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Handling Editor Defends Decision: After – Birth Abortion

By: Prof. Kenneth Boyd, Revd Professor Emeritus of Medical Ethics, Associate Editor, JME

Coming up to me at a meeting the other day, an ethics colleague waved a paper at me. “Have you seen this ?”  she asked,  “It’s unbelievable!” The paper was ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” by two philosophers writing from Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva.

Well yes, I agreed, I had seen it: in fact I had been the editor responsible for deciding that it should be published in the Journal of Medical Ethics; and no, I didn’t think it was unbelievable, since I know that arguing strongly for a position with which many people will disagree and some even find offensive, is something that philosophers are often willing, and may even feel they have a duty, to do, in order that their arguments may be tested in the crucible of debate with other philosophers who are equally willing to argue strongly against them.  

Of course for that debate to take place in the Journal of Medical Ethics, many of whose readers, doctors and health care workers as well as philosophers, may well disagree, perhaps strongly, with the paper’s  arguments,  we needed first to make sure that the paper, like any other submitted to the Journal, was of sufficient academic quality for us to publish; and the normal way in which we determine this is to invite academics in relevant disciplines to review the paper critically for us, so that we can eventually make an informed decision about whether or not to publish it, either in its original or (as in this case) a form revised in the light of the reviewers’ reports.

Satisfied by the reviewers’ reports and my further editorial review that the paper was of sufficient academic quality to be published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and being charged with making the decision as an Editor with no conflict of interest in the matter, since unlike my fellow-editors in the relatively small world of international academic medical ethics I have never met the authors, and indeed personally do not agree with the conclusions of their paper, I decided that it was appropriate to publish it in the interest of academic freedom of debate.  

It has subsequently been suggested to me that people whose lives might have been ended by ‘after-birth abortion’ were this legal, might be deeply offended by this paper. If that is the case I am sorry, but I am also confident that many of these people are equally capable of mounting a robust academic reply to the paper which, again subject to peer-review, the Journal of Medical Ethics will be very willing to consider for publication.

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27 Comment on this post

  1. "Satisfied by the reviewers’ reports and my further editorial review that the paper was of sufficient academic quality to be published in the Journal of Medical Ethics . . . I decided that it was appropriate to publish it in the interest of academic freedom of debate."

    I am planning on submiting a paper "of sufficient academic quality", that argues all ethicists that support these neo Nazi's, should should be lined up against a wall and shot.

    In the interest of "academic freedom of debate", it deserves to be published right?

    Ethicists: "We didn't build the concentration camps, we just gave academic support to debating the merits of them."

  2. Congratulations on allowing this irresponsible article to be published. You've set the pro-choice movement back 30 years. This philosophical garbage with it's 'what if's' feed right into the pseudo-christian-talibanesque-fanatical anti-choice fear mongering. This article is already making the anti-choice rounds. You and I both know…."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’" is a line of garbage….just as the line, "had to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a 'person'." If you were familiar with abortion you would know the majority occur during the embryonic stage. The late-term abortions are almost all due to fetal anomalies, rape, or mother's health. A fetus is parasitic to it's mother….a newborn has taken it's first breath and medically, personnel are legally bound to take all necessary actions to support life at that moment. To make such dangerous, irresponsible statements suggesting that abortion occurring before or after birth is a travesty to all the hard work the pro-choice crowd has endured. Do you realize this type of (false) ammunition is like fanning the flames to some of the highly unbalanced anti-choice zealots? Are you prepared to take responsibility for these crazed lunatics actions against legally, hardworking individuals or their patients at the targeted medical institutions?

    Shame on you both….shame on your irresponsible academic egos….I hope there are no innocent victims that come from this crap!

    1. Correction – "pseudo-christian-talibanesque-fanatical anti-" DEATH

      A fetus has a seperate genetic code from it's parent. It is not a TUMOR.

      Or do you have a problem understanding that scientific fact?

    2. "I hope there are no innocent victims that come from this crap!" Do you even think about what you're saying? Try millions of innocent victims. Victims that are as close to innocence as a human gets.

    3. Excuse me for finding some of the responses amusing.

      There appears certain elements of both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, that are disgusted mainly because the arguments followed to their logical conclusion will advocate some forms of infanticide. Some Pro-Life see it as advocating a further evil, while some Pro-Choice are shocked that their arguments logically commit to something they think is evil.

      For my part I feel congratulations are in order for publishing what may turn out to be a very important paper. Let those with little understanding of the philosophy howl in protest, well done.

    4. "a newborn has taken it’s first breath and medically, personnel are legally bound to take all necessary actions to support life at that moment."

      Actually, you are wrong there. Depending on how far along the pregnancy is when the child is born, doctors do not, and often will not, do anything to save it. There have been a few stories of babies living a few hours, while their families scream for doctors to save it, and doctors refuse. Also, stories of parents lying about how far along the pregnancy is just so doctors will do something, and often times the babies live.

  3. Dear J. Savulescu: I will say to you what I said to F. Minerva… who does not deserve to be called a "dr" or an ethicist or anything close to the dictionary definition of what human means. You are just as EVIL as they for condoning and PROMOTING such GARBAGE. As I read your "article" all I see is Blah blah blah yada yada yada… which makes as much sense as what that "paper" those two supposed and alleged "enlightened" humans are babbling.


    What makes your life more worthwhile? Who gave you the supposed "right" to say it's ok to MURDER another human being? Sounds like you also have a God complex… when in FACT you are just as delusional and mentally DERANGED as those two supposed "dr's"… there is nothing ETHICAL in your heinous words.

    It's such a SHAME that your life has been wasted in the halls of "higher" learning and you will have nothing to show when you stand in front of God, the Father, to give an account… in fact, it will be quite the opposite… God DESPISES the PROUD AND HAUGHTY and especially those who INTEND to do HARM to the helpless. You are just as complicit as the abortionist/murderer who actually does the physical act of murder.

    Again… there is NOTHING PRACTICAL in what you are saying… you have no ethics… and I hope for your sake you REPENT of your wickedness while there is still time. AND NO I'M NOT ADVOCATING ANY TYPE OF VIOLENCE… I don't CONDONE – even though this MENTALLY DERANGED person does – or ADVOCATE VIOLENCE to anyone. I am EXPRESSING my 1st Amendment RIGHT to FREE SPEECH.

  4. I remember a Liberal journalist making the argument a few years back that infanticide was the next logical step and Liberals should support moves in this direction. Again nothing new.

    In regard to personhood based pro-abortion arguments, Pro-Choice simply cannot have their cake and eat it; and finally this point may start to be seriously addressed rather than the bandaids that have been presented so far.

  5. Good for you for publishing work that drives from premises to conclusions without flinching. That never requires agreement with the premises or the conclusion, what it demands is the intellectual clarity and integrity our culture has more or less completely abandoned, as exhibited by the comments above mine.

    I notice that the paper does not deal with Don Marquis' "future like ours" argument–I think that would have improved it. Of course, there are other factors, such as length.

    Congratulations again.

  6. If the reviewers think the work is of sufficient academic quality, then the decision to publish is the right one. Though the fact that the article is of interest to a large number of non-specialists raises the issue of why we should have to pay to read it when we have (presumably) already paid via our taxes for the writing, reviewing and editing of the paper! I would urge you to move your journal to Open Access, or if the publisher won't co-operate, use your talents elsewhere. It would surely only help the debate if people could read the whole thing freely.

    But that's secondary. As a non-specialist, the real issue seems to me to be how the whole field of medical ethics could have got to the point where conclusions like these qualify as being of sufficient academic quality when they are quite plainly wrong and absurd to anyone with a functioning conscience. The writing and publishing of this paper is a strong indication that somewhere along the way, the discipline has lost touch with reality, at least in part. You have done us a service by making that so clear. Looks like it's time to do some soul-searching about the fundamentals.

    1. Regarding the second point, I disagree strongly. While there can be cases of philosophers in Ivory Towers, overall at least they understand the arguments and have researched it. Many non-specialists haven't bothered to even research the lit or the foundational philosophy of their own arguments, instead relying of street corner arguments. IMO this goes for many lay people on both sides of the debate.

      Secondly given human and cultural bias one should never assume others are plainly wrong or absurd or that any individual is free of severe cognitive baises. (no need to mention reflexivity) Throughout history people and cultures have held views that they all thought obviously correct but changed or were no longer acceptable. If people got past there own visceral reactions maybe they would see this.

      1. I would strongly agree with you if we were talking about any natural science. The "obvious" can indeed be wrong and the scientific method is the best way to determine that. I also agree that the more informed and reflective we can be in any field of study, the better. However it seems to me that your argument amounts to saying that intellect should always override conscience where the two disagree. Surely in any discussion of ethics, conscience is an indispensable partner to reason. Otherwise we have the very worst of the ivory tower syndrome.

        Taking a historical perspective, the trend has, I hope and believe, been towards recognizing humanity more and more widely. Slavery is abolished when it's recognized slaves are people just like anyone else and deserve equal status. Similarly with racism, sexism, homophobia. Where intellect is allowed to override conscience, things happen that are not only morally objectionable but that are shown in the course of time to be based on wrong scientific assumptions. Think of human experimentation under the Nazis, or Descartes convincing himself that the screams of animals undergoing vivisection did not imply any real suffering. This paper looks to me like another example of the same regressive mindset, though thankfully still confined to the ivory tower.

        1. David first I maybe wrong but I don't think philosophy as a whole has yet to sufficiently deal with the ramifications of cognitive biases, similar in many ways to having our own personal Descartes' Demon in our head. Other than to say we should try our best but be mindful of a situation that we may be convinced that our stances are strongly supported by some sort of ethical ‘objectivity’, yet we are simply rationalizing personal or social biases.

          Next I don’t think the intellect should automatically override conscience but there has been quite a bit of work both psychological and philosophical on the value of ethical intuitions. & they aren't what they are cracked up to be all the time. All I would say is that both should be open to questioning but if nothing else you should be prepared to follow the logical conclusions of your intellect and understand the basis for your intuition. I’ve had intuitions that I’ve had to change because they were inconsistent or flawed. Others turned out to be ‘correct’.

          Ok I do think that ethical progress is indeed possible, but the problem with cognitive biases is that people cannot tell when their conscience is free of the bias or not. It maybe for many it is only in hindsight that they are free. After all there were ancient Romans that held many ‘modern’ views regarding women, infanticide and slavery but were overwhelmingly in the minority to those who were ruled by their socially constructed consciences.

          On this topic I've been prepared to go against intuition if it isnt consistent with where the logic takes you. If you don't like that place you should change the premises sand thats what Liberal philosophers need to do on abortion and infanticide.

          1. I would happily sign up to every word of your last post. It actually reflects some of my own experience too. Not quite sure how we got here from the strong disagreement we started with, but thanks for an interesting discussion!

    2. <i>when they are quite plainly wrong and absurd to anyone with a functioning conscience</i>

      Consider a chimpanzee that has learned a limited degree of sign language, a normal pet dog, a normal human newborn that has no language but can eventually develop some, and a severely impaired human who will never develop language or signs of self-awareness clearly beyond that of a pet or livestock animal. Which one is most clearly a person or deserving of the protection of rights — and why? Most people will say the infant and the retarded human, while dismissing the animals, yet it seems hard to defend that based on the actual capabilities of the creatures in question. One could say it's plainly wrong and absurd that parents or taxpayers be forced to care for a permanently non-linguistic child until it dies, while an animal knowing its name and capable of conversation may be subjected to medical experiments or killed.

  7. I am worried with the commentary of RachelB. This woman says a retarded human has less rights than a pet dog. Should be legalized cannibalism of retarded humans and babies?. Because in China dogs are eaten. Maybe someone publishs an article with this idea in the next future. Where does mankind go to?.

    1. Actually I didn't assert anything. I asked questions, as a challenge, as philosophers do. If personhood and self-awareness are our rational basis for morality, why do we give more rights to a deeply impaired human? Is there anything going on more than instinctual speciesism?

      1. I find that charges of speciesm can be laid at both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.

        If all it takes is being a humna being/Homo Sapiens then it seems we have speciesism.

        If you say personhood but then include non person humans but not non person non human species again it appears as speciesism.

        It appears to me both sides are so caught up attacking the other sides arguments that this point is overlooked.

  8. You Nazi marxists at Oxford have now driven that institution to an all-time low in respect. Its you who should be retroactively aborted.

    Any person who cannot understand why it is morally wrong to murder children is, quite frankly, insane. The people who wrote this article as well as your editor should be arrested for incitement to murder, and be placed in a mental hospital until such time as they can prove they are no longer a threat to our community, or our children.

    You people are very sick, seek professional help.

  9. Talking about speciesism. There are somo people who defend giving human rights to some animal species. Mostly Apes. I have nothing against it. But there are others who defend some humans should have the same rights as most animals. The problem is then some persons won't have right to live, just the rights the persons in charge ot them wanted to give them.
    Have in mind is IMPOSIBLE to give all animals the same rights as humans have. Are we going to protect the lives of insects?. What would happen then with birds?. It is impossible to intervine in the ecosystems to the point of erasing predation all around the World. So there will always be animals without the rights to live, and someone will also be able to deny the same right to some people claiming it is speciesism insects don't have humans rights and deeply retarded humans do.
    If laws are going to legalize infanticide we will go back in time to the Roman Empire, when babies and slaves were considered a thing possesed by the owner of the slave, or the father. The Roman law allowed the father doing whatever he wanted with his children.

    1. I don't think *anyone* is advocating giving *all* animals the *same* rights as humans. That would entail giving cockroaches the right to vote. And since some animals probably have a cognitive capacity comparable to some plants, we would also have to give rights to plants. Those animals that, to the best of our knowledge, have no sentience, have no need to be protected as individual animals (we may still wish to protect them as a species, if we believe a species has value independently of its individual members).

      Animal rights should be pragmatic, correspond with their cognitive ability, and dictate how humans should treat them. For example, an animal has a right not to suffer solely for a small amount of our own personal pleasure, where there are alternatives available that would not involve such suffering.

      There are clearly many animals out there that, if we were being consistent with giving them rights, would entail that we should probably intervene to assist them. For example, if we give significant rights to apes, perhaps we have a duty to protect them from harm in the wild. But as you say, this is not possible. This does not mean we shouldn't give them rights, with the long-term aim in mind of providing such protection. It is currently impossible for us to protect all *human* rights (for example, intervening in Syria would no doubt help save some people, but it would lead to the deaths of others), but that doesn't mean we abandon the whole concept.

      1. Matt I might of missed it but when we use cognitive ability as a basis of morality how do you overcome the obvious objections of treating like things alike?

  10. I honestly think that many people have failed to see the real point. I think that what the two philosophers tried to do is to say: if it's so wrong to kill a new born baby then why is it NOT wrong to kill it before it is born. I think it's a failed attempt on reverse psychology that is only setting women's right to choose a 100 years back. Think about it. What is one of the main tasks of the philosopher? To ask the impossible (and often unanwserable) questions.

  11. I concur with the congratulations. I wish that all the more vicious commentators were made to see the reasonable posts and discussion between David and Simon, and the great questions posed by Rachel. And Jessica, I know those stories to be true and have seen a few doctors commenting as much. This is an ancient debate among philosophers "How to recognise a newborn that is worth rearing?' (Soranus, cited in de Mause, 1974). An Australian academic, Cowlishaw (1978) also observed that a look through available sources indicated that infanticide is practised to some degree in every society, largely by women, but that public, largely male, recognition of the practise varies greatly from denial to institutionalism. Good to find some male reason here.

  12. Prayer After Birth (Acknowledgements and Apologies to Louis MacNeice).

    I am now born: please hear me,
    Let not the debt collectors,
    Or the rights protectors,
    Or the seditious insurrectors come near me.

    I am now born, comfort me,
    Else I fear that the human-folk may:
    With clever lies debase me,
    With bad science un-race me,
    And with strong drugs erase me.

    I am now born: please bestow me,
    Among the dancing grass, babbling brooks,
    Swaying trees and singing rooks,
    Undiminished bright light of grace and truth,
    To restore me.

    I am now born, with lullabies lull me,
    With warm cuddles mull me,
    With deep love sustain me, and,
    With silence, not gainsay me.

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