On February 23 the Journal of Medical Ethics published “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?”, an article by two Italian ethicists working in Australia. They argued that infanticide is morally permissible, essentially because the new-born is not yet a person, that is, a being conscious of his or her own interests.
The rest is history. There was a tsunami of media coverage, a hurricane of vituperative commentary on the airwaves and in newspaper comments, and much agitated discussion in bioethics blogs. It was even denounced in the US House of Representatives (see the video above).
All this seems to have come as a complete surprise to the beleaguered authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. They published a disclaimer in the JME’s blog in which they insisted that they did not advocate the legalisation of infanticide and that their article was meant only for other academics.
“We started from the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley in 1975 and we tried to draw the logical conclusions deriving from this premise. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y...
“We apologise for offence caused by our paper, and we hope this letter helps people to understand the essential distinction between academic language and the misleading media presentation, and between what could be discussed in an academic paper and what could be legally permissible.”
Even Julian Savulescu, the editor, was clearly shaken by intensity of the abuse on blogs and online magazine. The lesson he took from this was a “deep opposition … exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.” He pointed out that the article had been scrutinised by three peer reviewers before publication who had all agreed that it was publishable. In any case, the moral permissibility of infanticide was hardly a new idea. The only novelty in Guibilini and Minerva’s argument was the permissibility of infanticide for purely social reasons.
However, a number of other academics and commentators criticised the authors for living in an ivory tower. BBC presenter Kenan Malik pointed out that as good utilitarians, the authors must have had practical results in mind:
“Such an argument may be understandable given the vituperative outrage, but it is also disingenuous. Giubilini and Minerva were certainly not calling for the ‘slaughter of newborn kids’ but neither were they engaging simply in an exercise of abstract logic. Their argument, as we have seen, is part of a long-standing philosophical tradition that has pushed to break down traditional moral boundaries and done so for practical reasons. Peter Singer’s arguments, for instance, have transformed attitudes to animal rights over the past four decades, and helped shape contemporary debates on abortion and euthanasia.”
“I find the 'pure exercise in logic' plea doubly unpersuasive - at least as regards the article the two philosophers actually published, as opposed to what may have been secreted in their minds. First, from the opening abstract to the final conclusions the language used by Giubilini and Minerva is for the most part not at all hypothetical but looks like direct advocacy… To deny all responsibility for the views one puts forth is not a credible standpoint.”
Savulescu might have criticised pro-life fanatics, but in fact, most thoughtful pro-life commentators agreed (for once) with Peter Singer:
“Opponents of abortion ought to welcome articles arguing that there is no real difference of moral status between the fetus and the newborn, for they have been arguing that themselves for many years.”
And in fact they did welcome it. Dr Peter Saunders, of Christian Medical Comment, pointed out that it was an opportunity to question the philosophical assumptions underpinning abortion:
“These bioethicists this week have actually done us a service. If we don’t like their conclusions, then it should actually lead us to reject the premises from which they logically flow. Is it actually the qualities of rationality, self-consciousness and communication that make human beings special and give them value? Or is it something else?”
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