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What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in Common


Mar 5 2012
If there is 'no moral difference' between infants and fetuses, where do we draw the line?

An article published in February in the international, peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics is making headlines around the world. In the article, former Cambridge and Oxford University researchers Dr. Alberto Giubilini and Dr. Francesca Minerva argue the very point pro-life advocates have said all along: There is no essential difference between a fetus and a newborn, and their moral status is the same.

Pro-life supporters should be elated.

But we're not.

In claiming that unborn children and newborn children are morally equivalent, Giubilini and Minerva are not arguing for the right to life. To the contrary, the article advocates what the authors term "after-birth abortion." The British tabloid The Sun put it a bit more starkly in a headline last week: "Slaughter Newborn Kids, Say Academics." The Telegraph's headline sums it up this way: "Killing Babies Is No Different From Abortion."

If a newborn will place an "unbearable burden" on the family or society (such as in the case of disability), the researchers argue, the infant should be subject to an after-birth abortion. "Merely being human," they claim, "is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life."

Not surprisingly (and thankfully), the article has garnered vehement backlash from across the globe, particularly in the blogosphere. (Sadly, some of those claiming to defend life have resorted to less-than-ethical responses to the article, even to the point of death threats.)

The journal's editor has defended the decision to publish the article, but not merely on the usual grounds of academic freedom. Instead, noting that infanticide is legal in the Netherlands, the editor argues that publishing the article reflects the journal's support of "sound rational argument and freedom of ethical expression." The editor explains, "The authors provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject."

It's hard to dispute such sound logic, as a blog at the British newspaper The Telegraphpoints out. The article is so extremely logical, in fact, that it's reminiscent of Jonathan Swift's famous 18th-century satire, A Modest Proposal. The "proposal" offers an utterly rational appeal to the Irish to alleviate their poverty by raising and selling their children to the English for food. Like the journal article under discussion, the reasoning is impeccable. However, chief among the satire's many objects of correction (for correction is the purpose of true satire) is rationalism, a worldview that depends entirely—like the journal article—on human reason at the expense of human emotion, human spirit, and human love—let alone eternal principles that transcend even these.

After pointing out the unassailable logic of the after-birth abortion argument, The Telegraph blog goes on to say that the article may provide a "boost" to the pro-life movement. Indeed, the journal article is so over-the-top, one wonders if it might not have been written by covert pro-life advocates whose true views (a la Swift) are, in a move of sheer irony, opposite the ones stated.

Nevertheless, a boost to the pro-life movement couldn't come at a better time. Attempts at state legislation on abortion around the time of the article's publication became rallying points for pro-choice advocates as well as fodder for national jokes, to the point of calling into question the vice presidential potential of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. My own recent discussions on the subject inevitably degenerated toward impasse simply because, as always, just about any conclusion on any abortion-related issue ultimately comes down to one's position on the status of the unborn human life. If in any debate we are talking about a baby not essentially unlike the one grandma jostles on her knee, one conclusion seems clear; if we are talking about something less than, just about anything is apparently possible—as the after-birth abortion article clearly demonstrates.

Of course, as the journal's editor notes, after-birth abortion isn't really new: "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 defence of infanticide." And let's not forget that the ancient Greeks left their unwanted children on the mountainside to die, too, Mr. Editor.

This makes it even more noteworthy that the article concedes that a fetus is, in fact, a human being: "Both a foetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a 'person' in the sense of 'subject of a moral right to life'." They go on to argue that "the interests of actual people override the interest of merely potential people. Since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions."

Such language makes more justifiable recent attempts to define "personhood" to include unborn children. Personhood legislation was defeated last November in Mississippi and before that in Colorado, but renewed attempts are ongoing in several states, including in Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Attempts in Utah and Virginia have been dropped. (Oddly, corporations in the United States have long enjoyed legal personhood status.)

Yet even among pro-life advocates, views on personhood legislation are not uniform. The practical and political ramifications of passing constitutional amendments defining a "person" as "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof" are not entirely clear. Some who favor other efforts restricting abortion say such laws are silly or symbolic at best, sloppy or dangerous at worst. This may be true.

But it's also true that symbols are important. Symbols have power. None should recognize this more than we of a faith in which our symbols bleed over into substance. But when legalized abortion turns into an argument for killing newborns, any debate about symbol vs. substance is dead in the water.

Related Topics:Abortion; Children; Politics

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What the 'After-Birth Abortion' and 'Personhood' Debates Have in ...