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Equating abortion with infanticide is a red herring

The abortion debate was rocked by a recent article by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It argued that infanticide should be permitted by law for the same reason that abortion is permitted, which is to say that a foetus and a newborn baby are not human persons with rights. Giubilini and Minerva argue that both foetuses and newborn babies do not meet the requirements for full personhood because they occupy a primitive and non-reasoning mammalian level of existence.

This argument was greeted with delight by the pro-life movement. At last, it seemed, the pro-choice movement had shot itself in the foot and admitted that abortion was nothing more nor less than baby murder.  Pro-choicers received it with a certain dismay. There are not many, I imagine, who can view infanticide without profound horror.

But it remains difficult to counter the cool logic that there is nothing that separates foetuses and newborns from other mammals beyond their inherent potential to turn into reasoning human beings.

Fortunately a little cogitation reveals that Giubilini and Minerva’s reasoning is not a natural extension of the pro-choice argument in any way, and that a woman’s right to have an abortion is not ethically incompatible with assigning what Ronald Dworkin calls “intrinsic value” to a foetus.

The thought experiment frequently used to explain the pro-choice position is one famously devised by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. She invites you to imagine waking up one day in a hospital to find that you are medically hooked up to a famous violinist who is in a coma and is now depending on your organs for his survival. You have been kidnapped by a society of music lovers who have forced this position upon you. In nine months’ time, the violinist will come out of his coma and you will be free to unhook yourself from him and proceed with your life as normal.

Thomson argued, and I agree with her, that you have no obligation to submit yourself to this arrangement for nine months. You are ethically free to unhook yourself and go, even though in doing so you will be condemning the violinist to death and disappointing the society of music lovers. This does not mean that the violinist has no intrinisic human value, merely that you have no ethical obligation to lend him your organs for nine months.

Ever since Thomson delivered her paper, many philosophers have argued compellingly that her thought experiment is not sufficiently identical to a woman who finds herself expecting a baby. For one thing, many women who fall pregnant have willingly participated in an act the forseeable consequence of which is pregnancy. And for another, the foetus is the woman’s own offspring — not just a random stranger — and as such could be said to attract an ethical obligation from her.

So I would like to pose a thought experiment of my own. If this has already been proposed elsewhere, I am not currently aware of it. Let us imagine that you have a child who needs a kidney transplant and that you are the only compatible donor in the world. Should the state force you to donate your kidney to that child?  In most democracies all over the world, the answer would be no. People are not compelled by the state to donate organs to each other, not even to their own children. It is a violation of bodily integrity that trumps the rights of the person who needs the transplant.

The child needing the transplant has great intrinsic value, and as a parent you have a duty of care to that child. There will be many who condemn you for your decision and who believe that you are making a deeply questionable moral choice in refusing. But almost everyone would stop short of actually forcing you to donate the kidney. They would also not convict you of murder when your child inevitably died.

This scenario, I believe, is truly analogous to abortion. Yes, the foetus you are carrying has great intrinsic value. Yes, it is your offspring and thus “of” your body in the most intimate sense. And yes, your choice has grave moral implications and should not be undertaken lightly. But ultimately your sovereignty over your body is and should be supreme. The state should not be able to compel you to continue hosting the foetus.

I would additionally argue that the moral responsibility for aborting a foetus is considerably less than that for refusing your child a kidney. A foetus, especially in the early stages of development, is an organism that has the fixed destiny of becoming a human person. It is not already a human person in the same sense as a child is.

The matter becomes foggier the further the pregnancy progresses and the more medical science pushes back the barrier of foetal viability. It is morally possible to imagine a woman refusing to continue hosting a foetus in her body, but not for her to demand that once it has been expelled from her body it must additionally be killed. In that case one is clearly crossing the line into infanticide. There are many ways to kill a neonate, from refusing it special care, to refusing it food, to actually “disarticulating the neck” as has been done in some partial-birth abortion scenarios.

It is certainly more morally comfortable to restrict abortion-on-demand to first-trimester and mid-second trimester pregnancies, apart from certain exceptional cases. When viewed in this light it becmes clear that abortion and infanticide are not the same thing at all and that Giubilini and Minerva’s argument remains morally abhorrent. It is seldom useful to think in absolutes — whether that entails equating abortion with murder or equating it with a tonsillectomy. Moral ethical choices lie somewhere in between and need to be continually reevaluated in the face of scientific advances and evolving community values.


