In February 2012 two bioethicists provoked international outrage with an article advocating infanticide.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME), Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued in ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’, that foetuses and newborns ‘do not have the same moral status as actual persons’.
They concluded that ‘after birth abortion (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled’.
The same journal (JME) has this week responded to the crisis with a special issue containing 31 commentaries from a range of ethicists, some of whom have argued for years that infanticide can be a moral action; others who believe that even suggesting it is a vile stain on academic integrity.
Editor Julian Savulescu introduces the issue with these words:
‘Infanticide is an important issue and one worthy of scholarly attention because it touches on an area of concern that few societies have had the courage to tackle honestly and openly: euthanasia. We hope that the papers in this issue will stimulate ethical reflection on practices of euthanasia that are occurring and its proper justification and limits.’
Savulescu claims to be ‘strongly opposed to the legalisation of infanticide along the lines discussed by Giubilini and Minerva’ but says that they are not alone in advocating it.
Infanticide is already practised openly and legally in the Netherlands under the ‘Groningen Protocol’ which allows doctors to end the life of neonates at the request of their parents if the infant is experiencing ‘hopeless and unbearable suffering’.
In addition some of the world’s most famous living philosophers have written about its merits and justification over the last 40 years, including Michael Tooley, Jonathan Glover, Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan and John Harris.
Four of these five have contributed to this issue of JME and the full text of their articles is currently available on line.
McMahan argues that the permissibility of infanticide in some circumstances is not only implied by certain theories, but by beliefs that are widely held and difficult to reject.
Michael Tooley’s book is entitled Abortion and infanticide.
Peter Singer wrote a book in 1985 with Helga Kuhse called Should the baby live?
Jonathan Glover’s landmark Causing death and saving lives notes that ‘Dr Francis Crick (the Nobel Laureate who discovered DNA with Jim Watson in 1956) once proposed a two-day period for detecting abnormalities, after which infanticide would not be permissible’.
Many will be shocked by what these philosophers are saying but Savulescu argues that the issue throws up a broad range of ethical questions fundamental to medical ethics.
What constitutes a person with rights? Is there a moral difference between killing a baby of the same gestation inside and outside the womb? Is there a moral difference between euthanasia and withdrawal of treatment and/or sedation with the explicit intention that the baby will die? In what circumstance is ‘letting die’ morally different from killing?
These are all serious questions which many people, including many doctors, have not carefully thought through.
As I have previously argued these bioethicists have actually done us a service. If we don’t like their conclusions, then it should actually lead us to question the premises from which they logically flow.
Philosophers like Peter Singer believe that it is the qualities of rationality, self-consciousness and communication that make human beings special. What follows from this is those humans with less of these qualities are of less value and can, in some circumstances, be disposed of.
By contrast this Christian view of the sanctity of life, which Singer and others reject, is that human beings have value not because of any ‘intrinsic’ qualities, but for two main ‘extrinsic’ reasons. First, that they are made in the image of God for an eternal relationship with him, and second because God himself became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ and thereby bestowed unique dignity on the human race.
If we follow that view through to its logical conclusion it leads us to say that any human being, regardless of its age, appearance, degree of deformity or mental capacity, is worthy of the highest possible degree of protection, empathy, wonder and respect.
These bioethicists are arguing that infanticide is morally no different to abortion.
But we can draw one of two conclusions from that – either we should embrace infanticide or stop doing abortions.
But whatever view we opt for, we should have the courage of our convictions to draw out its full practical implications as these bioethicists have done.
Most people are just not that consistent.