Abortion and Infanticide

In a paper that has outraged many, and rightly so, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn, neither of whom has the moral status of a person, therefore "‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."

While I do find this proposal morally abhorrent, I do think that the argument that there is no difference in the moral status of fetus and a newborn is worth considering. If the difference between a fetus and a newborn is merely passage through the birth canal, then indeed I find it difficult to see why this change of geography should constitute a significant change in moral status. Being pro-choice, I have been trying to grapple with this problem for quite some time. The problem is most people have the impression that if abortion is morally permissible, then this permission extends right to the very last moment of gestation, the moment before the baby is born. This leads to a very counter-intuitive picture: It is morally okay to kill a baby right before it's born, but it is morally wrong to kill a baby right after it's born. The mere act of delivery itself cannot justify such a radical change of moral status.

The mistake here is to believe that the moral status of a fetus remains constant and uniform through out the course of pregnancy. I believe it is otherwise. There is a huge difference in the moral status of a first trimester fetus and a third trimester fetus. People are misguided in thinking that it is the time of delivery that constitutes the definitive moral moment between abortion and infanticide. I believe the definitive moral moment is the age of viability, the age at which it is possible for a fetus to survive outside the uterus. The age of viability not just depends on the developmental capacities of the fetus but also on the available medical technology that is required to keep the pre-term infant alive, and therefore it is imprecise. In the Western world the age of viability is currently 20 weeks of gestation, which puts it in the mid of 2nd trimester. In the developing countries it ranges from 24-28 weeks of gestation. I take late-term abortion to be the termination of pregnancy that is after the age of viability, and I do not think that there is much difference (even though a difference is there) in the moral status of a late-term abortion and infanticide. If that is so, then indeed it is hard to avoid the conclusion that infanticide should be permissible in all the cases where a late-term abortion is. But I do not think that infanticide is morally permissible, and therefore I do not think a late-term abortion is morally permissible, despite being pro-choice. For me the age of viability is the morally decisive line, not the day of delivery.


Forbidden Fruit said…
I'm not sure whether it was a smooth use of negative psychology or were they serious but the human in me says that it's abhorrent to kill a baby. Now what's a baby? That shouldn't be too hard to answer. A ball of cells is much different from a fetus that has it's organs developed and would die just as any person would. And why should a mother opt to kill her fully formed baby in the first place? Was she waiting for it to develop into a tiny human she could prey upon? Why didn't it happen sooner? Strange.
Awais Aftab said…
@Forbidden Fruit

According to a study, the reasons for late-term abortions are:

71% Woman didn't recognize she was pregnant or misjudged gestation
48% Woman found it hard to make arrangements for abortion
33% Woman was afraid to tell her partner or parents
24% Woman took time to decide to have an abortion
8% Woman waited for her relationship to change
8% Someone pressured woman not to have abortion
6% Something changed after woman became pregnant
6% Woman didn't know timing is important
5% Woman didn't know she could get an abortion
2% A fetal problem was diagnosed late in pregnancy
11% Other


However, if you see the US data, the over-whelming majority of abortions happen before 20 weeks of gestation:

Uzair said…
How do you determine when the "age of viability" is? Since the development of a fetus/baby is a continuous process you cannot say that after x weeks the baby has reached the age of viability. Because then you have simply shifted the problem.

It seems to me you are suggesting that right before the age of viability, it is moral okay to get an abortion, but right after the age of viability, it becomes immoral to get the abortion. Which bring the same question that how can a few moments cause such a radical change in morality.

Also it would seem extremely arbitrary to pick one particular moment in the development of the baby and claim that after this moment the baby is in the age of viability.
Komal said…
Your approach to this issue seems eminently reasonable. I also think the moral status of the fetus changes over time: as it develops, it becomes more of a person, or more person-like.

However, it ought to be remembered that the pro-choice position does not just depend upon the moral status of the fetus. My main reason for being pro-choice is my belief that women should not be forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Once the baby is born, the relationship between the baby and the mother changes, so that the mother's fate is no longer dependent upon whether or not the baby's life is terminated. Thus, whether or not a baby is born is very relevant to the moral status of terminating the baby's life; not because its moral status changes, but because its relationship with its mother changes, which is a morally relevant fact.
Raul said…
This is something Peter Singer talks about and it's hard to disagree with him. From reading the abstract I don't disagree with the authors at all. Boethius spoke about an issue that many people have spoken about and the Greeks put it at 30 days when the baby was judged to become "aware" and that is: when is a baby human? Or when does a human become a human?

This is fraught with difficulties in interpretation and especially because it's easy to see any such action resulting in an increased lack of regard for human life, but that's an easy attack to make without really wanting to understand what Singer wants to say. Anyone who believes he lacks compassion hasn't read his work on Animal Liberation or even his work on Infanticide.
ned said…
An excellent post as usual -- I'm going to cut and paste some of my remarks on your Facebook profile here.

I do think that late-term abortion skirts dangerously close to infanticide and should only be carried out if there is a threat to the mother's life or for other kinds of medical reasons, but early-term abortion as you point out is an entirely different story. In countries where early-term abortion is easily available and covered by health insurance, late-term abortion almost never happens.

Pregnancy is a uniquely female experience and puts a woman's actual body under a good amount of stress. The feminist argument is that you cannot ignore a woman's bodily and emotional freedom in regulating abortion, and it is necessary to take a woman's freedoms into account. A woman's body is not public property to be controlled by society or the state.

