The advantages of threatening to kill a baby

An article that argues that newborn babies do not have the same moral status as people, and therefore that it’s acceptable to kill them, has created a storm of outrage. The Journal of Medical Ethics has had to defend its decision to publish the article, bemoaning “the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement”.

I’m not sure they’ve quite got it right. I don’t see this as opposition to liberal values but rather a symptom of demented inconsistency that clouds people’s ability to think clearly.

Our laws protect people and don’t, at least not nearly to the same extent, protect non-people. By and large, you can kill any animal you want to without fear of being hauled in front of the courts for murder. By contrast, an animal that kills a human can expect summary destruction without so much as a trial. People and non-people are different, and the courts reflect that. So, in order to deny Giubilini and Minerva’s conclusions, you must either claim that they’ve drawn the line between personhood and non-personhood at the wrong place,  or that we need a special set of laws for special non-person things like foetuses and newborn babies.

The first of these is probably easier to argue. Many of those who hate Giublini and Minerva’s article may well be opposed to all types of abortion. And that’s fine; you may a coherent position from that starting point, while needing to address how to deal with situations where perhaps the mother lacks capacity or the child is severely disabled. But these issues aren’t insurmountable. You can rightly argue that life is sacrosanct and that it begins at conception. Therefore it’s always wrong to abort in all cases, including when the baby is newborn.

The second is more tricky. Are you to say that the pre-person thing gets a subset of the rights people enjoy? If so, how do you define what that subset is to be? Why should it get the right to life where we deny it to certain animals? Of course, please feel free to make the case if you think you can do it.

What upsets me most about people’s reaction to the article is the inconsistency. Regardless of the line you want to take, you are basically arguing that it’s always wrong to kill a person. And therefore it’s totally absurd to argue, as some people have done, that it’s justifiable to “do away with people who believe in doing away with live babies” or that they “would personally kill anyone doing a after-birth abortion”. If these people can conceive of a situation where it’s acceptable to kill a philosopher, then they must similarly be able to contemplate a situation where it’s acceptable to kill a baby?

No, the correct response must be to thank the authors. By illustrating just how appalling and absurd it is to kill a newborn baby, they help to highlight the difficult ethical dilemmas raised by abortion. Those who seek to restrict abortion further should celebrate this contribution to their cause. Even those who can accept abortion in certain situations should welcome this challenge to their principles. Abortion is morally difficult and articles that help us think about it more clearly are to be welcomed. What’s particularly unwelcome is a rash of mindless thuggery in response.  That does nothing to improve the civility of our society.