Whenever someone calls himself or herself an ethicist, the warning bells go off in my head, recognizing that what I am about to hear might be twisted logic to justify something that is unethical. So it is with a recent article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics that proposes that it is ethical to kill newborn children, because they are not yet real people, just potential people. The argument is that the infant does not have the capacity to attribute basic value to his or her existence, and as such, depriving that human being of its existence does not represent a loss to him or her. That being the case, according to the authors, a parent should be able to decide, for whatever reason, to terminate that life. The authors go so far as to call it an “after-birth abortion.”
A foundation of the argument is that there is virtually no difference between a fetus and a newborn, and since it is ok to kill fetuses, it is also ok to kill infants. The authors consider that neither fetuses nor newborns are “persons,” but only carry that potential, because they have not formed any aims in life as full persons, and as such, killing them cannot harm them. Yes the authors really do say these things. The report is entitled “After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?,” and is free for download from the Journal of Medical Ethics. See if you can spot all of the contortions the ethicist uses to justify unethical behavior.
I first learned of the report in a story by the British news organization, The Telegraph, and, as it quotes another medical ethicist, it appears that not all people with the title “ethicist” are necessarily devoid of ethical principles. Dr. Trevor Stammers, who is the director of medical ethics at St Mary's University College said that from now on, he might refer to abortion as antenatal infanticide, recognizing that there is little little difference between infants and fetuses, while also recognizing the real personhood of babies, newborn or otherwise.
So the question is when the personhood of a human being is established, not legally, but ethically and morally, as legality often bears no relation to either ethics or morals. Many people say that personhood is established at conception, since all of the fundamental elements of that potential person have been established. Others say that the fetus is just a blob of cells with no identity until some point when it is developed enough to be “person-like.” That point it time is arbitrary, with some saying that, up to the point of actual birth, the fetus is just an appendage of the mother, like a branch that can be cut off with no consequence. Birth, for them, establishes independence and personhood.
Whatever your personal opinion about when personhood happens, one thing is very clear. Babies act very person-like, both in the womb and after birth. Ask a mother of multiple children and she will likely tell you that each child was different, even before birth. They have their own personalities and act differently, often dramatically so. Each infant strives for life, even if many survival activities are instinctual at first. They let you know when they are uncomfortable and when they are happy. They are “learning machines”, even if their cognition and physical abilities don’t allow them to fully express their personhood.
So, the authors of the report, recognizing that there is little difference between pre and post birth persons, actually make a good argument, not that post-birth infanticide is ok, but rather that pre-natal infanticide is taking the life of a human being, a person in a full and very real sense.