Kermit Gosnell just got three life sentences for killing newborn babies in his abortion clinic because the law does not permit infanticide. Most people, even those who support abortion, recognize that infanticide is morally wrong. But some bioethicists disagree, and they are being increasingly vocal about it, advocating for infanticide in prominent scholarly journals.
Recently, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva wrote an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” This caused a stir in the press, to say the least. In response to the outcry, the Journal of Medical Ethics has dedicated their May 2013 edition to responses, both pro and con, to the article.
Philosopher and ethicist Michael Tooley added his voice to the mix in an article titled “Philosophy, critical thinking and ‘after-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’” Tooley says we ought to question our basic beliefs, including the belief that infanticide is murder, and hence morally wrong.
According to Tooley, what makes humans valuable is our mental life. Once we have attained self-consciousness, we have obtained value, and will retain that value for the rest of our lives even when we are unconscious, so long as our conscious states are connected by “memories of past mental states” and “desires concerning future mental states.” The real question, then, is when humans acquire a mental life. Tooley admits that he is not familiar with recent scientific studies in this area, and thus is not certain when human mental life begins. But based on his past research in the 1980s, he thinks it is probably true that mental life begins sometime after birth, and thus human fetuses have the same moral value as newborn babies. It follows then, that if it is morally permissible to kill the unborn baby, it is also morally permissible to kill the newborn baby.
I think it goes without saying that I disagree with Tooley’s conclusions, as I hope you do too. The problem with Tooley et al is that they locate human value in the obtaining of certain functions, rather than simply being human (and having the capacity for those functions). I think this view is philosophically untenable, as I have argued in my article on abortion.
Infanticide advocates have become increasingly vocal, and I have no reason to believe the trend will abate in the future. And the public will eventually buy into it, for two reasons. First, this is the logical conclusion of the accepted arguments for abortion. If only persons are valuable, and personhood is something humans obtain sometime after birth, then by force of logic newborns have no more value than the unborn. If one can be killed, so can the other. Secondly, the public generally accepts whatever the intellectual class says. We just assume that since they are smart, they know what they are talking about and it’s best that we align our ideas with theirs. As it’s often said, all it takes to turn a lie into a truth is to repeat it enough times. When that happens, what is unthinkable today becomes thinkable tomorrow, and put into practice thereafter. If we want to stem the coming tide of infanticide, we need to convince the public that all human beings are valuable, both the born and the unborn.