  • Fiona Snyckers is outrageously opinionated for a novelist-housewife. She is the author of the Trinity series of novels, and hopes to continue getting paid to make stuff up.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 18 March 2012

    Whenever this topic comes up for discussion on the radio the callers who are anti abortion are ALL MEN!

    None of them, please note, ever offer to look after and adopt the newborns their mothers never wanted in the first place!

  2. Chris Chris 18 March 2012

    If it was possible in nature for men to get pregnant there would be no abortion debate as such.

  3. Khalsa Singh Khalsa Singh 19 March 2012

    The idiotic article in the Journal of Medical ethics has nothing to do with abortion. It is utter madness to justify infanticide. A child is a human being that thinks, learns, feels, communicates and moves. A feutus is just a glorified fertilized egg. Full stop.

    However, a woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy has every right to do whatever she wants to do to her own body. Simple as that. A woman (believe or not) is not just an incubator.
    I would like pro lifers to put their money where their stupid mouths are and take in a few of the millions of unwanted kids that are roaming the streets and clogging up the orphanages.
    Furthermore, doctors and nurses who refuse to perform an abortion should be fired and stripped of their titles.

  4. The Praetor The Praetor 19 March 2012

    It amazes me that you find people in the world, who will coldly discuss the killing of foetuses, and justify this by stating that the foetus was not a rational person.

    It has been proven that a foetus would react and cringe away from medical instruments, when an abortion is performed. This clearly demonstrates some degree of cognition.

    Also, when abortion is discussed, there is total silence, on the emotional scars it leaves on women, probably for the rest of their lives.

    @Lyndal Beddy,

    I can guarantee you that there are millions of people who would gladly adopt these children, given half a chance. In my experience, when women find themselves pregnant, and not prepared for it, they make rash decisions, but once the child is born, they have a total change of heart, and, refuse to give them up for adoption.

    The Praetor

  5. Paleface Paleface 19 March 2012

    Abortion is a legal right. Whether abortion is infanticide or when it becomes infanticide will always be debateable.
    The main contentious points are where you stand on moral or religious grounds. There is not a single religion on earth where you can justify abortion. If you can live with the knowledge that in terms of all religion it is abhored and condemned and if you are OK with the moral issues then you’ll be all right I suppose.
    It’s called “Freedom of Choice”

  6. Carel Steenekamp Carel Steenekamp 19 March 2012

    The thrusting and parrying between lifers and choicers is a side-show really.

    In my lifetime the human population has more than doubled (and I am not that old); no wonder the planet is showing signs of abuse.

    Humanity will soon have no choice but to start managing their own population. Abortion and even infanticide will probably have a role to play as we are forced to be less squeamish. Terminations will become more selective in terms of criteria currently not permissible, such as gender, and other physiological metrics.

    I predict that religions will receive new edicts to make the anathema permissible.

    I state the above as an inevitability, not my panacea for the ills of the world, lest I be called a eugenicist, or worse.

    Or perhaps not so dramatic – any demographers out there with different views?

  7. CD CD 19 March 2012

    Excellently argued, thanks Fiona. Abortion arguments and issues are by nature very emotive , with distinctly disparate, yet equally valid views; this alone should perhaps alert us that it can and should not be regimentally regulated, but left to CHOICE.

  8. ae ae 19 March 2012

    You are a farmer and your crop is halfway to harvest. Disaster strikes and you lose the crop. You approach the insurance company but they say “Well it was not yet a crop just a green field and as a result we are unable to cover your claim”. This is always the red herring in this pro-life vs. pro-choice matter. From what stage does the farmer expect crop cover and at what stage is the insurance no longer in the loop? Pregnancy comes by choice (One must exclude the rape stats.) just like the farmer plants by choice. One cannot say “oh it is just a blade of wheat and is therefore not a harvest”. It is very difficult to get the correct illustration to depict abortion as it is an unnatural way to refuse responsibility. In ancient Rome infanticide was legal as children were seen as your property and you could dispose of them as you wish; with this in mind why should there suddenly be a cut off point with pregnancy?

