The Dark Ladder of Logic: After-Birth Abortion

Eugene C. Tarne  

The Journal of Medical Ethics (JME) is one of those highly specialized, relatively expensive publications that cater to a targeted group of professionals.  Because these journals are expensive (a print/online U.S. annual subscription for the JME is $431) and have such a very specific audience, they are rarely read by laypeople outside the professional circles they are intended to address.


Unless such a journal publishes an article online endorsing infanticide.


In an article released last month in the JME, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” authors Alberto Guibilini and Francesca Minerva answer that question very clearly: it shouldn’t.


Profs. Guibilini and Minerva begin by equating the “moral status” of a  newborn child with an unborn fetus in order to then argue that just as the latter can be aborted, so should an “after-birth abortion” be permitted on a newborn and for the same reasons abortions are performed – which are virtually unlimited.


“[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion,” the authors write, “what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible (emphasis in the original).”


Justifying the admitted “oxymoron” in their formulation, they write:


[W]e 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.   


And the authors really mean all circumstances, as “[a]ctual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of.”


Even adoption should be rejected in these circumstances because the mother “might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption.”


The article set off an avalanche of commentary; gratifyingly, virtually all of it was negative.  So negative, that the editor of the journal felt compelled to post online a justification for publishing the article.  But the justification gave further proof of just how non-controversial such proposals have become among many bioethicists:


The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defense of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion.


The novel contribution of this paper is not an argument in favor of infanticide – the paper repeats the arguments made famous by Tooley and Singer – but rather their application in consideration of maternal and family interests. The paper also draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practiced in the Netherlands.


In other words, why all the fuss?  The most eminent bioethicists (emphasis added) have repeatedly defended infanticide – it’s even practiced inthe Netherlands.  The paper in fact is blazing new ground by extending the rationale for infanticide to times when a child may place a burden on “maternal and family interests.”


But this new ground has been blazed before:


CLI blog, The Dark Ladder of Logic


This poster dates back to the 1920’s, the heyday of the now disgraced eugenics movement.  The advent of legal abortion has revived such thinking, where some human beings can be dehumanized as burdens and disposed of – whether before or after birth makes no moral difference.


The outpouring of revulsion at this article can only be taken as a positive sign.  Other comments worth reviewing are those by the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson, Princeton University professor Robert George, and Amherst College professor Hadley Arkes, among others.


Profs. Guibilini and Minerva have unapologetically shown where support for abortion logically leads.


But more to the point: if the newborn and the fetus share the same status, then doesn’t the fetus deserve the same protections given to the newborn?


Gene Tarne is Senior Analyst at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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