It’s no longer just Peter Singer

Published Date: February 27, 2012 | Topics: Philosophy, Politics and Current Affairs

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By Robert George It wasn’t that many years ago that Peter Singer and Michael Tooley stood virtually alone in defending infanticide. But in recent years they’ve been joined by others on the left, following out (as they rightly see it) the logic of their commitment to a right to abortion. This week, the Journal of Medical Ethics, a peer reviewed journal for health professionals and researchers in medical ethics, has published an article by two Australian philosophers, Alberto Giubilini and Francesa Minerva, entitled “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Their answer, of course, is that the baby should not live—he or she should be killed if his or her parents desire it because they feel his or her existence is a burden to them and will harm their well-being or the well-being of the family. It doesn’t matter to the authors whether the baby is physically and psychologically healthy. As a mere “potential person” (sound familiar?), the infant has no right not to be killed at his or her parents will. Of course, most parents of healthy newborns won’t be interested in killing them (though they should have the right to). But parents who find themselves with a newborn afflicted with, say, Downs Syndrome, might find the child to “be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole.” What if others are willing to adopt the baby so that he or she won’t be killed? Well, the parents might decide to give the child up, and that is certainly their right; but they may prefer to kill him or her, since they may find it psychologically difficult to have a child of theirs out there in the world somewhere. Here is the abstract of the paper posted by the Journal of Medical Ethics:


Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

So there we are. Who will raise their voices against this madness? Plenty of conservatives will, of course. Will liberal voices be raised? I hope so. Surely if respected philosophers were arguing for a right to kill members of a racial or ethnic minority group, as opposed to infant children, there would be denunciations from left and right alike. But the left’s having tied itself to the abortion license creates an obvious problem. Giubilini and Minerva, like Singer and Tooley before them, and like more than a few others in between, alas, really are simply following out the logic of their commitment to “abortion rights.” Or so it seems to them, and to me.

It is interesting to think back to 1972 when Michael Tooley published “Abortion and Infanticide.” In those days, the pro-choice position on abortion had not yet hardened into an orthodoxy on the left. The pro-life cause was embraced by Edward M. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and other notable liberals. Many, including Kennedy and Jackson (and Al Gore), eventually caved. Others, such as Senator Frank Church and Governor Robert P. Casey, stayed faithful but their party and movement left them behind. On the conservative side, there were supporters of abortion, such as columnist James J. Kilpatrick and New York talk radio guru Bob Grant. One of them was Norman Podhoretz. He remained faithful to the pro-choice cause until he enountered friends at a cocktail party who were arguing in favor of the infanticide of handicapped newborns. When he expressed shock at their view, one of them replied, “well, you are in favor of legal abortion, aren’t you?” “Sure,” Podhoretz replied. “Then you should be on our side of this debate,” argued his friend. “Infanticide is just a post-birth abortion, and surely birth can’t be an event that transforms a non-person into a person.” At that moment, Podhoretz recalled a discussion he’d had with a pro-life person a few years before. The pro-lifer had made exactly the same argument: Birth is an event of no moral significance; if abortion is permitted, its logic takes us to the approval of infanticide. Reflecting on the two conversations caused Podhoretz to shift to the pro-life camp.

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