A recent article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics 1, of the British Medical Journal Group, by two little-known Italian philosophers based in Australia has sparked a great furore around the world, receiving ample coverage by mass media.
The crux of the argument put forth by authors Giubilini and Minerva rests upon the idea that killing a newborn should be permissible after its birth, if such an act is deemed desirable for the child, its parents or society. It is their belief that this practice would be morally irrelevant given that the rights of a newborn are equivalent to that of a foetus, whose moral status allows for an abortion under particular circumstances. In effect, the authors state that: a) both foetus and newborn do not posses the same moral status as an actual person; b) the fact that both can be considered potential persons is not a morally relevant issue; and c) adoption is not always the best solution for the child. Therefore Giubilini and Minerva claim that “this practice [what they propose to call ‘after-birth abortion’] should be permissible in all circumstances where abortion should be, including cases in which the newborn does not show any signs of being severely handicapped” that is, “termination of the life of a healthy newborn is morally justifiable if abortion would have been permissible before birth”.
It comes as no surprise, then, that this claim has sparked such controversy.
If we examine the issue at depth, we find that considerations such as these are nothing new. In 1979, this stance was defended by Princeton University Professor Peter Singer, who claimed 2 that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee”. In 1993 3 many americans were shocked to hear him suggest that “no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth” and that “disabled babies should be killed immediately after birth”. According to Singer and his followers, the right to life can only be granted to those who possess certain relevant capacities, in particular, self-consciousness and the ability to reason. Only beings that meet these conditions are granted the status of personhood, and given that only persons have the right to life, all those who do not belong to this anthropological category can be killed, without any moral responsibility whatsoever. Accordingly, embryos and foetuses are excluded from this category of personhood, but this category also includes babies under the age of one as well as all those humans who suffer from severe disability or who have lost their ability to reason. In short, embryos, foetuses and newborns, because they do not possess self-consciousness or the ability to reason, do not have the right to life and consequently can be killed with impunity.
More crucially, the proposal put forth by Giubilini and Minerva further justifies the termination of the life of a newborn, for, according to these authors, these criteria are not limited to reasons associated to the newborn itself, but may also be extended to criteria “such as the costs (social, psychological and economic) for the potential parents. This stance is based on the consideration that neither the foetus nor the newborn possess moral status, for they are only potential persons and “the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn”. They go on to add that an abortion is better than infanticide and should there exist valid reasons to do so, an abortion should be the first choice and that infanticide should only be considered when an abortion was not carried out or when the reasons for aborting are only discovered after birth. This is based on the fact that the moral status of the foetus and the newborn are equivalent and that while both the foetus and the newborn do not possess the property of persons, they are still considered potential persons.
It is impossible to reflect deeply upon this last statement here, but we can claim that, after fertilization takes place, for incontrovertible biological reasons the embryo is a living human who develops in a continuous manner and self-regulates their development throughout the various stages of its life until its natural death, unless their death should occur by unnatural means.4 If we adopt Robert Spaemann’s claim 5 that “in keeping with a well-founded philosophical conceptualisation, traditionally all beings of a species that possess rationality and self-consciousness are persons… The reduction of a person to certain situations in which the act possesses self-consciousness and rationality ultimately undo the general notion of personhood, for there would be no persons in the strictest sense, only ‘personal situations’ ” 6 of human beings.” According to Spaemann, this view is, in itself, a contradiction, “as the states of personal consciousness cannot describe themselves without resorting to a notion of identity of man and person.” 7
With regard to above considerations, Giubilini and Minerva assert that human beings at the embryonic, foetal and newborn state are just that—human beings and not persons—as they lack the conditions that are an inherent part of being a human and therefore do not possess the dignity associated to this state, and can be killed without moral responsibility—a difficult proposition to accept from any ethical standpoint. When we reflect upon human personhood, we often start philosophical and ethical debates which, in our opinion, could be resolved by way of the most elementary criteria based on common sense. And this is the case in this instance. Debating on whether a newborn is a person or not and if, as a result of this determination we revoke their right to life is akin to asking mothers who hold their newborn in their arms whether they think they are holding a person or not, or whether or not the right to life of their newborn child should be respected under any circumstance. This, in philosophical terms, is known as a “first principle”, a proposition that is taken as true and which does not require any further justification.