Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva created quite a ruckus when they proposed permitting “after-birth abortion” in a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. To be sure, some of the reaction was too extreme. Death threats are never acceptable. But people had every right to push back hard against an agenda that would effectively destroy the very concept of universal rights by excluding the most weak and vulnerable among us from the right to life.
To recap: The authors argue that human life does not matter morally per se. What counts, they claim, is being a “person,” a status earned by possessing sufficient cognitive capacities. Here is how I summarized this proposition in my recent Daily Caller critique of the article:
In this view — which is rife within international and American bioethics — the unborn, infants (at least through the first few weeks) and those who have lost relevant capacities because of, for example, late-stage Alzheimer’s or severe brain damage are not persons because they have either not yet attained or have lost the capacities of personhood. Some would even deprive such so-called human non-persons of the right to life. This means that you can be a person today but not tomorrow, and not be a person today and be killed before you become one tomorrow.
In the wake of the firestorm they sparked, Giubilini and Minerva have issued a classic non-apology apology — sorry for offending, they write, but after all, this is merely academic discourse, and besides, the media misstated what we argued. But they don’t actually take anything that they wrote back. Here’s an excerpt from “An Open Letter from Giubilini and Minerva,” which was published late last week on the Journal of Medical Ethics’ blog:
When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate. “Why not? You should have known!” people keep on repeating everywhere on the web. The answer is very simple: the article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments [as] … this debate has been going on for 40 years.
But that is precisely why it was important that the public sit up and take notice. Bioethics is no mere debating society in which participants debate the propriety of infanticide today and oppose it tomorrow. Rather, the field is — and has been since its inception — about changing the values and public policies of society. As USC bioethics professor Alexander M. Capron once noted, “Bioethical analysis has been linked to action.” Bioethics historian Albert R. Jonsen has called bioethics a “social movement.” None other than Daniel Callahan, one of the movement’s founding fathers, wrote that “the emergence ideologically of a form of bioethics that dovetailed nicely with the reigning political liberalism of the educated classes in America” accounted for much of the movement’s influence and clout.
Bioethicists haven’t discoursed about infanticide for 40 years because they enjoy exploring novel concepts, but rather, because it isn’t easy to convince people — not even bioethicists — that killing babies is acceptable. Giubilini and Minerva pretend they are not part of that process of persuasion:
[W]e never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal. This was not made clear enough in the paper. Laws are not just about rational ethical arguments, because there are many practical, emotional, social aspects that are relevant in policy making (such as respecting the plurality of ethical views, people’s emotional reactions. etc.). But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.
But gaining the philosophical high ground is precisely how radical bioethical ideas have historically been implemented. Here is the pattern: In the 1960s, the propriety of abortion was actively promoted in professional journals, leading directly to the great denouement of Roe v. Wade. Similarly, in the 1970s, bioethicists argued that it should be acceptable to withdraw feeding tubes from people with severe brain damage, an idea that was once beyond the pale. After a general bioethical consensus toward that end was achieved, the “concept” soon became public policy. Now, people who are unconscious and minimally conscious are dehydrated to death in all 50 states as a matter of medical routine. Terri Schiavo was only unusual in this regard because her blood family made such a stink.