Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

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.

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