Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The perils of a logical conclusion

You see, this is what happens when you think something through to the end.

A leading British medical journal has published an article calling for the introduction of infanticide for social and medical reasons.

The paper itself is here, and it's worth a read, not least for the jaw-dropping starkness of its conclusions.

It might be maintained that ‘even allowing for the more optimistic assessments of the potential of Down's syndrome children, this potential cannot be said to be equal to that of a normal child’. But, in fact, people with Down's syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy.
Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.

So, because raising a child with Down's syndrome casts a burden on the family and on society, it should simply be permissible to kill that child? Um, wow.

Except, of course, that this is already the case. What is the difference between a 9 month foetus and a 1 day old baby? Not a lot, and certainly nothing so morally absolute that the killing of one should be fine and dandy, and the killing of the other result in a life sentence. If you are in favour of late-term abortions for reasons of the disability of the child, it's quite hard to form a coherent moral objection to the post-birth killing of them.

They take it further too. After all, late-stage abortions are permissible if the birth would create a grave risk to the psychological health of the mother, even if there is nothing wrong with the baby itself. Why should this be different after the birth (and I say after the birth, the authors of this report refer to the first "few weeks after the birth")? Newborns aren't, in fact, people at all - they are "potential persons", because they are yet to "make aims and appreciate their own life". Leaving aside the fact that this description applied to me throughout my teenage years, the bleakness of this analysis is quite startling. If a newborn baby isn't a person, then it has no right to life, and killing it cannot be said to cause it harm.

If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.

I'm not a great follower of ethics (I'm a Middlesex man myself), but there does seem to something of a gap in this reasoning. The problem, however, is that for most of the arguments you might wish to run counter to this the pass has already been sold. If you're in favour of the right to an abortion, then you don't believe that the foetus is a person. Most of the reasons for this apply equally as well to a newborn as to a foetus. Therefore, it should be no more or less permissible to kill a newborn baby than it is to kill an unborn baby. Or, as the paper puts it:

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the infant and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.

There'll be a bundle of outrage over this, I have no doubt (the editors have already reported death threats and online abuse, which, you know, duh) but I think on the whole I agree with Will Heaven over at the Telegraph: the argument "if abortion is morally permissible, then so is infanticide", is likely to play better with people who are pro-life than people who are pro-choice.


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