I work in organisations that care for, and support, some the most vulnerable people in our society – those with a disability, and those with a serious mental illness. As such, I have the good fortune of being able to routinely witness some fine examples of human nobility. Nevertheless, there are moments when I am shaken out of my reverie and reminded that all is not well (to say the least) with our culture.
One such moment occurred a couple of weeks ago, when I perused an article in The Age newspaper (Henrietta Cook, “Abortion Paper Led to Death Threats”, March 2nd, 2012). As many of you are aware, the story concerned outraged responses to an academic paper arguing for what the authors termed “post-birth abortions” – in other words, infanticide (perhaps the authors momentarily realised the savagery of their suggestion. Hence, the euphemism “post-birth abortions”). It was, I must admit, the sort of read that made my stomach churn. Here were two “ethicists”, Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini (hereafter, G & M), arguing for the legitimacy of the killing of infants if they became an “unbearable burden” to their families. What’s more, their arguments were published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Medical Ethics (“After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, 23rd February, 2012). It’s difficult to articulate the horror one experiences when confronted with the sober reality, the monstrous nadir, of our moral undoing. Claims that this was simply a theoretical discussion, not meant for a general audience, are, I would argue, beside the point. The fact that they were suggested in a mainstream intellectual forum forces me to come to grips with, not only the ethical decrepitude of the principal authors, but also the present nature and future trajectory of our culture – a culture that has enabled such views to be aired and sponsored.
It is of course tempting at this juncture to lean on Leon Kass’ notion of “the wisdom of repugnance”, and leave it at that: some ideas are so intuitively abhorrent that opposition to them needs no defence. I sympathise deeply with that response, to be sure. This particular idea, that newborns can be killed in certain circumstances (something I shall interrogate below), is a legitimate target for such revulsion. Indeed, to suggest such a course of action is to offend our deepest, most basic sense of right and wrong. But to simply rest on an inarticulate sense of moral outrage is, I believe, inadequate. No view, regardless of how demonstrably evil it may appear, should be espoused with impunity. If for no other reason than to expose philosophical fallacies and academic depravity, I shall attempt to engage with the ideas, assumptions and premises that underlie G & M’s argument.
Our ethicists commence their piece by suggesting that, in some cases, the birth of a child may be intrinsically unbearable for the mother. Later, they suggest that some children constitute an “unbearable burden” for families and society. Given that society already permits abortion within the womb, G & M argue that the same conditions ought to apply to newborns. This, they seek to defend on the grounds that newborns and foetuses are not persons, and should therefore be treated similarly when questions of abortion arise.
Leaving aside the authors’ conception of personhood for a moment, it is clear that G & M begin their paper with a tenuous, nay completely unsupportable, premise. Their argument that there are certain instances where the birth of a child is intrinsically unbearable – not because of disability or deformity, but because the act of giving birth to, and raising, a child is itself unbearable – is unwarranted. Now, there are some things in this life that truly deserve to be described as such: a man attempting to uphold a 15-tonne container is, according to basic science, engaging in an unbearable act. But having a child cannot be seen as unbearable prior to doing so. No one can predict with certainty that doing so will present an impossible task for the prospective parent(s), even after a few days or weeks. How can it be argued that raising a child will present an insufferable burden for those who have the responsibility of doing so? That is what the word “unbearable” suggests – an absolute certainty about the nature of a situation.
The problem is that one cannot posses this level of knowledge prior to, or just after, the birth of a child. We are historical creatures, bound by time and the flow of events. What may seem to be unbearable at a certain point will not necessarily be so days, weeks or years down the track. As William M. Briggs, a professor at Cornell University, has remarked, “since [the] birth and…subsequent care of a child is a contingent event, we cannot claim that any birth and rearing is unbearable in advance” (“Academics – Who Else? – Call for the Killing of Babies”, 28th February, 2012). Moreover, making this kind of prediction groundlessly assumes that the reality of an impossibly burdensome newborn is an exclusive one. In other words, the notion of the “unbearable” implicitly suggests that a newborn could be nothing else but a burden – and an insufferable one – to its parents. According to this view, it could not, at the same time, be a joy, a challenge, an enriching experience and an embodied example of the gift of life. Most people reading this will likely agree that such a view is demonstrably false. And so, we see that G & M have already built their argument on a fallacious assumption.
Even more serious is the inconsistent case G & M try to mount in order to reduce the moral status of newborns. Our authors argue that a child just born is on the same moral plane as a foetus, largely because neither can be called persons. G & M ground this assertion in a certain conception of personhood – namely, that one first has to have the ability to formulate aims and appreciate life. Only then can one be called a person and have a moral right to the life they possess. What one notices, however, is that G & M themselves appear to be confused about the essential nature of a newborn baby. For instance, in developing their argument for the non-personhood of newborns (and therefore, the lack of harm done to them if they are intentionally deprived of life), our authors suggest that they are “not persons in a morally relevant sense”. I’m not sure if what they wrote was a slip of the tongue (or pen, or keyboard), but they still grudgingly admit that, in some sense, a newborn is a person. According to G & M, a newborn child may not be a “person” in relevant moral terms, but they cannot escape using that word to describe it. Perhaps our authors still have an incipient awareness that a human baby is a person; indeed, to use that word is to make an implicit declaration about the subject in question. Maybe G & M, on some level, still recognize this.
