After-Birth Abortion: Justifying Infanticide

Opinion   |   Rev. John A. Leies, S.M.   |   Jun 29, 2012   |   3:08PM   |   Washington, DC

In one of his articles in the respected journal First Things, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus remarked, “The most consequential political event of the past half-century is the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions of 1973.”

These decisions, he wrote, dramatically reconfigured the nation’s cultural and political life. The moral question, he added, was not when human life begins — as the Supreme Court maintained — but at what point human life should be protected by law. Scientists know when human life begins.

His words still ring true, and I was reminded of them this past week when I read an editorial in the current issue of First Things on “after-birth abortion.” Two researchers, Alberto Giubilini from the University of Milan and Francesca Minerva from Melbourne University, have written an article for a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, claiming that the same reasons which would persuade a woman to have an abortion before a child is born, ought to be sufficient to allow an abortion after birth:

If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn.

I shuddered when I thought of the callousness of this position. If the mother is poor, in the midst of studies, not married and embarrassed, or has conflicts in her life, then she can legally justify an abortion. If a child is born and the same circumstances are present, so it is argued, then the mother should be legally justified to have the newborn child sedated and allowed to die. This, of course, is simply “infanticide” under another name. But the researchers claim that the better expression to use, the more exact title is that of “post-natal abortion.” They argue that the baby before birth, and for a time after birth, is not a person. Personhood demands some awareness of self, which does not happen just by being born. Thus, the rights of a woman — who is a full person — supersede any rights of the non-person baby.

As to how long a post-birth abortion could be performed, the authors do not say. They merely state: “We do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible.” They did note, however, that they thought it should not take more than “a few days” to detect the infant’s defects and handicaps. But sometimes defects appear only much later. Shall we allow babies to be done away with within six months? A year?

One of my first thoughts after reading information about post-birth abortion was that perhaps the authors were only playing a word game, hoping to present an extreme logical conclusion in order to garner support for the pro-life view. But I do not think this is the case.

For years, Professor Peter Singer, who holds an ethics chair at Princeton University, has advocated a similar position. He does not believe that a child is a person until the state says so, until society accepts the child as such.

Up to now, few ethicists seem to have followed his views. Is that changing? I hope not. We should remember the path taken by Nazi leaders in the 1930s and early 1940s.

They argued that some people led lives that were unworthy of living: “life unworthy of life.” These were children and adults who were mentally ill, handicapped, permanently supported by the government, unable to work, and so on. In 1939, 75,000 such people were gassed by the Nazis. Later, whole populations were considered as unworthy of life. The results of this were the crematoria and smoke stacks of the death camps.

Even today the echoes of eugenics are heard in the land — over 90 percent of babies with Down syndrome are aborted in the United States and England.

The new proposal suggests that if such children were not killed before birth, they could be killed after birth. If we allow that, we have returned to the barbarism of ancient pagan Rome and of recent Nazism.

Lifenews Note:  Father John A. Leies, SM, STD, is a Contributing Writer of HLI America. He is president emeritus of St. Mary’s University and formerly served as head of the Theology Department there. A version of this article originally appeared in Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.