A controversy in bioethics
March 3, 2012 4:13 AM   Subscribe

When Alberti Giubilini and Francesca Minerva published a provocative paper about the ethics of infanticide in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the hostile response they received included death threats.

Although philosophical arguments over abortion and infanticide not new, the current debate raises questions about the limits of free speech. Julian Savulescu editor of the journal where the controversial paper was published, responds to criticism. And in a guest post to the journal's blog, James Wilson argues that the most difficult task is to articulate just what it is that lies behind the sorts of intuitive moral certainties that we all have: that is, to make clear to ourselves, and to those who are inclined to hold opposing views, just what our confidence in our own intuitive moral judgments is based on".
posted by xchmp (131 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is absolutely a matter of free speech. As a matter of medical ethics, the paper is provocative but isn't particularly well constructed and fails to engage with actual medical evidence. Meh. I neither love nor hate it.
posted by jaduncan at 4:24 AM on March 3, 2012


From the 'death threats' link: "Julian Savulescu said comments posted on web forums dubbed the authors as 'evil, pure evil' and called for their 'immediate execution'."

Oh, well. 'Web forums'. Because everyone knows that some randoms on the internet saying that you 'deserve to die' is tantamount to a serious death threat. What nonsense.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:35 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought it was an interesting paper. Iinitially I imagined it would be in the vein of Swift's MODEST PROPOSAL. The point, I think, is that abortion is always going to be morally ambiguous in some degree or another, and the weaknesses of the paper are precisely the weaknesses of utilitarian defences of abortion. The status of the fetus/child should cannot depend solely on which side of the mother's skin it is. The moral problem really boils down to when we assign the fetus/child personhood, and there's never going to be an objective measure for that. So the natural state of the abortion debate is 'vexed'. Outlier opinions like this are helpful for finding the flaws in the arguments used to justify them, which are the same arguments used by some to justify forms of abortion we are generally more comfortable with.
posted by unSane at 4:39 AM on March 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


Thanks a lot authors for calling this after birth abortion. That's really useful terminology right there that isn't going to be problematic at all. Nope.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:44 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yet another case for humans not being a superior animal.
posted by fairmettle at 4:50 AM on March 3, 2012


Disability is one thing but it becomes even more morally ambiguous when gender related cases (as is common in my passport country and others) are considered. What if local society considered female gender as the disability per se? What would be better? To be brought up half starved and uneducated as an unwanted girlchild or letting the midwife put some herbs in the infant's mouth?
posted by infini at 4:53 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's really interesting to me to see arguments about personhood and potential used in what is primarily a utilitarian argument. I'm deep, deep into pure theory, rather than biomedical ethics (and a pretty serious Kantian, to boot), but I think this is a pretty strong blend of the most common arguments for abortion. If the best theories we have to defend something aren't extended out into their other potential applications, those arguments aren't really very sound.

Of course, I'm assuming a very Western, analytic manner of doing philosophy...which pretty much rests entirely on universality. I'm sure a lot of (the cogent) arguments against these results rely on a rejection of universal moral application. Right? I hope so?

Fair warning: I've been reading too much Kant recently, because this damn thesis doesn't appear to be writing itself :( But personhood, that's basically my bag, man.
posted by zinful at 5:01 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


To protect a fetus, you must force the mother to carry it to term and then go through the painful and dangerous process of childbirth. To fully protect the fetus, you must place very restrictive controls on her activity until after the birth.

To protect a baby, you remove it from the mother's custody and hand it over to someone who can care for it better.

Yep, hardly any difference there.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:08 AM on March 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


Disability isn't something that we can arbitrarily assign to genders, or appearances or whatever. Drawing the lines of personhood might be culturally constrained to some extent, but it's really going to come down to "what is a person?". Infants just can't hit any of those standards, unless you argue for potential, and some infants never will. What at first blush seems interesting is the distinction between the types of potential we're balancing here, but ultimately the arguments from utility are just there to settle the stomachs of the squeamish. When there's not a person there, we can't claim an identical moral responsibility to the subject as we would grant to a full-fledged person. Reason, will, and intention are all just too clearly lacking.
posted by zinful at 5:09 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


lesbiassparrow: Thanks a lot authors for calling this after birth abortion. That's really useful terminology right there that isn't going to be problematic at all. Nope.

If you have a problem with that then the entire paper is problematic in that respect. Drawing an equivalence between abortion and infanticide is their main point, so it would be dishonest of them to shy away from that kind of terminology to maintain a clear line between the two when they are denying one exists.

Hopefully this thread doesn't get deleted like the other one did.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 5:18 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The status of the fetus/child should cannot depend solely on which side of the mother's skin it is. The moral problem really boils down to when we assign the fetus/child personhood, and there's never going to be an objective measure for that.

Except, lo and behold, what side of the mother's skin it's on.

If you exclude the single best differentiator, and then insist that no differentiator exists, you are begging the question.
posted by Malor at 5:18 AM on March 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


"...and the weaknesses of the paper are precisely the weaknesses of utilitarian defences of abortion. The status of the fetus/child should cannot depend solely on which side of the mother's skin it is. The moral problem really boils down to when we assign the fetus/child personhood, and there's never going to be an objective measure for that."

You imply that privileging the status of the fetus is utilitarian when, in fact, it's the opposite of utilitarianism. That status can be used in support of a utilitarian argument, of course; but determining that status is not itself utilitarian and a pure utilitarian argument would dispense with that status altogether. The fact is that almost all arguments regarding abortion privilege the presumed status of the fetus to some extent.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:20 AM on March 3, 2012


Isn't this a fairly run of the Mill utilitarian argument though? Certainly Peter Singer has been saying similar things since the 70s, I actually thought it was him when I saw that an Australian philosopher had published a controversial paper on infanticide.

Their argument seems to work a little like this:
A foetus is only a potential person, and isn't conscious of its own future.
An adult woman is an actual person.
Abortion is permissible because if it wasn't, we might be enslaving an actual person to preserve a potential person.

The complication is that a newborn infant is no more a conscious person than a late trimester foetus, so why allow late term terminations and not early infanticide? Doesn't this risk sacrificing the future of an actual person for that of a potential person in the same way?

My objections to that line of argument are twofold:

First, even in places where third trimester terminations are legal, they are exceedingly rare. Almost non-existent when you don't consider the termination of foetuses with severe birth defects incompatible with life. So the nice, clean philosophical argument about the small difference between a late trimester foetus and a very young baby doesn't matter. The vast majority of terminations are carried out in the first trimester or early second trimester when the foetus is even less of a potential person than it is right before birth.

My second objection is that the physical relationship between an infant and its mother is different than that between a foetus and its potential mother. Namely, a foetus cannot exist outside of the mother's body until fairly late in the gestation process. The mother has a right to sever her physical connection to the foetus, that this results in the death of the foetus is secondary. For an infant, this is not the case. The mother of an infant can sever her relationship through adoption or other methods that do not result in the death of the infant. Her future happiness may still outweigh the future happiness of the mere potential life of the newborn, but preserving her happiness no longer requires the end of the potential conscious life of her newborn child.

You could argue that late term foetuses could survive outside the mother's body and make the equivalence that way, but C-sections and induced labour are both more dangerous and potentially traumatic than a D&C termination. That means that there is no way to sever the physical connection between the unwanted foetus and its mother while keeping it alive that does not require a sacrifice on the mother's part. If we hold that a potential consciousness does not have the same value as an actual conscious life (as they have in their article), then it follows that it is not reasonable to equate the termination of a late term pregnancy and infanticide on the basis of foetal viability.

