Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The False Boldness of “After-Birth Abortion”

How many people are in this picture?A paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics called “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?,” by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, has been stirring up quite a lot of attention. Here’s the abstract:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue 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.

And here’s just a little sample of the kind of moral acuity you can find in the paper itself:

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed)....

Also:

a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion....

No kidding. Just to make clear whose interest is the primary criterion:

people with Down’s syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy. Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care....

Can you think of any cases before where groups of individuals have been denied rights or killed on the basis that they are not full persons, are disabled, and/or that they are a burden to society? And it’s not just the disabled:

Actual 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.... In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

I rather hope the atrociousness of a paper like this speaks for itself (though you can see Wesley J. Smith take it on here and here). Senselessness and sophistry masquerading as rational inquiry. But in case you need more:

Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims.... If the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.

Emphasis in original. The contrast between ideological commitments is striking: a newborn child is only a potential person, who does not necessarily have a right not to be killed — but it seems the newborn does have a right not to be disenfranchised by being referred to with the masculine terms he or him. Somehow beings that are merely potential persons, but do not exist, can be gendered — and must have their gender properly acknowledged, but not their life defended.

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Let’s try to be charitable. Although the conclusions are awful, and the logic used to get there riddled with countless obvious errors, if there’s one thing that can be said in favor of this kind of reasoning, it’s that the kinds of distinctions they’re making — between what the authors would call actual persons and potential persons — might be useful, because they are similar to the kind of distinctions one makes in determining whether an individual is of sufficient mental capacity to be held criminally responsible for his actions.

Indeed, these criteria and distinctions are not so far away from the kinds that are used in modern societies that still use the death penalty, to determine whether a person has the mental capacity to be held accountable for a capital offense, and to pay for it with his or her life. Such, then, is the curious bent of modern “personhood theory”: the criteria, once used to defend people who are too mentally undeveloped to justly deserve being deprived of their lives, easily become the criteria by which the same kinds of people, even well beyond birth, are too undeveloped for their lives to deserve defending at all, even for a crime so small as being an inconvenience to someone else.

Realizing this points to the biggest failing of the paper on its very own terms. Giubilini and Minerva propose to extend abortion to “the first days or few weeks after birth,” before an infant possesses personhood traits like “self-awareness,” “expectations,” and “future aims.” But they offer no reason to think such traits, most of which seemingly require capacities like speech and conscious memory recall, are present as early as a few days or weeks after birth. They are enormously vague in defining and describing these traits, saying only that an infant’s ability to “value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed ... depends on the level of her mental development.” But the traits apparently necessary to secure personhood, and so protection from being killed, are not present until at least many months after birth, and often not until age one or two — indeed, under many reasonable interpretations, not until many years after birth.

If the authors had really committed to their personhood criteria, they would need to be defending the killing of children a few years beyond birth, at minimum. And a more rigorous commitment to personhood would reasonably extend the boundary much further out, indeed, to something like the age of criminal accountability or voting. But I guess the authors didn’t want to be too radical.

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Unsurprising though this is, it should be pointed out that this is the kind of thing that gets transhumanists really excited, and that counts to them as philosophical insight and bravery. Kyle Munkittrick, for one, is breathless:

The purpose of articles that are so obviously controversial and counter-intuitive. is not to endorse or advocate a political position and say “this is right and should be law.” Instead, they are exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

If something is obvious, then that is the very thing a diligent bioethicsist should be questioning and doubting.

Nowhere, of course, in this or a follow-up post (which without explanation is titled “Witch Ethics” — I guess because criticizing pro-infanticide arguments is a witch hunt?), does Mr. Munkittrick actually do any of that “reasoned exploration.” Instead he just lauds “exploration” itself, congratulating the authors for their bravery and condemning their critics for cowardice. The authors themselves are similarly aghast in a pseudo-apology they issued:

When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate.... It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.... We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.

It’s all just about logic and academic freedom and the boldness to ask challenging questions! Why are people getting so bent out of shape!

Just to put peoples’ silly reactions to this paper in context, imagine that instead of the paper making the case for infanticide, it advanced an I’m-just-saying or gee-hey-why-not daring defense of some other practice, like, say ... rape, murder, slavery, or genocide. Actually, I guess I’m tilting the question by using such condemnatory terminology. “Genocide,” for example, should just be called “heritage-selective aggregate after-after-birth abortion,” lest we acknowledge “the best interests of the ones who die.” Anyway, who would dare fail to celebrate such a harmless intellectual exercise?

UPDATE: See also Brendan Foht on the same paper.

[Mother and child image via Shutterstock]

3 comments:

  1. After reading some of the responses to this article at the JME web site, I couldn't help but notice the lack of commentary on Partial Birth Abortion. To me, it would seem that what the authors of the paper propose is not that far beyond Partial Birth Abortion which only we Pro-lifers get up in arms about. Isn't Partial Birth Abortion the slippery slope that leads to what the authors may be advocating? I don't know if this scares anyone else, but it sure scares me. God save us!!!

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  2. Ahem:

    http://futurisms.thenewatlantis.com/2010/07/transhumanist-resentment-watch-ii.html

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  3. After-birth abortion?

    Isn't this called retro-active abortion?

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