Thursday, 1 March 2012

A modest proposal

Like many people I was staggered to read a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics proposing After-birth Abortion or the killing of new born babies. This is the abstract summary of the paper:
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.
It’s a chilling read and yet I can’t help thinking that all the authors have done is take the ethics of abortion to a cold hard logical conclusion. And the conclusion is this:
If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.
Two considerations need to be added.
First, we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible, and we do not think that in fact more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect any abnormality in the child. In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold, as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.
Second, we do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion. Abortions at an early stage are the best option, for both psychological and physical reasons. However, if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.
It is not surprising that the paper has drawn heavy criticism of the proposal, its authors, and of the JME for publishing the article. It is surprising that the editor of the JME should be shocked at the response to the paper. He defends publication and condemns the criticism, describing those attacking the paper as being engaged in a ‘witch hunt’. Julian Savulescu’s argument seems to be that it is justifiable to publish anything as long as it is presented as a reasoned argument:
However, the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises. The authors provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject.
So here is another reasoned argument which I trust the JME will publish. It’s not new and I am grateful to Philip James for reminding me of it. Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal in 1729 arguing:
For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland
From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and
For Making Them Beneficial to The Public.
Here are some excerpts from Swift’s proposal to give you a flavour of his reasoning:
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Swift concludes:
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.
Swift as we know was a satarist, the Journal of Medical Ethics by contrast is supposed to be a serious scientific journal.


Nancy Wallace said...

I already had a nasty taste in my mouth after reading the JME article. Swift's proposal (though it was clearly satire) is even more sickening. It does highlight the problems of a purely utilitarian base for ethics.

Alex Hobson said...

This argument was advanced a few years ago, although not in the JME. It has a certain logic. Maybe the case against is best made by employing the same logic. The authors argue, "If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible." I suggest the vast majority of people disagree, and should therefore be posed the question: "If infanticide in unacceptable, why should abortion be acceptable?"

revdmac said...

I guess that the writers of the JME article haven't paid attention to the 3rd paragraph of the prologue to the UN Declaration on the rights of the child. here it is:

WHEREAS the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth...

I guess that all those who spend their time in the medical ethics of pre-birth, and neo-natal children might do well to be more aware of what our Government has signed-up to.