Isn't it rather naive for a philosopher to protest that ideas don't have consequences?
A paper proposing use of the term ‘after birth abortion’ to refer to the killing of both disabled and apparently healthy new-born babies, was published recently in the Journal of Medical Ethics, arguably one of the world’s leading bioethical academic publications. As the editor of a similar (though far less prestigious) journal, I very clearly appreciate the right of the current JME editor, Professor Julian Savulescu, to publish his former colleagues’ views. Academic journals should be a place where open and robust debate on controversial issues can occur.
What has surprised me though is the apparent naiveté of both Drs Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, the young authors of the paper, who were reported as being shocked at the hostile reaction to their opinions. Whilst not in any way condoning the cheap and harmful anonymous death threats and hate mail against them both, which are indefensible and deplorable, I find it astonishing that, as philosophers, they should express bewilderment at it and protest that their paper “has no relevance outside the bioethics community” and is “pure academic discussion”.
The idea of the internet-age philosopher being a latter-day Aristotle, musing to his disciples among the leafy colonnades of the Lyceum and isolated from the rest of the world is completely untenable -- certainly since Karl Marx’s emphasis on the sublation of philosophy from theory into practice (praxis). To put it in plain English, every social revolution begins with an idea and Giubilini and Minerva’s ideas are no exception and have every relevance in the world beyond academia. If we did not expect our ideas to be noticed and, if we believe they are good ones, to be acted upon, there would be little point in putting them in print in the first place.
Professor Savulescu rightly states that the arguments in the paper are “not new” and, whilst some of his internet interlocutors also rightly point out that they go back at least to the times of Baal and Moloch, it is their articulation in more recent times by philosophers including Peter Singer, John Harris and Michael Tooley, that Savulescu has in mind in regard to defending newborn infanticide (though he himself clearly states he is not in favour of legalising infanticide). Harris stated in the midst of a similar media storm in 2004, "People who think there is a difference between infanticide and late abortion have to ask the question: `What has happened to the foetus in the time it takes to pass down the birth canal and into the world which changes its moral status?'”1
I have commended Professor Harris and philosophers like him for years for their logic and consistency of argument in such statements. This is quite true and as Dominic Lawson, former editor of the UK’s Sunday Telegraph, pointed out recently in connection with the recent furore over sex-selection abortions in the UK, “It has always seemed to me that if people… take the view that it is absurd to ascribe any independent rights or even moral meaning to the unborn child – the foetus, as they would say….are right about that, then it is surely irrelevant as to what sex the embryo has acquired, or even if that identity is the reason for the mother's decision. If the child-to-be is not wanted, it is not wanted: end of argument.”
By the same logic, if the child is not wanted immediately after birth it was inevitable at some point, that it would be argued that a woman’s right to choose should trump any supposed rights of a new-born infant as well those of an unborn one. Once abortion is accepted, infanticide would logically be the next step.
Capturing public opinion on such a step however, is not as easy as it was with abortion in the 1960s when ordinary ultrasound scanning, let alone 3D scanning, had not been invented so the unborn baby was, by its very nature, out of sight – and therefore easier to put out of mind. Killing newborn babies, though a logical incremental extension of abortion, is in practice another matter. It is one thing to kill a fetus in the womb, quite another to kill it when you can actually see it struggling against your endeavours. Verbal engineering is a well -recognised means of influencing the acceptance of the unthinkable. Capture the language and you then capture the heart.
This lies at the heart of what , as far as I can see, is the only original feature of this paper and which marks another incremental step towards softening public opinion about infanticide. Their novel use of the term “after-birth abortion” should be a prime candidate for smothering at inception in itself. The word “afterbirth” in common use as the lay term for the placenta and hence bound to cause practical confusion - when I saw the article title at first I thought it was about placentas!
More importantly, however, the term “after-birth abortion” merely begs the question about the ethical issue at the heart of the debate – is the moral status of the newborn the same as that of the unborn? If it is, then this publication of this article has certainly changed my mind over one thing. I shall from now on refer to late abortion as antenatal infanticide.
Dr Trevor Stammers is Programme Director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary’s University College, London, UK.