Refuting the “After-Birth Abortion” Philosophers

Opinion   |   Josh Brahm   |   Mar 23, 2012   |   10:57AM   |   Washington, DC

UPDATE 7/4/2012: After more thinking on the subject, I now realize that a few of my illustrations toward the end of this article didn’t completely respond to the Australian philosophers’ precise view of harm. I wrote a postscript that explains why and offers a brand new illustration that corrects the problem.

Two bioethicists from Oxford, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, have caused a firestorm by publishing an article in the Journal of Medical Ethicsstating that fetuses and newborns “do not have the same moral status as actual persons.”

I’m personally surprised, but happy that this article is getting so much attention. The surprise is because there isn’t really anything new in this article. Philosophers Michael Tooley and Peter Singer argued along a similar line more than 30 years ago, both biting the bullet and arguing that infanticide is morally permissible.

So while the arguments are not new, I think it’s a good thing that some people who had no idea that some philosophers believe that infanticide is permissible have seen this story and are talking about it. This is a good opportunity for pro-life people to ask their pro-choice friends what they think about the “after-birth abortion” article to start a conversation about abortion.

I want to briefly explain why the Oxford bioethicists believe what they do, and then I’ll offer brief refutations to their arguments. I recommend reading the works of Francis Beckwith and Christopher Kaczor for a fuller explanation of these ideas.

Why do we need an entire article about how to refute this pro-infanticide article? Isn’t it enough to just say “you’re talking about killing babies”?

I submit that simply asserting the above statement, as uncontroversial as it is to most people, is not winning an argument. It’s simply asserting something instead of showing why Peter Singer’s and Michael Tooley’s sophisticated arguments are mistaken.

First, we must understand the pro-infanticide argument.

Giubilini and Minerva believe that there is no morally relevant difference between a fetus and a newborn. I agree. After talking about babies with disabilities for a while and the burden that they are to their families and to society, the authors write:

On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.

Allow me to take this a step farther. I submit that if the authors are correct that there is no difference between fetuses and newborns, then there is no need to appeal to the emotionally difficult circumstances of giving birth to a disabled baby. A college student is pregnant who would have to drop out of her classes this semester to give birth, thus slowing down her educational pursuits. This justification is given by some for abortion, so why should that not be justification for infanticide? The authors do note at the end of their article that early-term abortion is better than infanticide, but because it’s safer and potentially less psychologically traumatic for the others involved, not because of anything that has to do with the child.

The authors summarize their case here:

There are two reasons which, taken together, justify this claim:

  1. The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.
  2. It is not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense.

To premise one, I agree that there is no morally relevant difference between the unborn and the born, but I believe that both are valuable human beings, whereas the authors believe that neither is a “person,” which I take to mean “human being with the sort of value that confers the right to life.” Since premise two justifies infanticide only if the authors are correct that unborn/newborn children are not valuable, I will focus this article on why their personhood criterion is mistaken.

The authors explain their personhood criterion here:

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 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. [Emphasis mine.]

I’ve seen some pro-life bloggers name the last sentence of that paragraph as the most damning in the article, but I disagree. It’s certainly one of the things I disagree with, but people like Peter Singer and Michael Tooley don’t believe there is anything “sacred” about human life. They believe that the “sanctity of human life” is an old-fashioned religious idea and that people who believe it are “speciesist.” Although I do believe in the sanctity of human life, can we respond to the personhood argument above without appealing to the sanctity of human life? Yes.

I was in Minneapolis speaking at an event two months ago, and after my talk, a mother brought her son to me. He is pro-choice. She had made him to go to the event so that I could answer his argument for legal abortion. His fundamental argument was that the unborn aren’t aware that they’re being killed, so they don’t lose anything, thus abortion is morally benign. One of the examples I offered to him was one I heard from Trent Horn.

Imagine a long-lost Uncle dies and leaves you a million-dollar inheritance. However, the manager of the will learns that you know nothing about the inheritance and steals it. Even if you never found out what happened, have you been harmed? Most people would say that yes, you’ve been harmed even though you were unaware of the inheritance.

This was helpful to the young man in Minneapolis, but the Oxford authors actually address this argument in their article, and they attempt to get around it:

There are many ways in which an individual can be harmed, and not all of them require that she values or is even aware of what she is deprived of. A person might be ‘harmed’ when someone steals from her the winning lottery ticket even if she will never find out that her ticket was the winning one. Or a person might be ‘harmed’ if something were done to her at the stage of fetus which affects for the worse her quality of life as a person (eg, her mother took drugs during pregnancy), even if she is not aware of it. However, in such cases we are talking about a person who is at least in the condition to value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed. And such a condition depends on the level of her mental development, which in turn determines whether or not she is a ‘person’. (emphasis theirs.)

