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Ethics and Morality

Ethicists Argue for the Killing of Newborns

After-birth abortion…euphemism for murder

Medical ethics is a fascinating discipline, as it deals with issues replete with complex philosophical, moral, and ethical considerations that are rarely black or white. Many readers might remember the tragic case of Terri Schiavo that dealt with the provision of long-term life support for a person who is unlikely to come of a vegetative state. Other debates within the field of medical ethics include whether it is acceptable to use embryonic stem cells for research purposes, and whether euthanasia and abortion should be allowable practices (and if so under which conditions).

Of the latter examples, perhaps none is as politically charged as the legality and morality of abortion. Irrespective of what your position might be vis-à-vis abortion, this next case will likely surprise you. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, two ethicists housed at Australian universities, published a short paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics wherein they argued for so-called after-birth abortions (a euphemism for the killing of a newborn). I don’t think that I can lend justice to their position by summarizing it so I will reproduce their words (p. 263 in the conclusion section):

“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 foetus 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.”

They then add on the same page (last sentence of the article):

“…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.”

If the latter two quotes are not sufficiently clear, here is the actual abstract of their article: (p. 261):

“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.”

My feeling is that irrespective of whether you are for or against abortions, you are likely to find the latter argument shocking if not repugnant.

Interestingly, evolutionary theory does offer three contexts under which infanticide might be adaptive (Wilson, 2007, p. 19): (1) If a mother does not have the necessary resources (e.g., food) to care adequately for her newborn; (2) If the quality of the newborn is such that its likelihood of surviving long enough to eventually mate is minimal; and (3) If the threat of cuckoldry (paternity uncertainty) is high. I should also add that two of the pioneers of evolutionary psychology (Martin Daly and Margo Wilson) demonstrated in their book Homicide that of 60 preindustrial societies that practiced infanticide, in no case was this dreadful reality applied to firstborns (i.e., it is typically evolutionarily suboptimal to kill offspring on whom much parental investment has already been bestowed, and who are closer to reaching sexual maturity than their lastborn counterparts).

Needless to say, the fact that evolutionists might offer conditions under which it might be adaptive to commit infanticide does not in any way justify or condone the practice nor does it imply that the practice should be construed as legal, moral, and/or ethical. Case in point: I am an evolutionist and yet I found the arguments of the two ethicists somewhat bizarre to say the least. To propose that the killing of one’s newborn might be justified under adverse economic, social, or psychological conditions strikes me as a grotesque and overreaching argument. What do you think?

Please consider following me on Twitter (@GadSaad). If you are in Montreal on May 25th and assuming that tickets are still available, you might be interested in attending my upcoming TED talk on the evolutionary roots of human decision making.

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