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J Med Ethics 39:296-298 doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100617
  • The argument

Concern for our vulnerable prenatal and neonatal children: a brief reply to Giubilini and Minerva

  1. Charles Camosy
  1. Correspondence to Professor Charles Camosy, Department of Theology, Fordham University, 441 E Fordham Rd, New York, NY 10458, USA; ccamosy{at}gmail.com
  • Received 5 March 2012
  • Revised 21 May 2012
  • Accepted 30 November 2012

Abstract

This is a response to Giubilini and Minerva arguing that, on the basis of the similar moral status of the fetus and infant, infanticide is justifiable for many of the same reasons that justify abortion. It argues that, although the authors are correct in claiming the logical connection between abortion and infanticide, they are mistaken in their moral anthropology and so misunderstand which way the reasoning should cut. It concludes with an exhortation—especially to fellow pro-lifers—to have a different kind of discourse on these matters.

Despite the worldwide public outcry over their article, Giubilini and Minerva's arguments in defence of infanticide are nothing new—even outside of the academy.1 Peter Singer has become one of the world's best known public intellectuals in part because of the attention he has received from defending the practice. Infanticide was such an established part of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome that Christians and Jews became subjects of public mockery for opposing it. Even today, infanticide is consistently practised in places where the Judeo-Christian tradition does not serve as a moral foundation, such as China and India.

But the Judeo-Christian tradition's influence has diminished in the developed West, and as a result it has become more difficult to claim that all members of the species Homo sapiens are persons with an equal right to life. Giubilini and Minerva provide an important example of what follows from the rejection of the sanctity of human life. Even the most ardent defenders of abortion rights cannot deny the science behind the claim that a prenatal child is a fellow member of our species, but that—at least to some in a post-Christian culture—is not morally significant. What matters is having the interests and capabilities of persons: rationality, self-awareness, the ability to engage in loving relationships, etc. Many already reject the personhood of our prenatal children because they do not have these traits, but Giubilini and Minerva make the fairly obvious point that our neonatal children do not have these traits either. Thus, they claim, if one supports abortion for this reason, one should support infanticide on the same basis.

The Catholic Church has been making the same logical connections between abortion and infanticide for the better part of 2000 years. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian manuals for converts,i specifically mentions them together: ‘You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born.’2 Even in the modern era, when infanticide is not a clear public policy issue, we still find the Church making this connection. Consider the bishops of the Second Vatican Council claiming that ‘from the moment of its conception life must be guarded with the greatest care’ and in the next breath that ‘abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes’.3 Interestingly, Giubilini and Minerva share a similar understanding to that of the Catholic Church with regard to the issues and reasoning in play—and, using premises that many other pro-choice people share, they follow the argument all the way to infanticide.

Now, let me be perfectly clear, it does not follow that just because one supports abortion rights that one must support the right to infanticide. One could support abortion rights for many reasons that have nothing to do with the moral status of the child: one might reasonably believe that prenatal children deserve equal protection of the law, but also claim that this does not require women to sustain them with their bodies; one might believe that there is no good way to get the laws banning abortion enforced without seriously hurting the common good; one might also, based on history, have some hesitation to return to a time when there was broad government regulation of a woman's reproductive capacity.

But we must be honest about the fact that many, many people who support abortion choice do so in large measure because of what they believe about the prenatal child. This is in part why there was such an outcry from those who support abortion choice when a prenatal personhood amendment (which did not address any of the complex questions in the paragraph above) was put up for a vote in the American state of Mississippi.ii For a plurality of people, the abortion debate turns on what kind of thing the prenatal child is.

And with this group in mind, we should also point out that some of them have offered arguments for why we would consider neonatal children as persons and (some) prenatal children as non-persons. Our neonatal children have the ‘breath of life’ or a heartbeat or brain development or some such trait that (some) prenatal children do not have. But here again the Catholic Church would side with Giubilini and Minerva in arguing that these are irrelevant traits when it comes to defining personhood. Especially if one is not ready to offer the right to life to other animals that breathe and have a heartbeat and brain, then this seems little more than arbitrary speciesism.

But the Catholic Church will part company with Giubilini and Minerva with regard to moral anthropology, in particular when they claim human persons can be defined merely as collections of actualised traits. The Church will instead build on the view of the pagan philosopher, Aristotle (one need not be Christian, of course, to believe that the human infant is a person), and Thomas Aquinas that human persons are substances of a rational and relational nature.iii Human persons are kinds of things that subsist over time whether (1) they are currently expressing specific traits such as rationality and self-awareness, or (2) those traits are currently unexpressed or frustrated as a result of disease, immaturity, intoxication, unconsciousness, brain injury, and so on. From our prenatal and postnatal children—to brain damaged and mentally disabled adults—the fact that a fellow substance of a rational nature happens to have their potential frustrated is no reason at all to treat them as anything less than a person.iv If anything, those who are not currently expressing these traits deserve our special moral attention given that they are so vulnerable—not least because of the ideas and reasoning used by Giubilini and Minerva. Indeed, Catholic Social Teaching insists that we must have a ‘preferential option’ for the most vulnerable—especially when they are victims of Western culture's social structures, which unduly favour those who can produce capital and make autonomous choices.

