The Subject We’re Desperate to Avoid

Despite two shocking stories, the abortion debate has faded again

Cosmos Science

As a society, what does it take to provoke us? What stimulus is needed to rouse us from our intellectual languor, or indifference, or fear of being conspicuous (or non-PC), and to elicit a sustained, visible, productive public debate? It quite literally took riots for us to talk about disaffected urban youth. We don’t discuss immigration; we don’t do God. And certainly not abortion.  

Two quite extraordinary abortion-related stories emerged recently. They gained media attention but, given their gravity, died down again remarkably fast. What a very large carpet we keep for such under-sweepage.

The first was a successful piece of investigative journalism in the Daily Telegraph — or, depending on your perspective — “the Daily Telegraph‘s attempt to entrap and discredit” doctors and abortion clinics. Journalists established that a number of private clinics across the UK were offering a gender selection service, aborting infants of the “wrong” gender.

While this did generate publicity, it was short-lived — and by no means universally negative. The influential openDemocracy website published a letter, signed by the head of one of the largest abortion providers, BPAS, declaring that now was a time to “stand up for doctors”, for “sex selective abortion is not gender discrimination. Gender discrimination applies only to living people. A fetus does not have rights in the same way as a living person does, and therefore cannot be said to suffer from discrimination.” An Observer editorial at least condemned the practice, but quickly moved on to the story’s more important lesson: “Don’t make termination more difficult than it is.” After all, “abortion is heavily regulated and strictly licensed in Britain.” (Almost 200,000 abortions are carried out annually in England and Wales, about 1 per cent because the baby would have been born with a disability.)

The second story was based in theory rather than practice, but was no less shocking for that. It cannot be common for a peer-reviewed paper in an academic journal to become headline news, but late in February the Journal of Medical Ethics (part of the British Medical Journal stable) published an article by two Australia-based postdoctoral philosophers working on bioethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, arguing that infanticide might be considered morally acceptable in many circumstances. 

The arguments they explore are, like gender-based abortion, largely eugenic in principle. Interestingly and rather honestly, they appear comfortable in affirming that “both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings”, a status that many pro-abortion rights campaigners would deny the pre-natal infant. However, “merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life”.

Their argument is that certain human beings are not “persons”, and only persons have such a right. Swallow this and the rest is a cakewalk. All that’s needed is an arbitrary definition of what constitutes personhood. Giubilini and Minerva “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”. (As an aside, isn’t the use of “her” rather splendid?)

The authors offer no defence, and cite no published reference, in support of this crucial definition. And they seem unperturbed that “this means that many non-human animals…are persons”, an interesting if not heroic proposition the authors present but then ignore (including the implication that certain beasts have the right to life that newborn infants lack). They further helpfully point out that, also by this definition, “mentally retarded human individuals are persons”. 

So “all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons”, and have no right to life. Both pre- and post-natal infants are potential persons — but this too is insufficient: “The alleged right of individuals (such as fetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality…is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being.” 

Giubilini and Minerva overlook the fact that by these definitions, comatose but curable individuals are also not persons, and so presumably may be dispatched. Such patients clearly cannot attribute any value to their own existence; and that with medical attention they could do so merely makes them potential persons: so they still fail to make the grade. Indeed, not attributing value to one’s own existence is a good diagnostic description of the severe depressive — so the horsegun for him or her too then.

According to this description of personhood, there is no difference between a fetus and a neonate; and if it is legal and moral to end the life of the former, then so must it be for the latter: “actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.” And just to be clear, “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”.

Giubilini and Minerva draw our attention to the infamous 2004 Groningen Protocol, which sets out the conditions under which Dutch doctors can perform euthanasia on infants with severe birth defects, and to a 2005 paper in arguably the world’s premier medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, reflecting on and reporting the Dutch experience of 22 cases of infant euthanasia, so we are not after all concerned here with mere theory. Infant euthanasia is, rest assured, illegal in the Netherlands, though none of the doctors involved in these cases has been prosecuted. The paper indicates that such grave considerations as “predicted lack of self-sufficiency” and “expected hospital dependency” weighed heavily in arriving at the decision to end the child’s life. And with a straight face, the authors gravely recommend that “after the decision has been made and the child has died, an outside legal body should determine whether the decision was justified.” So that’s OK then.

The distortion of language adds to the horror of this discussion. Who would otherwise dare talk of “non-persons”? And, entirely openly, Giubilini and Minerva write: “In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’.”

So there we have it: two stories that caught even our liberal and cynical media by surprise. And welcomed by many pro-life campaigners for shining so very bright a light on the arguments used to justify “routine” abortions, and where they lead. But it’s all died down again now, and the quiet order of feigned ignorance is restored.