Guest Post: James Wilson
The controversy over the Giubilini and Minerva article has highlighted an important disconnect between the way that academic bioethicists think about their role, and what ordinary people think should be the role of bioethics. The style of this dispute – its acrimony and apparent incomprehension on both sides – are a sure sign that we as bioethicists need to think harder about what we are doing, and who we are doing it for.
At the heart of tempest has been the authors’ claim that abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent. Nearly everyone will agree that the authors are wrong about this, and that infanticide is and should always remain beyond the pale.
The US Born-Alive Infants Protection Act 2002 stipulates that the category of person – and the full protection due to persons – must be extended to “every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development“. The deep question – from the perspective of academic ethics – is why every human being that is born alive should count as a person.
Often in bioethics the most difficult task is to articulate just what it is that lies behind the sorts of intuitive moral certainties that we all have: that is, to make clear to ourselves, and to those who are inclined to hold opposing views, just what our confidence in our own intuitive moral judgments is based on. This is often extremely difficult to do.
Guest Post: Andrew McGee, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology
Reposted from The Conversation with Author permission
Philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have received an avalanche of abusive comments and emails following the publication of their paper on “post-birth abortion” in last week’s Journal of Medical Ethics. The response has been despicable but it shouldn’t blind us to the flaws in the authors’ argument.
As the journal’s editor Julian Savulescu noted, their arguments “are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly … by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world.” But the discussion has continued because it’s been notoriously difficult to prove the arguments wrong.
Giubilini and Minerva’s argument is stunningly simple. There is no morally relevant difference between a foetus and a newborn baby, because their capacities are relevantly similar. Neither foetus nor newborn is really capable of forming any long-term aims. Only a person can form long-term aims that are capable of being quashed – and this is what differentiates us from other species – so neither a foetus nor a newborn are persons.
The kind of harm that consists of preventing a person from achieving their future aims is especially acute. And since neither a foetus nor a newborn are persons, they cannot be harmed in this way. Therefore, if we allow abortion on that basis, we should allow infanticide.
Many people who believe abortion should be permitted would reject the conclusion that killing a newborn baby should likewise be permitted. The challenge is to explain why the rejection of that conclusion is not irrational. That’s what I will attempt here.
The wrong of infanticide
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, specifically mentions them together: “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.” 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.” 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.
Editor’s note: we received this communiqué from Professor John Harris, who wishes to clear up any misreading of his position on infanticide.
I wish to clarify my position on infanticide to correct the impression that infanticide is something I defend or advocate. There is a big difference between an analysis of the moral symmetry of some abortions and some cases of infanticide on the one hand and the defence of infanticide or indeed the advocacy of infanticide on the other. I have always drawn a clear line between what I call “Green Papers” and “White Papers” in ethics. Green papers are intellectual discussions of the issues, white papers are policy proposals. I have never advocated or defended infanticide as a policy proposal. I would not and do not advocate the legalization of infanticide on the basis of any alleged ethical parity of infanticide with abortion.
By Brian Earp
Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”
Rick Santorum thinks that birth control is immoral. Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, is one of two human beings – if the polls have it right – likeliest to become the Republication nominee for President of the United States this election cycle.
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.
Editorial note: John Harris has responded to this post to clarify his position on infanticide. You can find the relevant post here.
This article has elicited personally abusive correspondence to the authors, threatening their lives and personal safety. The Journal has received a string abusive emails for its decision to publish this article. This abuse is typically anonymous.
I am not sure about the legality of publishing abusive threatening anonymous correspondence, so I won’t repeat it here. But fortunately there is plenty on the web to choose from. Here are some responses:
“These people are evil. Pure evil. That they feel safe in putting their twisted thoughts into words reveals how far we have fallen as a society.”
“Right now I think these two devils in human skin need to be delivered for immediate execution under their code of ‘after birth abortions’ they want to commit murder – that is all it is! MURDER!!!”
“I don‘t believe I’ve ever heard anything as vile as what these “people” are advocating. Truly, truly scary.”