I think that this qualitative difference means that we cannot necessarily say that if we permit one of late term abortion or infanticide, we must permit the other.
posted by atrazine at 5:22 AM on March 3, 2012 [18 favorites]


"Except, lo and behold, what side of the mother's skin it's on.

If you exclude the single best differentiator, and then insist that no differentiator exists, you are begging the question."


Ha! That's funny because it's you, rather, who is begging the question of what "the single best differentiator is".

To determine what might or might be "the single best differentiator", you have to decide what that is differentiating. If it's some quality internal to the fetus, which surely is what we're looking for if we're looking for a bright line that is intrinsic to the fetus, then birth isn't a good differentiator at all.

On the other hand, if we concede that this is all very complicated and tenuous and involves all sorts of considerations that are simultaneously about intrinsic qualities of the fetus, cultural conventions, practical considerations, the mother's right to autonomy, and many others, then picking something like birth makes a heck of a lot of sense, because it's going to be among the least controversial places in which to draw a distinction possible.

I guess what I don't get about this debate in general is how wedded people are to insisting that what's really going on is what coincides with their own, particular, individual moral intuitions and that the distinctions and dividing lines they draw on that basis are necessarily the obvious and correct ones and that everyone who disagrees with them about those intuitions and dividing lines is necessarily lying or evil. From where I'm standing, this whole problem is a deeply complicated mess of all sorts of things that people both deeply feel strongly about and which people disagree. I understand the need to simplify; what I don't understand is the need to simplify when it's obvious that this just can't be simplified.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:32 AM on March 3, 2012 [11 favorites]


I find the argument really weak, and the whole issue of when personhood is achieved to be a red herring. A woman does not have a moral obligation to carry a pregnancy to term any more than I have a moral obligation to donate my kidney, despite the fact that not doing so would end a life. Whether the life of the foetus is fully human, whatever that means or wherever you want to draw that line, is secondary to that.

Once a baby is born, that conflict disappears. And I would argue that once again, the question of whether the infant qualifies as a full person is irrelevant, because there is significant moral value in treating all living persons as having rights, and a significant hazard in attempting to draw a line beyond which they do not.
posted by Nothing at 5:34 AM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Or to put it another way, I don't have a right to kill you, nor do I have an obligation to put myself in jeopardy to attempt to save you, though it might be commendable to do so.
posted by Nothing at 5:38 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


"A woman does not have a moral obligation to carry a pregnancy to term any more than I have a moral obligation to donate my kidney, despite the fact that not doing so would end a life. Whether the life of the foetus is fully human, whatever that means or wherever you want to draw that line, is secondary to that. "

Which is a consistent view, but it necessarily does not differentiate abortion at four weeks from abortion a day before birth. A lot of people, in fact a majority I think, are not comfortable with this.

It's problematic in other ways, too. It makes a very strong qualitative distinction between bodily autonomy and other forms of individual autonomy in order to make the comparison to donating a kidney, and this is a distinction that I don't think is nearly as strong as you think it is.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:43 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Once a baby is born, that conflict disappears.

In the world of ideas, maybe yes. In the real world: no.
For example, who is responsible for the baby?
posted by - at 5:45 AM on March 3, 2012


"I don't have a right to kill you, nor do I have an obligation to put myself in jeopardy to attempt to save you, though it might be commendable to do so."

For what definition of "jeopardy"? My concern here is that I think caring for an infant is an onerous burden for it caretaker, which arguably puts them in jeopardy in some respects, and I don't quite understand why, by your reasoning, anyone, including the parents, have an obligation to care for an infant and not let it die, which it surely will without care.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:46 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Or to put it another way, I don't have a right to kill you, nor do I have an obligation to put myself in jeopardy to attempt to save you, though it might be commendable to do so.

It's not quite as simple as that. First of all in most cases the mother had a hand in bringing the life into that situation. If you bring someone into a dangerous situation without their consent you may very well have a responsibility to take some risk to get them out of it.

The other interesting thing about this whole issue is that it is in some ways a reversal of usual political positions. Christian conservatives are anti-abortion when in fact a lot of biblical evidence does not consider the fetus a person at all, and lots of liberals are happy to disregard in the fetus a truly helpless, voiceless, and innocent political minority.
posted by shivohum at 5:47 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Again, I'm not saying that these various distinctions people intuitively make are unreasonable. I think they are reasonable. What I don't agree with is that they are so self-evident and qualitatively meaningful that everyone else should see the truth of them and understand that the resolution to the whole debate is really very simple and obvious.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:49 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Her future happiness may still outweigh the future happiness of the mere potential life of the newborn, but preserving her happiness no longer requires the end of the potential conscious life of her newborn child."

I completely disagree with this statement, and it is because of this that I support access to birth control, emergency contraception and early abortion access. I support abortions in the first and second trimester because sentience during that time is so debatable that there is not consent on what point makes the fetus a person worthy of protection which is why I think it shoud fall to women to decide when they believe that happens.

"If you bring someone into a dangerous situation without their consent you may very well have a responsibility to take some risk to get them out of it."

I agree with this statement (both for the father and mother). Even in cases of rape, I think there is social responsbility to care for human beings in need. If for some reason an abortion wasn't obtained--- then the innocent child's need for their own mother is in competition with the mothers desire to not be burdened.

Personally, I think children's rights to care should trump parents rights to not have to care.
posted by xarnop at 5:55 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Personally, I think children's rights to care should trump parents rights to not have to care.

fine, but you need an institutional context that can allow that. (ex: welfare). Because rights doesn't mean too much if can't be used.
posted by - at 6:06 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


What I am curious about, and what the authors carefully avoid making an explicit judgement on, is when the baby attains actual personhood by their definition. When does it develop "aims"? Because I'm thinking that might not be for several years, since they don't seem to count simple things like desire to obtain food/comfort, etc, as "aims" (otherwise right after birth this would already exist). So I'm wondering what stops "after birth abortion" being valid up to, say, two or three years of age in that case.
posted by lollusc at 6:07 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The other interesting thing about this whole issue is that it is in some ways a reversal of usual political positions. Christian conservatives are anti-abortion when in fact a lot of biblical evidence does not consider the fetus a person at all, and lots of liberals are happy to disregard in the fetus a truly helpless, voiceless, and innocent political minority."

I agree with you that this is true and that it's interesting and seems to be a pair of inconsistencies, but stating it so is unnecessarily provocative to pretty much everyone you're mentioning, isn't it? Which is pretty much everyone who has a stake in this debate, one side of the other? So, maybe we should be careful about these kinds of statements because they're likely to provoke people enough so that the discussion derails?

Insofar as I think it's safe to talk about what you're referring to, I think it just points out that different groups of people have very different contexts they bring to this debate. I'm not comfortable accusing anybody of hypocrisy; I think, rather, the apparent hypocrisy only exists when each side's position is evaluated by the other side's assumptions and deeply-held concerns. On their own terms, each side is consistent with the rest of their beliefs.

Anyway, this post and thread isn't really about conventional abortion, I don't think.

Instead, I think it's more about some difficult issues involved with certain cases of serious infant illness and, more generally, euthanasia. And, perhaps, even more generally, (and I guess I'm moving back into conventional abortion territory) the acceptability of certain rationales for conventional abortion in some cases.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:13 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Once a baby is born, that conflict disappears.

In the world of ideas, maybe yes. In the real world: no.
For example, who is responsible for the baby?


