Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Globally embarrassing bioethics

February continues to be a trying month in bioethics circles. This week we have a firestorm concerning an article published a couple of days ago in the Journal of Medical Ethics, entitled After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live? The authors Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue that as a matter of consistency, if we accept that fetuses can be aborted for certain reasons (severe abnormality, psychological or financial burden on the family) then we must rationally accept that newborns can be put to death for the same reasons, because both fetuses and newborns have the same moral status as non-persons. Reactions from non-fans of infanticide have been swift and ugly, with the usual accusations of Nazism and dire assessments of where the world is headed when intellectual life is not constrained by religious faith. Editors at the JME, laughably, act as if shocked by all the fuss, as if they seriously expected all readers to receive the paper in a spirit of cool, robotic detachment.

What I found surprising about the paper was how old the main arguments are. Check the references: the philosophical papers cited are all between 20 and 30 years old. Peter Singer and Michael Tooley made the same basic arguments with the same basic premises and with the same rationalistic mindset. So it is not clear why what makes this paper especially publishable, unless the publishers were thinking the time was ripe for stirring up the culture wars (yet again) with a big, fat stick.

But the editors at JME are right that it would be good, ultimately, have a reasoned debate about the article's content. There is plenty in the article to question, including the key premises that our attitudes towards persons is based on their possession of mental capacities (especially their ability to plan for the future) and the idea that our moral sentiments (including our feelings towards newborns) ought or can as a general rule be governed solely by logic and consistency. Those outraged by the Giubilini and Minerva article should take some consolation in the fact that those old arguments by Singer and Tooley did not exactly popularize infanticide, even among other academics. To the extent that the new article has a shock value, the old article has had little effect on common morality.

There is another concern, though: how this all looks to those outside North America and Western Europe, the traditional bastions of bioethics. High-minded arguments in favor of dispatching unwanted babies (and other non-persons) setting off a torrent of mud-slinging and breast-beating. Bioethics: so that's how you do it.

Update: the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog has published some further responses to the paper by Giubilini and Minerva in an apparent effort to open reasoned dialogue on the subject. Giubilini and Minerva have published an open letter to clarify their position, interestingly claiming that they only meant their audience to be other bioethicists familiar with abortion/infanticide debates, emphasizing that they were only making an academic argument, without any practical implications for policy, law, or for what people ought to do.

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