Thanks to Roe v. Wade, pregnancy no longer constitutes a legal contract to add a blip to the population radar. The inclusion of abortion as a fundamental right has emancipated millions of ‘don’t-want-to-be’ parents from forcibly raising children in a sub-par, resentful environment. There is enough evidence to suggest that the law was chiefly responsible for the decline in crime in the 1990s. While it continues to be a potent component of our political rhetoric, and has the capacity to incite the most anodyne of minds, there is no turning away from the fact that a pre-1973 scenario is almost unimaginable. However, this hasn’t nearly caulked the seething tension amongst people on either side of the law, with those on the extremes proposing the most equilibrium-disrupting reforms. The personhood stance of the right sermonizing that life begins at conception has been paraded with such heart-wrenching passion that the word abortion cannot be uttered in public without an involuntary tinge of guilt. The left, on the other hand, continues to push the proverbial line of life in the opposite direction, the latest and probably the most controversial stretch being the concept of ‘after-birth abortion,’ recently coined by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in their paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics and also discussed very well here.
I attach a high premium to individual liberty, and believe that the decision to carry a child to term is squarely the mother’s to make and it is certainly not the government’s job to intervene. But, this new idea of exercising the right to ‘abort’ after birth seems viscerally repugnant to say the least. What kind of selfish beast would suggest killing a perfectly healthy newborn? It was a little more than I could assimilate, but sparked enough curiosity to pore over the drab-looking journal article on a Saturday morning. I list below five nibbling questions I have about the issue:
1. Do fetuses and infants have the same moral status?
The authors argue that the circumstances that would warrant abortion (pre-birth) should also be valid for a short time after birth, on the premise that the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus. Although the knee-jerk reaction to this claim would be to dismiss them as idiots, most would eventually admit that the logic is almost infallible. After all, what is the difference between a nine month old fetus and a newborn? The venue of their existence on either side of the birth canal, right? Is that enough to change the moral status?
This is exactly the question I haven’t been able to wrap my head around, and have to agree with the authors here. There is no moral difference. In light of this revelation, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume that newborns and fetuses have the same rights to life. That is, if one has a right to live, so does the other.
Does this make a fetus a person too? It’s ironic that the authors propose a ridiculously liberal choice and end up making an ironclad case for the pro-lifers.
2. What makes you a person?
Having justified the moral equivalence of fetuses and newborns, the authors attempt to defend the next logical milestone—how far into the life of a person can a line be drawn beyond which it is immoral to kill one? What do you and I have that a newborn doesn’t?
This line of thought is not new to the field of ethics, and is avidly discussed in an essay by Michael Tooley as early as 1972. He posits that simply belonging to the Homo sapiens species doesn’t provide the fetus a right to live. Only that which is able to attribute to its existence, some value, which would be taken away by killing it, has a right to live. Fetuses, though in a state of rapid development within the womb, are not aware of their existence and therefore, cannot attribute any value to their lives. This, he says, holds true for newborns too. Although they can survive on their own once born, they lack the mental nuance to attach value to their lives. The authors of the paper merely sum up Tooley’s ideology to defend their after-birth abortion stance: since newborns are not persons, ending their lives is not morally ambiguous.
I categorically reject Tooley’s as well as the feebly reproduced authors’ hypotheses, for two jarring reasons: By their flow of logic, comatose and mentally retarded adults—individuals who are unaware of either their existence or any value their lives might have—can be killed without a prick to the conscience, simply because they do not fit into the definition of a person. The second reason attacks the issue much more directly. One would expect a radical statement such as theirs to be backed up by scientific evidence—something that would make it clear as day, the characteristics that differentiate newborns and fetuses, from us. Not even close. Both Tooley and the authors merely speculate on fundamental questions like: When do newborns become persons? A month? A year? When do their brains discern their existence? When does the value-addition process kickstart? Not a single fact; just hunches.
3. Is there a line?
The moral equivalence of fetuses and newborns juxtaposed with the lack of solid evidence to establish the non-person status of newborns draws us close to a veritable cul-de-sac: can a reasonable line ever be drawn?
Some say it is justifiable to draw it at the point of ‘viability’ of the fetus (at about 23-24 weeks of gestation) after which it can sustain albeit with constant medical attention. This is the current legal scenario, with late-term abortions, save severe detriment to the mother’s health, illegal in most states. However, viability of the fetus, which itself is quite arbitrary, was never the crux of abortion rights. This has haunted the most liberal of pro-choicers, and I believe that the line, although imperfect, needs to be drawn at the point of birth for two reasons: The woman’s autonomy over the fetus for reasons of controlling her body ends at birth. Second, though the healthy development of the infant depends on the mother’s care, its existence no longer does. There is a conflict of interest here, which constitutes grounds for protection of the infant’s rights separate from the mother’s.
4. What about adoption?
The line is drawn. A child, once born is entitled to a life. But, there is one problem. What if you don’t want to raise it? You carried it to term, but due to some mitigating circumstances you find yourself unable or unwilling to raise it. Although most would feel morally obligated to raise the child in such conditions, adoption springs out as a much better alternative, right?
The authors couldn’t disagree more. They say that the psychological distress of putting your child up for adoption, knowing that it is still out there, is disastrous to the woman’s health. Even more than killing a newborn, may I ask?
5. Where are the men?
I apologize for relegating the ‘fathers’ to the tail-end of the write-up, but it’s at least a tad better than Giubilini and Minerva, and for that matter, many more debating the issue of abortion, who conspicuously forget to mention the source of the Y chromosome. That having said, I do not even pretend to state that the man has an equal say in this issue; not at least as long as the woman is housing the fetus. Even then, I have my doubts about the absolute power of women, but that’s for another blog post. The fate of the newborn should be as much the father’s decision—at least for those who are invested in their children. Their wish to raise the child, even if the mother is unwilling to, shouldn’t be quelled to punish the notorious some who flee.
Thus, in addition to the flimsy ‘infants-are-not-persons’ stand, two plausible alternatives to killing a healthy newborn—adoption and the role of the father—are shamefully misrepresented in the defense for ‘after-birth abortion.’
Considering the current political climate, it is highly unlikely that such an issue would ever make it to the legislative table. And, rightly so. But, should that cork such debates questioning the morality of universal conventions? The authors may have based their hypothesis less on science and more on speculation, concluding that it is okay to kill cute, innocent babies. Should they be subjected to ad hominem attacks and death-threats for that? An idea, however abominable, is still just that, and needs to be let into the realm of free inquiry, open to be rationally deconstructed and then shot down. That is the beauty of the system, which I believe is the best way to stoke rational discourse that could someday be law.