After-Birth abortion: A Modest Proposal?

Kill newborn babies? It sounds like something out of a satire, like Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Sadly, it is not.
Tue Mar 6, 2012 - 1:09 pm EST

March 6, 2012 (HLIAmerica.org) - Let us consider two excerpts, and see if we can determine which comes from the realm of fiction, and which comes from the field of modern ethics. The first:

That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

And the second:

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.

I suppose the jargon in the latter gives it away as an academic journal abstract – in this case, taken from the article “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” published last week in the Journal of Medical Ethics. When I first read it, I was hoping it would be the prelude of an updated version of Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century work A Modest Proposal, from which the first excerpt is drawn. In Swift’s eerily prescient satire, the protagonist argues that the solution to poverty is to eat the children of the poor.

Alarmingly, unlike Swift’s work, the abstract is not from a work of satire. It is ostensibly a serious presentation by ethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, who argue that parents should be allowed to kill newborn infants for any reason that is currently used to justify abortion. In fact, they do not constrain their proposal to a specific time period after birth, but claim that a child has no right to life until she adequately demonstrates the very nebulous and subjective characteristic of “self-awareness.”


Giubilini and Minerva are not, at least not in this article, arguing that the killed children should also be eaten. Even so, the expressions of outrage over this piece have been harsh and swift. Indeed, the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics felt compelled to release a statement defending the publication of this provocative article, although the defense was weak at best.

That an argument for killing newborns would be made should not be surprising. Similar reasoning was put forth by Michael Tooley in 1972 and by Peter Singer in 1993. Giubilini and Minerva simply extend these arguments to include killing perfectly healthy newborns that merely pose a burden or inconvenience to their mothers or to society as a whole. In addition, they argue that logic demands the option to kill disabled infants, especially those with genetic diseases like Down syndrome, when the diagnosis is not made until after birth. Why, they ask, should a woman have every option including abortion before birth, and no options after birth?

As reprehensible as their conclusions are, Giubilini and Minerva agree with pro-lifers on two key points. First, they fully accept that the unborn and the newborn are both living human beings, accepting without argument the scientific reality that a biological human being begins at conception. Thus, they forthrightly acknowledge that both abortion and infanticide involve the taking of human life.

Second, Giubilini and Minerva agree that the event of birth is irrelevant to the moral status of both the unborn child and the newborn. In order to make their proposal more palatable, they eschew the term “infanticide” to emphasize that the lives of the newborn and the fetus carry the same moral weight. In this, they find agreement with the Catholic Church and all who recognize the full humanity of the unborn child. There is absolutely no difference in the moral standing of a child in the womb and a newborn in her mother’s arms.

If they have such essential points right, how do they end up so wrong? Their errors begin when they assign the arbitrary status of “potential person” to both the unborn and the newborn. With absolutely no justification other than their own opinion for such an assertion, they echo Peter Singer in declaring that while the unborn and newborn are living human beings, they lack the self-awareness to qualify as “actual persons.” In fact, also following Singer, the authors go so far as to claim that personhood is a characteristic that can be assigned to non-human animals that demonstrate a sense of self:

Both a fetus 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’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many non- human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.

The authors go on to declare that when “aborting” a “potential person,” no life is really lost. A true person never existed. Therefore, one cannot destroy what never was.

What Giubilini and Minerva cannot justify is their authority to declare some human beings as “potential persons.” If they can dismiss the life and dignity of a newborn child based on the lack of an arbitrary concept of self-awareness, what is to stop others from declaring that true personhood requires a specific level of intelligence or gender or race or creed?

What the authors effectively do is subjugate the life and dignity of the vulnerable to the whims of the powerful, who are allowed to determine who is and who is not a person. This is the fatal flaw of attributing human dignity based on some external evaluation. Either one accepts that every human being is worthy of life and dignity, or you are forced to adopt capricious and subjective metrics as the basis of one’s claim to rights and dignity. It takes great arrogance to presume both the wisdom to judge which human lives are worth living as well as the prescience to know whose life will be too burdensome.

The fundamental error of Giubilini and Minerva is that they fail to recognize that every human being is of inestimable worth. The dignity of every human life is an intrinsic characteristic — it cannot be granted or denied according to some arbitrary algorithm. Further, the term “potential person” has no basis in science, although this error is not unique to Giubilini and Minerva: It is common to all those who advocate for abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research or any other actions that relegate human lives to a disposable status.

Perhaps now those who have thus far seen room for a “compromise” in the areas of abortion and other beginning-of-life issues might recognize the urgency of reaffirming the dignity and value of every human being without exception. No one who allows that some human beings are more valuable than others can honestly be shocked and outraged by Giubilini and Minerva’s argument. These ethicists merely carry this sadly common premise to its logical conclusion, and offer a very “Modest Proposal.”

Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.

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