Champions of Infanticide? 2 Bioethicists Find the Question Is More Than Academic

If you sat down to write an inflammatory paper, just for giggles, you might come up with something like “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” But Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva were serious when they argued in that recent paper, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, that it would be morally permissible to kill a newborn if that newborn might be an “unbearable burden.”

They were not talking only about severely disabled infants (which is a controversial idea, but one that’s been floated before). They were talking about perfectly healthy newborns that for some reason—financial, psychological, whatever—would pose a problem for their parents or society.

Of course there’s been a backlash. The authors have received death threats. They’re being compared to Nazis on Twitter. Pro-life activists are using the paper to make a slippery-slope, we-told-you-this-would-happen case. Commenters are attributing the view of these particular two bioethicists to all ethicists, and by extension to all liberals and Democrats, including the president of the United States, who apparently is—and this was news to me—already a champion of infanticide.

The editor of the journal, Julian Savulescu, has written a defense of the paper, asserting that it is the online invective directed at its authors that is disturbing. The editor who green-lighted the paper, Kenneth Boyd, also responded, saying that while he did not agree with the authors, he thought it was of “sufficient academic quality” to publish.

Just this morning, the authors themselves published an explanation in which they apologized, kind of. Here’s an excerpt:

We are really sorry that many people, who do not share the background of the intended audience for this article, felt offended, outraged, or even threatened. We apologise to them, but we could not control how the message was promulgated across the internet and then conveyed by the media. In fact, we personally do not agree with much of what the media suggest we think. Because of these misleading messages pumped by certain groups on the internet and picked up for a controversy-hungry media, we started to receive many emails from very angry people (most of whom claimed to be Pro-Life and very religious) who threatened to kill us or which were extremely abusive.

No doubt many members of the intended audience of philosophers and ethicists would disagree with the paper’s conclusion, but it’s unlikely that they would suggest summary execution of the authors and editors, as one blogger did. The authors point out that philosophical discussion of infanticide isn’t new: Peter Singer has famously argued that newborns don’t qualify as persons and so their lives are less valuable than the lives of self-aware, fully grown animals like pigs and chimps.

But Singer’s argument is usually framed around severely disabled infants. Giubilini and Minerva contend that this same logic can be applied to healthy infants whose care would be an encumbrance. Like Singer, they see newborns as potential persons, rather than actual persons, and so their deaths would be “morally irrelevant.” As Savulescu, the editor of the journal, writes, what makes the paper novel is “their application in consideration of maternal and family interests.”

So how do Giubilini and Minerva think the media have mischaracterized their argument? The authors complain that they do not, in fact, think that euthanasia of children should be “permissible for months or years,” only shortly after birth.

I’m willing to bet right now that such a caveat will do little to stem the outrage. Specifying that you’re arguing for the killing of newborns rather than toddlers is a distinction that’s likely to persuade only a select few.

The authors also make clear that this is not a legislative proposal. They’re not going door-to-door with a petition to do away with the recently born. In their non-apology apology, they write that they’re making these arguments in an “academic sense” and that they’re not telling anyone what they “should” do.

That very word—should—shows up in the last sentence of their paper. People, they write, “should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford,” a roundabout way of saying that if a mother is too poor or too distressed to raise the baby she’s given birth to, then it’s ethically OK for the baby to be killed.

As for whether this is simply academic, the paper’s argument is rooted in real-world examples, like the law in the Netherlands that permits euthanasia for very ill infants. If policy makers took the paper seriously, and found its arguments persuasive, isn’t it at least conceivable that it might then lead to actual changes in policy? Is it really crazy to think they meant what they wrote?

(Alberto Giubilini is a teaching associate at the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University, in Australia. Francesca Minerva is a postdoc at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Melbourne University. Tauriq Moosa writes in support of the authors’ right to argue in a post at Big Think. Also, this Chronicle Review piece by Lennard J. Davis about “biocultural literacy” is worth a read. So is Jonathan Swift. )

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