Whosoever wishes to be responsible. Were nobody willing to care for a child once it was born, then infanticide might the best option. But in the real world that's rarely the case in modern societies. So to kill a child that you do not wish to care for but know somebody else would is malice.
posted by Jehan at 6:36 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Various comments here point out that the burden on individuals and on society of keeping a newborn alive is vastly smaller than the burden imposed on a pregnant woman by banning her from having an abortion. I agree, but surely the problem here is that if you're going to argue that any burden on existing people and on society is warranted, you need to be able to say why. And the useful thing these authors are doing, IMHO, is drawing attention to the fact that when you draw most people's reasoning out of them on this matter, it's inconsistent; it relies on certain things going on inside the head of a newborn baby that just aren't going on inside the head of a newborn baby. So you need some other reasons instead, and then you need to be careful — if you wish to preserve your pro-reproductive-rights position — that those reasons don't also apply to unborn fetuses. It is useful to be challenged to come up with these reasons.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:37 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Instead of calling infanticide after-birth abortion, I favor calling abortion pre-birth eviction. Landlords and mortgage lenders don't concern themselves with what happens to you if you can't be bothered to pay your way, so why should women?
posted by localroger at 6:39 AM on March 3, 2012


For most of human history people were content to draw the bright line between proto-personhood and personhood at drawing of the first breath, and nobody really throught it was worth arguing about. When did people get so stupid about this? Oh yeah, it was when a bunch of old men decided sex was bad and should be punished. That is the only reason we are having this argument. Got it.
posted by localroger at 6:41 AM on March 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


(Jehan also raises a good point that this whole utilitarian argument might surely evaporate on its own utilitarian terms in those localities where there are would-be adoptive parents for whom paying for every cost of delivery and care would represent no net burden at all, given the limitless value of what they get in return. Then again that argument might all too swiftly lead to the idea that would-be adoptive parents have some moral stake in people's conventional abortion decisions. Utilitarianism always seems to get you into these messes.)
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:42 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The authors posted an open letter yesterday about the spread of the article beyond the audience they intended (His thoughts, they say they've received emailed death threats as well):

We started from the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley in 1975 and we tried to draw the logical conclusions deriving from this premise. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y. We expected that other bioethicists would challenge either the premise or the logical pattern we followed, because this is what happens in academic debates. And we believed we were going to read interesting responses to the argument, as we already read a few on this topic in religious websites.

However, we never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal. This was not made clear enough in the paper....Moreover, we did not suggest that after birth abortion should be permissible for months or years as the media erroneously reported....

However, the content of (the abstract of) the paper started to be picked up by newspapers, radio and on the web. What people understood was that we were in favour of killing people. This, of course, is not what we suggested. This is easier to see when our thesis is read in the context of the history of the debate.

We are really sorry that many people, who do not share the background of the intended audience for this article, felt offended, outraged, or even threatened. We apologise to them, but we could not control how the message was promulgated across the internet and then conveyed by the media. In fact, we personally do not agree with much of what the media suggest we think. Because of these misleading messages pumped by certain groups on the internet and picked up for a controversy-hungry media, we started to receive many emails from very angry people (most of whom claimed to be Pro-Life and very religious) who threatened to kill us or which were extremely abusive. Prof Savulescu said these responses were out of place, and he himself was attacked because, after all, “we deserve it.”

We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic....

We apologise for offence caused by our paper, and we hope this letter helps people to understand the essential distinction between academic language and the misleading media presentation, and between what could be discussed in an academic paper and what could be legally permissible.

posted by mediareport at 6:48 AM on March 3, 2012 [9 favorites]


(Just for note, we started a discussion on this two days ago -- 1 March 2012. That post was deleted, however many of the comments posted remain valid to this discussion)
posted by nickrussell at 6:49 AM on March 3, 2012


Perhaps I'm too caught up in the wording, but I find the terminology used quite questionable. The purpose of an abortion is not to abort a life, but to abort a pregnancy. Once the child is born, there is no pregnancy to abort.

While I agree that in some cases infanticide may be the best choice for the child, I sincerely doubt that there is such a lack of loving, potential adoptive parents in the developed world that it should be considered for an average, healthy child.

I doubt we could avoid any knee-jerks by calling this practice what it is- infanticide, but I feel like it would at least provide a fairer perspective on the topic from the get-go. Words like "abortion" make people feel uncomfortable in part because the word itself ignores the fact that a potential life is being ended, justifiably so.

Can't we just call a spade a spade and then deal with the complicated ethical implications?
posted by sunshinesky at 6:50 AM on March 3, 2012


The purpose of an abortion is not to abort a life, but to abort a pregnancy. Once the child is born, there is no pregnancy to abort.

Again, the topic of this paper is the grounds for making this linguistic distinction into a moral distinction. You may have some really good grounds, but the challenge is to state them...
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:53 AM on March 3, 2012


On their own terms, each side is consistent with the rest of their beliefs.

Well, no, they're not really. Which is why I really liked your statement above that this whole problem is a "deeply complicated mess." I think this is one of those areas where we all tend to hold contradictory opinions. I think that's one of the reasons the debate gets so vehement--we tend to get angriest when we sense in ourselves some internal inconsistency. We don't get into screaming shouting matches about things that are "obviously" true.

And on both sides you see an anxious searching for clear limits. The anti-choice side goes further and further back into the biological history of the zygote, seeking some clear "moment of conception" which is the bright line separating the non-human from the human. The pro-choice side pushes unhappily towards the moment of birth (the inside/outside line) as the only clear marker of the point where the fetus becomes a "baby." But both lines involve proclamations of certainty which neither side, in fact, really feels.

I'm always interested in an empirical or anthropological approach to the question--because, like you, I don't think it's one that can ever be answered from first principles. I think that if you look at what people actually do in real life you see far more agreement than the culture wars would suggest. Even the most conservative "pro-life" culture warrior doesn't usually mourn a miscarriage that occurs almost immediately after implantation as if it were the death of a child. It might be seen as sad for the mother and father if they've been trying repeatedly to get pregnant, but that sadness is not focused upon the "death" of the lost embryo but upon the lost opportunity for the parents. It would be considered bizarre, for example, to hold a full fledged funeral for the "remains"--I doubt even the Catholic church would sanction such a thing. The rigorous claim that "personhood begins at conception" just isn't actually manifested in cultural praxis.

And similarly, consensus among pro-choice people tends to fray the further along in the pregnancy we go. Arguments about the mother not being compelled to carry the fetus to term sound wonderfully cut-and-dried, but there are very, very few pro-choice people who actually believe that an abortion performed late in the third trimester is unproblematic, unless it is done to save the mother's life. Nor are there many in the pro-choice camp who would consider it odd or aberrant for parents to mourn a baby lost to miscarriage at that point: to mourn him/her as a dead person rather than as a "lost opportunity." (The famous Rick Santorum story is an interesting marker here--I don't think there'd be anything like the same reaction to this story if the baby had been lost at 8 months, say).

It's an issue for which there can never be bright dividing lines, no matter how much we might want them.
posted by yoink at 6:56 AM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


For example, who is responsible for the baby?

In a civilized world, the government, via a less fucked-up system of state care that exists now.

The purpose of an abortion is not to abort a life, but to abort a pregnancy. Once the child is born, there is no pregnancy to abort.

Insofar as the person choosing an abortion desires to avoid raising and caring for a child (because they are too young, or economic reasons, or whatever you will) rather than desire to avoid the pain and unpleasantness of pregnancy, I'd say that in many cases the intent is to end a life - which is where I suppose the distinction between a life and a person becomes pertinent.

The article struck me as provocative and meant to be provocative. I think the terminology used serves that purpose, and I don't think the writers were wrong to use it.

