Academics Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have been getting headlines (and, horribly, death threats) for publishing a paper arguing that infanticide is morally identical to abortion and so should be allowed.
I read about the paper via Jack at Ethics Alarms, who writes “it is actually a logical, if disturbing, extension of other pro-abortion arguments.” Jack’s right, to some degree — but the argument also shares important features with pro-life arguments, most glaringly in the belief that there is no difference between a fetus and a born child.
American ethicist Peter Singer made himself both famous and infamous several years ago by pointing out that the distinction between late-term abortions and “after birth” killings was artificial. He’s right.
I call Jack’s argument the “woman? what woman?” argument, because it only makes sense if we have accidentally overlooked the fact that women exist. The most obvious difference between a late-term abortion and infanticide is that a fetus is inside a woman’s body, and an infant isn’t. You can believe that women are morally relevant creatures whose rights to control their own bodies matters; or you can believe that abortion and infanticide are completely identical, with no relevant differences at all. But you can’t believe both, because the two positions are completely contradictory.1
As for Giubilini and Minerva’s argument, it seems to me they don’t actually make their case. Here’s the crux of their argument:
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,6 which in turn determines whether or not she is a ‘person’.
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.
And… that’s it. They say “hardly can a newborn be said to have aims,” but they don’t give any arguments to support that claim. How do they know what a newborn thinks? Why couldn’t a newborn be said to have aims in the “first few days or few weeks,” such as the aim of being fed?
“Alas” readers with long memories might say that Giubilini and Minerva’s argument is similar to my own argument — and they’d be right. I agree with them that “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.”
The difference is, I actually give a reason for not thinking that a fetus before 28 weeks is capable of being a person:
So when does personhood begin? I don’t know. But I know that it can’t possibly happen before the fetus has a fully functioning cerebral cortex, capable of supporting thought.
In particular, it’s not possible for there to be any thought or awareness before the emergence of pyramidal cell dendritic spines on neurons, which happens relatively abruptly at about the 28th week. Pre-dendritic spines, the cerebral cortex might as well be a pile of gray slush, in terms of how well it can actually function.
Once the dendritic spines are in place, does the fetus become a person that instant? I doubt it. I think a working cerebral cortex is a necessary condition of personhood (in human beings, anyhow – maybe Vulcans are different), but I don’t think it’s sufficient. Once a fetus has a fully working cerebral cortex, to some extent that’s like having a blank hard drive; the hardware is all in place, but the data is still to come.
Nonetheless, as far as abortion is concerned, I find the scientific facts reassuring. Personhood, as I understand it, can’t even begin to exist until at least the 28th week – and probably doesn’t exist in any meaningful form until well after that point. But virtually all abortions – even those abortions usually referred to as “late term” abortions – take place well before the 28th week of pregnancy.
It seems fair to me to say that having some self-conception is a minimum requirement of personhood; and furthermore, it seems fair to say that having a functioning cerebral cortex is a minimum requirement of having any self-conceptions;2 and, finally, it seems fair to say that having active dendritic spines is a minimum requirement without which cerebral cortexes3 do not function.
But I don’t understand where Giubilini and Minerva’s argument comes from. What is the dividing line between a newborn and a three-week old baby, in their view? What specific differences make the difference, and why? Until they spell that out, as far as I’m concerned, they simply haven’t made an argument.
It’s ironic that both the (extremely rare) pro-infanticide position and the “pro-life” position share the same moral blindness. Both positions don’t seem to think that it matters that a fetus is inside a woman’s body; and both positions ignore the difference between having and not having higher brain functions.
- It’s possible, at least in theory, to understand that women exist and their rights matter, and to nonetheless conclude that on balance a pregnant woman’s rights are outweighed by the rights of a late-term fetus. I might hold that view myself, if we were talking about the case of a woman choosing an unnecessary abortion shortly before she would have given birth anyway — a case that I suspect has never happened in real life, but which seems to happen frequently in the pro-life imagination. However, the “we must balance the rights” viewpoint is not identical to the claim that to see a distinction at all is artificial. [↩]
- At least, in humans it is. It would be easy to imagine some sci-fi alien whose brain functions in a different way anatomically. [↩]
- Corti? [↩]