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Abortion Ethics 3

February 19, 2012

The problem of newborn babies.

In the previous post we argued that the fetus fails to fulfil the requirements of personhood because it is not a self-aware being that values its future life. We suggested that some higher animals, might approach our definition and should be treated carefully. We argued that this was a strength of our argument.

The problem is that this argument appears to commit us to permit infanticide. Newborn babies are not self-aware, and don’t, as far as we can tell, care about their future life. Can we also kill them if they are inconvenient?

The answer is yes, if no other person is prepared to make the effort to look after them. The value of newborn babies lies in the importance other people give them.  They are precious in the way an inanimate, but otherwise important painting like the Mona Lisa is precious.  It is not a person, but destroying it would be wrong. Killing a new born baby is not the same as killing a person, but so long as its mother, or the nurses looking after it, want it to live then it is still wrong.

Imagine if no-one cared enough to expend effort looking after a particular newborn baby. Perhaps its mother had other concerns, or it was so premature that the only nurses who could look after it, also had other concerns.  Perhaps they needed time with their own families. This might happen as technology for saving the lives of premature babies grows more complex. At that point we would surely allow the last neonatal intensive care nurse to switch off the ventilator with a  clear conscience.

Other societies, such as the Spartans, have permitted infanticide in the past, and some, India and China, tolerate it even today. They don’t regard newborns as precious in the same way we do in the West. They are different but not immoral.

To summarise. Neither the fetus nor newborn babies meet morally important criteria for beings who may not be unjustly killed. Their importance lies in how other people feel about them. Abortion is therefore permitted at the mother’s request because no-one else is able to look after her fetus.  Infanticide is prohibited in modern western society because many people are willing to look after newborns and would be outraged by their killing. In other societies things might be different.

In tomorrow’s post we examine religious objections to these arguments.

Jim Thornton

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2012 12:58 pm

    I’m enjoying this series, looking forward to the next one

  2. February 29, 2012 7:23 am

    Glad to hear it. But don’t get your hopes up that I’ve got the answer.

    I’ve just been shown an article from the Journal of Medical Ethics advocating infanticide, if I’m reading it right, in the mother’s interests, i.e. on the same grounds that abortion is presently justified. http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/02/22/medethics-2011-100411.full
    It’s provoked a torrent of vitriol, but I don’t think it’s moved the debate on much.

    Hare said something like; “You cannot decide whether roller skating should be allowed by inspection of the skates, or even by close reading of the order regulating wheeled vehicles in the park”.

    Nor, he implies, can you decide where to draw the “person” line between egg, embryo, fetus and newborn by ever closer inspection. You need to step back. I like Hare.

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