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.



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A progressive alliance in the Richmond by-election can scupper hard Brexit

Labour and the Greens should step aside. 

There are moments to seize and moments to let go. The Richmond by-election, triggered by Zac Goldsmith's decision to quit over a third runway at Heathrow, could be a famous turning point in the politics of our nation. Or it could be another forgettable romp home for a reactionary incumbent.

This isn’t a decision for the Tories and their conscientious objector, Goldsmith, who is pretending he isn’t the Tory candidate when he really is. Nor is it a decision for the only challenger in the seat – the Liberal Democrats.

No, the history making decision lies with Labour and the Greens. They can’t get anywhere near Zac. But they can stop him. All they need to do is get out of the way. 

If the Lib Dems get a clear run, they could defeat Zac. He is Theresa May's preferred candidate and she wants the third runway at Heathrow. He is the candidate who was strongly Leave when his voters where overwhelming Remain. And while the Tories might be hypocrites, they aren’t stupid – they won't stand an official candidate and split their vote. But will Labour and the Greens?

The case to stand is that it offers an opportunity to talk nationally and build locally. I get that – but sometimes there are bigger prizes at stake. Much bigger. This is the moment to halt "hard" Brexit in its tracks, reduce the Tories' already slim majority and reject a politician who ran a racially divisive campaign for London mayor. It’s also the moment to show the power of a progressive alliance. 

Some on the left feel that any deal that gives the Lib Dems a free run just means a Tory-lite candidate. It doesn’t. The Lib Dems under Tim Farron are not the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg. On most issues in the House of Commons, they vote with Labour.

And this isn’t about what shade of centrism you might want. It is about triggering a radical, democratic earthquake, that ensures the Tories can never win again on 24 per cent of the potential vote and that our country, its politics and institutions are democratised for good.

A progressive alliance that starts in Richmond could roll like thunder across the whole country. The foundation is the call for proportional representation. The left have to get this, or face irrelevance. We can’t fix Britain on a broken and undemocratic state. We cant impose a 21st century socialism through a left Labour vanguard or a right Labour bureaucracy. The society we want has to be built with the people – the vast majority of them. Anyway, the days of left-wing majority governments have come and gone. We live in the complexity of multi-party politics. We must adapt to it or die. 

If the Labour leadership insists on standing a candidate, then the claims to a new kind of politics turn to dust. Its just the same old politics – which isn’t working for anyone but the Tories. 

It is not against party rules to not stand a candidate – it is to promote a candidate from another party. So the way is clear. And while such an arrangement can't just be imposed on local parties, our national leaders, in all the progressive parties, have a duty to lead and be brave. Some in Labour, like Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Jonathan Reynolds, are already being brave.

We can wake up the Friday after the Richmond Park by-election to Goldsmith's beaming smile. Or we can wake up smiling ourselves – knowing we did what it took to beat the Tories, and kickstart the democratic and political revolution this country so desperately needs.


Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.