There are other issues here as well that nobody talks about. Why do women often end up with unwanted pregnancies? Because of unreasonable sexual demands from men. Because men sometimes refuse to use condoms during penetrative sex. Because men will insist on penetrative sex as the only kind of "real sex", even though for many women it's not even the most pleasurable kind of sex, and even though there lots of other ways to have orgasms together without any pregnancy risk. If you want to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies, start by creating an entirely new sexual culture freed from patriarchal preconceptions.

Finally, as for artificial wombs ... yes, I think from a bioethical standpoint those would probably change the situation substantially because the fetus could then be potentially viable outside the womb. We'll have to see what happens when that technology becomes available. I still think though that having a lot of unwanted babies around will create a massive social problem: who is going to raise unwanted babies? The state? And who is going to pay for this? As if we don't already have millions of abandoned children around, desperately in need of adoption and homes. It stands to reason that when people are not emotionally and financially ready to raise children, they should not be forced to have them.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Uzair

The age of viability is determined by practical medical experience. For instance, an obstetrician may experience that almost all babies born during 19th week gestation cannot be saved, while many babies born during 20th week of gestation can be saved with the best of medical technology. Using this sort of empirical data, one can roughly give an estimate of the age of viability. It is definitely not a particular moment; viability is acquired through gradual development. Even if it were just a moment, it would be a moment of significance, because before this moment the baby cannot survive outside mother's body while after this moment the baby would be able to. This, to me, is of greater relevance when it comes to the question of moral status of baby compared to the time of delivery.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Komal and Ned

Excellent comments! Thank you for the input. The relationship with the mother definitely needs to be included in the equation when it comes to morality of abortion.
Alec Lindsay said…
Good post! I revolved it in my head for ages. Most societies, since killing people per se isn't wrong, have decided, for reasons which mostly boil down to maintaining order, that if you kill another person you should be punished. A more or less characteristic social feature of a society is to protect its members so society is forced to decide at what point a foetus becomes entitled to society's protection and therefore entitled to live. Some decide it's from the point of conception but our 'liberal' society has decided that the moment is when the foetus becomes 'viable', and put the decision on viability into the hands of doctors and lawyers. I realise an argument rages about the question of viability, and a blanket rule doesn't work for all, but it's quite irrelevant. Whenever doctors and lawyers decide the moment of viability is, and we consent to it, up to that point we've decided the foetus has no protection, and it's the right of women to abort if they wish. There are, of course, no inalienable rights, just those to which we collectively consent, and we have not yet consented to killing new born infants. Ethics do so complicate things, don't you think? :)
Awais Aftab said…
@ Alec

There are, of course, no inalienable rights, just those to which we collectively consent, and we have not yet consented to killing new born infants. Ethics do so complicate things, don't you think? :)

It's an unsettling thought, but a conclusion hard to avoid. Thanks for elucidating it with clarity :)
Forbidden Fruit said…
Awais, thanks for sharing the stats and the causes. Interesting debate you have going on in here. Did you reach any conclusion yet? :) I'd love to know.
ned said…
Awais, here is Kenan Malik weighing in on this issue:

What he says seems to comport with what Komal said above.
ned said…
Awais, here's a relevant and succinct post that adds to this conversation:

"Newborns are not inside the mother’s body, but fetuses are. This is a morally relevant difference ... the mere fact that there is no difference in moral status of a child immediately before and immediately after birth does not make ‘after-birth abortion’ of equal moral standing as abortion. When the autonomy argument no longer applies, one strong case for abortion is no longer available. The physical health of the mother is also now independent of the survival of the child, so that reason is no longer available either. Since the presumption should be against killing (even a fetus), there would have to be a good reason to perform an ‘after-birth abortion’, and given the physical independence of the mother from the child, a good enough reason will be difficult to come by."
Nadia said…
Awais I find your reasoning faulty on the grounds that, in that case, it'd be highly unfair to have the right to life be determined by how well equipped hospitals are. Why has a fetus in the West the right to life beyond the age of 20 weeks but a fetus in Pakistan only beyond 28 weeks at best?
Anonymous said…
A worried woman went to her gynecologist and said:

'Doctor, I have a serious problem and desperately need your help! My baby is not even 1 year old and I'm pregnant again. I don't want kids so close together. So the doctor said: 'Ok and what do you want me to do?' She said: 'I want you to end my pregnancy, and I'm counting on your help with this.
' The doctor thought for a little, and after some silence he said to the lady: 'I think I have a better solution for your problem. It's less dangerous for you too.' She smiled, thinking that the doctor was going to accept her request. Then he continued: 'You see, in order for you not to have to take care 2 babies at the same time, let's kill the one in your arms. This way, you could rest some before the other one is born. If we're going to kill one of them, it doesn't matter which one it is. There would be no risk for your body if you chose the one in your arms. The lady was horrified and said: 'No doctor! How terrible! It's a crime to kill a child! 'I agree', the doctor replied. 'But you seemed to be OK with it, so I thought maybe that was the best solution.' The doctor smiled, realizing that he had made his point. He convinced the mom that there is no difference in killing a child that's already been born and that's already been born and one that's still in the womb. The crime is the same!
If you agree, please SHARE. Together we can help save precious lives! "Love says I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person. Abortion says I sacrifice the other person for the good of myself."
Komal said…
Fail (at the previous comment).
lmj said…
I am appealing to parents to watch the enclosed video. It shows the assault Planned Parenthood has launched against children. It is sickening.

A corporate policy that actively stalks, tempts and sets up children for sex is reprehensible. Do parents know what their doing?

Supporting Planned Parenthood with our tax dollars promotes their ideology.

I cannot support any decision that robs children of their innocence.

Thank you for your consideration.