infanticide versus abortion #PriceOfConsistency

ethicsI was reading in the health section of London’s Daily Telegraph, and noticed something interesting. Among the top 5 “most viewed for today,” was an article from February 2012. The other 4 articles were all from March of 2013. This happens from time to time when some article draws the particular interest or ire of readers over time – it keeps popping up in the top five.

The title of the article might give you a sense as to why it has reappeared in the top 5: “Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say”. The news article referred to a study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics which explored the difference between, obviously, abortion and infanticide. The authors argued that babies do not have a moral right to life. From the news article:

They argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”. They explained: “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’.

The authors of the study were subject to death threats and abusive online posts.

My reaction to their study, however was this: They’re right. They are simply pointing out that the ethical assumptions that determine abortion practice in the west today are consistent with infanticide. The authors concluded that “what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled,” and this is simply the price of consistency.

The problem is not with their argument, but with the fundamental ethical framework that defines the debate around abortion: namely, the question or possibility of personhood. If it is a person, it has the right to life. It is not a person, it does not. Thus:

“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 represents a loss to her.”

But this is hugely problematic from a theological and ethical point of view. Why is the reality of personhood (which reflects a modern and western preoccupations with individualism, autonomy, and reason) the defining issue? Within a theological ethical framework, the key questions are around the Source of life, the nature of sexual intimacy, human vulnerability, hospitality, forgiveness, community, and grace.

If personhood is the issue, then the authors of the study, it seems to me,  are simply being consistent – and there is much to which it seems we no longer have a right to object. Including infanticide and (to raise another subject!) sex selective abortion.


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