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<p>Photo by Mike Bowers.</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers.

Infanticide or Abortion?

A recent paper by two Melbourne academics explores the ethics of killing babies. Now they are the subject of death threats themselves.


In the Netherlands in 2005 a doctor, Eduard Verhagen, prompted a furore admitting he had euthanised four newborn babies using a lethal intravenous drip of morphine and midazolam (a sleeping agent). The doctor and one of his colleagues had penned a set of infant euthanasia guidelines for "infants with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering". Called the Groningen Protocol, it was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. There is no absolute legal protection for physicians in the Netherlands who carry out infant euthanasia, but the protocol provides guidelines that would provide some protection. Verhagen was not prosecuted.

The idea underpinning the Groningen Protocol is not new; ethicists and philosophers have advanced the concept of limited, supervised infanticide since the early 1970s, perhaps most famously by well-known Australian ethicist Peter Singer. Last week, two Australian academics from Melbourne co-authored a paper on the subject that was published online by the British Medical Journal's Journal of Medical Ethics.

“What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited.”

The paper, After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live? has been attacked savagely since it first was posted, forcing the journal's editor to write a passionate defense of its publication. Anonymous online commenters have called, indirectly and directly, for the authors to be murdered, some saying they would happily do it themselves. There is vitriol, and plenty of it.

"What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society," journal editor Julian Savulescu wrote in a blog post.

Certainly the level of abuse being hurled at them through cyberspace has shocked the authors, Alberto Giubilini of Monash University and Francesca Minerva of the University of Melbourne. Minerva told The Age newspaper she had contacted police over some of the threats.

"This debate is not new. The debate has been going on for 30 years,'' Minerva told The Age. ''I don't think people outside bioethics should learn anything from this paper. I've received hundreds of emails saying, 'You should die.'"

Giubilini told The Global Mail that he and Minerva would not be commenting further on the issue, other than to draft a letter to the journal.

That letter was published online on March 3. It argues the article was taken out of context and blown up into something it is not.

"We never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal. This was not made clear enough in the paper. Laws are not just about rational ethical arguments, because there are many practical, emotional, social aspects that are relevant in policy making... But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy," the two wrote.

The article is indeed a technical ethics paper, and perhaps its crime is simply that it deals, however abstractly, with an issue about which people are passionate. Using the internet, it is easier than ever to spread academic debate outside of its intended sphere, sometimes with nasty consequences.

"We claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be," the paper says.

"Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life."

The paper, just three pages long, is brief and to the point. It argues that "the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a foetus, that is, neither can be considered a 'person' in the morally relevant sense. [And] it is not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense."

A newborn baby, the paper argues, has no "aim" in life yet, and as such is not unlike a foetus. It is a straight exercise in philosophy. There is no argument advanced by the authors that is not drawn from the position of pure rationality. If a newborn has the same theoretical characteristics as a foetus, why not assign to it the same value and apply the same rules?

"If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion, even when the foetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn," the paper concludes.

It also says that the authors "do not claim after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion, abortions at an early stage are the best option, for both psychological and physical reasons".

“Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”

The paper spends significant time dealing with the idea that the parents of a newborn baby with disabilities that greatly impair quality of life should be able to make the same decision to terminate as the parents of an unborn child with the same set of discovered disabilities. But it goes further than arguing that only babies with disabilities should be subject to the possibility of an after-birth abortion.

"We claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be," the paper says.

The paper, meant to further academic discussion around a specific issue, has been dropped in the eye of a very real storm of debate, mainly in the United States, over reproductive rights - when a human life begins, and how a woman should be allowed to exercise her reproductive freedom.

In late February a member of the Oklahoma state senate attended a protest holding a provocative placard: "If I wanted the government in my womb I'd fuck a senator," it said.

The sign was part of a protest over a "personhood" bill that has passed the Oklahoma senate and is headed to its House of Representatives for consideration. The bill says that life begins at conception, giving an embryo all individual rights. It is one example of a growing wave of legislative attempts to roll back reproductive freedoms won in the United States through the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v Wade in 1973.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers.</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers.

The Australian academics' paper was picked up by right-wing news website The Blaze, started in 2010 by former Fox News host Glenn Beck. In an article in the Faith section of the website there are more than 1,100 comments responding to the idea of after-birth abortion. Comments include sentiments like this one, from Dismayed Veteran: "I believe these two failed to become a person and aborting them is still an option."

What the Blaze article also hits upon is the significance of equating a newborn baby with a foetus at any stage in its progression. In a response to Minerva and Giubilini's article, the American National Catholic Registercarried an article that argued: "The second we allow ourselves to become the arbiters of who is human and who isn't, this is the calamitous yet inevitable end. Once you say all human life is not sacred, the rest is just drawing random lines in the sand."

