Doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers, an academic with links to Oxford University has claimed.
Francesca Minerva, a philosopher and medical ethicist, argues a young baby is not a real person and so killing it in the first days after birth is little different to aborting it in the womb.
On what grounds does she argue that a baby is not a real person? Here is her key argument:
If...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. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth.
On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.
So her argument is this:
i) There is a difference between being a human and a person.
ii) To be a person you have to be capable of making aims. You are then harmed if you are killed because you can no longer accomplish your aims.
iii) Newborns and foetuses cannot make aims, are therefore not persons, and can be killed.
iv) Adult humans and animals make aims, are therefore persons, and therefore would be harmed by being killed.
v) Adult humans not only have aims, but have well-developed life plans, and therefore take precedence over merely potential persons.
Let's stay with this for a while. What all this shows is how important it is to get basic questions right. Liberals have an odd idea that value comes from a person adopting a self-determined life plan. It doesn't really matter what the plan is (though it's often assumed to centre on a professional, creative career). Furthermore, someone who becomes a concert pianist because his father wanted him to is thought to be living a non-human life, whereas someone who becomes a concert pianist after previously considering being a neurosurgeon is thought to be fully a person.
What matters isn't the activity, or fulfilling one's natural or given telos (ends) in life - but the very act of choosing autonomously what one's life will be. That is what liberals assume gives value to being human - it is what, in Francesca Minerva's view, makes us a person.
So it's logical, if you begin from this assumption, to make the criterion of personhood the degree to which you are able to have aims or, better yet, well-developed life plans. That is what is thought to matter in life, so therefore you can begin to be deprived of your personhood only after you begin to be able to make aims.
But what is the consequence of defining personhood in this way? You arrive at the very radical view that not only foetuses but even healthy newborns can be killed if they are thought to interfere with the life plans of "actual" persons.
It's a definition, too, that allows Francesca Minerva to define animals as persons but not newborn humans (though exactly how an animal has life aims that a baby doesn't isn't obvious to me - it makes me wonder if Francesca loves her cats too much to exclude them from the protected category of persons).
And, if truth be told, Francesca's position would make it permissibe for parents to kill not only their newborns but also their young children. Does an 18-month-old child really have a clear capacity for making aims? If not, that makes them non-persons and therefore, in Francesca Minerva's view, without a right to life.
Here are some more snippets from Francesca Minerva's article. They illustrate the radical outcomes of adopting her definition of personhood:
If the death of a [handicapped] newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.
...Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.
...If a potential person, like a foetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all.
...The alleged right of individuals (such as foetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality...is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. Actual people's well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.
If your moral intuition is that these claims are false, then what's required is a different way of defining personhood. The value of human life can't rest on our capacity for an autonomously chosen life plan - otherwise all those who can't make such aims suddenly find themselves in the category of non-persons without a right to life.
So what does define the value of a human life? A Christian can answer that we are all made in the image of God and invested with a soul, which then makes every human a person. And a non-Christian could find many attributes which give human life value besides making and then acting out life plans. What about the capacity to experience love? Or the other joys of life?
And then there's the question of our telos - our proper ends in life. What if some of these are not self-chosen but are given to us as part of our created nature? Then part of our telos would be to fulfil the higher aspects of this nature. And that might include a maternal and paternal instinct to bear children, to show maternal love and paternal care, and to raise our children to adulthood. That would then make the choice to kill our own child, for being a hindrance to our life aims, a disordered act.
I'll finish with the thoughts of a liberal on Francesca Minerva's position . Nelson Jones, writing in the New Statesman, agrees with the logic of Francesca Minerva's argument:
Biologically, too, those who argue like Giubilini and Minerva are on firm ground. Human babies are, by most mammalian standards, born prematurely with far less autonomy than, for example, a baby cow.
But he doesn't like the argument, because he believes that it's better to base the case for abortion on the grounds of women's bodily autonomy rather than on the lack of autonomy of the foetus/newborn:
This is not how the case for abortion is usually put. As the term "pro-choice" implies, the emphasis is on the pregnant woman and her right to "do what she wants with her own body". The foetus is scarcely considered at all, which is why the moment of birth must be seen as crucial. The mother might be legally responsible for the infant, but it is in no sense still a part of her body. It's hard to argue that prohibiting infanticide impacts her bodily autonomy in the same way that restricting abortion inevitably does.
The JME paper is not, then, a logical extension of the pro-choice case. By switching the emphasis from the rights of the mother to the moral status of the foetus it in fact plays into the hands of the pro-lifers. For however logical the authors' argument, emotionally it is highly troubling. The natural revulsion it elicits can attach equally to late-term abortion, perhaps to abortion as a whole.
He is arguing that Francesca Minerva's position is logical but repulsive (but shouldn't that then lead him to wonder why the liberal position logically leads to repulsive outcomes?). He prefers the older argument which ignored the whole issue of the moral status of the foetus/newborn and which focused instead on the mother's bodily autonomy - once the foetus was no longer part of the mother's body it was then held to no longer compromise her autonomy and so no longer lost moral precedence to the mother.
It seems to be more of a pragmatic rather than a principled objection to Francesca Minerva's position. And Francesca Minerva could argue in reply that the newborn still compromises the mother's autonomy after birth, because of the time, energy and money the mother has to invest in the child. So the argument from autonomy ends up mired in inconsistency.