In any case, I’m unsure at this stage how to interpret their statement regarding newborns, personhood and moral relevance. Do they mean to argue that a newborn is a person, but in a morally irrelevant sense? If so, what does that signify? If their definition of personhood is the sine qua non of the concept, then a newborn child is no person at all. Indeed, I think this is what they mean by “morally relevant”. Nevertheless, their inability to escape the fact that a newborn is in some sense a person is reflected in their compulsion to use the word. Later, however, G & M make a startling admission: if someone asked them if they would had been harmed if their parents had decided to kill them as newborns (or foetuses), they would have replied “no”. And why? Because there would have been “no one” in existence to be harmed. It’s difficult to reconcile this concession with the abstract definition they offered earlier. And, apart from a chilling statement of self-condemnation (or an example of perverse courage, depending on how you look at it), the authors seem to be unaware of a very important fact: the newborn baby is hardly “no one”; it is very much “someone”, even if G & M have trouble unambiguously affirming its personhood. It is patently absurd to describe a crying, writhing infant as “no one”, as if no one existed. Of course, our authors would have to admit that something does “exist” – but if not a person, then what? How would one categorise a newborn if not to use the concept of personhood to describe it? It seems that our authors are ignoring embodied evidence that, at the very least, weakens (further) their strident claims.
Nevertheless, G & M insist that a newborn is not a person, and that to deprive it of life does not constitute harm. However, their confused argument does touch – briefly – on a fundamental issue that forces them into such an inconsistent view of a post-natal baby. Whilst denying it the status of personhood, our ethicists admit that it is hard to determine exactly when a human baby becomes a person. That is precisely correct. Personhood is not a static concept, and it would appear to be a notoriously difficult task for an external observer to definitively state when an individual “becomes” a person. No matter: our enlightened pair skate over this minor detail on their way to a confident affirmation of the newborn’s non-personhood. One is left agog at G & M’s seeming insouciance in the face of life-and-death issues. They largely ignore the crux of the issue – namely, the apparent moment someone enters the realm of personhood – which leaves their argument in tatters. If it is so difficult “to determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’”, is it wise to make such bold assertions about its moral rights (or lack thereof)? It appears that G & M have condemned their argument with their very own hands.
Here, we reach the heart of the matter – and the centre of the debate between advocates of abortion and those who venerably oppose it. G & M, perhaps unwittingly, have given us a glimpse of the basic philosophical problem: just when does a human subject become a person? Of what does personhood consist? Our ethicists would argue that one becomes a person upon attaining some measure of value for life, and an ability to formulate aims. Personhood as a concept and personhood as an epochal stage of human development are, for our authors, indissolubly linked. But again, I would argue that they are working with a deficient definition of the person. Implicit in their argument that newborns are non-persons is the idea that one has to have actualised all the attributes of personhood in order to possess the rights thereof. Yet this ignores the unfolding nature of the concept. Personhood is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. Now, as a Christian, I believe that the creation of human life results in a person from the moment of conception. However, it is also true to say that this does not become apparent at one moment in time, fully formed. From the moment of conception – and on, through all the stages of life until death – a person is a cascading genesis of human development. A foetus and a newborn are potential persons, in that they contain within themselves the seeds of their own individuality. Now, G & M explicitly eschew the notion of “potential personhood”. But why? Why should their static, actualised version win out over a philosophical model that seems to fit better with “facts on the ground” (so to speak)? A newly born infant (or a foetus) may not have highly developed goals, or a sophisticated appreciation of the value of life. But the capacity for developing those goals, and appreciating life is intrinsic to the newborn. It is not something that is imposed, externally. It resides within the individual, and emerges, gradually, over time. Moreover, it continues to develop over an individual’s life course. It could be said, then, that the project of personhood is an unfinished one. G & M concede that the moment of personhood (as they define it) is hard to determine. And so it is, if one adopts the narrow, actualised conception upon which our ethicists seem to rely.
In suggesting that a newborn is not harmed if deprived of life because it does not count as a person (according to their narrow conception), our authors fail to appreciate the intimate connection between the post-natal infant and the more developed individual. They ignore the fact that the two are inextricably linked – if I were not an infant, for example, I would not be here now. That much is absurdly obvious, but the value G & M ascribe to existing persons is based in part on qualities that were already present, though not yet actualised, in the infant (and even the foetus). Again, they may appeal to the non-actualisation of qualities as a way of arguing their case. I would argue, however, that there is something decidedly curious about arguing for the value of so-called “actualised” persons, over-against newborns, when the two are developmentally inseparable. In writing about the unborn (though the quote is equally relevant when concerning newborns), Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith writes that they are “…actively disposed to develop into a mature version of [themselves], though never ceasing to be the same being” (emphasis mine). Despite the many and varied changes a person undergoes throughout his life; despite the unfolding nature of existential reflection he might experience; despite the historical perspective he will eventually develop: he is still bound to his earlier, infant self. That is why there is nothing odd, for example, about referring to myself at the age of two weeks as “me” or “I”. Suggesting that no harm is done to a newborn, and that it can therefore be killed, inadvertently devalues and relativises the more mature life that grows organically from it.