Nature doesn't care about our moral comfort. It regularly throws up situations where actual rights and interests are in inextricable collision. Late-term abortion (which is thankfully rare now and getting rarer) is one of those messy cases. As is the infant in terrible pain/unable to exist due to crushing physical debilitations...and no, just shrugging and saying that no, really, there is no conflict because we want to be able to make choices without moral discomfort in such cases isn't really a solution.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:01 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the old internets: Sweetwater Postnatal Abortion Clinic
posted by kaibutsu at 7:04 AM on March 3, 2012


"...four variables is sufficient to provide a reliable estimate of the probability that any particular mother will murder any particular infant: the age of the mother, whether or not this child is the gender that the mother wanted (which, itself, turns out to be easily and universally predicted based on only two variables, the mother's social status and the predicted reliability of the food supply), the child's birth weight (and to a lesser extent other indicators of long-term viability), and her estimate of whether or not attempting to nurture this particular child will only get both her and the child killed."

- Not That the Actual Forbidden Knowledge is as Interesting as That There Is Forbidden Knowledge
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:14 AM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


(Jehan also raises a good point that this whole utilitarian argument might surely evaporate on its own utilitarian terms in those localities where there are would-be adoptive parents for whom paying for every cost of delivery and care would represent no net burden at all, given the limitless value of what they get in return. Then again that argument might all too swiftly lead to the idea that would-be adoptive parents have some moral stake in people's conventional abortion decisions. Utilitarianism always seems to get you into these messes.)

My real problem is that the paper knows adoption is the destroyer of their argument, and dismisses it only very weakly:

...we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief. It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible’.

Basically, "we can't always assume that killing a child is emotionally worse for a mother than adoption." But if we only compare the two options of aborting a fetus and infanticide, and leave adoption aside, I feel it has very limited use. Those pregnant women who are okay with aborting a fetus are likely to have done so, and those who oppose abortion of a fetus are unlikely find infanticide acceptable. Imagine this: "I have too much attachment to a fetus to ends its growth, but my attachment to my child is too strong for anything but death to be acceptable." If a person said that I would seriously question the soundness of their mind. Anyways, you are left with a residuum of women who are okay with infanticide but somehow prevented from having an abortion. That's not impossible, but they're likely to have more serious emotional distress from losing control over their body, and don't feel that their situation is good for a general rule. The reasons for dismissing adoption need to be made much stronger for their argument to stand as a whole.
posted by Jehan at 7:20 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Oh yeah, it was when a bunch of old men decided sex was bad and should be punished. That is the only reason we are having this argument."

I don't think this is the only reason to have the argument. Sex is not inherently bad, but it can result in babies. What responsability do people who want to have sex have to the experience of a being they might create? None?

Sex happens when people aren't able to care for an infant. People make mistakes. But being unwilling is different that being unable. If the reason for refusing care for a child that you voluntarily participated in creating--- that being who was created without any consent of their own to be forced to experience what they will subsequently experience should matter.

In general, if we want to make it totally ok to have unprotected sex, then we need to make sure people have resources to parent the babies that result or have a system of care in place for society to care for those babies OR provide assistance to mothers in order that they can care for their own children.

If we are going to make this commitment to acknowledging the lived reality of children born of unplanned pregnancy-- then it requires acknowledging that unprotected sex-- or any sex even protected in which birth control failure is any possiblity at all---- is a liability to potential human beings and/or society that will have to take up the slack for parents who were not prepared or willing to care for the infants that result.

So yeah, deliberately having sex when you are not willing or able to care for offspring that result can result in real suffering. I don't think being sex-positive can or should erase the reality that human beings can be the result of that. In general access to properly used birth control, combined with plan B and early abortion can make the possibility of being responsable to a living human being much less likely and it's fine for people to take the risk. However I think we need to be accountable to children we create even if it involved an unintentionally pregnancy.

Jehan-- I think the argument about women's experience of loss after adoption is extremely valid, and much less researched than the effects of abortion. However what needs to be considered is that the women who feel the most loss are usually women who wanted to parent to begin with but faced internal or external obstacles to being able to parent effectively. Supporting such women in being able to parent succesfully is another option.
posted by xarnop at 7:32 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except, lo and behold, what side of the mother's skin it's on.

I think that's being really simplistic. Do you really think that your status as a 'person' depends on where you happen to be physically located? I think it's a slightly more complicated problem than that. (which isn't to say that I don't think it's a convenient marker). I happen to agree with the personhood argument, and I agree that a newborn is no more of a person than a late stage fetus, but you have to draw the line somewhere and 'birth' is a damned convenient place to draw it.
posted by empath at 7:48 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the argument about women's experience of loss after adoption is extremely valid, and much less researched than the effects of abortion. However what needs to be considered is that the women who feel the most loss are usually women who wanted to parent to begin with but faced internal or external obstacles to being able to parent effectively. Supporting such women in being able to parent succesfully is another option.

I agree that it is a valid experience and that obstacles to becoming an effective parent are real and should be addressed, but it's not a good argument for infanticide. If we suppose that many of the people who would grieve more through adoption than infanticide intended or tried to be a parent, then we lose the critical "newborn" window when their selfhood is no different from a fetus. Most adopted children in recent years are at least several years old, where the argument for infanticide is invalid. Why would a woman bring a child to term only to give it up for adoption immediately? If it is due to a moral aversion to abortion or a desire for monetary benefit (we can place surrogacy in this category as well as any agreements made after the fact), then infanticide is once again ruled out. Even if adoption is emotionally worse than infanticide, in what situations is infanticide more acceptable than abortion? I struggle to think of any with universal application.
posted by Jehan at 7:51 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I realize that I'm not arguing against the reasons themselves, but rather that the argument put forth is just practically useless. Nobody who supports abortion need support routine infanticide of healthy babies.
posted by Jehan at 8:00 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


is this like schrodingers cat? are they academic trolls? If I kill a straw man is it murder?
posted by fistynuts at 8:24 AM on March 3, 2012


Isn't this a fairly run of the Mill utilitarian argument though?

!
posted by meese at 8:42 AM on March 3, 2012


I guess what I don't get about this debate in general is how wedded people are to insisting that what's really going on is what coincides with their own, particular, individual moral intuitions and that the distinctions and dividing lines they draw on that basis are necessarily the obvious and correct ones and that everyone who disagrees with them about those intuitions and dividing lines is necessarily lying or evil.

Heh, you just stated Scott Bakker's "Magical Belief Lottery" in a nutshell.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:12 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Part of their philosophical logic that I am most unable to follow:

"We take ‘person’ to mean 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. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. "

By this logic, we should be able to "post-birth abort" any person in a coma, severely retarded, or otherwise incapable of defending their own reason to live. They don't adequately differentiate why their logic that killing an infant because "they don't know that they're losing their life" is any different from "killing any age of person who cannot understand loss of life". Do autistic people fall in this category? People with mental disabilities who may enjoy day-to-day life but can't really contemplate their own mortality? If fetus vs. infant is not a valid differentiation, why is infant different from adults with no knowledge of death?

"Our point here is that, although it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’, a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X."

This is pretty creepy moral territory.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:17 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


comments posted on web forums dubbed the authors as 'evil, pure evil' and called for their 'immediate execution'."

"Giubilini and Minerva called me 'not an actual person' and called for my 'immediate termination'." -- a baby.
posted by straight at 9:20 AM on March 3, 2012


For most of human history people were content to draw the bright line between proto-personhood and personhood at drawing of the first breath, and nobody really throught it was worth arguing about.