  9. Jean Wright Jean Wright 19 March 2012

    The right of a woman to have an abortion is absolute. And many women who do have to go that route do not do so lightly – an abortion is not the end of the story for them. They suffer greatly both before and after the decision is made. It is very rarely done as an ‘easy fix’.

    Infanticide is a disgusting idea.

    I do feel, however, that sometimes too many resources are given to keeping some infants with terrible defects alive, when they would be better nursed with love and care and allowed to live their lives to its natural conclusion.

  10. Benzo Benzo 19 March 2012

    @Lyndal: consider that the “pro-abortion men” have no reason to participate in this kind of -usually emotional- debates where medical and biblical arguements are freely thrown around.
    Other than that, abortion is not a simple “cut et voila”, you can go now. I have seen some traumatised ladies as result of abortion. An argument, not often heard in the debate.

  11. Graham Graham 19 March 2012

    “Freedom of Choice” – sorry whose choice are we talking about here?
    The live human inside? I don’t see them having too much say in a ‘choice’ that may cost them their lives

  12. Just Saying Just Saying 19 March 2012

    @Khalsa, so because you and a few misguided doctors have decided that the unborn aren’t really human ” doctors and nurses who refuse to perform an abortion should be fired and stripped of their titles”.

    What a ridiculous argument!

    Just like you have your opinion about the validity of the unborn’s lives, so do the pro-lifers have their opinion. Firing them for doing what they agreed to do upon becoming medical professionals, i.e. SAVING LIVES, is not the answer!

    As for putting my money where my “stupid mouth” is, I do! I don’t sleep around and get myslef into trouble. (I’m not getting into the subject of pregnant rape victims-that is for another time) “Stupid mouth” LOL, that’s nice, call people names when they have different opinions, very mature :)

    It’s spelt foetus, by the way. I know it’s unimportant to you, but still.

  13. Jean Wright Jean Wright 19 March 2012

    @Paleface. You’re right of course about all (I think) religions condemning abortion. But don’t forget when (all) religions began the world was a far less populated place. It was in the interests of religion to populate. The resources then seemed infinite – half the world was unknown. Times (for better or worse) have changed. There are far too many of us,

    As mentioned above abortion is never easy. There are thousands of children hoping to be adopted…. so many are not. And millions of children suffer the agony of starving to death.

  14. Henk Henk 19 March 2012

    Well argued Fiona.
    If Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva (and also the catholic church of course) seriously believe in the “human-ness” of the foetus, surely we would witness the last rites being applied to aborted (natural or induced) foutuses.
    To my knowledge this does not happen and thus surely defines the standing of the foetus when compared with a human being after birth.

  15. Lennon Lennon 19 March 2012

    This is a tough cookie… The right of the baby vs the right of the mother-to-be.

    I would say that abortion is perfectly acceptable in one case: aborting the baby would save the mother’s life whereas any alternatives would result in both mother and child dying.

    Any other situation is just too close to call, but whatever the decision, you’re stuck with the choice you make.

    While I’m not a fan of forced abortion or sterilisation, this hunk of rock is becoming overcrowded. Perhaps single child laws are the way to go?

  16. Lennon Lennon 19 March 2012

    As an aside: I wonder how many pro-lifers oppose the death penalty?

  17. Robard Robard 19 March 2012

    With the ready availability of the condom and the pill there really is no excuse for a woman who falls pregnant. On the other hand, if you’re too stupid to prevent a pregnancy society is probably better off if you choose not to reproduce at all.

    I cannot fault Fiona’s argument. The only caveat is that a woman who decides to abort should do it for precisely those considerations rather than for convenience or economic or eugenic considerations. To prove that she is a bona fide conscientious objector she should agree to be permanently sterilized.

  18. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 19 March 2012

    The Praetor

    In that case why have the millions of orphans in the world NOT been adopted?

  19. Jerome Jerome 19 March 2012

    Why even distinguish between infanticide and abortion? Barring the procedural details, they are clearly synonymous, so that the one could simple become an adjective of the other.

    Fact of the matter is that a pregnant woman can no longer claim exclusive ownership of her body – she shares her body with someone else, who has a claim equal in every possible way to anybody else’s claim to such ownership.

    That is tough, and an unfortunate circumstance of the universe we’re living in. But no amount of prevarication will make an iota of distinction between killing a child one or several months before after it’s been borne. Could make you feel better about it, perhaps.

