Arguments which frame infanticide as a moral option have plunged bioethicists into hot water in recent years. In 2012, two bioethicists argued in a leading journal that a foetus and a new-born infant are only potential persons without any interests. Therefore the interests of those involved with them are paramount until some indefinite time after birth. They called killing the baby “after-birth abortion” rather than infanticide. Same difference, but it does sound better.
The hoi polloi outside the ivory tower may not be opposed to abortion, but the word “infanticide” is incendiary. To their amazement, the bioethicists were heaped with criticism in newspapers and websites around the world.
But we haven’t heard the end of arguments for infanticide, probably because it is a logical extension of academic arguments for abortion.
The latest instalment comes in an on-line-first article in the journal Bioethics in which Joona Räsänen, a Finnish bioethicist at the University of Oslo, defends the moral possibility of infanticide. (Listen up, people! This does not imply a campaign to implement or legalise infanticide, only its theoretical morality.)
Räsänen first engaged with this issue in a 2016 article in Bioethics and his assertions were later questioned by several pro-life scholars, notably Christopher Kaczor. It is difficult to give a tidy summary of the complex arguments deployed by Räsänen and his opponents, but here are some of the highlights.
First of all, he stresses that he is not trying to justify infanticide. He simply wants to point out that pro-life arguments are mistaken and do not succeed in eliminating it as a morally permissible option.
Pro-life scholars contend that newborns have a right to life and that infanticide must be wrong because it violates this. Not so, responds Räsänen. There exists an argument permitting infanticide which does not deny their right to life. He put this forward in an article in Bioethics last year in the context of ectogenesis, or gestating babies in artificial wombs. It is conceivable (sorry) that an embryo could be brought to birth in one of these contraptions against the will of its biological parents, thereby violating their privacy rights. Therefore they would have a right to kill the baby. Since this argument may strike readers of MercatorNet as quite novel, it is worthwhile quoting Räsänen in full:
But there might be an argument that gives, for example, the genetic parents a right to kill (or leave to die) their newborn infant even if the infant has a right to life. For example, it might be argued that people have a right to their genetic privacy and having the newborn infant in the world that carries the genetic material of the genetic parents violates their right to genetic privacy. Put another way: the fetus does not have a right to the genetic material of her parents.
But what about ectogestated 10-year-olds? Wouldn’t they also be infringements on their parents’ privacy rights? No, says Räsänen, they have been alive longer and have “a strong time‐relative interest to continue living”.
Pro-life arguments also involve the assertion that even embryos have a right to life. Räsänen subjects this to a reductio ad absurdum:
If the death of an embryo is as bad for the embryo as the death of a standard human adult is for her, it seems that spontaneous abortions are one of the most serious illnesses of our time, and if we do nothing to stop them we are acting immorally. So if pro‐life scholars really believe that human fetuses have significant moral status, they have strong moral obligations to oppose spontaneous abortion. Yet, few of them, devote any effort to doing so.
Finally, personhood is a threshold concept: foetuses only become persons once they have developed enough qualities to qualify as human beings. This is a standard response to pro-life objections, but Räsänen embellishes it with another reductio ad absurdum:
A standard human fetus (or an infant) cannot value continuing of his life (or almost anything else for that matter), therefore killing it does not violate its flourishing, it only violates its future possible flourishing. The mere possibility for future flourishing as a reason for the moral status seems to be an untenable view unless one is willing to accept that cats, which could miraculously be turned into persons with a magical serum, would have same rights, before they had been injected with the serum, as human persons do. That is because they would still have a potential for flourishing like ours.
Räsänen’s article could spark a huge reaction on blogs and social media. The hoi polloi often have a keener sense of the implications of theoretical musings than academics do. They know that today’s article could become tomorrow’s legislation. “After-birth abortion” is already a reality in Belgium and the Netherlands (although it is called paediatric euthanasia). Many people may feel that constructing a theoretical scaffolding for legalising it elsewhere is terribly dangerous.
(By the way, Räsänen does acknowledge that his pro-life critics “have engaged this important topic in a respectful and civilized manner”.)
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.