Actually, many cultures have been perfectly okay with infanticide. The ancient Romans explicitly legalized it, for example. There are other cultures in which children are not considered a person until they are several months or even a few years old (e.g. the child won't even be given a name before that point).
posted by jedicus at 9:25 AM on March 3, 2012 [8 favorites]


I would argue that infanticide has been an accepted part of human society in many cultures and eras. I'm not sure we've ever held so tightly to the precious nature of a single infant life as we do today. Not that I'm arguing that we should bring infanticide back or anything, just thinking about it in context.
posted by Go Banana at 9:40 AM on March 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is pretty creepy moral territory.

Yes, it's creepy moral territory. At the same time, however, I'm also really creeped out by the notion being kept in a state like Terri Schiavo for years and years -- technically alive, technically human, but not at all alive or human in any way that I want to be. Or, even less dramatic cases than that. I think it's creepy and terrifying to think that, someday, I may be succumbing to an untreatable disorder that slowly destroys my capacity to think, causes considerable pain and discomfort, and, even worse, leaves me without the ability to end my own life. I think about being stuck in a hospital, hooked up to machines, suffering and dying, but forbidden help in ending my own suffering early. I think that is a nightmare -- and one many, many people forced to live through right now.

None of this in support of the position held here. But I think it's worth keeping in mind the full extent of creepiness, when it comes to questions of death and humanity. It's easy to see how creepy it is to consider when it may be permissible to kill human beings, but there are equally creepy elements to treating human life as always worth preserving, no matter what.

I guess my point is, this is a messy issue, and every extreme leads to creepy conclusions. I'm disturbed by "arguments from creepiness" because rejecting one theory due to its creepy implications leaves one threatened of falling into just as creepy an alternative without meaning to.
posted by meese at 9:45 AM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yes, it's creepy moral territory. At the same time, however, I'm also really creeped out by the notion being kept in a state like Terri Schiavo for years and years -- technically alive, technically human, but not at all alive or human in any way that I want to be. Or, even less dramatic cases than that. I think it's creepy and terrifying to think that, someday, I may be succumbing to an untreatable disorder that slowly destroys my capacity to think, causes considerable pain and discomfort, and, even worse, leaves me without the ability to end my own life. I think about being stuck in a hospital, hooked up to machines, suffering and dying, but forbidden help in ending my own suffering early. I think that is a nightmare -- and one many, many people forced to live through right now.

Well, yes. I didn't want my post to get too long, but I acknowledge that certainly it might be ethical sometimes to euthanize adults in comas, etc. But their logic seems to take as a starting point that those people have no right to life if they are not currently able to contemplate the loss of their life. Which I see as totally different from a situation like Terri Schiavo's, where we at least assume that we should weigh the morality of extending someone's suffering vs. their right to live because they are a complete adult human being.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:21 AM on March 3, 2012


For most of human history people were content to draw the bright line between proto-personhood and personhood at drawing of the first breath, and nobody really throught it was worth arguing about. When did people get so stupid about this? Oh yeah, it was when a bunch of old men decided sex was bad and should be punished. That is the only reason we are having this argument. Got it.
For most of human history, people thought it perfectly ethical to slaughter their enemies and their children and rape their wives. But I can't even suggest that possibility without getting lectured by know-it-alls on the internet.
posted by GIFtheory at 10:26 AM on March 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


*First of all in most cases the mother had a hand in bringing the life into that situation.*

Soooo... you are obligated to give kidneys to your descendents? I mean if the act of having sex is grounds to be obligated to shove a large object through your vaginal canal/slice open your abdomen, not to mention general bodily wear and tear, then surely having kids and not being prepared to donate all manner of your pieces, forever, is fair too?
posted by Phalene at 11:58 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


@GIFtheory, we are not out of those woods yet. I doubt we ever will be. :(

The Romans, the ancient Germanic tribes, the ancient Celts and the Arabs before Islam all practiced infanticide. Infanticide was common in China well into modern times. In Japan they called it 'Thinning the family' they raised children a few years. If a child showed complete untrainability, male or female, that child disappeared.

Same with the ancient Greeks Oedipus Rex anyone? Sparta anyone?

English nobility put their unwanted infants 'out to nurse' at so called 'Angel Farms'.
There were people who objecteted to all this.

The Koran has a verse condemning the burial alive of girl children, and the killing of any child out of fear of poverty.

At the same time birth control is not so condemned.

Jewish law doesn't regard a child as alive until the child draws breath.

I think this article amounted to a form of philosophical trolling, at best it gave trolls such a lovely toy.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:00 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


no right to life if they are not currently able to contemplate the loss of their life.

Here's an extreme example: someone who is asleep.
posted by empath at 12:10 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is probably a good place to drop two links I have been hoarding:

Crazyism about X is the view that something it would be crazy to believe must be among the core truths about X. It's probably more common than we'd like to think.

Some significant portion of professional philosophers can be manipulated into accepting or refusing the Doctrine of Double Effect on the basis of the order of presentation of moral hypotheticals.

It turns out, we know MUCH LESS about this than you can possibly imagine.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:16 PM on March 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


    "I would argue that infanticide has been an accepted part of human society in many cultures and eras. I'm not sure we've ever held so tightly to the precious nature of a single infant life as we do today. Not that I'm arguing that we should bring infanticide back or anything, just thinking about it in context."
On the other hand, this is a moral question that has been pretty settled in the west for the last 1500 years, I think it might be instructive to think about how it got that way.

In Greece and ancient Rome a child was virtually its father's chattel, in Roman law, the Patria Protestas granted the father the right to dispose of his offspring as he saw fit. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law held that "Deformed infants shall be killed" (De Legibus, 3.8). Of course, deformed was broadly construed and often meant no more than the baby appeared "weakly." The Twelve Tables also explicitly permitted a father to expose any female infant. Cicero defended infanticide by referring to the Twelve Tables. Plato and Aristotle recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy. Cornelius Tacitus went so far as to condemn the Jews for their opposition to infanticide. In Histories 5.5 He stated that the Jewish view that "it was a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child" was just another of the many "sinister and revolting practices" of the Jews. Even Seneca, who was famous for his relatively high moral standards, stated, "we drown children at birth who are weakly and abnormal" in his work De Ira (1.15). Hell, infanticide was a casually considered phenomenon, check out this letter that we have, "Know that I am still in Alexandria.... I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I received payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered (before I come home), if it is a boy keep it, if a girl, discard it." Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, page 54. This all changed quite suddenly with the rise of Christianity.

While an opposition to abortion has never been really Christian, not un-Christian but not really Christian either*, an opposition to infanticide very much has always been, and also goes to the heart of a lot of what Christianity has always been. We just might not see it today because of how ubiquitous the change is. There was significant culture clash between the earliest Christians and the Greco/Romans they were surrounded by, and infaticide was one of the biggest sticking points that Christians were most aggressive about. The Didache (90 -110 CE) commanded "You shall not commit infanticide." The Epistle of Barnabas (130 CE), also explicitly condemns infanticide. The core difference was that while the Greeks and Romans defined personhood by the things a person was able to do, early Christians defined personhood by what one was, namely a child of God. The idea of the universal sanctity and equivalent value of life was a truly radical concept at the time, and inherently Judeo-Christian. With personhood being such a fluid thing, both vulnerable people and children were less people than secure adults were. In essence, without the modern absolute understanding, how much of a person you were was precisely correlated with how much you could convince/force other to recognize your personhood. The fundamental paradigm shift can, I think be seen even more clearly in child prostitution.