    I’m not anti abortion – mind. I totally agree with those here who remarked that there is no greater threat to this planet than overpopulation, global warming be damned. The fact simply is that if you are of the opinion that the right to life is sacrosanct, then in terms of that belief there is almost never a morally defensible argument for terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and that claiming ownership of a body is not going to do it.

    Much better not to find yourself in a situation where you have both the need and the ability to make that choice.

  20. Just Saying Just Saying 19 March 2012

    “I wonder how many pro-lifers oppose the death penalty?”
    My love of the living ends at rapists and murderers – society is definitely better off without them, but the poor babies who haven’t even been given a chance; that’s another story…

  21. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 19 March 2012

    Condomns and birth control pills are not available in patriarchial societies,

    One of the reason that many black men in Africa disliked the white clinics and hospitals is that they did supply birth control pills to their wives.

  22. mina mina 19 March 2012

    I really feel sorry for the millions of women who made the choice to terminate the life if their child. I have NEVER met a woman who did not (with hindsight) consider herself responsible of murder after terminating her baby. I do not see any difference in hacking a baby to death after birth and suction procedures. Conception is the wilful act of the woman – she should consider the CHOICE of saying “NO” if she is not ready to have a baby (adoption is another CHOICE) .For women who did not have a choice in the first place (rape) – I beg you, do not kill the child for his father’s sin. No where in tthe world a child is sent to prison or condemned to death because of his father’s siins. God is graceful – thus, if you had an abortion, there is forgiveness and healing.

  23. Jean Wright Jean Wright 19 March 2012

    @Lennon. But as you know re. single child laws in China, I understand (owing to ultra=sound technicques and so on) GIRLS were aborted because boys were the preferred sex. (Won’t say the obvious here!!) Anyway it has caused huge problems, because there are now far too many Chinese males and not enough females. I think this has now been changed though, but not sure what the current position is there.

  24. The Praetor The Praetor 19 March 2012

    @ lyndal Beddy,

    There are many who want to adopt, but the rules of adoption is so stringent, that most do not pass as ideal candidates. This is the reason why people go to China or other countries to adopt, as the rules there are not impossible.

    The Praetor

  25. Lennon Lennon 19 March 2012

    @ Just Saying: Do contend, then, that rapists are murderers are not human beings? Since this is the crux of the matter, then for them to be deserving of death means that they cannot be regarded as such.

    Besides, who is to say that said aborted babies would not grow up to become the very murderers and rapists you so abhore?

  26. isabella vd Westhuizen isabella vd Westhuizen 19 March 2012

    Abortion remains an assault on the unborn person and an act of violence. The most common argument in favor of abortion is that the foetus is not a person. Singer and now these Italians have extended this to show that according to secularism you only become a person when you are sentient. So this means that a neonate and a person in a vegetative state are non persons and can be killed off.

  27. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 20 March 2012

    Obviously there would be no need for abortions if women were allowed birth control pills, would there be?

    In the original world of the Bushmen herbs were used as abortants. They never had more children than they could carry, or who could walk by themselves.

  28. Lennon Lennon 20 March 2012

    @ Jean: I will say it. In 20 years China will be a nation of wankers.

    Yes, there is the opportunity to abuse such a system which means that it can only be entrusted to a completely open and honest government (funny, I know).

    The alternative is to educate people about reproduction. People need to be taught that if they do not have the means to support themselves, then they should not have kids. But this doesn’t work either which has lead some to push for forced sterilisation. Not exactly ethical though…

  29. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 20 March 2012


    Sterilisation was introduced in Japan even before the Chinese one child system.

    But it was not forced sterilisation – it was incentive driven.

    Men who got the snip got money/transistor radios etc etc

  30. Lennon Lennon 20 March 2012

    @ Lyndall: Some might say that it constitutes a bribe and is therefore unethical, but since it’s voluntary then it shouldn’t be a problem.

  31. Rory Short Rory Short 20 March 2012

    A single act of sexual intercourse that results in a pregnancy gives rise to a raft of possible choices whatever way you look at it. That is true of life in general it does not only apply to an act which results in a pregnancy. If the pregnancy was wanted then throughout the life of the child the parents will be faced with choices that are related to the child and that have to be made. If the mother decides that she wants an abortion then that is a choice but that will not be a guaranteed end to having to make other choices in relation to the aborted foetus. The reality is that throughout our lives they are comprised of a plethora of choices that have to be made as a result of our actions. It is actually impossible to lead a simple black and white life. The circumstances for each one of us are unique and we have to try to make the best choices that we can for ourselves.

