Postscript to My “After-Birth Abortion” Article

Last March I wrote a piece about the now infamous “after-birth abortion” article by philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. Instead of merely emoting about the evil of infanticide, I sought to understand the philosophers’ argument, and refute it with illustrations that expose its counter-intuitive implications. I primarily argued against Giubilini and Minerva’s bizarre view of what “harm” is, demonstrating that their definition of harm cripples their other arguments.

After more thinking on the subject, I now realize that a few of my illustrations toward the end of the article didn’t respond to their precise view of harm. This postscript is an attempt to explain why.

To recap, here’s what the authors believe about harm: an act can harm you now if you are currently able to value the different situation you would have enjoyed, but even if the act can’t harm “you” now, it can still harm “you” at the point in the future when you are able to value the different situation. Because the newborn killed in an “after-birth abortion” never lives long enough to value the condition of living, she is not harmed.

To refute this view of harm, I offered an illustration, which I still believe demonstrates how counter-intuitive their view is:

A pregnant mother suffering from severe nausea asks her OB/GYN for Thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug that was used by pregnant women in the late ’50s before the medical community realized that it causes severe fetal deformities. Pregnant women have not been allowed to take that drug since, but imagine that the pregnant mother in my story finds a way to get Thalidomide illegally, and takes it, causing her baby to be born without arms and legs. Giubilini and Minerva would have to say that the fetus was not harmed at the time the mother took Thalidomide. He was harmed on the day that he first experienced a desire for arms and legs. So the harm-inducing drug didn’t harm him for the years he did not experience a desire for arms and legs. At the time when it caused his arms and legs to grow improperly, was it helping him? Did it have a neutral effect on his body? Isn’t it obvious that while the fetus might be harmed in an additional way later on (psychological pain due to the arms and legs he is consciously missing), he is right now, at the time the thalidomide is altering his cellular development, being harmed in a basic sense.

Refuting Those “After-Birth Abortion” Philosophers

UPDATE 7/4/2012: After more thinking on the subject, I now realize that a few of my illustrations toward the end of this article didn’t completely respond to the Austrailian philosophers precise view of harm. I wrote a postscript that explains why and offers a brand new illustration that corrects the problem.

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Bioethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have caused a firestorm by publishing an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics stating that fetuses and newborns “do not have the same moral status as actual persons.”

I’m personally surprised, but happy that this article is getting so much attention. The surprise is because there isn’t really anything new in this article. Philosophers Michael Tooley and Peter Singer argued along a similar line more than 30 years ago, both biting the bullet and arguing that infanticide is morally permissible.

So while the arguments are not new, I think it’s a good thing that some people who had no idea that some philosophers believe that infanticide is permissible have seen this story and are talking about it. This is a good opportunity for pro-life people to ask their pro-choice friends what they think about the “after-birth abortion” article to start a conversation about abortion.

I want to briefly explain why Giubilini and Minerva believe what they do, and then I’ll offer brief refutations to their arguments. I recommend reading the works of Francis Beckwith and Christopher Kaczor for a fuller explanation of these ideas.