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From the Jan/Feb, 2013 issue of Touchstone


Nursery Crimes by Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr

Nursery Crimes

Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr., on the Move from Abortion to Infanticide

It was bound to come to this, though there likely were very few of us who really believed it would when abortion was first deemed ethically permissible by the U.S. Supreme Court on the fateful day of January 22, 1973.

Back then, the most salient pro-life argument, and the easiest to make, was one that demonstrated logically and biologically that the fetus was as much a person as a born, air-breathing baby.

But now, in an article published on February 23, 2012, in the online Journal of Medical Ethics, under the title, "After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?" (since removed), Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have advanced an argument that essentially agrees with this pro-life position, but is breathtakingly bold enough to take it in the opposite direction: instead of concluding that a fetus is like a newborn and therefore a person, they assert that a newborn is like a fetus and therefore not a person.

"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," they write. Giubilini, a philosopher from the University of Milan, and Minerva, a bioethicist from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, repeatedly aver this throughout the article: "fetuses and newborns are not persons."

Euphemisms & Red Herrings

We recall that in the 1970s those who argued in favor of legalized abortion began to call their position by the euphemism "pro-choice," thus detracting attention from the real issue at stake. For pro-lifers, it has never been about a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body, but about the reality that the life within her is as much a human being as she herself is, and therefore has been endowed by its Creator with the same right to life that she has.

Still, the "pro-choice" label stuck, and so the debate has run for nearly forty years under the somewhat deceptive headings of "pro-life" versus "pro-choice." Many abortion advocates even prefer to label pro-lifers with the moniker "anti-choice." Their preferred argument has been ubiquitous, and remains predominant: the necessity of protecting "a woman's right to choose."

By contrast, arguments against the essence of the pro-life position—that the child in the womb is a living human being—have been extremely rare. Since abortion advocates find it difficult to counter this position, they concentrate instead on what is actually a red herring in the philosophical debate over the permissibility of abortion: a woman's right to choose what happens to her own body. And so the essential pro-life argument—that the prenatal infant is as much a child as the newborn—is usually ignored.

The Pro-Life Argument Turned Upside Down

But now it seems that a new line has been crossed. Noting a 1985 Oxford University study that proposed euthanasia for infants with severe abnormalities, Giubilini and Minerva aver that there are "cases in which death seems to be in the best interest of the child." Yet they admit that it is difficult to justify killing a child on this basis alone: "it is hard to find definitive arguments to the effect that life with certain pathologies is not worth living," they write, "even when those pathologies would constitute acceptable reasons for abortion." So they take the bold, new philosophical step of tying the ethical case for infanticide directly to the ethical case for abortion, with a remarkably revealing admission:

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 hasten to explain:

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice "after-birth abortion," rather than "infanticide," to emphasize 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. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. (Emphasis mine.)

They rest their entire argument on two premises: (1) 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"; and (2) that "it is not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her (sic throughout) from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense."

The second premise depends on the first, and the first succinctly and clearly articulates what has always been at issue in the abortion debate: the moral status of an unborn child. Pro-lifers have always claimed that "the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus," but they have assumed that the establishment of this claim would lead to the inevitable conclusion that both infants and fetuses should be considered persons in a morally relevant sense.

Giubilini and Minerva have turned this argument on its head: fetuses are not persons, they claim, and so neither are newborns.

A New Definition of Personhood

To make this argument, they propose a narrow and convenient definition of personhood: "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."

Whether intentionally or not, these two philosophers have here put themselves forward as the final arbiters of personhood: "We take 'person' to mean . . ." they write, and their entire argument hangs on their definition. But who are they to decide what personhood is?

The definition itself is logically arbitrary: Why must the capability of attributing value to one's own existence be determinative of personhood? And even if it is, how is that capability itself to be defined?

Perhaps surprisingly, Giubilini and Minerva actually admit that "many [but not all!] mentally retarded human individuals are persons," and they further admit that "it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a 'person.'" With respect to babies, they finally settle on the vague notion that there must be a "level of her mental development . . . [that] determines whether or not she is a 'person.'"

So now the line of personhood has been moved to some indeterminate time after birth. Pro-lifers have always found the logic of those who tried to draw the line at approximately the end of the first trimester of pregnancy to be as indefensible and arbitrary as drawing the line at birth. And now the same fallacy has been used to push the line quite the other way, to some point after newborn infancy.

The Logic of Mengele

That point must still be arrived at by someone's arbitrary decision, but here Giubilini and Minerva get squeamish. They do not want the decision to be theirs and try to pass the buck: "we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess."

But which neurologists and psychologists would make the assessment? And how would they make it? By what criteria? And by what logic, if not that of the notorious Nazi geneticist Josef Mengele? •

Burnell F. Eckardt, Jr is pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Kewanee, Illinois, and chief editor of Gottesdienst: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy. He holds a Ph.D. in church history from Marquette University.

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