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Thinking the Unthinkable

Posted Apr 02 2012 11:33am

Two philosophers from Australia (University of Melbourne) have proposed a new term for an old concept: “after-birth abortion.” By this, they mean the taking of a newborn baby’s life, even if the infant is healthy, if social or economic factors make the child’s presence a hardship for the parents. Here is the abstract of their paper, published in the distinguished 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.

As unsettling (OK, horrifying) as their idea is, there is nothing new here. Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer and his colleague Helga Kuhse proposed the infanticide of handicapped infants back in 1985, in their well-known book, Should the Baby Live? However, there are two significant differences in this latest proposal: 1) The authors extend the moral permission of killing newborns to all babies, not just the disabled; and 2) They propose the euphemistic phrase “after-birth abortion” to make the act seem a bit more acceptable.

The idea behind all this is a curious inversion of a life-affirming ethic. Francis Schaeffer, in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? once wrote of the moral equivalence of a valued newborn and its status just “10 minutes” earlier, i.e., in the womb. Clearly, he wrote, no one could claim that the moral worth of a baby changes just because of its location (e.g., in the womb as opposed to out of it). That millions of Americans intuitively understand this logic is clear: the overwhelming majority opposed partial-birth abortion before it was made illegal.

The inversion is this: Singer and his philosophical progeny agree with Schaeffer that there is no essential moral difference between the unborn and the newborn. But then they claim that, since abortion (on their view) is morally licit, infanticide must be as well. Then they sanitize it by naming it “after-birth abortion.”

Another victory for utilitarianism. Heaven help us.

Full-text of article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (February, 2012)

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