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Justifying infanticide

Both logically and emotionally, the line between abortion and infanticide is less clear-cut than it

A paper by two medical ethicists has elicited horror, but also a certain amount of glee, among anti-abortion campaigners.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue that it should be lawful to "abort" newborn babies, even for what seem to be social reasons (for example, if the parents would find it difficult to bring the child up). "Foetuses and newborns," they assert, "do not have the same moral status as actual persons." They propose the term "after-birth abortion" instead of the more commonly-used and more emotive "infanticide" for a procedure that they assert "could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where [pre-birth] abortion would be."

Their logic is quite simple. They regard the location of the foetus/infant -- inside or outside the womb -- as morally irrelevant. Both newborns and not-yet-borns are, at best, "potential" persons, lacking self-awareness and the ability "to make aims and appreciate their own life." It follows that the needs of the adults concerned, especially the mother, and perhaps of society as a whole, should take precedence over the purely notional "rights" of the person-to-be.

The argument itself is not new. Most notably, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has advanced it arguing for allowing euthanasia of severely disabled infants. But Giubilini and Minerva have advanced it in particularly stark terms; so stark, indeed, that on first reading it the thought occurred to me that it might be a hoax perpetrated by pro-lifers. It isn't. And they go beyond even Singer by raising the possibility that entirely healthy newborns might be "aborted" in the psychological interests of adults.

The paper raises the valid question of when any abortion law should draw the line, and correctly notes that from the point of view of the "ex-foetus" (terminology in this area is a minefield) the moment of birth is as arbitrary as the law's choice of a particular gestational date, such as twenty or twenty-four weeks. But why stop there? In 1974, in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, Philip K Dick wrote a short story, The Pre-Persons, in which he imagined a society in which no-one was considered fully human who was unable to understand basic algebra, and in which parents of younger children were able to call an abortion truck to take their troublesome offspring away to be euthanized.

A character in the story prefigures the arguments of Giubilini and Minerva with uncanny precision:

If an unborn child can be killed without due process, why not a born one? What I see in both cases is their helplessness; the organism that is killed had no chance, no ability, to protect itself.

We may indeed recoil from the concept of killing children. Protecting the weak and vulnerable is, we are all brought up to believe, a cornerstone of civilisation. Yet in other times and places infanticide has been widely practised -- often for no better reason than sex-selection. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Han Fei Tzu once put it, "As to children, a father and mother when they produce a boy congratulate one another, but when they produce a girl they put it to death." In the Roman world it was commonplace to expose unwanted infants at street corners or on rubbish dumps. Indeed, it's probably true to say that, before the advent of modern surgical procedures or antenatal diagnosis, infanticide was the functional equivalent of late-term abortion.

And many cultures have understood that the moment of birth is not necessarily decisive in determining the status of the child. To take one example, while Jewish law has never permitted infanticide, traditionally an infant is not considered fully viable (and thus a full member of the human community) until it has survived for thirty days outside the womb. Historically, such a provision makes sense: a newborn child is extremely vulnerable and in the days before modern medicine might easily die soon after birth.

Biologically, too, those who argue like Giubilini and Minerva are on firm ground. Human babies are, by most mammalian standards, born prematurely with far less autonomy than, for example, a baby cow. They are wholly dependent on adult nurture and remain so for many months. The brain, in particular, is under-developed at birth. A newborn child is in many ways still a foetus.

Nevertheless, it's not surprising that the paper has received such a strong reaction. So strong that the JME editor Julian Savulescu has written that "proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society." To many pro-life campaigners, the very fact that such an argument can be made is proof of the moral and spirtual bankruptcy of those who favour free access to abortion. Yet the authors' central claim is precisely what anti-abortionists have always argued: that there is no moral difference between a foetus and a newborn child. Either both are, or are not, fully human.

This is not how the case for abortion is usually put. As the term "pro-choice" implies, the emphasis is on the pregnant woman and her right to "do what she wants with her own body". The foetus is scarcely considered at all, which is why the moment of birth must be seen as crucial. The mother might be legally responsible for the infant, but it is in no sense still a part of her body. It's hard to argue that prohibiting infanticide impacts her bodily autonomy in the same way that restricting abortion inevitably does.

The JME paper is not, then, a logical extension of the pro-choice case. By switching the emphasis from the rights of the mother to the moral status of the foetus it in fact plays into the hands of the pro-lifers. For however logical the authors' argument, emotionally it is highly troubling. The natural revulsion it elicits can attach equally to late-term abortion, perhaps to abortion as a whole. Whatever may have occurred in other times and places, our society is one in which infanticide excites peculiar horror. And, both logically and emotionally, the line between abortion and infanticide is less clear-cut than it was in the days before incubators and ultrasound.