust of the article is that foetuses and newborns are morally equivalent to each other, that they do not have the same moral status as “actual persons” (persons like you and me, capable of planning for the future and by extension suffering should our future plans be thwarted) and the fact they are “potential persons” is morally irrelevant.
On this basis, the authors argue that killing babies is not immoral as babies are not actual people. They term this ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than infanticide, euthanasia or murder. According to the authors, ‘euthanasia’ is not relevant as the killing of the child is not necessarily in the best interest of the child (they advocate the killing of healthy newborns, not just disabled or abnormal newborns) but the “actual persons” involved, be they parents, siblings or society as a whole. “Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.” In effect, a foetus or newborn has no intrinsic rights; rather it merely has rights projected upon it by an “actual person”.
What should we make of this?
We should remember that this is not a policy statement from a political party or government, but a piece of academic research. However, that does not lessen the revulsion one might feel towards the ideas the article discusses.
Also, this is not new ethical and philosophical territory (see for example the views of Peter Singer on this subject) – the kind of reaction this article has provoked is not new either – but it should cause us to reflect and react strongly to oppose such immorality. When the article came to light, many suggested it might be an ill-advised joke or spoof, such is the disbelief such views provoke.
The more I read the article, the more chilling I find the arguments contained therein. The absence from the article of any acknowledgement that what is being written about is ‘life’ is striking, despite the nature of the paper as a piece of academic research.
Life is precious. Life is God-given (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:13). Life is not abstract. We can all agree that a newborn is life. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘born’ as “existing as a result of birth”, ‘birth’ is defined as “the emergence of a baby or other young from the body of its mother; the start of life as a physically separate being”, ‘life’ is defined as “the existence of an individual human being”.
Ultimately, as abhorrent as a piece of academic work such as this may be, it shouldn’t come as a particular surprise. After all, as Lord Alton noted in the wake of the paper’s publication, infanticide – the killing of a child soon after birth – is merely the “chilling and unassailable” logical end point for a society that permits killing a baby up to one day before birth.
The onus is on us to expose such flimsy morality for what it is and to stand up as those who value human life at all stages of its existence, especially when that life cannot defend itself.
Other useful interesting links/articles: