Concern for Our Vulnerable Prenatal and Neonatal Children: A Brief Reply to Giubilini and Minerva

Guest Post: Charles C. Camosy, Assistant Professor of Theology,Fordham University, New York City

Despite the wide public outcry over their article, Giubilini and Minerva’s arguments in defense of infanticide are nothing new. Peter Singer has become one of the best known philosophers in the world in part because of the attention he has received from defending the practice. Infanticide was such an established part of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome that Christians and Jews became subjects of public mockery for opposing it. Even today, infanticide is consistently practiced in places where the Judeo-Christian tradition does not serve as a moral foundation, such as China and India.

But the Judeo-Christian tradition’s influence has diminished in the developed West, and as a result it has become more difficult to claim that all members of the species Homo sapiens are persons with an equal right to life. Giubilini and Minerva provide an important example of what follows from the rejection of the sanctity of human life. Even the most ardent defenders of abortion rights cannot deny the science behind the claim a prenatal child is a fellow member of our species, but that—at least to some in our post-Christian world—is not morally significant. What matters is having the interests and capabilities of persons: rationality, self-awareness, the ability engage in loving relationships, etc. Many already reject the personhood of our prenatal children because they do not have these traits, but Giubilini and Minerva make the fairly obvious point that our neonatal children do not have these traits either. Thus, they claim, if one supports abortion for this reason, one should support infanticide on the same basis.

The Catholic Church has been making the same logical connections between abortion and infanticide for the better part of 2000 years. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian manuals for converts,[1] specifically mentions them together: “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.”[2] Even in the modern era, when infanticide is not a clear public policy issue, we still find the Church making this connection. Consider the bishops of the Second Vatican Council claiming that “from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care” and in the next breath that “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes.”[3] Interestingly, Giubilini and Minerva share a similar understanding to that of the Catholic Church with regard to the issues and reasoning in play—and, using premises which many other pro-choice people share, they follow the argument all the way to infanticide.

Now, let me be perfectly clear, it does not follow that just because one supports abortion rights that one must support the right to infanticide. One could support abortion rights for many reasons which have nothing to do with the moral status of the child. One might reasonably believe that prenatal children deserve equal protection of the law, but also claim that this doesn’t require women to sustain them with their bodies; one might believe that there is no good way to get the laws banning abortion enforced without seriously hurting the common good; one might also, based on history, have some hesitation to return to a time where there was broad government regulation of a woman’s reproductive capacity.

But we must be honest about the fact that many, many people who support abortion choice do so in large measure because of what they believe about the prenatal child. This is in part why there was such an outcry from those who support abortion choice when a prenatal personhood amendment (which did not address any of the complex questions in the paragraph above) was put up for a vote in the American state of Mississippi.[4] For a plurality of people, the abortion debate turns on what kind of thing the prenatal child is.

And with this group in mind, we should also point out that some of them have offered arguments for why we would consider neonatal children as persons and (some) prenatal children as nonpersons. Our neonatal children have the “breath of life” or a heartbeat or brain-development or some such trait that (some) prenatal children do not have. But here again the Catholic Church would side with Giubilini and Minerva in arguing that these are irrelevant traits when it comes to defining personhood. Especially if one is not ready to offer the right to life to other animals that breathe and have a heartbeat and brain, then this seems little more than arbitrary speciesism.

But the Catholic Church will part company with Giubilini and Minerva with regard to moral anthropology and in particular when they claim human persons can be defined merely as collections of actualized traits. The Church will instead build on the view of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas that human persons are substances of a rational and relational nature.[5][ Human persons remain kinds of things that subsist over time whether (1) we are currently expressing specific traits like rationality and self-awareness, or (2) those traits are currently unexpressed or frustrated as a result of disease, immaturity, intoxication, unconsciousness, brain injury, and so on. From our prenatal and postnatal children—to brain damaged and mentally disabled adults—the fact that a fellow substance of a rational nature happens to have their potential frustrated is no reason at all to treat them as anything less than a person.[6] If anything, those who are not currently expressing these traits deserve our special attention given that they are so vulnerable—not least because of the ideas and reasoning used by Giubilini and Minerva.

Pro-lifers, like all serious players in the public debate, should hold a coherent and consistent point of view. We should expect, therefore, to be pushed to deal with the implications of our positions which seem absurd to others. A recent and powerful example of this involves our opponents pushing us to explain why the high rate of natural embryo loss should not be regarded as a massive and tragic emergency.[7] But those who support abortion rights should be forced to defend similarly counterintuitive implications as well, one of which (for most people, anyway) is the permissibility of infanticide. Giubilini and Minerva should also be pushed to develop their argument all the way through and respond to what appear to be absurd consequences. Consider this very important quote from their article:

In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold [for when a human infant becomes a person], as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.

But can they really say nothing about this very important question? This looks an awful lot like an attempt to avoid following their argument to its (difficult) logical conclusion.

For the sake of argument, let us assume this relatively uncontroversial claim: “a pig, though having significant moral value, is not a person with a [legal] right to life.” At what point does a human infant’s rationality and self-awareness exceed that of pig? Pigs have very sophisticated mental lives, and have even been taught to play video games.[8] In the interest of not wanting to kill an actual person, perhaps we should be conservative and leave a large gray area in answering this question. But even with this constraint, surely Giubilini and Minerva would be forced to allow infanticide through a child’s first birthday. No one-year-old baby can be taught to play a video game. And perhaps in the face of uncertainty about the baby’s personhood we should err on the side of parents’ rights. It could very well take beyond the first birthday of one’s child to determine, for instance, that one is not cut out for parenting, or that one would rather go back to school, or that one doesn’t want a child with a certain kind of mental disability (or even that the child has such a disability in the first place), etc. We might very well argue (as is regularly done in the context of abortion) that scenarios in which a child’s personhood is unclear ought to be resolved in favor of the interests the parent. This could mean that those holding Giubilini and Minerva position on child-killing would be forced to defend the practice well into the second or even third year of life, depending on how one defined rationality and self-awareness.

For many people, but perhaps especially for Christians who are committed to nonviolence and special concern for the vulnerable, these conclusions are morally repugnant and can produce strong emotional reactions. And it is often appropriate to react with strong negative emotion in response to a great and violent injustice directed a particularly vulnerable population. I know, for instance, that when I first started reading Singer’s arguments about infanticide I became very angry, and today I believe quite strongly Giubilini and Minerva’s arguments are fundamentally wrongheaded. And yet, something needs to be said about the way many have reacted to their article. Though anyone advancing an argument in the public sphere on a controversial issue should expect to get strong negative attention (especially when doing so in a deliberately provocative way), it must be said that the personal attacks and threats of violence that have been leveled at Giubilini and Minerva—especially when the attacks come from those who identify as Christians—have been absolutely disgraceful. That hate and vitriol are spewed by people on all sides of these controversial debates is nothing new, but Christians are called to love and solidarity even with those who oppose us on massively important issues like this. When we behave in ways which undermine our own values of love, solidarity, and respect for life, we not only fail to live the life to which Jesus called us, but we also undercut the effectiveness of our own arguments.

Charles C. Camosy is Ast. Prof. of Theology at Fordham University in New York City.  He is author of Too Expensive to Treat? and Peter Singer and Christian Ethics, and blogs at CatholicMoralTheology.com.

[1] It was certainly known by the third century, but some scholars claim it dates to 70 C.E.

[2]  J. Armitage Robinson trans and ed., “Didache”, Barnabas, Hermar and the Didache, D.ii.2c, (NY: The MacMillan Co.), 112.

[3] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965 (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1976), 51.

[4] For a good example, see http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/10/07/1023558/-Occupy-My-Uterus-My-Ass-Fertilized-Eggs-Are-NOT-People-  (Accessed March 1, 2012)

[5] Interesting, this concept was applied to angels as well as humans—and it might well be that some non-human animals may also be substances of a rational nature.  I explore this possibility in chapter three of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[6] I make this argument in some detail in chapters one and two of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization.

[7] I try to respond to this difficult problem here ‘The Subject of the Scourge: Rethinking Implications of Natural Embryo Loss.’ American Journal of Bioethics (July 2008) 8(7).

[8] http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/hidden-lives-pigs.aspx (Accessed March 1st 2012)

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22 Responses to Concern for Our Vulnerable Prenatal and Neonatal Children: A Brief Reply to Giubilini and Minerva

  • Steve Cooke says:

    I've never under stood the arguement for granting personhoodl rights based on natural kinds. We don't think a being lacking rationality has the kinds of rights that fully rational persons do in regard making choices about their lives (voting, smoking, getting married etc), so why would we think they have other rights of personhood. Why should we call them persons at all? The natural kinds argument is an example of wanting to have the cake and eat it – it demands personhood rights based on kinds, but is happy to deny other rights based on facts about the particular being.

    It seems to me that the quesiton is not whether non-rational humans are persons, but whether they have moral standing irrespective of personhood. Early in the post you set up the false choice of basing moral standing on species membership or on personhood. Rather than trying to call beings without rationality, and without event the capacity to develop the traits required for moral personood, 'persons' purely because they are humans or of a particular 'kind', we should instead be asking whether personhood is the only characteristic that imposes constraints upon our treatment of a being.

    It seems to me that basing moral considerability on characteristics that a being actually possesses rather than on some kind of transcendental characteristic unconnected with any empirical facts about that being, or an arbritrary characteristic like species membership, provides a much firmer foundation for grounding moral worth. Thus we can say, it is the fact that a newborn has moral standing because it has interests and can suffer that makes killing it wrong, not the fact that it has human genes, or is of the type of thing that normally develops personhood.

    • SimonJm says:

      Hmm Steve if the newborn isn't a person what grounds its interests? Secondly this reasoning would also seem to indicate recovering coma victims are no longer persons.

      • Steve Cooke says:

        Surely persons are not the only kinds of beings with morally relevant interests? It seems strange to include a being in the category of persons just in order to make it morally considerable and even though it lacks the characteristics of personhood – why not just concede that it's not just personhood than obligates us? On the point of the recovering coma patient; it doesn't seem to me that the two cases are analogous at all. We don't think persons lose their status as persons while they are sleeping, or insensible on drugs, so why would we judge the recovering coma patient differently?

        • SimonJM says:

          "Surely persons are not the only kinds of beings with morally relevant interests?"

          No, but when dealing with full moral worth and its use to justify abortion, what is or isnt a person in life and death decisions is crucial.

          Often the 'Prince is not a King' argument is raised, we don't give powers or value to something that isnt the thing that holds that value. But the flipside of that argument is it is equally valid if the king is no longer the king he shouldn't have the powers of the king, even if by some circumstance he will later regain that title. This is something that Singer acknowldges,in that strickly speaking a recovering coma victim is no longer is a person as they lack that capacity, and shouldn't have the same right to life. If you want to base ontological identity on personhood capacity if it isn't there you aren't techically a person.

          Having said that IMO our natural kind isn't being a person either but thats another argument.

          BTW what people think by conventtion is neither here nor there, after all slaves and coloured people weren't considered fully human historically either and by in large people are ruled by the norm.

          • Steve Cooke says:

            I wonder if your use of the word 'recovering' to describe the hypothetical coma patient has us discussing at cross purposes. If someone is trapped in a coma with little to no chance of recovery and limited brain function, then I don't think they remain a person (although we may wish to pursue a precautionary principle). But if a person is in a temporary coma and recovering, then I think we should treat them as we would any person in a temporary state like sleep or unconciousness.

            Finally, whilst I don't think that commonsense morality is something we can appeal to to settle a question, it does form an excellent starting point to kick off the kind of reflective discourse we're engaging in here.

          • SimonJm says:

            Steve the point about the recovering coma patient is that they don’t currently have the personhood capacity and since having the capacity is what designates on a person they don’t meet that criterion. Now you would have to argue why we should grant the associated full moral worth to this class of humans that don’t have the capacity but will in the future, but not a foetus that doesn’t, but will also gain it in the future. You might argue that having gained the capacity is important and even if lost when can assign some abstract interests as if they still aware of them; somewhat like David Boonin. But that fails to take account that one can with a very similar process assign abstract interests to the unborn without them ever having had them.

            BTW I have no problem with common sense morality, social norms or moral intuitions as a starting place. But once you start from that position they had better be consistent with their underlying premises, and allowing abortion but not infanticide on non person humans based on similar reasons that allow parents to have abortions, is currently inconsistent.

          • Steve Cooke says:

            If I am person, that is to say I act autonomously and am morally responsible for my actions, then personhood becomes partly constitutive of my good. I can be harmed in ways connected with my personhood and the choices and plans I make through its exercise. Whilst I am asleep, or in other ways temporarily not acting autonomously, I cannot be held responsible for my actions and cannot exercise the rights I hold that are associated with the exercise of my will. I cannot, for example, marry whilst sleepwalking. However, I can still be harmed in ways related to the personhood I ordinarily exercise whilst conscious because when I wake up I will carry on with my plans. It seems to me that the loss of personhood whilst asleep or otherwise unconscious is relevantly different than the permanent loss of personhood, or the failure to ever gain personhood because of the continuation of personhood on conciousness and the associated set of chosen and revisable life plans that accompany it.