Even if G & M’s definition of personhood were accurate in an exclusive sense, how do they know that newborns fail to meet the relevant criteria? For instance, how do they know that a post-natal infant has no aims? Now, it’s true that an individual at this stage of life does not possess the more sophisticated aims that one might attribute to someone older. A newborn obviously does not dream to be a professor or an astronaut, to write music or to work with disabled children (how can it, when any hope of formulating goals supposedly worthy of the right to life is snuffed out by our authors’ suggestion?). Nonetheless, we can say that it most certainly does have aims of a more basic nature. A newborn aims to eat, to sleep, to be close to its parents, to experience love and intimacy, and to absorb whatever information it can about the world around it. One might even say that a newborn is actively developing towards the point at which it is able to self-reflect and actualize its appreciation for life. These are plainly goals, and though the newborn may not be able to articulate them, they deeply challenge one particular dimension of G & M’s conception of personhood.
Chillingly, personhood, as defined by our authors, risks sliding down the so-called “slippery slope”. Now, it’s true that many progressives hate the slippery slope argument. And, of course, it’s difficult to argue on the basis of something that hasn’t happened (yet). Still, in addition to representing the latter stages of one slippery slope, G & M’s paper stands at the head of another. It opens up the possibility that not just newborns, but also others who don’t fit their definition of personhood, are theoretically liable to their recommendations. If it’s so difficult to pin down the moment of personhood, how long does the pre-personhood stage of human development last? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What about people who are profoundly disabled intellectually? Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s? Those in a coma who may never emerge? What about people who simply don’t think a lot about their lives, and what they mean? (OK, that was more in jest). These categories of individuals evidently fall outside the authors’ philosophical zone of personhood. Can they be deprived of life if they become a burden to their families and society? This line of reasoning may appear extreme, but once the absolute right to life is removed, then there is no logical reason to stop. Indeed, the authors argue something rather similar, in that they justify the notion of post-birth abortions on the current reality of pre-natal abortions. My rhetorical questions above simply extend the horrific logic further.
G & M’s paper, awful as it is, represents the final stage of a cold, logical process. The authors argue that this debate has been raging for several decades, and in this they are correct. The question of personhood – or its commencement, at least – has been debated with alacrity and vehemence as a consequence of organised advocacy of abortion. Once the attribution of personhood to the foetus was challenged, it was only a matter of time before the boundaries of the concept, along with the rights that went with it, were pushed further out. More to the point, once the objective moral status of the foetus (grounded in the “concrete” distinction between life and non-life, before and after conception) was abandoned, any demarcation between person and non-person was always going to seem arbitrary. Our authors have, in some ways, exposed that arbitrariness. But they have also offered us a ghastly utilitarian ethic that coldly pits the interests of the family against the needs of our society’s most vulnerable members.
* * *
To conclude: one wonders whether, in the words of columnist Barney Zwartz, our authors are “…allow[ing] thuggish thinking to smuggle in the desired conclusions of the premise” (“Killing Inconvenient Infants, The Age, March 7th, 2012). Indeed, our authors seem intent on reducing the moral status of newborns in order to uphold a brutish recommendation. Whether this is certainly the case is ultimately unanswerable. What is not unanswerable is the question of what this paper reveals about the present state of Western culture. Most people are bound to feel some sense of moral outrage if confronted with these suggestions, and rightly so. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also feel some collective sense of shame. Although the reasons for cultural, social and philosophical shifts are sometimes difficult to delineate, I would argue that this paper also represents a particularly extreme example of what happens when a society loses hold of certain perspectives that once underpinned the nobility of human dignity and value. In this case, it is the Judeo-Christian notion of the imago dei that has been lost – or rather, spurned. It is clear that the absolute dignity of life, whether in the womb or just beyond it, has been founded upon the metaphysics of Judeo-Christian thought. It is equally clear that we have lost that mooring, to our own detriment.
But our predicament is one of our own making. The fact that such thoughts and ideas could be entertained in a serious journal of ethics ought to compel us to reflect upon what we have done – or failed to do – to prevent our society reaching such a point. Ideas do not develop within a vacuum; rather, they constitute the climax of historical and philosophical processes that take place within, and between, societies. As some ideas are lost or rejected, others take their place, offering us a culmination of incremental trends. The idea that it might be morally justifiable to kill a newborn is one such culmination. It has had its genesis over many years of thought and reflection – not just in the rarefied arenas of academia, but also on the ground, in the street and in the home. We are complicit in the emergence of this particular idea, because we have failed to arrest the trajectory of a culture that has led to its promulgation and dissemination. And for that, we should be ashamed.