The Romans and Greeks didn't talk about child prostitution much, it was presumably not seen as an important moral issue like the duty to murder deformed children was, but there is ample evidence of it and early Christians could not shut up about the practice. There were pre-pubescent sex workers of both genders found at Pompeii and surviving written records of military child slaves being sold to pimps and brothels. This is from the First Apology of Justin Martyr (150-155 CE), "But as for us, we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the part of wicked men; and this we have been taught lest we should do any one an injury, and lest we should sin against God, first, because we see that almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution." Children couldn't enforce their personhood and so they wern't persons unless their fathers enforced their personhood for them, similarly if their fathers declared them non-persons, that is what they were. Abandoned children were still non-people, or at least negligibly people, and thus morally exploitable.

The Christian movement, from the very beginning, recognized the personhood of vulnerable people and saw it as a moral absolute, non-variable. Of course over the last couple thousand years Christians have not been immune to either hypocrisy or apostasy, but seeing babies as people has always been part of it.



*The strongest biblical case for when life begins is at first breath. While the arguments against abortion rely on wishy washy unclear concepts of predetermination, the intentional termination of someone else's fetus is clearly defined as a property crime and not murder, and even prescribes abortion in instances of adultery.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:28 PM on March 3, 2012 [27 favorites]


On the other hand, this is a moral question that has been pretty settled in the west for the last 1500 years, I think it might be instructive to think about how it got that way.

It got that way through subjugating people and cultures which practiced infanticide. For instance, infanticide was made legal by Christians in Iceland in 1000 AD, specifically because the Pagans would not have it otherwise -- this was abolished shortly thereafter, once Paganism had been sufficiently stifled.

If the Pagans had managed to make everyone else adopt their ways, we'd most likely be discussing the universal moral turpitude which would obviously be involved in forcing parents to raise unwanted children. IMHO, the mere fact that this is a "a moral question that has been pretty settled in the west for the last 1500 years" doesn't mean much other than that.
posted by vorfeed at 12:58 PM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


"Giubilini and Minerva called me 'not an actual person' and called for my 'immediate termination'." -- a baby.

Of course, if a baby could actually make that point, Giuilini and Minerva's argument would not stand. The very fact that you have to make the claim on behalf of the baby is kinda their point.
posted by yoink at 1:48 PM on March 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


There's a pretty shaky ground for "first breath", mostly because breathing may be a necessary condition of being a person, it's not sufficient as well. A historical basis is pretty much crap if it can't be framed as a nice objective moral argument.

What these authors are trying to highlight is, as people above have noted, the lack of any solid ethical grounds for differentiation between a newborn and a fetus. By making this article a grab bag of ethical theories, it gets a little muddy, but I think they were trying to show that this legitimization works across the theories. We get a little bit of utilitarianism, a little bit of a priori personhood, even a little bit of Virtue ethics (in cases of the infant being unable to flourish and live a rich life, which is much stronger of a claim than merely maximizing utility by adding up pleasure/pain columns).

I've actually already come to this conclusion before, in long, alcoholic philosophy bullshit sessions with my cohort. I typically argue from a cobbled together feminist and Kantian perspective of strong personhood (and the lack of need to establish a caregiver relationship if that relationship won't result in a person, which it really wouldn't in the case of a severely disabled or strongly unwanted child). We only have a duty to take care of potential persons if they are for certain potential persons. This is why we don't have a duty to go around creating technology to talk to dolphins, or bonobos or whatever. Maybe it's a great thing to do, but not duty-Good. Persons are those who have an intrinsic right-to-life because they have certain characteristics, namely the ability to also be moral things--not the potential, but the actual ability. We don't need to be worried about whether we are harming their dignity as a person (which is different of course from torture. physical harm) when there simply isn't a person there. They don't make decisions because they can't, they don't act from duty because they simply aren't there yet. We start drawing fuzzy lines as the child grows because it seems like the ability to act morally begins to show itself, even if the child isn't able to demonstrate that ability. There are no bright lines, though, and drawing it at the birth canal has always seemed rather off to me, as would any arbitrary and general temporal line-in-the-sand.

All of the moral disgust we have about harming or killing infants is located within ourselves as advanced, rational, moral creatures. This responsibility is different, but it's really, really important (and I'm not trying to downplay it at all). We have a responsibility to not perform actions that we find morally repugnant (for example, not to torture animals) because it actually harms ourselves (it's basically impossible to argue your emotional connection out of the picture, even if the actions you're taking aren't Wrong). The practical issue of "who's going to actually euthanize these babies?" is probably the bigger issue here, since those people would be harming themselves ethically.
posted by zinful at 2:10 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is probably a good time to admit that, yes, I am aware that I'm primarily a theorist. The actual messy part of bio-medical ethics, application, is not what I do at all, and hardcore theorists like myself tend to be slightly disturbing in these types of discussions.

These types of sticky moral borderlands really are interesting and important primarily because they highlight general issues of ethics, why and how we form meta ethical conclusions, what is important about those conclusions, and what that means about the theories we argue about AND act on. I'm not saying application isn't important. At the end of the day, we still need to figure out whether or not to act. We do need to understand the foundations in order to legitimize our actions, though.
posted by zinful at 2:31 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some significant portion of professional philosophers can be manipulated into accepting or refusing the Doctrine of Double Effect on the basis of the order of presentation of moral hypotheticals.

I would headline that story, "Contrived Ethical Scenario Is Such and Unhelpful, Muddled Way of Approaching Ethical Questions that Even Professional Philosophers Don't Answer It Consistently."
posted by straight at 2:35 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone who claims that this issue is NOT complex is speaking from an ideological perspective, not a thoughtfully considered one, and it does no good to try to reason someone out of an opinion they didn't reason themselves into.

For the sake of argument, because the terms fetus, child, and infant are loaded, I will try to keep it as un-loaded as possible by saying "subject." In all of the scenarios I define below, there is no greater physical risk of injury or death than that of a normal healthy pregnancy. i think most can agree that, other things being equal, the health or life of the woman will trump that of the subject if there are complications.

The notion that birth is the appropriate threshold to define whether it is acceptable to terminate the life of a subject is flawed on its face: if the birth had happened 24 hours before any intended abortion, the subject would be no less viable. Any abortion would require the removal of the subject from the uterus. Removal of a live subject versus a dead subject (all other things being equal, i.e. no threat to the carrier of said uterus), makes no difference to the experience of the woman, so birth is an arbitrary threshold which provides no illumination to the value of the experience of the woman, as a live removal of the subject from the woman is equivalent to the dead removal of the subject. Birth is not a rational threshold at which to apply a hard standard for acceptability of the termination of the life of the subject. At the cusp of the threshold of birth, viability indicates a preference toward the life of the subject, since there is no negative effect on the health or welfare of the woman to favor it.

The notion that fertilization is the appropriate threshold to define whether it is acceptable to terminate the life of a subject is flawed on its face: a single fertilized cell (everything from there through all stages of undifferentiated zygotic development) has no awareness of itself, experiences no pain. The subject can only be said to exist in potential.

The notion that implantation of the zygote on the uterus is the appropriate threshold to define whether it is acceptable to terminate the life of a subject is flawed on its face: the same reason as fertilization applies.

The notion that differentiation of the subject to the level of having brain activity is the appropriate threshold to define whether it is acceptable to terminate the life of a subject is not inherently flawed. However, this threshold is both difficult (likely impossible with current technology) to measure, and merely moves the weight of moral value of the subject from nil to not-nil. The subject's value must then compete against the will of the woman to host the subject, as well as the woman's physical, psychological, and emotional welfare.

