Philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva’s recent article in the BMJ’s Journal of Medical Ethics has been widely reported around the world, eliciting outraged responses. The authors asked, “Why, when the mother or parents find a newborn baby a burden, should that baby live, when an unborn baby can be aborted in similar circumstances?” In other words, is there a relevant moral or ethical difference between abortion and infanticide?
They explain they’re interested in this question because of a study that shows not all babies with Down syndrome are identified and aborted prior to birth, a failure they propose can be remedied through legalizing infanticide:
“An examination of 18 European registries reveals that between 2005 and 2009 only 64% of Down’s syndrome cases were diagnosed through prenatal testing. This percentage indicates that, considering only the European areas under examination, about 1700 infants were born with Down’s syndrome without parents being aware of it before birth. Once these children are born, there is no choice for the parents but to keep the child, which sometimes is exactly what they would not have done if the disease [sic] had been diagnosed before birth.”
The authors then argue:
“If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant [sic: unborn child] and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.”
Rejecting the term infanticide, they call this “after-birth abortion” and conclude that, like pre-birth abortion, there is no good reason to prohibit it for children who are a burden on their families or society, who could include even healthy children. They reject adoption as an alternative to after-birth abortion, because “the mother… might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption.”
One way pro-choice supporters “justify” abortion is to distinguish between human beings and persons, arguing that only persons deserve respect for their lives and then defining unborn children/fetuses out of personhood and its protections. Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva take this approach, but claim that neither unborn nor newborn children are persons.
They propose, following in the footsteps of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer and some other prominent utilitarian bioethicists, that being a person requires being “capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her” and having “aims”, and neither unborn nor newborn children have these capacities (as is also true of some other people).
Moreover, they characterize “post-birth abortion” as “unlike the case of death of an existing person, [because] failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims”. And, they say, this is not euthanasia, because it’s not the killing of an existing person or done for the benefit of the child. In short, for Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva the unborn or newborn child does not exist, because a person does not exist, and the fact that the child is a living human being is irrelevant. Yet again, those are precisely the same arguments pro-choice advocates use to justify pre-birth abortion.
So what can the outrage that has greeted their article tell us?
First, the assessment of the ethics involved is radically different on the part of the general public, as compared with the authors’.
The authors’ proposal is radically utilitarian and seems to lack any influence of an emotional response to the thought of killing a young child or what the impact of doing so would be on important societal values, especially respect for every individual human life and human life, in general.
Some research suggests that people with a malfunction of the frontal lobes of their brains tend to make what the researchers called “overly utilitarian decisions”, which, as a result, are not good ethical decisions. We also know that people with damage to the emotional centres of their brains have impaired judgment about ethics. Might the contents of the article have been affected by such factors? Could Dr. Minerva’s explanation to the media that she was just theorizing in what was written indicate that?
Then there is the matter of perception: When we choose not to see or imagine what abortion involves, we can deny the reality of what we are doing, killing a child. When we do the same overtly in infanticide, we cannot.
When we can dis-identify from the human being who is harmed – we are no longer unborn children and never will be again – we can reassure ourselves that what we are doing to that human being would never be done to us. That is not true for the child who has been born.
The primary focus of our consideration of the morality and ethics of infanticide, as compared with abortion, can also affect our perceptions and conclusions in these regards. Unlike in infanticide, where the focus is solely on the child and the moral and ethical acceptability of taking the child’s life, in abortion the focus is most often just on the woman and her claims. This suppresses or eliminates our sensitivity to the ethics of doing the same to the child, from the child’s perspective, in abortion as in infanticide.
Moreover, probably, a cause of the enormous difference between the outrage at infanticide and the absence of that at abortion is that many people have so normalized abortion that they’ve lost their ethical sensitivity to what it involves, but that isn’t true with respect to infanticide.
I suggest that a more existential perception also differentiates those who accept abortion and possibly infanticide, from those who do not: this is whether the transmission of life, the coming-into-being of a unique new human being, involves a mystery that must be respected. If we perceive that mystery, we look at both the unborn child and the born one with amazement, wonder and awe just because they exist, and act accordingly. If we do not perceive it, we can make recommendations such as those outlined in Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva’s article.
A Canadian case linking abortion and infanticide…
A 2011 Canadian criminal case is interesting with regard to the distinction between abortion and infanticide. The accused, Katrina Effert, at the time a 19-year-old Alberta woman, gave birth secretly in her parents’ downstairs bathroom and then later strangled her newborn baby and threw his body over a fence. She was found guilty of second-degree murder by two juries, but the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned these convictions and replaced them with the lesser charge of infanticide. For this crime, she received a three-year suspended sentence, which meant she avoided serving any time in prison.
While the sentencing judge, Justice Joanne Veit of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, did not treat infanticide as a form of abortion from a legal point of view, she did use current Canadian abortion practice and the absence of any legal restrictions on abortion in Canada to justify the lenient — one could say token — sentence. She ruled that Canada’s lack of an abortion law indicates that “while many Canadians undoubtedly view abortion as a less than ideal solution to unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancy, they generally understand, accept and sympathize with the onerous demands pregnancy and childbirth exact from mothers, especially mothers without support.” She applies this same sentiment in determining an appropriate sentence for infanticide.
In short, the judge viewed abortion and infanticide as comparable, which is a stance with which most pro-life advocates would agree and most pro-choice advocates, at least up to the present, would adamantly disagree. The problem for pro-life advocates is, however, that the judge, like the philosophers discussed above, sees infanticide as meriting a similar “compassionate” response to that taken by Canadian law to abortion, which is a total absence of protection of the unborn child.
The alternative would be to see abortion as calling for the more protective legal response in favour of the life of the child established by infanticide (which is a form of homicide), as it’s been understood, at least up until this case. But that would require Parliament to act to pass some law on abortion, which, as is well known, many politicians, with some notable exceptions, are deeply afraid of doing and have unrelentingly refused to contemplate or even discuss.
Definitions are not neutral…
Definitions and concepts are very important in the abortion debate and we must think very deeply about the consequences of those we adopt or reject. I suggest that because personhood is an attributed characteristic and, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of when we believe personhood should be attributed, recognition of another as a person is discretionary, we should not use this concept to decide what respect for unborn or, for that matter, born children requires. Rather, the fact that they are living human beings should be the informing principle that guides us ethically in this regard.
As to the law, if we accept, as Dr Giubilini and Dr Minerva argue, that abortion and infanticide are morally and ethically equivalent and we are to act more consistently with respect to the law governing these procedures, we have two options in Canada: either liberalizing the current criminal prohibition of infanticide or legislating restrictions on abortion. It’s to be sincerely hoped that we and our parliamentarians choose the latter.
Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.