          • SimonJm says:

            Steve the foundation of the personhood based abortion justification centres on if you have that capacity and how future based existential relations stem from it. Sure permanent loss of personhood or never being able to acquire it is a simple matter to address, but if you are going to so strongly rely on HAVING that capacity to base moral worth on, you have to come up with a stronger case why two entities that both will have it in the future but don’t have it now, should be treated differently. If you resort to abstract interest justifications based on having had them and having them again in the future, it isn’t that hard to create abstract interests based simply on acquiring them in the future. We certainly act that way in regard to mothers taking drugs etc.

            Which also brings us back to the infanticide argument; neither babies or infants under –or some even older- have personhood based desires or interests, but seem to simply rely on the fact they will have them in the future. This being the case it isn’t really their interests that is giving a ‘right’ to life but the interests of the parents. If that relies on arbitrary biological interest, the reverse is also possible and it can be in the interests of the parents to euthanize their baby. Singer seems to just rely on the circumstance most parents want their healthy children to survive but fails to acknowledge the reverse is also possible.

          • Steve Cooke says:

            I'm really struggling to see how you get from not having personhood-based interests to infants only being owed indirect duties in virtue of the interests of their parents'. It seems more correct to me to simply affirm that infants are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes because they are sentient beings, capable of suffering. I've not said, at any stage that I think personhood is the basis for moral worth, rather, I would argue that having personhood is partly constitutive of the good of persons and therefore grounds personhood rights in persons. Nothing in that precludes granting moral standing to non-persons.

          • SimonJm says:

            Steve other animals are sentient yet we don't give them full moral worth you would have to explain why we don't.

            Also you haven't explained how one maintains ones identity as a person -when personhood is based on having personhood capacity- when an individual lacks that capacity. We are after all strongly connecting functionality to what an entity is. Just relying on your harm abstraction doesnt do it. It may work witha sleeping person as they still have a capacity but doesn't for recovering coma victim.

            <b>I’ve not said, at any stage that I think personhood is the basis for moral worth, rather, I would argue that having personhood is partly constitutive of the good of persons and therefore grounds personhood rights in persons. Nothing in that precludes granting moral standing to non-persons.</B>

            No but strongly connected and justifiying the moral consequnce, as with the relationship between sentience and non suffering. BTW by this reasoning this only means that these beings only have the preference not to suffer, but not to continued life. So one in principle -like other only sentient animals- should be able to humanly kill babies. So they do indeed have moral standing but just not full moral standing. If you want to give it to them you have to use something other than sentience.

          • Steve Cooke says:

            Fortunately we're both happy to concede that what is commmonly regarded as morally right doesn't always correspond to what is morally right – so I'm happy to agree with you about animals and then say that the way we commonly treat them is therefore wrong.

            Second, I still don't see how the recovering coma victim is relavantly different from the sleeping or otherwise unconscious or insensible person.

            Third, I'm not sure I'd agree that only personhood gives one an interest in continued existence, that may well come from other mental capacities. Many animals seem to possess memories, emotions connected with past and future events, maintain an identity throughout their lives etc. – they have a biographical existence over time. It seems to me that this also grounds an interest in continued existence.

          • SimonJm says:

            Steve my stance has been you can either be ethical and consistent and include animals in our circle of concern or complete but arbitrary by only including humans as many Pro-lifers do, or humans at arbitrary stages of development like many Pro-Choicers do. Bold claim but if you boil it down and don't want to be arbitrary or speciest; if you use a functionalist criterion based on some shared physical capacity when choosing full moral in-groups, you will find the lowest common criterion shared by the youngest members of our species that they wish to include, is also shared by other animals.

            Regarding the second point we basically have the essentialist vs functionalist camps debating as to when/what makes you a person. Now for a functionalist the personhood capacity must be present for you to be designated a cognitive person. If you are drunk or sleeping the capacity is still there, but if you are a recovering coma victim that capacity is lacking therefore technically you cease to be a person during that time. IMO one of the root problems of that abortion debate is that both sides have the ontology wrong.

            Lastly I also agree that there are -& we indeed do- base interests on other things other than sophisticated personhood based preferences. This is especially so when we look at the different ways one can frame harm to an entity. Non person animals may not have cognitive preferences regarding existential concerns –but nor do babies- but their lives function in ways that look to maintain themselves and function into the future.

          • Steve Cooke says:

            Then aside from a quibble over whether a recovering coma victim is analogous to a sleeping person, we have argued ourselves into agreement. I count that a good result.