The notion that viability outside the woman's uterus is the appropriate threshold to define whether it is acceptable to terminate the life of the subject is not inherently flawed. However, the very fact that viability is a continuum where minimally-viable subjects can survive with heroic intervention, and fully viable subjects can survive under normal circumstances (i.e. have the same chance of survival as any other subject born at full term), the moral value of the subject is necessarily increasing with its degree of viability. At what point does the simple desire of the woman not to continue with the pregnancy (for any or no reason) outweigh the moral value of the subject, once the viability threshold has been crossed?

In the space between the development of the brain (thereby also introducing the notion that the infliction of pain upon the subject must enter into the moral calculus) and the threshold of viability (the point at which a woman's desire to end the pregnancy need not end the life of the subject), the weight of moral value, I would argue, resides heavily with the woman, but at what point is it reasonable to expect that "at will" should include more forceful argument than "I want to" in the case of dealing with a subject that is sentient?

The notion that infanticide is morally acceptable is not inhererntly flawed, but it moves the question from when is an abortion morally acceptable to when is the termination of any person's life morally acceptable? At birth, the subject may be "viable" by the definition above, but it is still wholly reliant upon others for its survival. Furthermore, while the subject is sentient, its sapience (cognitive abilities, level of agency) is still at a very limited level. Due to evolutionary pressures, humans give birth to less developmentally complete young than the vast majority of other animals (marsupials and certain mammals such as Panda Bears being examples of having much less developed young at birth), and the level of agency is limited in infants simply due to it having been born at a very undeveloped level.

Even after birth, the life of the subject is a continuum of development. At what point is it reasonable to say a person is fully developed? When they start exhibiting emotional attachment (practically immediately)? When they develop empathy (within the first year)? When they can form permanent memories (usually 1.5 to 3 years)?

The notion that we cannot terminate the life of a subject after birth for any reason is flawed on its face. At this point we have to consider a human life with agency and a human life without agency. Even in the US, we regularly "pull the plug" on a person who has no or minimal brain function. They are alive, but they are without agency. They are either not experiencing anything at all, or their experience and sapience is so minimal (Terri Schiavo) that prolonging their life would not serve any purpose of their own choosing (for their faculties are irrevocably lost). The idea that "one day they may snap out of it" introduces the question of how much sapience can they re-attain, how much agency can they eventually have? This is a legitimately complicated question, but in general, we tend to allow for the termination of the life of a subject when they do not have any agency.

The side of the argument that calls itself "pro life" often selects fertilization or implantation of the zygote on the uterus as its threshold. Which is plainly foolish. There are some in this thread who also seem to select birth as its threshold. This is arbitrary, and therefore not defensible (again, what difference does it make to the woman if the subject is removed from her uterus alive or dead at that point?).

The real answer is that the issue is complex, and everything from the development of the brain through the full viability of the subject are all defensible positions to take. This range covers a huge amount of the duration of a pregnancy. It is also worth noting that the concept of infanticide is ALSO defensible, if you allow someone to place their threshold of permissibility as the difference between a human life without agency and a human life with agency.

TL;DR: this shit is complex and anyone on either side of the argument who tells you it ain't is just plain fucking wrong.
posted by chimaera at 2:37 PM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


straight: "Contrived Ethical Scenario Is Such an Unhelpful, Muddled Way of Approaching Ethical Questions that Even Professional Philosophers Don't Answer It Consistently."

or, more succinctly, "Fuck You, Aquinas"
posted by zinful at 2:49 PM on March 3, 2012


"Fuck You, Aquinas"

Aquinas originated the Trolley Problem? I haven't read much of him, but I had the impression he was sophisticated enough to realize that almost every real-life situation purported to be a Trolley Problem actually isn't.
posted by straight at 3:04 PM on March 3, 2012


It wasn't really the Trolley Problem yet (obviously), but his views on self defense laid the groundwork for the eventual expansion of those issues. The Trolley Problem is more advanced because it's also a good illustration of the distinctions between "doing" and "allowing" (as well as being a really good introduction to hypotheticals in Philosophy 01 classes, I've found! This may actually have just as much to do with its propagation as the actual good philosophy going on there.)
posted by zinful at 3:12 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Philosophy 101, rather. I don't know what Philosophy 01 would look like, but I imagine it doesn't run very often, especially not in the US.
posted by zinful at 3:13 PM on March 3, 2012


You can make a very good case that infanticide isn't that big a deal. Newborns are incapable of forming memories or learning, and aren't conscious in any sense that would meaningfully describe an adult human. Newborn humans are in fact far less developed than the newborns of most other animals, largely because of the brain-pelvis problem. So the problem with drawing a bright line at birth isn't that it allows abortion at birth minus 24h.

Setting the bright line at birth is actually a fairly conservative error on the pro-life side of any estimate that involves demonstrable as opposed to theoretical personhood. It's a line that creates some hardship compared to the pre-Christian model, but modern technology largely ameliorates that and birth as a bright line preserves the rights of the mother to own her own body.

As for whether fertility reduction is cultural or ratial suicide -- seriously, if that bothers you, FUCK YOU. People won't be as eager to reduce their fertility when their world is worth living in.
posted by localroger at 3:41 PM on March 3, 2012


The racial aspects of the issue seem to be usually framed in one of two ways: either there won't be enough of the types of babies we "want", or there needs to be a reduction in the types of babies that we have culturally proscribed are "unwanted". This always tends to favor the white supremacist side of things, unsurprisingly, so people being worried about committing racial suicide CAN have legitimate concerns if it's the latter issue. Being culturally encouraged to eliminate certain types of infants more than others can create a push back based on some very real fears: if it looks like primarily minority groups are encouraged to commit infanticide, there is the very real fear of "racial suicide".

Not having to be worried about cultural or racial suicide could be a type of privilege, I guess is what I'm saying.
posted by zinful at 3:55 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The side of the argument that calls itself "pro life" often selects fertilization or implantation of the zygote on the uterus as its threshold. Which is plainly foolish. There are some in this thread who also seem to select birth as its threshold. This is arbitrary, and therefore not defensible (again, what difference does it make to the woman if the subject is removed from her uterus alive or dead at that point?).

Well defensible in terms of what? I think most of us can agree that there is a point at which it's almost definitely okay to end the life of a subject, and that there is a point where it is almost definitely not okay to end the life of the subject, right?

It seems to me that 'birth' is a rather useful place to draw the line, because it's something which is generally objectively determinable. Our other options are basically at conception, which is wildly impractical to enforce, and perhaps at 'viability', which is slippery and constantly shifting ground on which to plant your flag. And then there are various milestones after birth like 'at first breath', which I think start at very uncomfortable for the vast majority of people and rather quickly get to 'repulsive'.

So I think birth is entirely defensible in a purely practical sense, because at some point theory has to be come practice and those kinds of considerations become important.
posted by empath at 4:08 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


birth as a bright line preserves the rights of the mother to own her own body.

That is an illusion: at the cusp of the threshold of birth, the fetus is viable, so if the mother wants to end the pregnancy, what is the difference between a fetus being removed from the mother's body alive or dead? She can retain her rights without terminating the life of the fetus, so why permit abortion at that stage?
posted by chimaera at 4:08 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chimaera, the difficulty is determining whether the fetus is viable, and how you define viability. Are you really going to burden the state or the mother with the costs of raising a baby that is 2 or more months premature, and will possibly be extremely disabled for their entirely lives?

When you're talking about late term abortions, I realize that 8 1/2 months pregnant is a possibility, but how many non-emergency abortions have actually been performed on women who are 8 months pregnant?
posted by empath at 4:12 PM on March 3, 2012


That is an illusion: at the cusp of the threshold of birth, the fetus is viable, so if the mother wants to end the pregnancy, what is the difference between a fetus being removed from the mother's body alive or dead? She can retain her rights without terminating the life of the fetus, so why permit abortion at that stage?