Here’s what I believe the authors are trying to say. You can be harmed by an act now if you are currently able to value the different situation you would have enjoyed, but you can also be harmed by an act at the point in the future when you are able to value the different situation. Because the newborn killed in an “after-birth abortion” never lives long enough to value the condition of living a long life, she is not harmed. The Oxford authors’ bizarre view of “harm” is a critical flaw that sinks the entire article.

Let’s modify the story of the stolen inheritance. Here’s a version where the Oxford authors would agree that harm has been done:

The inheritance is stolen from a 40-year-old man. Because the man is presently capable of valuing the situation where he received the inheritance, he has been harmed.

Now let’s modify it again.

The inheritance is stolen from an infant. The infant is not presently capable of understanding money, thus according to the line of reasoning presented by the Oxford authors, the infant has not been harmed. The infant would be harmed only if he grew up and then, years later, learned of the theft! But consider what the Oxford authors would have to say about that story: the infant whose inheritance was stolen was harmed not on the day of the actual theft, but on the day that he found out about the theft. That’s counter-intuitive.

Consider another story.

A pregnant mother suffering from severe nausea asks her OB/GYN for Thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug that was used by pregnant women in the late ’50s before the medical community realized that it causes severe fetal deformities. Pregnant women have not been allowed to take that drug since, but imagine that the pregnant mother in my story finds a way to get Thalidomide illegally, and takes it, causing her baby to be born without arms and legs. The Oxford authors would have to say that the fetus was not harmed when the mother took Thalidomide. He was harmed on the day that he first experienced a desire for arms and legs. So the harm-inducing drug didn’t harm him for the years he did not experience a desire for arms and legs. At the time when it caused his arms and legs to grow improperly, was it helping him? Did it have a neutral effect on his body? Isn’t it obvious that while the fetus might experience more of the harm later on, his body, at least, is experiencing some real harm now?

Pro-life philosopher Don Marquis wrote a non-religious pro-life argument in his piece “Why Abortion is Immoral,” published in the Journal of Philosophy, where he argues that abortion is wrong because it deprives a human of a “future like ours.”

What primarily makes killing wrong is neither its effect on the murderer nor its effect on the victim’s friends and relatives, but its effect on the victim. The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments which would otherwise have constituted one’s future. Therefore, killing someone is wrong, primarily because the killing inflicts (one of) the greatest possible losses on the victim.

The Oxford authors try to get around this argument:

If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives.

What the authors are saying is you can harm only somebody with present “aims” that she is prevented from accomplishing. But this is also counter-intuitive. Consider the following examples I heard from Trent Horn:

Imagine a Buddhist Zen master who has achieved an advanced level of meditation and is in a perpetual state of contentment. He doesn’t have a desire to live because he’s fine with the world, and if somebody walks up and kills him, the universe will go on. In other words, he is an individual who does not attribute to his own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to him. Would it be wrong to kill the Zen master? Of course it would, regardless of how much or little he attributes value to his own existence.

Another example is the suicidal person who does not presently value her life. Imagine a serial killer who has a mental addiction to killing people. In a twist from the main character of the TV series “Dexter,” he decides to kill only those who have decided to commit suicide. Would his future murders be morally neutral because his victims did not attribute to their own existence basic value, since they were going to commit suicide anyway? Of course not.


Instead of arguing, Giubilini and Minerva make several assertions about what makes a person valuable and what “harm” means. Then they explain their assertions more, but they don’t support those assertions. Under close scrutiny, my counter-examples show that those assertions fail.

Now, what should we, as pro-life apologists, do about it?

I think pro-lifers should be taking the opportunity to engage these ideas and use them as one of the best opportunities for dialogue I’ve seen from the mainstream media in years. In contrast, the worst thing we can do is ignore the ideas, mock them, or threaten the lives of the authors. I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Singer when he said about the infanticide article,

People who wish to defend the traditional view of the sanctity of all human life should respond to the authors’ arguments, not by mere abuse.

That’s what I wanted to do with this article. I didn’t want to simply emote about how awful infanticide is. I wanted to respond to what Giubilini and Minerva wrote on the idea level, and I encourage you to do the same.

My challenge to you: read some good pro-life books and start that (non-awkward) dialogue with that pro-choice friend you’ve been avoiding. Indeed, great things may happen.

Worth Checking Out:

Greg Koukl gave a commentary on this article during his last radio show, “Stand to Reason.” He has a very different approach in responding to the Oxford authors, and I think his arguments are valuable. You can download the audio for free from (You may need to create a free account before accessing the radio show archives.)

Scott Klusendorf and the gang at Life Training Institute also covered the after-birth abortion article on their most recent podcast. They also made some valuable points that are not in my article. Note: Josh Brahm is the educational director for Right to Life of Central California and the host of Life Report. Brahm writes for the Live Action blog, where this post originally appeared. It is reprinted with permission.