  • Simon Rippon says:

    With all due respect, the "Judeao-Christian tradition" did not, until relatively recently, accord any member of the species Homo sapiens a right to life, let alone all of them. Or are you not referring to the same Judeao-Christian tradition which describes (Genesis 22:8-10) God telling Abraham to sacrifice his child son – and God being satisfied with Abraham for his compliance in making the preparations for said sacrifice? Not to mention the other lesser-known instances in which God is said to have promised, commanded or carried out the slaughter of children and/or pregnant women (e.g. Psalms 135-138; Numbers 31:17; Exodus 12:29).

  • De Pietro says:

    Thank for the post. I will comment briefly three points:

    "Infanticide was such an established part of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome (…) But the Judeo-Christian tradition’s influence has diminished in the developed West"

    1) I don't think it is possible to either confirm or deny this statement. The extent and heterogeneity of our ethnograpic registers for this time span (3000 years, if I understood you right) make such assertion very risky.

    "But the Judeo-Christian tradition’s influence has diminished in the developed West, and as a result it has become more difficult to claim that all members of the species Homo sapiens are persons with an equal right to life"

    2) Likewise, I would like to have some evidence that the Judeo-Christian tradition regarded life equal on the terms of "being human", and not of "being Jew or Christian" i.e. belonging to a specific social group.

    Events such as New World colonization and church-founded slavery (without mentioning the Holy Inquision) are what comes to my mind right now.

    3) In effect, I believe (without evidence), that infanticide has become significantly less acceptable only since the first drafts of an universal human rights declaration, religion having nothing to do with it.

    • Jane says:

      I also would have assumed that the reason for continued infanticide in China (to the extent that it still occurs) and India is not that the people there have failed to become Christians or Jews, but that the parents' entire community is poor and largely lacks a tradition of adoption. In the West, if you cannot support another child you can give it up for adoption in the knowledge that a healthy baby will almost certainly be snapped up by a carefully screened, financially secure adoptive family. (If it has significant birth defects, well, that's another story.) In an Indian community where everyone is poor, your neighbors who can barely support their own kids are not going to take in and support yours. Give it up, and the best it can hope for is life in a squalid orphanage where it runs a high risk of dying or growing up as a physically and emotionally stunted dullard. Many Westerners who do not understand the inexorable economic/ecological limitations that universally burdened all historical cultures tend to assume it is only inferior character that prevents Them from being as magnanimous as Us.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    Respected Professor, which "Christian tradition' are you referring to? In the past, and just yesterday, the priests and the so called 'holy men' of your Church committed infanticide of the body and the soul of the multitude of innocent little children in the dungeons of the Churches, monasteries and boarding schools. The Church and its affiliated propaganda institutions, In light of its past, should remain quite on these issues, and let the men and women of conscience and non-religious thinking speak against or in favor of such dilemmas.

  • Nancy Peters says:

    I cannot agree with all your arguments Mr Camosy but I applaud your call to love and solidarity, not that this should be, or indeed is, the exclusive preserve of Christians.

  • Martynas says:

    That is some good article. Thank you.

  • Luca P. says:

    With every respect, if Giubilini and Minerva argue about which child is qualified for "person" and who is not, it should be permitted too for everyone to begin a public debate about the admissible treatment (under an ethical point of view) of Giubilini and Minerva.

    • Steve Cooke says:

      A ridiculous point that only demonstrates that you haven't read their paper or thought about the arguments they present. The point is to think about what the concept of personhood entails and how much personhood should inform our moral choices. Do you really wish to assert that Guibilini and Minerva might not be persons?

  • Claudio Ricciardi says:

    I would like to remember that exists the discontinuity jump constituted by the complex phenomenon of human birth as it been theorised by Italian psychiatrist Massimo Fagioli (1972, Death instinct and knowledge, L'asino d'oro edizioni, 2010). We become human beings by virtue of a new emergent quality that occurs during the process of birth; a mutation of emerging new possibilities in quality related to the external environment particularly in the presence of light, which stimulates the functioning of the brain and activate the 'capacity to imagine' and the birth of human thought. The denial of these discontinuities and such resulting statements as 'the zygote is a person', 'the embryo and the foetus ere equal to the newborn', 'abortion and infanticide are the same thing' represent a flat materialistic vision not acceptable in terms of philosophy and law; certainly they are not acceptable in terms of bio-medical sciences. Do not recognize this point of view brings and produce Nazism like in Germani during the second world war.

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