Friday, March 02, 2012

After-Birth Abortion and the Solomon Problem

After-birth abortions? Really?

The Coming Brouhaha
Two medical ethics philosophers have recently published a paper favoring "after-birth abortion." Allow the sense of that first sentence to kick in, and then have a read of the paper's abstract:
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.
This paper will generate lots of controversy, and I've never read anything like it. It has already attracted attention to the Journal of Medical Ethics, which has started to post defenses and reactions online.

Predictably, anti-abortion advocates see the article as proof that legitimizing pre-fetal or fetal abortion opens a society to rampant, sanctioned killings and euthanasia. Thus, our general value for human life is being diminished and we all are becoming very sad.

Atheists Will Be Blamed
While I have objections to the paper, described below, I also sense it will be used to vilify atheists.

Some people will look at atheism, materialism, secularism, and science as the sources from which such a paper could spring. Without the Christian God, they'll say, people will be killing one other and having sex with animals--and it will all be legal!

I predict this paper will henceforth come up in roughly 1 of 5 atheist conversations with believers. Over and again, we will be asked to explain why people shouldn't just kill newborns. If you don't believe in God/Jesus/Ramen, you have no basis for objecting to infanticide, they'll tell us.

If You Can Dodge a Wrench, You Can After-Abort a Newborn
So what does the paper actually say, is there any merit to it, and what's the proper response?

Briefly, the paper says the reasons one might abort a fetus hold as well for newborns up to at least a few weeks: If you can abort a fetus, you can after-abort a newborn.

The merit of the paper is in raising some important issues: personhood, rights, burden, prevailing concerns, and so on. These issues deserve to be discussed, especially in an age where high technology, long life-spans, uncertain economics have all converged. It's not an easy or straightforward matter to know what defines a person and when sociopolitical rights attach.

That said, I cannot accept the argument put forth by the authors. I think the best actions to take are to read the article and to discuss it soberly. Therefore, having read the article I want to examine the argument in the paper I object to most: that "both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons." I will focus on this case in the rest of my comments, and I'll be concerned only in the matter of newborns.

Why Kill Babies? Because They Ain't People (Says the Paper)
No reason to live?
First, the authors make some careful terminological distinctions. They separate newborns from "children," who have high enough moral status to prohibit their being killed. The authors also define "after-birth abortion" apart from "euthanasia" because the best interest of the one who dies is not a factor in the case of after-birth abortion.

The authors' opening argument on the moral status of a newborn hinges on the concept of personhood:
Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means that many nonhuman animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal. (Emphasis added)
After reading this, I had to check the journal website because I thought (I almost hoped) it was a tasteless joke. Personhood amounts to awareness that one is alive. If and until a being has the capability for such awareness, one can find sufficient cause to kill that being in clear conscience.

The "if and until" part is important, so the authors deal with it head-on:
Our point here is that, although it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’, a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X. There are many ways in which an individual can be harmed, and not all of them require that she values or is even aware of what she is deprived of. A person might be ‘harmed’ when someone steals from her the winning lottery ticket even if she will never find out that her ticket was the winning one. Or a person might be ‘harmed’ if something were done to her at the stage of fetus which affects for the worse her quality of life as a person (eg, her mother took drugs during pregnancy), even if she is not aware of it. However, in such cases we are talking about a person who is at least in the condition to value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed. And such a condition depends on the level of her mental development, which in turn determines whether or not she is a ‘person’. (Emphasis added)
In other words, a newborn doesn't have the requisite mental capacity to know whether he or she would be not want to be killed. The authors develop this argument further:
Those who are only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure (like perhaps fetuses and certainly newborns) have a right not to be inflicted pain. If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth. On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.
I suppose we can take some solace that the authors limit permissible killing time to only a few weeks after birth! Sigh. Let's get to the conclusion of the personhood argument, where burden of the newborn on actual people (i.e., not the newborn) overrides consideration for the baby's life:
It is true that a particular moral status can be attached to a non-person by virtue of the value an actual person (eg, the mother) attributes to it. However, this ‘subjective’ account of the moral status of a newborn does not debunk our previous argument. Let us imagine that a woman is pregnant with two identical twins who are affected by genetic disorders. In order to cure one of the embryos the woman is given the option to use the other twin to develop a therapy. If she agrees, she attributes to the first embryo the status of ‘future child’ and to the other one the status of a mere means to cure the ‘future child’. However, the different moral status does not spring from the fact that the first one is a ‘person’ and the other is not, which would be nonsense, given that they are identical. Rather, the different moral statuses only depends on the particular value the woman projects on them. However, such a projection is exactly what does not occur when a newborn becomes a burden to its family. (Emphasis added)
The bolded part avove identifies the place from which a strong and sensible rebuttal can be made of the entire paper. What the bolded part reminds us is that moral value depends completely on projection. But this presents a problem to the authors' argument because the nuclear family need not have the prevailing say over the newborn's value.

The Solomon Problem
Once we ask whether a biological parent's or someone else's valuation of a newborn matters more, the baby's welfare becomes decisive.

Forgive me for bringing in the Bible here, but we have the old judgment of Solomon problem: the real mother attributes value to the baby and wants it to live. The real mother attributes moral status on the baby. The real mother, therefore, does not have to be the biological mother. Indeed, moral status can conceivably be conferred by almost anyone--a grandparent, a distant relative, a doctor, or a stranger. Many, not just the baby's family, can project value on a newborn.

If a mother or father forfeit the initial valuation of a newborn, then there would be actual people (to use the authors' expression) who could be consulted. And if the interests of actual people should prevail--as the authors argue--then certainly there are people beyond the newborn's nuclear family who have reasonable standing to advocate for the baby's moral status.

This argument overcomes the weak objection the authors make to adoption causing more psychological trauma to the mother than would after-birth abortion.

Dealing with It
I can see this paper changing the landscape of the abortion debate in the US. Many people will be rightfully repulsed with the paper's argument. Unfortunately, many will also politicize the paper and blur the distinctions it makes from abortion and euthanasia. Opponents may stifle productive and profound debate by failing to employ proper nuance toward the real and limited scope of this paper. I can see a future in which to support any form of abortion is be to be tarred as an advocate of newborn-killing.

I don't think the authors are bad people for writing this paper. In fact, I think they are brave, for I personally would fear for my safety if I were them. But ultimately their argument fails to make its case, and it will fail to make after-birth abortion more palatable. 

A free society needs to be able to deal with awful topics, and this is one of them. I hope many people read the article, understand its argument, reject that argument, and use that reasoning in productive ways for the future of the personhood debate.

1 comment:

  1. When I put part two of my commentary up (tomorrow), you'll probably find that I made a similar objection to the one you make above (in "The Solomon Problem").


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