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Declaring War on Newborns

The disgrace of medical ethics.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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But what about adoption, you ask. The authors ask that question too, noting that some people​—​you and me, for example​—​might think that adoption could buy enough time for the unwanted newborn to technically become a person and “possibly increase the happiness of the people involved.” But this is not a viable option, if you’ll forgive the expression. A mother who kills her newborn baby, the authors report, is forced to “accept the irreversibility of the loss.” By contrast, a mother who gives her baby up for adoption “might suffer psychological distress.” And for a very simple reason: These mothers “often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible.” It’s simpler for all concerned just to make sure the loss can’t be reversed. It’ll spare Mom a lot of heartbreak.

Now, it’s at this point in the Journal of Medical Ethics that many readers will begin to suspect, as I did, that their legs are being not very subtly pulled. The inversion that the argument entails is Swiftian​—​a twenty-first-century Modest Proposal without the cannibalism (for now). Jonathan Swift’s original Modest Proposal called for killing Irish children to prevent them “from being a burden to their parents.” It was death by compassion, the killing of innocents based on a surfeit of fellow-feeling. The authors agree that compassion itself demands the death of newborns. Unlike Swift, though, they aren’t kidding.

They get you coming and going, these guys. They assume​—​and they won’t get much argument from their peers in the profession​—​that “mentally impaired” infants are eligible for elimination because they will never develop the properties necessary to be fully human. Then they discuss Treacher-Collins syndrome, which causes facial deformities and respiratory ailments but no mental impairment. Kids with TCS are “fully aware of their condition, of being different from other people and of all the problems their pathology entails,” and are therefore, to spare them a life of such unpleasant awareness, eligible for elimination too​—​because they are not mentally impaired. The threshold to this “right to life” just gets higher and higher, the more you think about it. 

And of course it is their business to think about it. It’s what medical ethicists get paid to do: cogitate, cogitate, cogitate. As “After-birth Abortion” spread around the world and gained wide publicity​—​that damned Internet ​—​non-ethicists greeted it with derision or shock or worse. The authors and the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics were themselves shocked at the response. As their inboxes flooded with hate mail, the authors composed an apology of sorts that non-ethicists will find more revealing even than the original paper.

“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,” they wrote. “The article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments.” It was a thought experiment. After all, among medical ethicists “this debate”​—​about when it’s proper to kill babies​—​“has been going on for 40 years.”

So that’s what they’ve been talking about in all those panel discussions! The authors thought they were merely taking the next step in a train of logic that was set in motion, and has been widely accepted, since their profession was invented in the 1960s. And of course they were. The outrage directed at their article came from laymen​—​people unsophisticated in contemporary ethics. Medical ethicists in general expressed few objections, only a minor annoyance that the authors had let the cat out of the bag. A few days after it was posted the article was removed from the publicly accessible area of the Journal’s website, sending it back to that happy, cozy world.

You’d have to be very, very well trained in ethics to see the authors’ argument as a morally acceptable extension of their premises, but you can’t deny the logic of it. The rest of us will see in the argument an extension of its premises into self-evident absurdity. Pro-lifers should take note. For years, in public argument, pro-choicers have mocked them for not following their belief in a fetus’s humanity to its logical end. Shouldn’t you execute doctors who perform abortions? Why don’t you have funerals for miscarriages? 

As one pro-choice wag, writing about the Republicans’ pro-life platform, put it in the Washington Post a few years ago: “The official position of the Republican Party is that women who have abortions should be executed.”

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