Gosnell, the Journal of Medical Ethics, and Infanticide

On May 13, Kermit Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder—for infanticide.  Some news reports said that the convicted man looked stunned, as if he couldn’t understand why anyone would think he did anything wrong.

The May 2013 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics was devoted to a serious discussion of the notion that infanticide—as in, the intentional killing not only of handicapped but also healthy infants—is morally acceptable, for the same reasons that abortion, including late-term abortion, is accepted in the West.  That issue of the JME expanded on the prior online publication, in January of 2012, of an article by Giubilini and Minerva.  I found the contents of this issue available online for free (for which I was thankful, because nobody should have to pay for this tripe).  Read it, and it will be clear that the authors, and the editors of the journal, don’t understand why anyone could have been upset that it was published in the first place.

In an editorial, Julian Savulescu states that the Giubilini-Minerva article was published because of “the quality of [the] argument, the contribution to the existing literature, and the relevance to current medicine.”  But the article failed the first two criteria, and ought to fail—at least, in a decent and human society, ought to fail—the third criterion as well.

Giubilini and Minerva argue poorly in their piece.  Two key sentences:  “both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’  We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence means a loss to her.”  In a reply, Francis Beckwith points out that this position has been carefully refuted on numerous occasions in recent years, and criticizes the notion of a “potential person” as misguided.  An unborn or newborn baby is not a “potential” person in the way that, for example, a piece of wood is a potential desk or Michael Tooley’s cat is potentially smart if only it is injected with the right potion.  Rather, the fetal or newborn human is a being so ordered that it essentially has the capacity to express, when fully developed, the range of higher capabilities that Giubilini, Minerva, and other like-minded people say confers moral status only when realized—either fully, or fully enough.  What would constitute “fully enough” they are unwilling to venture.  They also claim that refusing the burden of caring for a baby is reason enough to warrant infancitide (as it is, de facto, sufficient justification for abortion under our current legal regime).  But Beckwith demonstrates that, for them, infanticide is morally permissible even in the absence of any burdens—so an appeal to “burden” is irrelevant.

At bottom, Giubilini and Minerva’s paper is nothing more than a rehash of old arguments for abortion and infanticide, without proper regard for substantial criticisms that have been previously and extensively published and discussed.  Accordingly, their article adds nothing whatsoever to the current literature save provocation.  It does have one merit: it serves as a reminder that if abortion is morally permissible, it is difficult if not impossible to declare, on the merits, that infanticide—or, for that matter, the elective murder of children of some indeterminate older age—is not morally permissible.  Several contributors to the May 2013 JME point this out in one way or another.

Finally, the relevance to modern medicine:  In his contribution, Robert George states that “killing an infant because he or she is unwanted is evil” and that advocating it, or its moral permissibility, is “madness.”  And so it is.  To ask seriously, “is it permissible to kill an infant because he or she is unwanted?” or “under what circumstances is it permissible to kill an infant because he or she is unwanted?” is to speak from a heart desperately twisted by evil.  We must forcefully reject the premises of such questions.  They can never be relevant to modern medicine.  They are considered relevant only because we live in the days of the Groningen protocol for neonatal euthanasia—which, we are told, is decreasing euthanasia (or so it is believed) in favor or more abortions, for things like spina bifida.  (An “updated report” is due later this year.)

Apparently, after the online publication of their article, Giubilini and Minerva received death threats.  Such a response is also evil.  That is it was affirmed explicitly by several contributors—both pro- and anti-infanticide, or pro- or anti-abortion—to the May 2013 JME.  But again, the authors and editors don’t appear to understand why there should be such outrage, and some of them seem (rather sanctimoniously, to my ear) to cloak themselves in a sense of martyrdom.   Outrage must be controlled, and supported by proper warranted belief and sound argument.  But correctly-directed outrage cannot be replaced by a cool rationalism.

And so, indeed, in responding to what George has properly called this “madness,” we must be civil but we must not be gentle.  Academic freedom and the First Amendment demand that we abide such talk, at least to a point.  However, serious advocacy of killing healthy infants or children by choice ought not to be acceptable in decent, humane conversation, and we should aggressively press the point that this one has been “asked and answered.”  Daniel Dennett has said that people who believe in God should be dismissed with derision from intelligent conversation.  We must be more patient, but I am tempted to ask whether sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander here.

It is said that Hippocratism arose as a counter-cultural protest movement, and that early Christians bore reproach for their opposition to infanticide.  Those of us who consider ourselves “neo-Hippocratists,” if you will, may be facing such a time again.  I wonder: just how many of our fellow citizens think that Gosnell did something wrong?  Or that he didn’t?  And would not most frankly reject infanticide?  I suspect that most people in the general public don’t realize this discussion of infanticide is going on.  We must educate them.  And we must be polite—but not too nice—in opposing the “experts” pushing infanticide.

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Joe Kelley
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Joe Kelley

Great post. Clearly shows the conclusions of extending the logic of abortion to infanticide. It reminded me of George and Tollefsen’s book, “Embryo” showing there is no logical place to say a human life begins other than than at conception. The same arguments that support abortion do logically support killing in other settings. It is always concerning when any individual defines a different individual as not having full moral standing or protection. Thanks for your summary and challenge.

Jeff Kraus
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Jeff Kraus

Is killing an adult pig for food or a chimpanzee during medical research evil? What is the moral difference between their lives and that of a human infant? All life on this planet has a common ancestor, share genes and common cellular structures. Selecting species as the moral boundary is just as indefensible as selecting race. The moral worth of an individual is not derived from their parents or their breeding potential. Species boundaries are arbitrary and can even be broken such as between horse and zebra. If you think that having human DNA is the basis of moral worth… Read more »

Julien Offray
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“Is killing an adult pig for food or a chimpanzee during medical research evil?” No to first. The second is less clear. “What is the moral difference between their lives and that of a human infant?” Gary Francione talks about recognizing animals as members of the “moral community” because they can suffer. I think that’s unreasonable. The moral community is built around an unwritten compact which confers rights and imposes duties. Adult humans maintain their ‘good standing’ by fulfilling their duties or automatically relinquishing rights. Animals and infants aren’t able to live morally, but whereas infants lack the capability (ie,… Read more »