Killing Babies

Km11Kenan Malik over at his site, originally in Goteborg-Posten:

Is there no moral distinction between killing a newborn baby and aborting a fetus? And should an academic paper that seemingly advocated the killing of newborns have ever been published?

Those are the questions at the heart of a controversy that has erupted after the publication of a paper entitled ‘After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?’ in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Two Australian academics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, argued that the moral status of a newborn baby was identical to that of a fetus. Given that most people view abortion as morally acceptable so, they argued, there is no reason not to see infanticide as morally acceptable, too, even in ‘cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk’. Indeed, Giubilini and Minerva reject the term ‘infanticide’, preferring to talk of ‘after-birth abortion’.

The paper, which would normally have been read only by a handful of moral philosophers, was picked by newspapers and websites and caused outrage worldwide. ‘Slaughter newborn kids, say academics’, read the headline in one British tabloid. Australian commentators, American chat show hosts and Catholic bishops weighed in, many claiming that infanticide was the logical consequence of the legalization of abortion. The two authors say that they have received death threats.

There is, in fact, little new in Giubilini and Minerva’s argument. Philosophers such as Peter Singer have long championed similar kinds of claims. Humans, Singer suggests, have no intrinsic claim to life. The interests of an individual, including their right to life, depend upon their cognitive abilities. ‘The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it', he argues; 'it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

Since a newborn, unlike an adult, is incapable ‘of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future’, Singer has written, so they do not suffer by being deprived of a life they could never have imagined anyway. ‘Killing a newborn baby is', in his view, 'never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living’.