The authors of a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics are receiving death threats for suggesting that post-birth euthanization of newborn infants should be allowable, since they lack moral agency and self-awareness, and thus the requisite personhood that most systems of ethics generally base their axiomatic assumptions off of:
Dr Minerva, a research associate at Oxford while being based at the University of Melbourne, said the recent days had been “the worst in my life” after the article attracted widespread attention.
“This is not a proposal for law,” she told an Australian news website. “This is pure academic discussion.
“I wish I could explain to people it is not a policy and I’m not suggesting that and I’m not encouraging that.”
The authors, whose piece was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, suggested that “what we call after-birth abortion (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled”.
Ironically, the most receptive people seem to be pro-lifers, who view the parrallels the authors draw between pre and post-birth termination of the fetus/infant’s life to be entirely morally consistent:
Anthony Ozimic, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said the article, which he described as a “chilling promotion of infanticide”, showed how abortion was “creating a culture of death”.
While he was appalled at the suggestion that newborns should be killed for their parents’ convenience, he nevertheless said it showed the logical framework behind infanticide and abortion was the same.
He said: “The paper proves what pro-lifers have long been arguing: that the common arguments for abortion also justify infanticide.
“There is no difference in moral status between a child one day before birth and a child one day after birth.
“Birth is merely a change of location, not a change from non-personhood to personhood.”
Ken@Popehat, who has done heroic work in the legal arena, recently wrote a satirical piece in which he panned the Minerva article. My roommate and I had a spirited discussion about it the other night, and we both agree that the negative reaction to this piece is one incredibly large, massively hysterical case of Missing The Point.
The violent reaction to this article is not only unwarranted, but dangerous for academia. The authors of this article brought this subject up because this is an incredibly huge deal in the field of medical ethics. Casting threats and aspersions upon the authors discourages people from being willing to openly discuss controversial topics. And for those who feel that some subjects are so clearly beyond the scope of common decency that they ought not to be discussed, it needs to be mentioned that this is hardly uncharted territory in the field of ethical philosophy.
If the people making death threats on the authors of the article actually took the time to read it, they’d understand that the authors weren’t making a flippant, irresponsible argument that disregards the inherent sanctity of human life. They were having a very thorough and frank discussion about how we define personhood, and what the implications are of that definition. Peter Singer’s observation from the second link above is directly on point in this regard:
In a strictly biological sense, the opponents of abortion are right to say that abortion ends a human life…[w]hen a woman has an abortion, the fetus is alive, and it is undoubtedly human – in the sense that it is a member of the species homo sapiens. It isn’t a dog or a chimpanzee.
But mere membership of our species doesn’t settle the moral issue of whether it is wrong to end a life. As long as the abortion is carried out at less than 20 weeks of gestation – as almost all abortions are – the brain of the fetus has not developed to the point of making consciousness possible.
In that respect, the fetus is less developed, and less aware of its circumstances, than the animals that we routinely kill and eat for dinner.
The same can arguably be said of a human infant: i.e. they have the same degree of self-awareness as the animals that we regularly slaughter without regard to their moral agency, self-awareness, cognitive perception, or ability to feel pain. If that’s the case, then it arguably follows that post-birth termination of a human “fetus” results in no less a moral wrong than the animals we regularly slaughter by the millions for food every year. The human infant, in every relevant way, is no different from these animals in terms of moral agency, except that it happens to be a member of our species. That’s it.
I’m not saying I necessarily endorse this view. But the point is that this article isn’t a shocking, outrageous leap towards the ethically verboten that represents the most extreme, unrestrained putrefaction of any decent version of human morality. There is a coherent philosophical debate to be had—indeed, must be had—about the definition of personhood and its practical implications for the practice of medicine. We can’t escape these conclusions merely because they make us uncomfortable. And calling for the heads of the messengers advances no cause, except that of legitimizing violence against people brave enough to ask hard questions.
Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 people will simply read the headlines, get outraged, ignore the substantive issues, and jump straight to calling for the heads of Minerva et al. And we are all the worse off for it.
To quote Natalie Portman from Lucas’s dubious Star Wars prequels: “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I wasn’t surprised that there was so much negative reaction to the headlines - as with so much of what happens with folks on the Internets - there is quick reaction and few take the time to actually read and consider the facts or points being made.
Makes me long for the days when my friends gathered for monthly hosted dinners or potlucks to spend the evening debating issues or attended a lecture at the local university and then retired to a restaurant to spend a few hour sharing impressions and hashing out differences. Now no one (myself included) has time because they wasted it all updating their Facebook pages or reblogging on Tumblr.
Anyway, this is an important topic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your evaluation of the reactions.