Pro-lifers, like all serious players in the public debate, should hold a coherent and consistent point of view—and we should expect to be pushed to deal with the implications of our positions that seem absurd to others. A recent and powerful example of this involves our opponents pushing us to explain why the high rate of natural embryo loss should not be regarded as a massive and tragic emergency.v But those who support abortion rights should be forced to defend similarly counterintuitive implications as well, one of which (for most people, anyway) is the permissibility of infanticide. Giubilini and Minerva should also be pushed to develop their argument all the way through and respond to what appear to be absurd consequences. Consider this very important quote from their article: In cases where the after-birth abortion were requested for non-medical reasons, we do not suggest any threshold [for when a human infant becomes a person], as it depends on the neurological development of newborns, which is something neurologists and psychologists would be able to assess.

Can they really say nothing about this very important question? This looks an awful lot like an attempt to avoid following their argument to its (perhaps absurd) logical conclusion.

For the sake of argument, let us assume this relatively uncontroversial claim: ‘a pig, though having significant moral value, is not a person with a (legal) right to life’. At what point does a human infant's rationality and self-awareness exceed that of a pig? Pigs have very sophisticated mental lives, and have even been taught to play video games.7 In the interest of not wanting to kill an actual person, perhaps we should be conservative and leave a large grey area in answering this question. But even with this constraint, surely Giubilini and Minerva would be forced to allow infanticide up until a child's first birthday. No 1-year-old baby can be taught to play a video game. And perhaps, in the face of uncertainty about the baby's personhood, we should err on the side of parents’ rights. It could very well take beyond the first birthday of one's child to determine, for instance, that one is not cut out for parenting, or that one would rather go back to school, or that one doesn't want a child with a certain kind of mental disability (or even that the child has such a disability in the first place), etc. We might very well argue (as is regularly done in the context of abortion) that scenarios in which a child's personhood is unclear ought to be resolved in favour of the interests of the parent. This could mean that those holding the Giubilini and Minerva position on child killing would be forced to defend the practice well into the second or even third year of life, depending on how one defined rationality and self-awareness.

For many people, but perhaps especially for Christians who are committed to non-violence and have special concern for vulnerable populations, these conclusions are morally repugnant and can produce strong emotional reactions. And it is often appropriate to react with strong negative emotion in response to a great and violent injustice directed at a particularly vulnerable population. I know, for instance, that when I first started reading Peter Singer's arguments in support of infanticide choice I became very angry, and today I believe quite strongly that arguments such as those offered by Giubilini and Minerva are fundamentally wrongheaded. And yet, something needs to be said about the way many have reacted to their article. Although anyone advancing an argument in the public sphere on a controversial issue should expect to receive strong negative attention (especially when doing so in a deliberately provocative way), it must be said that the personal attacks and threats of violence that have been levelled at Giubilini and Minerva—especially when the attacks come from those who identify as Christians—have been absolutely disgraceful. That hate and vitriol are spewed by people on all sides of these controversial debates is nothing new, but it is particularly inappropriate for self-proclaimed pro-life Christians.

Regretfully, even some more serious Christian figures in the debate have used language that I believe to be at variance with a Christian approach. For instance, Robert George referred to the argument of Giubilini and Minerva as ‘madness’.8 I understand this reaction, but is it really madness? As mentioned above—and as Peter Singer and others contributing to this volume have pointed out—if we throw out the Judeo-Christian tradition (or, at least, something like Aristotelian metaphysics) as our guide, it isn't at all clear that a newborn infant has the same moral status as a human being capable of reading these words. Singer further argues that we are slowly chipping away at the Judeo-Christian tradition and its speciesist focus on human beings as somehow valuable apart from their interests. Especially if one has rejected the Judeo-Christian tradition (and/or the metaphysics on which its moral claims are based) is it ‘madness’ to believe that pre-rational members of Homo sapiens are not persons? Many millions of pro-choice people do believe this, and have strong (although, in my view, fundamentally misguided) arguments for so doing. They happen to be wrong, but if it is not madness to claim that ‘a non-rational human being is a non-person’ before birth, then neither is it madness to make the same claim about human beings after birth.

Christians are called to love, and show solidarity with, those who oppose us on massively important issues such as this. When we behave in ways that undermine our own values of love, solidarity and respect for life, we not only fail to live the life to which Jesus called us, but we also undercut the coherency and effectiveness of our own arguments.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i It was certainly known by the third century, but some scholars claim it dates to 70 CE.

  • ii For a good example, see ‘Occupy my uterus my ass! Fertilized eggs are not people’.4

  • iii This concept was applied to angels as well as humans—and it might be that some non-human animals are substances of a rational nature.  See chapter 3, Peter Singer and Christian ethics: beyond polarization.5

  • iv I make this argument in some detail in chapters 1 and 2 of Peter Singer and Christian ethics: beyond polarization.5

  • v I try to respond to this difficult problem here ‘The subject of the scourge: rethinking implications of natural embryo loss’.6

References