Killing Pretend People in the Journal of Medical Ethics

Dear Reader,

There is a bioethics article that has been flying across the Internet today, which caught my attention. It’s a philosophy article in the Journal for Medical Ethics titled, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” by two Italian professors, Giubilini and Minerva. I’m not making this up; you can access the full citation and abstract here.

The article makes a rather demonic argument which, if interpreted innocently, would seem to be a reductio ad absurdum to those who argue fetuses aren’t persons: if fetuses aren’t persons, neither are newborns, and so we are morally justified in killing newborns after they are born. But it isn’t a joke – it’s deadly serious. In fact, it recommends terminating both newborns who have mental retardation and healthy ones!

Their admission of the permissibility of killing healthy newborns and what factors should permit this are fantastically open-ended:

“We claim that killing a newborn could
be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where
abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the
newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable
life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.”

The argument the paper makes is quite silly, but, as nobody has of yet discussed it in detail, I thought I might just outline it for you, my dearest readers. I have spliced together quotes in a logical order to create the following argument:

  1. The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus,
    that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally
    relevant sense.”

    1. “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and
      potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of
      ‘subject of a moral right to life’.”
    2. “We take ‘person’ to mean an
      individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence
      some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this
      existence represents a loss to her.”

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

        1. “Indeed, many humans are not considered
          subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on
          embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is
          permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.”
      2. “This means that many nonhuman
        animals and mentally retarded human individuals are
        persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition
        of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.”
  2. “It is not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her
    from developing the potentiality to become a person in the
    morally relevant sense.”

    1. “If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not
      become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither
      an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means
      that there is no harm at all.”
  3. “Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be
    compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an
    existing person.”

    1. “The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an
      existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does
      not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims.”
  4. “[Therefore]…it should also be
    permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy
    newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.”

The first impressive thing to me is that the authors admit that you cannot deny that fetuses are human beings! It is scientific fact, as the pro-life movement so often points out. Fetuses aren’t house-flys or rocks or carrots, but human beings. But that doesn’t stop these professors from killing these human beings.

The crux of the argument, however, is that which is highly problematic: persons are only those things that have developed a self-aware aim in life. As the author admits (somewhat absurd in its non-chalance), this means many non-human animals are persons. Personhood and rights are correlated to actions people perform rather than anything inhering in them.

The most obvious criticism of this is that, of course, sleeping people or those in comas are excluded from being persons. Very few people talk in their sleep and none, as far as is common, talk while in comas. Sleepy dwarf just got sent to the glue factory.

These professors seem to correlate personhood over time as an event, so that if I “once” developed a self-aware aim in life, then I seem to have it “forever”. This allows them to claim that individuals who have “developed” self-purpose and aims are “real” persons.

Or do they? We can argue, on the basis of their views, for the moral rightness of euthanasia when the person becomes too burdensome on society and cease exercising these “morally relevant” activities. There is no reason, based on their discussion of persons, why this cannot follow; another utilitarian, Peter Singer, has already drawn that conclusion. In that case, it’s not really forever but only until the people in power decide you aren’t useful anymore. It’s straight-up utilitatarianism: weigh one “self-aware aim” versus societal “progress”, carry-over the Altzheimer’s disease,  and add up your sums to get one dead old fart who wasn’t much use to society in a philosophy professor’s eyes.

The moral of the story? Don’t take a nap, or you’ll have some creepy Italian philosophy professors trying to smother you.

No, seriously, I think the moral is this: most people don’t consider the logical implications of their support of abortion. If they did, they’d be horrified.

The big question, then, is what constitutes humanity and where rights to life come from. Answer those questions VERY carefully. 

These Italians have already admitted that fetuses and embryos are human. As a consequence, it seems obvious that the only place we can put the beginning of human life at is conception. All other standards for humanity seem to fall significantly short or into outright contradiction.

What, then, is a “right to life?”

Is it only something the State can give? Then the Nazis were justified in denying it to those living in their country.

Is it arbitrary? Then I can deny it to you.

Is it founded in certain activities? Then when you stop doing something “morally relevant,” like thinking, I can kill you.

Is it tied to usefulness? Then let’s hope you don’t ever become useless to me or the State.

Is it tied to being human? Then we have to oppose abortion, euthanasia, and all other morally evil infringements on that right with our whole being.

And, if the last claim is true, then people are being killed in  genocidal proportions as we speak. 

What are you doing about it?


Yours in Christ,

Br. James Dominic, OP

  1. #1 by Steven B on February 28, 2012 - 10:43 am

    Pretty much.

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