An extraordinary paper published in that hot purple-top The Journal of Medical Ethics has ignited a storm of controversy. The naïve authors argue that a newborn is morally no different to a foetus – both being ‘merely potential persons’ – and thus infanticide – renamed after-birth abortion by the authors – should be permitted on the same grounds as those used for abortion. The pro-life lobby reacted predictably, and demonstrated forcefully that for many of them, pro-life sentiments do not extend to academic philosophers who espouse eugenic arguments. Quite the opposite, in fact: the authors, and the JME for publishing the paper, have been subjected to a torrent of hate, abuse, fire-crackers and death-threats.
The paper raises two distinct questions. The first is not in fact whether the authors have a point: it is the more general question of whether the paper, undoubtedly deeply repugnant to many in its content, should have been published in the first place. The argument is that, by sowing what Dr No once called Malicious Seeds of Mischievous Doubt, ivory tower academics introduce ideas into society that will then grow in to abhorrent practical applications; and that therefore the ideas should never be aired in the first place.
But Dr No, as he said in Malicious Seeds, has no truck with the suppression of ideas. Debate is always better than silence, however potentially or actually repugnant the idea, and so he applauds the courage of the JME in publishing the paper, and so forcing the debate into the open. In return, it is beholden on those who object to the ideas to advance not fire-crackers and death threats, but sound argument that exposes the flaw in the philosopher’s reasoning, and so ensure the mistaken idea is dealt a blow that is as legitimate as it is fatal.
On the face of it, there is a simple argument that appears to spike the after-birth abortion argument. We can turn the argument inside out: if a foetus is morally no different to a newborn, then, if infanticide is wrong, then so too is therapeutic abortion. We could even rename abortion ‘foeticide’, or – even better – before-birth infanticide; and at a stroke, the argument for after-birth abortion can be an equally powerful argument against before-birth infanticide. But there is a flaw, and it is called the real world; for while the logic may be inescapable, so too is the existence of induced abortion; and Dr No believes that it is the lesser of two evils that therapeutic abortion should occur in controlled medical settings than in back streets and kitchens. And so we are back at square one: if pre-birth infanticide is allowed in certain circumstances; then why not after-birth abortions? The argument is AC/DC – it can swing both ways – and so fails to provide a definitive answer.
The second, and for some, persuasive argument is our old friend the slippery slope. If we allow after-birth abortion on the grounds of non-personhood, then so too by the same measure can we exterminate imbeciles and dements. And why stop there? It is but a short step to Lebensunwertes Leben – the Nazi doctrine of ‘life unworthy of life’ – and so to a programme to exterminate all those whom society deems unworthy. Nor is this argument speculative: the Nazis indisputably did slide from a false dawn of racial cleansing by sterilisation to the eternal darkness of the holocaust. Closer to home, some see a similar slide at work on the grounds for legal abortion, from the strictest of grounds in the early days to the convenience of sex-selective abortion today. Slippery slopes are real, and so, the argument goes, best not to open a door onto one in the first place.
But, convincing as slippery slope arguments may be to many, including Dr No, it is at heart one of consequences, and so is unlikely to satisfy the likes of Dr No’s long-term sparring partner, the formidable academic philosopher IB, who is no doubt at this very moment loading his deontological bazooka in readiness for battle. So what argument can Dr No come up with that might yet prove able to provide a foil to the apparently unassailable argument that if the foetus is a non-person, then so too is the neonate (and so too, by extension, the imbecile and the dement), and so all fair game for the smothering pillow?
This is where, in its way, it gets interesting. Despite pondering on and reading about the matter, Dr No has not been able to find a single solid reasoned argument that describes what it is about birth that confers personhood. We can all agree no doubt that somewhere between the unreleased egg sitting in a future mother’s ovary, and say the age of consent, personhood arrives. But when, and why? Indeed, the paper’s authors explicitly avoid giving an upper age limit for after-birth abortion. The smothering pillow’s reach is not given an upper limit: why not smother the toddler whose presence disturbs the health and well-being of siblings or mother?
Dr No suspects that, not without irony, the certainty of an answer lies precisely in this uncertainty, and it arises because the authors have deftly started from the wrong premise: that it is personhood which is central to the right to life; and that, as a consequence, ‘merely potential persons’ do not enjoy this right.
The trouble with placing personhood at the centre of the argument is that it is by nature something that evolves. There is no light bulb moment when the person switches on; instead, it emerges, by stages, over a considerable period of grey transition; it is even something that – as the authors admit – is open to interpretation. It is something that lacks absoluteness; and so, by placing personhood at the centre of the argument, we lock in that period of insoluble greyness; and in so doing allow an apparently reasonable academic argument to reach the most unreasonable practical conclusions. It is the uncertainty which leads to the breaking of the bounds of reasonableness.
So what better central premise might there be? The obvious candidate, it seems to Dr No, is that the argument should rest not on the sanctity of personhood – a unfamiliar concept flawed by uncertainty in its bounds – but in the familiar territory of the sanctity of life, by which Dr No means the sanctity of being. The concept of sanctity, we should note in passing, does not rely solely on a religious footing; it is common ground across all humanity, from the pious, through humanists, to the committed atheist.
It is a curiosity that we humans call ourselves human beings. We do not talk of dog beings, but we do of human beings, and, it seems to Dr No, in so doing we add to the sanctity of human life the concept of the sanctity of human being, and, for the purposes of today’s argument, it is, Dr No suggests, the sanctity not of personhood, but of human being-ness, that gives rise to the right to life.
The advantage of starting from this premise is that, unlike personhood, human being-ness is both easier and cleaner to define. The moment of human being-ness arrives, Dr No suggests, at the moment one achieves, or is capable at that moment of achieving, physiological independence from the mother; and once achieved, can never be lost: however insensible; however absent the person; the individual still remains a human being.
On this premise, we can make a distinction between early and even later but not yet viable foetuses; and say that they have yet to achieve human being-ness; and so avoid the indeterminate flippancy of the first argument. And because we have a clear moment, in contrast to the unbounded period of grey transition found in the second argument; we can know which side of the line of being we lie. And if we then attach sanctity, and so the right to life, not to personhood, but to human being-ness, then we can say with confidence that infanticide, after-birth abortion, call it what you will, is wrong.