Essentially, the argument goes, if you don't agree with killing babies then you shouldn't agree with killing foetuses. Ever. Under any circumstances. That's a heated debate well underway in the United States, where issues of personhood, abortion funding and the separation of medical treatment and religion are all part of the contemporary politics in state and federal legislatures.

American pro-choice advocates believe a challenge to overturn the rights won through Roe v Wade is imminent, and many pro-life advocates are agitating for one.

The vitriol that feeds the abortion debate is what has sparked some of the strongest and most alarming criticism of the after-birth abortion paper. Still, advocates for a woman's right to choose are not necessarily lining up to support the theory either.

“We’re not rational beings. We operate on a mixture of emotion and rationality. I think you just have to assume that we have some rules and in a civilised community, the rule is you do not kill a viable infant.”

Australian feminist and sociologist Eva Cox says she disagreed with the journal article because of its absolutist stance. "It's almost like an argument from a right-to-lifer, setting it out in an extreme basis… there's some very hazy areas around what is a viable foetus and what isn't a viable foetus."

Cox says it is anathema to human emotion to expect people to view a newborn in the same way as a newly established foetus.

"It starts getting to an absurd point. We're not rational beings. We operate on a mixture of emotion and rationality. I think you just have to assume that we have some rules and in a civilised community; the rule is you do not kill a viable infant."

An advocate for abortion rights, Cox believes society will never settle on terms for abortion regulation, rather the argument will roll on the shifting sands of technology, science and morality.

"I don't think this is an issue that will ever be soluble… I think one needs to make some sort of line between a person who is born and a person who is not born and isn't viable if they were born. Somewhere in there, there has to be a line drawn, and that leaves grey areas," says Cox.

"But unfortunately life is too complex to always find a simple solution to it."

5 comments on this story
by David

Setting aside my personal opinion on the content of the Giubilini & Minerva paper, I think that the pair have every right to publish their findings. It is the controversial and difficult topics which require the most discussion, and both of these academics have done so, even if it is in a rather extreme fashion. I praise the two for bringing further to light the varying perspectives on the issue. To those who would threaten an academic who takes the time to present a different perspective - perhaps you should understand that every debate is like a battle, and even if you lose the battle to a better strategy, you get to keep that strategy for yourself next time. Know the full story and carry your voice in the proper forum.

March 5, 2012 @ 3:31pm
by Michelle

What surprises me about the abortion debate is that many pro-lifers seem, apparently, for the death penalty. How ironic!

I don't really agree with this rationalist argument that a newborn is the equivalent of a foetus simply because of viability and evidential self-determination. However, this does not mean I would want the proponents of such discussions skewered either, figuratively or literally.

These discussions must be had so that the ethical treatment of human beings can be made in these terrifyingly difficult situations - with as much compassion and empathy as rational judgement of the "rules".

March 5, 2012 @ 7:21pm
Show previous 2 comments
by Rose

This is the problem with philosophy - it is too interested in ideas in and of themselves - the more abstract the better - at the expense of evidence of actual practical experience, and what likely outcomes of certain things are. Philosophers pride themselves on circular logic and playing with language. Core morality is something that has to be upheld and not just debated about, and here we are getting into the territory where we are arguing about who is and who is not a person once born - the line has gone off the scale and anything might be justified. I am not anti abortion though its something that must not be entered into lightly, and not too late. Regarding this article, there has got to be a line in the sand that there is no theorising about.

March 6, 2012 @ 11:02pm
by Numbat

"....with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering". This is the compelling argument for euthanasia, at any stage of life ("parents" becomes "family members"), including neonates. Firstly we have to be prepared to let nature take its course by ceasing interventions that prolong suffering. Secondly we must allow medical experts to tell the truth about prognosis, and the pros and cons of treatment, without fear of retribution and legal punishment. Thirdly we accept that prolonging a life of unbearable suffering consumes resources that could relieve suffering in other individuals with a better prognosis. We need to apply the triage principle, and reject religious objections which are, by definition, based on faith not reason.

December 2, 2012 @ 5:28pm
by Nick

Cool. Let's discard our most vulnerable but sweeping them aside. I can't wait to raise children in this world. Oh wait, what if my child is disabled? Will I be pressured to get rid of it as he or she will be seen as a drain on resources? Some of the happiest kids in the world are disabled. Some of the happiest parents are ones of disabled children. My brother has an intellectual disability and represented Australia in the 2000 Paralympics. My Grandmother spent 50 years of her life looking after my severely disabled uncle. If that isn't love, what is? Who are we to judge as to who lives and dies and anyway? Would you want to live in a society that discriminates against the most needy?

May 6, 2013 @ 11:22pm
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