Taken from the DailyMail
By Rev George Pitcher
Far from being deranged and deserving to ‘burn in hell’, which is the fate some of the usual Christian suspects have wished upon her, the medical ethicist who has argued the case for ‘after-birth abortions’ – the killing of disabled or unwanted newborn babies – has offered us a profoundly helpful philosophical service.
I’ll come to why her argument is so important in a moment. First, the facts (steel yourself – this is grim). Francesca Minerva, from Melbourne University and sometime of our very own Oxford, and her colleague Alberto Giubilini, argue in the British Medical Journal that ‘after-birth abortion’ should be permissable in all cases that abortion is. As ‘potential persons’, newborn babies share the same moral status as foetuses, which are not ‘actual persons’, in that they have no sense of their own existence.
It follows that infanticide should be legalised for babies with abnormalities not detected during pregnancy, which would otherwise have qualified for abortion, and by the same token for those which would have been aborted because their parents could not materially or psychologically cope with a child.
I suggest that most people reading the previous paragraphs will resile from that proposition in disgust and disbelief. But why? If newborn babies haven’t developed any material consciousness beyond what they had in the womb, why not dispose of them in the same way? In this context, the term-limits for abortion of foetuses seem entirely arbitrary, based on the squeamishness of we who are born rather than the actual or potential humanity of the unborn.
And those who claim that a woman has an absolute and unchallengeable right to decide what happens to her and her body in relation to reproduction should, logically, agree that she can exercise her rights either side of birth, if the status of the ‘potential person’ is medically adjudged to be the same.
Since the Daily Telegraph broke its investigative scoop that some doctors in Britain were offering abortions by ‘gender selection’ – in practice, invariably meaning the termination of female foetuses – we have been forced to re-examine what we intend in our abortion law. To my mind, the most discomfiting voices are those – and they are by no means exclusively Roman Catholic – that ask why we should baulk at abortion by gender, when we daily abort foetuses that are merely inconvenient.
What really makes us uneasy about these stories is the much maligned (by those ‘militant secularists’) precept of the sanctity of life. For we Christians, that’s about human life being made in the image of God. But that’s not to say that our faith owns a special view of the value of human life – the overwhelming majority of people who don’t share our faith will readily acknowledge that there is an inherent integrity to every single human being. It’s why most of us become uncomfortable about ‘growing’ a human body simply to harvest its organs, a practice that is well within our technical reach.
And our instinctive resistance to after-birth abortion and the manufacture of zombies for organ transplant is directly transferable into the other great issue of medical ethics of our time, assisted suicide and euthanasia. Lethal-dose campaigner Lord Falconer and his naive lobby group Dignity in Dying would respond that the essential difference between after-birth abortion and voluntary euthanasia is precisely the consciousness of those who demand the latter – and they actively ask to be assisted to die, whereas the baby does not and cannot make any such request.
‘I’ve had death threats,’ says academic who said doctors ‘should have the right to kill unwanted or disabled babies at birth’
But there’s the rub. The personal autonomy that drives the euthanasia debate is precisely the same imperative that drives the abortion absolutists. It’s my body, to do absolutely what I please with it, to the exclusion of the interests of anyone else – medical professionals, our families and friends, civilised society, or for that matter new-born babies who cannot express an opinion. Someone approaching the end of their life has an irrefutable personal autonomy, apparently, while the newborn baby’s autonomy is forfeited in favour of its parents.
When the Abortion Act was passed in the Sixties, it had the noble aim of protecting women’s lives and bringing abortion into safe medical practice. Since then, it has become a form of contraception and, today, we have this proposed rationale for after-birth abortion. When euthanasia was first introduced in Holland in 2002, it was for the terminally ill only. Since then, it has been accepted for the over-70s who are simply tired of life and, today, the Dutch government is introducing mobile killing vans, to reach those who have difficulty finding a doctor who will dispose of them. The ethics of personal autonomy in both instances run very similar courses.
That’s why Miss Minerva and her colleague have provided us with such a valuable ethical consideration. I don’t believe that she’s arguing the case for after-birth abortion, but just pointing intellectually to where some practices in medial ethics ineluctably lead us. I’m not even sure she’s real – Minerva is, after all, the Roman goddess of medicine and wisdom.
But her work deserves more than simple condemnation. We need to understand how we could have come to a place where, in a respected medical journal, her argument can be made at all.