“After-birth abortion”?

The philosophical debate about the attributes of “potential” persons versus “actual” persons has been mostly limited to moral and ethical considerations concerning the permissibility of abortion. In recent history, the point in time when “potential” persons would turn into “actual” persons has been continually pushed back in synch with medical progress, until in certain circles and jurisdictions the “potentiality” of a person for all practical purposes ceased to exist, and was entirely replaced by his “actuality,” with many of the social, moral, and legal consequences inherent in such a construct.

But this argument can just as well be taken in the other direction: the lack of attributes of an “actual” person may well extend not only until birth, but also a bit beyond. This is precisely what two scholars recently did, opening Pandora’s Box a mile wide in the process:

“Australian philosopher and medical ethicist Dr Francesca Minerva and Dr. Alberto Giubilini, a bioethicist from the University of Milan, wrote “After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?” which claims killing babies is as ethically permissible as abortion.” (The Telegraph, March 2, 2012)

Every civilization has pretenses in professing its protection of human life. The reality of every civilization is, however, that life is protected only with some ifs and buts. In other words, its protection is contingent upon what is by any other name a balancing of interests.

Some religious doctrines, including Christianity and Buddhism, attempted absolute protection of human life, which was ultimately based on the impossibility of ensuring equitable procedures as well as rational justification for any exception.

The ancient Roman question “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who shall watch over the guardians themselves?” - Juvenal, Satire VI, lines 347–8) has then and since remained unanswered – and may fairly be presumed unanswerable within our known framework of moral philosophy – for all extrajudicial killings.

Other religious doctrines, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, perhaps more honestly from a pragmatic viewpoint, accepted the inevitability of conditionality of the protection of life in its social context. As a matter of practical necessity, such a stance has to give a certain latitude to arbitrary choices. And therein lies the true significance of the debate triggered by this article on “after-birth abortion.”

In the cultural context of the philosophical debate on the subject framed by Minerva and Giubilini as “after-birth abortion,” it seems, of course, inevitable that the ghost of Dr. Mengele be conjured up to end all further argument. But let us, for a change, take a rational and unsentimental approach to this analysis:

It may be granted to the “party of the outraged” that historic precedent of almost universally legalized infanticide, such as the Spartan and Roman recognition of a parental right to expose unwanted newborns on a mountain side, should provide very little guidance in our times of higher, more compassionate aspirations. So, let us disregard the almost ubiquitous similar usages in Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Judaism, pagan European tribes, Arabian, Russian, Georgian, Chinese, Japanese, Inuit, Native American, African, and almost any other societies with documented evidence on the subject.

But what about the “sanctity of life” in 21st century Western civilization, particularly when it is considered through the lens of economic value judgments? Is there a double standard for Law and Economics? Nothing is, after all, more assured than the material bankruptcy of a society that were to assume a collective burden of maintaining life “equitably” to its ever-expanding medico-technical limits, as the cost of prolonging life increases geometrically with advancing age while modern technology allows to support life even in cases when the definition of “life” itself is entering a disputed zone. Is an infant any more deserving of protection than the elderly who have cast their dice and paid their debt, not to mention made their investment in society?

What likelihood may we attribute to the realization of potential of a newborn whose parents do not want to raise him? Society’s seemingly moral and benevolent interference in this most basic and elementary of human relationships is a striking parallel to what has led to the ruin of state finances in American federalism: the “unfunded mandate,” where the federal legislature, based on the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, clause 2 U.S. Const.), mandates expenditures by states for which it effectively declines to provide ways and means, thus leaving the states to square their own budgetary circles – with known results.

As we recognize the unacceptability of taking public charge of all unwanted children in a meaningful and morally preferable way, we continue to shirk the tragic choice of either turning a blind eye to abortion and infanticide or “mandating” to parents the continued existence and marginal support of their unwanted procreation. That dilemma holds true however justifiable or arbitrary the decision of those individuals may be on whom all infants’ lives entirely depend in reality: their parents. 

But this would also mean to accept in political discourse the conclusion that life does, in fact, have an economic sticker price, be it measured in monetary resources, time, or opportunity cost – as every wrongful death verdict inescapably is called upon to determine. It also means that this logical reality, in all its cogency under whatever socioeconomic model or system, must be accepted as a legitimate topic of inquiry beyond religious and/or ideological taboos and that the general avoidance of the subject merely stifles a constructive debate. It leads to letting the chips fall where they may, thus turning every prematurely ended life into some “individual tragedy” as opposed to a statistical question weighed heavily by utilitarian and other simply realistic if not always noble considerations that we, at the current evolution of the body politic, merely collectively refuse to deliberate and answer.

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