Via a particularly excellent Best of the Web column today, I learned that a prominent group of “ethicists” at Oxford University has concluded that, in the words of the Telegraph: “Parents should be allowed to have their newborn babies killed because they are ‘morally irrelevant’ and ending their lives is no different to abortion.” The article continues:
The article, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, says newborn babies are not “actual persons” and do not have a “moral right to life”. The academics also argue that parents should be able to have their baby killed if it turns out to be disabled when it is born.
The journal’s editor, Prof Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said the article’s authors had received death threats since publishing the article. He said those who made abusive and threatening posts about the study were “fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society”.
The article, entitled “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?”, was written by two of Prof Savulescu’s former associates, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva.
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’.
Now, my hunch is that for the vast majority of the civilized — and, frankly, uncivilized — world, the only thing these authors have demonstrated is their own “moral irrelevance.”
There’s so much that can be said about this, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Many abortion opponents in the 1970s argued that legalizing abortion opened the door to a slippery slope where people would start advocating infanticide. Such arguments were greeted by many pro-abortion rights activists as paranoid and extreme. But lo and behold, they were absolutely right. When you lift one taboo, it is difficult to plant a new one that everyone will agree on. Now the growing Peter Singer caucus is encroaching ever more deeply into the mainstream. It’s a disgusting, reprehensible and evil turn of events.
But that much should be obvious to most people. What I find interesting, though of much lesser importance I concede, is the intriguing consensus between the two “extremes.” Ardent prolifers consider abortion evil because they believe — broadly speaking — aborting a fetus is morally akin to killing a baby (the two acts are not necessarily always identical, as Ramesh explains in his brilliant but under-appreciated book The Party of Death, but close enough for purposes of discussion).
The “ethicists” essentially agree, as a categorical matter. Killing a baby is akin to aborting a fetus — so go ahead and kill babies! In other words if you place no moral weight on a fetus, they argue, you should place no moral weight on a newborn either. Conversely if you invest enormous moral weight to a newborn, argue the pro-lifers, you should invest at least some moral weight in a fetus as well.
The moral difference in worldview is total, but the terms and logic are remarkably similar.
While I think their argument is beyond repugnant, the “ethicists” are providing a valuable service insofar as they are making plain the logic supporting abortion.
I don’t support death threats, never mind murder plots, but the self-righteous shock of the ethicists at the response to their argument is deliciously asinine. James Taranto writes, “people who issue death threats in response to an academic article are indeed ‘fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.’ But so are people who write or publish academic articles arguing in favor of the murder of children.”
I wouldn’t even go that far. People who issue these death threats are wrong to do so, but their outrage is understandable, even healthy. For a liberal society that loses its capacity to be disgusted by cold-blooded arguments for infanticide has lost its ability to sustain and nurture freedom itself.