The Baby Just Entered The Fourth Trimester

“Dread not infanticide; the crime is imaginary: we are always mistress of what we carry in our womb, and we do no more harm in destroying this kind of matter than in evacuating another, by medicines, when we feel the need.” – Marquis De Sade

This story was forwarded to me last week but I failed to get a post going about it. The Journal of Medical Ethics recently published a paper by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva titled “After Birth Abortion: Why Should The Baby Live.” Naturally the story has caused a ruckus. You can find commentary and articles all over the place (here is one from the Classic Liberal that has some nice background on Eugenics).

The argument is basically this (my words, not theirs): the dividing line of the birth canal is arbitrary and it would be more reasonable to define “personhood” as beginning at “self-awareness” (in some sense), which occurs later than birth. As such, killing an infant who is not yet self-aware is no different than killing a fetus and should be allowed.

I couldn’t agree more. Well, I agree with the first half. I find the dividing line of the birth canal to be quite arbitrary. What exactly is it that makes the born child more alive than the pre-born? As far as I can tell the best argument is “we have to draw a line somewhere and this is the least ‘icky’ as it does not permit infanticide, which we find deplorable, but does allow abortion, which we find a necessary part of human existence and women’s liberation.”

For their part, Giubilini and Minerva have made a legitimate, logical argument. (OK, I have only read snippets of the article, it seems to have disappeared from the first 10 links I’ve found. But the logic of the argument as it is laid out in the snippets seems sound.) I disagree with their conclusions, but only because I disagree with their definition of when personhood begins. But they have, and this is the most important point, made the argument based on the only point that matters: when is “it” alive?

This is the only issue. If the fetus is not “alive” until birth, the abortion is obviously just a medical procedure and well outside the bounds of legislation – it is no different than having a tooth pulled or mole removed. If the fetus is “alive” then abortion is the willful killing of a human life. This is commonly defined as “murder” though there is a small space for a caveat. (What about cases of rape? Still murder. What about cases of incest? Still murder. The child shall not suffer for the sins of the father. What about cases where the life of the mother is in danger? Now you have something. But, as I have said before, “my father will kill me if he finds out” is not a legitimate expression of a life in danger.)

So we applaud Giubilini and Minerva – they have rightly framed the debate. If the voting population now sees the problem in this right context then I say society will be better off.

It also seems that our medical ethicist friends have received some death threats over their article. They’ll get no such threats from me. I think the article has done the pro-life movement a great service. We need more articles like this. We need more discussion about when life begins, and when a life is to be given “human rights”.


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One Response to The Baby Just Entered The Fourth Trimester

  1. I think you have crystallized the argument well: when is “it” alive, and when is “it” deserving of our agreed-upon human rights, and what, if any, distinctions are there between the two?

    To emphasize just how difficult, how not cut and dried, this issue is, consider for example, the horrible condition of anencephaly. See the case of “Baby K” for an example of an interesting case that raises exactly these challenging questions. WARNING: I do not recommend visiting the Wikipedia link to the page about anencephaly; there are images that are not safe for life, that you cannot unsee. But the problem is clear: was Baby K “alive”, in a useful/legal/moral/scientific/whatever sense?

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