  32. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 21 March 2012


    Since Japan has 3.6 percent unemployment I would say the result was worth it, wouldn’t you?

  33. Lennon Lennon 21 March 2012

    @ Lyndall: I would indeed.

    I read somewhere that the drop in crime around New York City (I think) during the 1990’s was attributed to the start of legalised abortion during the 1970’s. Not quite as effective, but better than nothing I suppose.

  34. Miss O Miss O 22 March 2012

    To those who say that, pregnancies would not happen if birth control was widely available, well, you could not be more mistaken. I have always used a condom with my partner- then one day it broke. The very next day I went to get a morning after pill at a pharmac-took two as soon as I got home, another two 12 hours later as instructed AND I STILL FELL PREGNANT. I was devastated. We rung up abortion clinics but he wouldn’t accompany me there so I just decided not to go. I have a baby now and, needless to say, love her more than anything but I would never judge anyone who consideres abortion because it was the first thing that came to my mind when I found out I was pregnant. And the sleepness nights, the endless tantrums, the emotional roller coaster of raising a child- I would not wish that on my worst enemy. It’s true men do not want to share in the responsibilities of raising children (even the ones married to the mother of their children). My message to everyone is: rather avoid sex altogether because contraception is a litttle too precarious.

  35. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 23 March 2012

    Miss O

    The condom is much less effective than the birth control pill. Why were you not on that?

  36. Brent Brent 23 March 2012

    One certainty of ‘peopekind’ is that we ALL make mistakes so my world view is to stay away from decisions that cannot be reversed. So am against abortion and yes the death penalty as in both cases one cannot say oops we made a mistake and then rectify it.

    All abortion clinics should have professional people that advise the mother about all the options ie adoption etc and that abortion is not the only option.

    Another worry is that all undemocratic/evil societies (the Nazis routinely forced abortion on those who were beyond the pale) adopted abortion (excuse the bad pun) without public discussions and that democratic societies (like ours) still allow debate/discussions on the subject, should make one think.


  37. Clare Clare 23 March 2012

    Nobody who has held a neonate in his arms will think it is not a sentient being.

    Abortions will happen like it or not. If modern medical care is not available, there is the additional cost of botched backstreet procedures. Once again this affects the poor. I would prefer early abortions being performed to newborns being dumped in sewers by desperate teenage mums.

  38. Miss O Miss O 23 March 2012

    @Lyndall Beddy: I think abstinence is the most reliable contraceptive. Worked for the first 21 years of my life. Anyway, I have read before that most oral contraceptives are linked to breats cancer (although they also supposedly help prevent ovarian cancer). I’d rather not take my chances.

  39. Chico Chico 24 March 2012

    Fiona’s kidney-donating thought experiment fails to convince for the same reason that Thomson’s thought experiment fails to convince: the defective kidney was not a predictable consequence of the mother’s actions. The better analogy to abortion would be if the mother knew that she was genetically predisposed to give birth to a child with a defective kidney, but nevertheless insisted on having a child. In that case, surely, the ethical imperative for the mother to donate a kidney would be huge.

    In a similar way, abortion in the case of enforced pregnancy (rape) is, in my opinion, a different ethical discussion to abortion resulting from careless behaviour. And of course there are grey areas—threatening drunken husbands forcing themselves on their wives in near-rape encounters, heavy male pressure on gullible youngsters for sex, etc.

    The forgotten heroins in abortion debates are those young lasses who courageously opt take the consequences of their own actions and to have the baby. They have my deepest admiration and respect.

    Perhaps we can learn from the San hunters: before shooting their prey, they allegedly first address the spirit of the animal to be shot, explaining their regret at having to kill it, but noting that they, too, need sustenance. There is a kind of pathos and beauty in that tableau that should be emulated in carrying out abortions.

  40. Cattle Rail Cattle Rail 21 April 2012

    Habib Ibrahim El Adly has been sentenced to 12 years for money laundering. Obviously he should have been tried for killing as well. As in the case of Al Capone, you take the justice you can get.

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