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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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On the list of the world’s most unnecessary occupations—aromatherapist, golf pro, journalism professor, vice president of the United States​—​that of medical ethicist ranks very high. They are happily employed by pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and other outposts of the vast medical-industrial combine, where their job is to advise the boss to go ahead and do what he was going to do anyway (“Put it on the market!” “Pull the plug on the geezer!”). They also attend conferences where they take turns sitting on panels talking with one another and then sitting in the audience watching panels of other medical ethicists talking with one another. Their professional specialty is the “thought experiment,” which is the best kind of experiment because you don’t have to buy test tubes or leave the office. And sometimes they get jobs at universities, teaching other people to become ethicists. It is a cozy, happy world they live in. 

Photo of a newborn baby sleeping

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But it was painfully roiled last month, when a pair of medical ethicists took to their profession’s bible, the Journal of Medical Ethics, and published an essay with a misleadingly inconclusive title: “After-birth Abortion: Why should the baby live?” It was a misleading title because the authors believe the answer to the question is: “Beats me.” 

Right at the top, the ethicists summarized the point of their article. “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.” 

The argument made by the authors​—​Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, both of them affliliated with prestigious universities in Australia and ethicists of pristine reputation​—​runs as follows. Let’s suppose a woman gets pregnant. She decides to go ahead and have the baby on the assumption that her personal circumstances, and her views on such things as baby-raising, will remain the same through the day she gives birth and beyond.

Then she gives birth. Perhaps the baby is disabled or suffers a disease. Perhaps her boyfriend or (if she’s old-fashioned) her husband abandons her, leaving her in financial peril. Or perhaps she’s decided that she’s just not the mothering kind, for, as the authors write, “having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children, regardless of the condition of the fetus.”

The authors point out that each of these conditions​—​the baby is sick or suffering, the baby will be a financial hardship, the baby will be personally troublesome​​—​​is now “largely accepted” as a good reason for a mother to abort her baby before he’s born. So why not after?

“When circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.” (Their italics.) Western societies approve abortion because they have reached a consensus that a fetus is not a person; they should acknowledge that by the same definition a newborn isn’t a person either. Neither fetus nor baby has developed a sufficient sense of his own life to know what it would be like to be deprived of it. The kid will never know the difference, in other words. A newborn baby is just a fetus who’s hung around a bit too long. 

As the authors acknowledge, this makes an “after-birth abortion” a tricky business. You have to get to the infant before he develops “those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.” It’s a race against time.

The article doesn’t go on for more than 1,500 words, but for non-ethicists it has a high surprise-per-word ratio. The information that newborn babies aren’t people is just the beginning. A reader learns that “many non-human animals … are persons” and therefore enjoy a “right to life.” (Such ruminative ruminants, unlike babies, are self-aware enough to know that getting killed will entail a “loss of value.”) The authors don’t tell us which species these “non-human persons” belong to, but it’s safe to say that you don’t want to take a medical ethicist to dinner at Outback.

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