A Further Perspective

The Fourth Trimester Abortion

The anti-life crowd gives new life to arguments for infanticide.

By 3.21.12

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While political liberals are busy advancing the fiction of a conservative "war on contraception," their counterparts in academia are promoting a lie at the opposite end of the reproductive continuum. The anti-life crowd is giving new life to arguments for infanticide.

In a much-discussed recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva take the "pro-choice" argument to its logical and loathsome end. They argue that "when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible."

They propose to call the practice "after-birth abortion" rather than "infanticide" to stress their belief that the moral status of a newborn baby is no different from that of an unborn baby.

While other anti-life extremists limit their support for infanticide to those deemed genetically "unfit," Giubilini and Minerva argue that the practice might be acceptable even in "cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk."

Risks to the well-being of the family include the "unbearable burden that a child can create for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children, regardless of the condition of the fetus."

While the authors allow that both the unborn child and the newborn are "human beings," they insist that neither has a right to life because they are "potential persons" not "persons." "Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life," they assert.

Predictably, the article has generated a lot of criticism. A Conservative congressman denounced it on the House floor, and both the authors and the journal have received demands for apologies and death threats.

Pro-life advocates shouldn't be upset. Many abortion-rights supporters claim that something magical happens at the moment a baby passes through the birth canal. But the authors start from a premise that pro-lifers have long maintained: that there is no difference between the moral status of an unborn child and that of a newborn child.

The article leaves many questions unanswered. For one, if infanticide were legalized, would the law stipulate how infants could be killed? If infants are no different than unborn babies, can they also be aborted "after birth" in the same gruesome way, torn limb from limb without anesthesia? If not, why not?

Also, if newborns may be killed, why not two-year-olds, who also can have a substantial effect on the "well-being of a family." What about teenagers? What if grandpa becomes an unbearable burden? Can a family euthanize him and call it a 240th trimester abortion?

According to the authors, a rights-bearing person is "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." The authors claim that babies develop this self-awareness sometime "in the first days or few weeks after birth."

But research and experience demonstrate that human beings have desires, needs and personalities that emerge well before they are born. Many mothers can attest to the reaction of their child in the womb to music, voices and other stimuli.

Yet, according to the authors, "the fetus and the newborn are potential persons" whose interest "amounts to zero."

Arguments for infanticide are not new. In fact, the logic behind them has been embraced at the highest levels of government. As an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama twice opposed legislation to define as "persons" babies who survive late-term abortions.

Obama said in a speech on the Illinois Senate floor that he could not accept that babies wholly emerged from their mother's wombs are "persons," and thus deserving of equal protection under the Constitution's 14th Amendment.

In 2009, Texas considered legislation that would have defined infanticide as a separate and lesser crime than homicide, with a maximum sentence of just two years in prison.

Parents who kill their newborns are sometimes given lighter sentences than those who murder older children. In Canada last year, a judge cited Canada's acceptance of abortion in giving a woman who strangled and killed her newborn a three-year suspended sentence.

While some advocate infanticide for the burdensome, others propose that their parents receive financial compensation. Earlier this month, parents of a child with Down syndrome in Oregon received compensation in a "wrongful birth" lawsuit.

The couple had undergone prenatal testing, which came back negative for genetic abnormalities. When their child was discovered to have Down syndrome after birth, the couple sued their health provider, arguing that they would have aborted had they known that their child would be born with the genetic condition.

The jury voted in favor of the couple, who received $3 million to cover the estimated extra life-time costs of caring for their child. This case is not an outlier. At least 28 states recognize "wrongful birth" lawsuits.

In our entitlement society, citizens are claiming a right to more than just other people's money. Increasingly, parents feel entitled to perfect children, and thus to discard, or receive compensation for, those they deem to be a burden. In such a society, the threshold for the right to life will continue to rise.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.