When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 1)

3:19 PM James 5 Comments

How does it feel to know that your worth as an individual, indeed your very right to life, is not based on the kind of thing you are (i.e. a human being), but instead is based solely on your current ability to perform a specific function?  In other words, if you can't perform this function, it's okay to kill you.  That's the view proposed by two ethicists who recently argued, "[A]ll the individuals who are not in a 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."  On this basis, the ethicists argue that it is morally permissible to kill healthy newborn babies, if it suits the parents.

Several months ago, many people were shocked when philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics, in which they argued, “‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled,” (I encourage you to read the paper in its entirety and take their argument seriously).[1]  Reactions to the paper ranged from complete denial ("Surely these guys are just playing devil's advocate") to total outrage (the authors even received some death threats).  What was lacking in all the uproar was a cogent, level-headed response.  Perhaps it is because my wife and I just had our first child (our daughter, pictured above at one week old), or perhaps it's because I just finished a study of bioethics, but I feel like I need to take a shot at responding.  So, here goes.

The logic of Giubilini's and Minerva's (hereafter 'the authors') argument can be summarized as follows:
  1. Fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent (i.e. there is no biological/developmental difference significant enough to make killing one morally permissible, but not the other).
  2. If killing a fetus is morally permissible, then killing a newborn is likewise permissible.
  3. Killing fetuses is morally permissible.
  4. Therefore, killing newborns is likewise permissible.
The authors' logic is valid and takes on the form known as modus ponens (for my fellow logic buffs).  Now, look at premise 1 - the claim that fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.  I believe this is true.  There appears to be no biological or developmental difference between a fetus and a newborn that would make killing one okay, but killing the other wrong.  Think about it.  Is there any significant difference between, say, a late term fetus with a week left in the womb, and a newborn that's a week out of the womb?  Not really.  It's not as though the trip down the birth canal magically turns a fetus with no right to life into a person with a right to life.  To draw such a line at birth is completely arbitrary and unfounded.

Philosopher Stephen Schwartz says there are four primary differences between a fetus and a newborn: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.  None of these differences is morally significant.  For instance, none of us would say that a conjoined twin has no right to life because of her degree of dependency (being biologically connected to, and dependent on, her twin sister).  Nor would we say, for example, that a teenager has more of a right to life than a toddler, because he is at a higher level of development (actually, the difference in level of development between a teenager and a toddler is more drastic than that between a late term fetus and a newborn).  It is the same with size and environment - they don't make a lick of difference in whether or not it is morally permissible to kill one and not the other.  Thus, premise 1 appears to be true - fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.

If premise 1 is true, then premise 2 is necessarily true - they essentially say the same thing in different ways.  But, if premise 2 is true, and premise 3 is also true (as many people believe), then the conclusion that killing newborns is permissible follows inescapably.  There's no denying it, unless you deny one of the premises, or deny logic altogether.

I believe Giubilini's and Minerva's paper is a big problem for people who consider themselves 'pro-choice.'  If you agree that abortion is permissible, then you have to deal with the authors' argument.  You cannot rationally deny their conclusion without providing (via argument) some morally significant difference between a fetus and newborn.  I've offered the biggest differences I know of, and none of them appear to be morally significant.  If you can think of some better ones, then more power to ya.

Now, call me old fashioned, but I think killing newborns is morally abhorrent.  In fact, I think this is so obviously and intuitively true, that I'm just going to assert it baldly for now, with no argument:  killing newborns for convenience is just flat out wrong.  If you agree with me, then there is a solution to the dilemma posed by the authors' argument.  Rather than accept their conclusion, one can simply reverse their logic (i.e. turn their modus ponens into a modus tollens):
  1. Fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.
  2. If killing a fetus is morally permissible, then killing a newborn is likewise permissible.
  3. Killing a newborn is not morally permissible.
  4. Therefore, killing a fetus is likewise impermissible.
Hard core pro-choicers won't like this argument of course, because of the conclusion.  But I don't mind it.  I think it's the more rational view.  It recognizes the facts of biology and adheres to logic and reason.  It also has the added benefit of not endorsing the psychotic, morally abominable, absurd act of killing newborns for convenience.  Which is a plus.

In my next post, I will critically examine the authors' view of personhood, and draw out some implications.  And for those who actually need an argument for why killing newborns is wrong, I'll offer that too.

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Read part 2


1.  Those who follow developments in philosophy were probably not surprised at all by the paper.  Philosophers Peter Singer, of Princeton, and Michael Tooley, of UC Boulder, have been making similar arguments for decades.  They were just never published in a medical ethics journal.


  1. Yep philosophy has a way of trapping those that use it poorly. By arguing for killing newborns, a logical extension of killing pre-borns, the authors offer a face to abortion that many of its adherents can't bear to glance upon. Good post James!

  2. Crazy how having kids allows us to see just how wrong it is to kill an infant. The idea goes from an abstract though to a horrifying reality. Thanks for taking the time to research, write and post this.

    1. Thanks, Dan, for your comments and encouraging words. Good to hear from ya!