Thursday, 1 March 2012

Babies give us our value, not the other way round

The big pro-life news today is, of course, the report by two Oxford university medical ethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, suggesting that "post birth abortion" is morally licit.  This, according to these ethicists, is because newborn babies are not actually people.  Human, yes, but simply being human doesn't by itself make you a person.  Not even if you're 21 or 81, according to criteria developed by ethicists who have influenced Giubilini and Minerva.  More on that later.

This paper, entitled After birth abortion: why should the baby live? and published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, only focuses on the personhood status of newborns.  A newborn - the authors claim - is morally equivalent to a foetus, i.e. is not a true person in their eyes, because it lacks the mental development to appreciate the value of its life (a major ground of this appreciation seems to be the ability to make future aims) and will not therefore be harmed by being deprived of this life.  This means that a range of factors which would constitute grounds for abortion are also valid reasons to kill the newborn child - for example severe disability or posing a threat to the mental wellbeing of the mother.  Because the baby has no inherent value as a person in itself, it only has the value someone else, such as its mother, places upon it.  If she does not feel able to cope with the child and therefore does not attribute value to it as a person, then it has none.  This being so, it is morally permissible to kill a healthy newborn rather than give it up for adoption, if the mother feels she would be more traumatised by having the baby adopted rather than killing it.

A few choice phrases from the report (emphases mine):

"In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus... rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.

"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 represents a loss to her. This means that many non-human animals (! - but not human babies) and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.

"Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.... Actual people's well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of."

I appreciate that it is generally bad practice to quote extracts from a report out of context, but I invite you to read the whole thing here and see whether it is any less chilling.

I am grateful to a pro-life colleague for some background information about the report's influences.  The publishing Journal's editor, Julian Savulescu, had his doctorate supervised at Monash University, Melbourne by Peter Singer, who in turn was a disciple of Joseph Fletcher. My colleague wrote that "Savulescu is now Editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics which published this paper and also Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at Oxford University.  One of the authors is affiliated to Monash, the other to the Uehiro Centre."

According to Human Life International, Fletcher was an Episcopalian priest until, in 1960, he saw the light, renounced his belief in God (though apparently remaining an Episcopalian priest), became a founding father of situation ethics and drew up a delightful list of criteria to identify which human beings are persons and which not.  Read them here.  You will notice that if you have an IQ below 40 you are only questionably human (Fletcher drew up his list as qualifying factors for being "human": the terminology has since been adjusted to "personhood"); other factors ruling you out altogether are lack of self-control, a bad grasp of the passage of time, lack of capability to relate to others particularly sexually or romantically, lacking in curiosity, and being either overly rational or overly emotional in character.  One shudders to think of the vast swathes of human beings who would lose their right to life as persons under these definitions. In fact reading the list I couldn't believe anyone would take it seriously... but this latest report shows that they have indeed, deadly seriously.

Of course, as my colleague pointed out when they sent over the information, this is all the result of allowing the definition of personhood to become arbitrary.  It is in fact quite logical that, having once allowed human life to become a person in the true sense of the word at some point after conception rather than at the moment of conception, the point at which personhood (and the attendant right to life) is attained becomes a moveable feast.  It depends on subjective factors, on the situational context, on utilitarian considerations, on the point of view of someone who happens in the case of a particular individual to have been handed the responsibility of attributing value to that individual.  Even the authors of the report being discussed admit that  "it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’", suggesting that in the case of a healthy newborn this would depend on neurological and psychological examination by the relevant experts.  A nightmare scenario indeed.  Here's the maternity ward and here comes Dr Death to decide whether this baby should live or die...

Giubilini and Minerva talk about the mother attributing value to her newborn child.  We have three children and the youngest is now 16 but I can still remember the sheer wonder of those new little people, flesh of my flesh and of my husband's, being placed in my arms... the indescribable feeling of waking up after my first postnatal sleep and turning in bed to notice afresh, as amazed as though it were for the first time, the acrylic cot with a tiny boy or girl in it.  I had no sense of ascribing value to them.  They were perfect, complete little miracles and they ascribed new value to me.  There was no meaning or value I could add to them that they did not already have, and none that I had any power to take away.  The only variable there could possibly be was my response to that value.

Admittedly, at the time these were picture-perfect births in terms of the situation - happily married parents who were not poor and who very much wanted these children.  Many years later, we were to find out that one of our tiny little miracles had actually been born with faulty genes and was destined for a life of failing mobility and a range of other potential problems.  It wouldn't have made any difference if we'd known then.  She'd have been just as humanly perfect, just as meaningful, with just the same intrinsic value.  And over the past years, thanks to that very genetic error and the special needs that elicit extra love and concern from those around her, the "value added" she has brought to our lives is incalculable.

Giubilini, Minerva, Singer, Fletcher - you've got it wrong.  It isn't us who attributes value and personhood to newborn babies, the disabled or the very elderly.  It is they who endow us with value.

Since writing this post and the one below, I have read two excellent postings on each topic from the Christian point of view on "Christian Medical Comment", here and here. Thank you Peter Saunders for a lucid look at the principles involved coupled with a rallying call to Christian integrity and faithfulness!

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