“The fact that the Journal of Medical Ethics published this outrageous and immoral piece of work is even scarier”
(Comments selected from The Blaze, which features the article as a news item )
As Editor of the Journal, I would like to defend its publication. The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defence of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion.
Practical ethics aims to offer advice to decision-makers embedded in the real world. In order to make the advice practical, it typically takes empirical uncertainty into account. For example, we don’t currently know exactly to what extent the earth’s temperature will rise, if we are to continue to emit CO2 at the rate we have been emitting so far. The temperature rise might be small, in which case the consequences would not be dire. Or the temperature rise might be very great, in which case the consequences could be catastrophic. To what extent we ought to mitigate our CO2 emissions depends crucially on this factual question. But it’s of course not true that we are unable to offer any practical advice in absence of knowledge concerning this factual question. It’s just that our advice will concern what one ought to do in light of uncertainty about the facts.
But if practical ethics should take empirical uncertainty into account, surely it should take moral uncertainty into account as well. In many situations, we don’t know all the moral facts. I think it is fair to say, for example, that we don’t currently know exactly how to weigh the interests of future generations against the interests of current generations. But this issue is just as relevant to the question of how one ought to act in response to climate change as is the issue of expected temperature rise. If the ethics of climate change offers advice about how best to act given empirical uncertainty concerning global temperature rise, it should also offer advice about how best to act, given uncertainty concerning the value of future generations.
Cases such as the above aren’t rare. Given the existence of widespread disagreement within ethics, and given the difficulty of the subject-matter, we would be overconfident if we were to claim to be 100% certain in our favoured moral view, especially when it comes to the difficult issues that ethicists often discuss.
So we need to have an account of how one ought to act under moral uncertainty. The standard account of making decisions under uncertainty is that you ought to maximise expected value: look at all hypotheses in which you have some degree of belief, work out the likelihood of each hypothesis, work out how much value would be at stake if that hypothesis were true, and then trade off the probability of a hypothesis’ being true against how much would be at stake, if it were true. One implication of maximizing expected value is that sometimes one should refrain from a course of action, not on the basis that it will probably be a bad thing to do, but rather because there is a reasonable chance that it will be a bad thing to do, and that, if it’s bad thing to do, then it’s really bad. So, for example, you ought not to speed round blind corners: the reason why isn’t because it’s likely that you will run someone over if you do so. Rather, the reason is that there’s some chance that you will – and it would be seriously bad if you did.
With this on board, let’s think about the practical implications of maximising expected value under moral uncertainty. It seems that the implications are pretty clear in a number of cases. Here are a few.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to kill animals for food. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder. So, in killing an animal, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to kill animals for food.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to have an abortion, for reasons of convenience. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as murder. So, in having an abortion for convenience, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to have an abortion for reasons of convenience.
One might think it more likely than not that it’s not wrong to spend money on luxuries, rather than giving it to fight extreme poverty. But one shouldn’t be certain that it’s not wrong. And, if it is wrong, then it’s seriously wrong – in the same ballpark as walking past a child drowning in a shallow pond. So, in spending money on luxuries, one risks performing a major moral wrong, without any correspondingly great potential moral upside. This would be morally reckless. So one ought not to spend money on luxuries rather than giving that money to fight poverty.
The Washington Post recently reported the news of a dozen of nurses from a New Jersey hospital who claimed the right not to assist a patient before and after an abortion. Although conscience clauses are very common worldwide, they usually allow the health care personnel to refuse to perform abortions (or other morally controversial treatments) but not to refuse to assist a patient before and after the abortion. For this reason, the request put forward by the New Jersey nurses is particularly interesting.One of these nurses declared to the newspapers “I’m a nurse so I can help people, not help kill, and it just doesn’t seem right to me”. Now, it is hard to understand how someone who takes care of a woman who just had an abortion is somehow helping to kill. The care these nurses are refusing to provide involves feeding and washing the patient, maybe giving her pain killer drugs, but certainly not helping to kill, because the killing happens during the abortion, not before or after.