The infanticide controversy: the authors
by Michael Cook | Mar 10, 2012 |
On February 23 the Journal of Medical Ethics published "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?", an article by two Italian
ethicists working in Australia. They argued that infanticide is morally
permissible, essentially because the new-born is not yet a person, that
is, a being conscious of his or her own interests.
The rest is history. There was a tsunami of media coverage, a hurricane
of vituperative commentary on the airwaves and in newspaper comments,
and much agitated discussion in bioethics blogs. It was even denounced
in the US House of Representatives (see the video above).
All this seems to have come as a complete surprise to the beleaguered
authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. They published a
disclaimer in the JME's blog in which they insisted that they did not
advocate the legalisation of infanticide and that their article was
meant only for other academics.
"We started from the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley
in 1975 and we tried to draw the logical conclusions deriving from this
premise. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y...
"We apologise for offence caused by our paper, and we hope this letter
helps people to understand the essential distinction between academic
language and the misleading media presentation, and between what could
be discussed in an academic paper and what could be legally permissible."
Even Julian Savulescu, the editor, was clearly shaken by intensity of
the abuse on blogs and online magazine. The lesson he took from this was
a "deep opposition ... exists now to liberal values and fanatical
opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement." He pointed out that the
article had been scrutinised by three peer reviewers before publication
who had all agreed that it was publishable. In any case, the moral
permissibility of infanticide was hardly a new idea. The only novelty in
Guibilini and Minerva's argument was the permissibility of infanticide
for purely social reasons.
However, a number of other academics and commentators criticised the
authors for living in an ivory tower. BBC presenter Kenan Malik pointed
out that as good utilitarians, the authors must have had practical
results in mind:
"Such an argument may be understandable given the vituperative outrage,
but it is also disingenuous. Giubilini and Minerva were certainly not
calling for the 'slaughter of newborn kids' but neither were they
engaging simply in an exercise of abstract logic. Their argument, as we
have seen, is part of a long-standing philosophical tradition that has
pushed to break down traditional moral boundaries and done so for
practical reasons. Peter Singer's arguments, for instance, have
transformed attitudes to animal rights over the past four decades, and
helped shape contemporary debates on abortion and euthanasia."
And Norman Geras, a British philosopher, was scathing:
"I find the 'pure exercise in logic' plea doubly unpersuasive - at least
as regards the article the two philosophers actually published, as
opposed to what may have been secreted in their minds. First, from the
opening abstract to the final conclusions the language used by Giubilini
and Minerva is for the most part not at all hypothetical but looks like
direct advocacy... To deny all responsibility for the views one puts
forth is not a credible standpoint."
Savulescu might have criticised pro-life fanatics, but in fact, most
thoughtful pro-life commentators agreed (for once) with Peter Singer:
"Opponents of abortion ought to welcome articles arguing that there is
no real difference of moral status between the fetus and the newborn,
for they have been arguing that themselves for many years."
And in fact they did welcome it. Dr Peter Saunders, of Christian Medical
Comment, pointed out that it was an opportunity to question the
philosophical assumptions underpinning abortion:
"These bioethicists this week have actually done us a service. If we
don't like their conclusions, then it should actually lead us to reject
the premises from which they logically flow. Is it actually the
qualities of rationality, self-consciousness and communication that make
human beings special and give them value? Or is it something else?"