Abortion is safer than birth at every stage of pregnancy. Removing the fetus alive presents a greater danger to the mother than an abortion. So that's one very significant difference.
posted by jedicus at 4:22 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


the difficulty is determining whether the fetus is viable, and how you define viability. Are you really going to burden the state or the mother with the costs of raising a baby that is 2 or more months premature, and will possibly be extremely disabled for their entirely lives?

When you're talking about late term abortions, I realize that 8 1/2 months pregnant is a possibility, but how many non-emergency abortions have actually been performed on women who are 8 months pregnant?


You seem to be making my point for me. Viability, as I mentioned in my original comment, exists as gradations between minimal and full (i.e. normal birth capability). I'm not taking a stance, specifically, on where the line SHOULD be drawn. I'm pointing out that where people DO draw the lines is wrong.

And it's very difficult and complicated to decide how and where to do so. But I do not consider fertilization OR birth to be logically defensible -- fertilizations for reasons that in Mefi seem to be obvious (but you go to your local Baptist church and you'll find me not defending my conclusion that Birth is indefensible for a bright line, but my conclusion that fertilization is indefensible), and birth in the sense that there is valid reason to assert that there is no functional difference in removing the fetus from a mother alive or dead at that point if she wishes to end the pregnancy.

My *entire* comment was to arrive at a very clear conclusion that there needs to be more discussion about what are reasonable intermediate states of moral value and choice (gradations between "at will" and "in extremis"), as a growing fetus is accumulating moral value as it grows toward viability.
posted by chimaera at 4:26 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


at the cusp of the threshold of birth, the fetus is viable,

RTFC. Viability was not the argument. I don't give a rat's ass if the totally nonconscious proto-human is viable. It's not human yet, and the mother is. End of the fucking argument.
posted by localroger at 5:41 PM on March 3, 2012


End of the fucking argument.

Well, I'm glad you sorted that out for us. Your work is done here.
posted by unSane at 5:50 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


RTFC. Viability was not the argument. I don't give a rat's ass if the totally nonconscious proto-human is viable. It's not human yet, and the mother is. End of the fucking argument.

Simply switch sides and you can just say "Life begins at conception. The mother's rights don't trump the baby's. End of the fucking argument."

End of the fucking argument, indeed. No reason to try to reason about anything when the fucking argument is ended. And by such a tour de force of logical prowess. "It's not human yet." So simple. So unambiguous. And so sadly mistaken.
posted by chimaera at 5:51 PM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


empath: "Are you really going to burden the state or the mother with the costs of raising a baby that is 2 or more months premature, and will possibly be extremely disabled for their entirely lives?"

I realize that you are using this to support birth being the practical line in the sand for when it is no longer OK to end a life. However, this is a very interesting comment in the context of this discussion. You are saying that raising such a baby would be a burden, and implying that it is unfair to the state or the mother. How do you distinguish between that situation and one where a baby was born naturally (i.e. not as a result of a c-section or induction) at that level of prematurity?
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:39 PM on March 3, 2012


"Are you really going to burden the state or the mother with the costs of raising a baby that is 2 or more months premature, and will possibly be extremely disabled for their entirely lives?"

Maybe I'm too much the un-American pinko liberal, but I rather like the idea of the state taking care of those who need help and don't have their own support.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:12 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Aquinas originated the Trolley Problem? I haven't read much of him, but I had the impression he was sophisticated enough to realize that almost every real-life situation purported to be a Trolley Problem actually isn't.

The Trolley Problem was introduced by Phillipa Foot to help clarify some of the issues related to abortion in a paper called "The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect." So according to at least one woman (not to mention Judith Jarvis Thompson and a generation of feminists) it's a useful thought experiement for evaluating our moral intuitions without the baggage of the Culture War. Complaining that it is contrived misses the point: it's supposed to be contrived so we can get past the self-righteous recriminations that it is always wrong to take a life.

It's easy to take a stand on some highly public issue like abortion, but it's much harder to develop a thoroughly consistent set of stands in less-often scrutinized areas of life. The fact that professional philosophers don't seem to have consistent moral intuitions on this issue is actually evidence that morality might be not just complicated but actually crazy: it might be impossible to be both internally consistent and avoid biting a bullet in accepting some crazy entailments. One of those crazy entailments might be infanticide, as Singer long ago recognized.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:02 PM on March 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you want to understand the complexities of this issue, volunteer or work for a perinatal/infant hospice for a while. It will give you some better insight.
posted by humanfont at 8:04 PM on March 3, 2012


The Trolley Problem ... it's supposed to be contrived so we can get past the self-righteous recriminations that it is always wrong to take a life.

To me it smacks of the "But what if there was a ticking bomb?!" scenarios used to justify torture. Contrived ethical dilemmas make for bad moral reasoning and are often trying to hide something. Any time an ethicist says, "You must choose A or B. Which would you choose?" you should always ask yourself, "Wait. In real life, aren't there almost always more options than that?"
posted by straight at 8:39 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


In law there's a saying: "Hard cases make bad law".
posted by unSane at 8:50 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Contrived ethical dilemmas are attempts to expose contradictions in systems of ethics. Intuitive moral reasoning, as mentioned above is something that we, as a species developed throughout out evolution. As mentioned above, perhaps consistency is not a reasonable or desirable goal for moral and ethical systems. However, given the principle of explosion ("from a contradiction, anything follows"), inconsistent ethical systems have their own problems.
posted by Freen at 10:05 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


> "Contrived Ethical Scenario Is Such an Unhelpful, Muddled Way of Approaching Ethical Questions that Even Professional Philosophers Don't Answer It Consistently."

An article about real cases of child euthanasia (After-birth abortion / Infanticide).
posted by - at 2:58 AM on March 4, 2012


Simply switch sides and you can just say "Life begins at conception. The mother's rights don't trump the baby's. End of the fucking argument."

Except that the mother can express her will on the matter, and the infant can't. Animals which we eat and subject to factory farming techniques which would clearly be considered torture are far more obviously conscious than humans less than six months old.

Pushing it back to conception is no less ridiculous than Monty Python's "every sperm is sacred" skit. I am really fucking tired of pretending that such posturings aren't motivated by the obvious motives of punishing sex and controlling and punishing women in general.
posted by localroger at 6:04 AM on March 4, 2012


Animals which we eat and subject to factory farming techniques which would clearly be considered torture are far more obviously conscious than humans less than six months old.

If that's your standard then it's presumably okay to murder any human less sentient than a pig.
posted by unSane at 6:58 AM on March 4, 2012


Of course the mother's rights ought to trump that of the child developing in her womb: in the circumstances that warrant it, the mother could choose to sacrifice herself to save her child, but the developing child could not choose to sacrifice itself to save its mother. No one ought to condemn the mother whether she saved her own life or let her child grow up motherless.
posted by wobh at 7:37 AM on March 4, 2012


" I am really fucking tired of pretending that such posturings aren't motivated by the obvious motives of punishing sex and controlling and punishing women in general."

They could actually be motivated from seeing the existance of a helpless being who may be created in the situation as having rights to the love of their own parents, to be cared for, and to be acknolwedged as being created by adults who COULD have made different decisions on behalf of an innocent being.

To say that asking women or men to be accountable to children they create is an act of punishing the parents is to disregard that innocent human beings who have no say in the matter are being thrust into the world.

Really the people who care about human rights are REALLY willing to extend the right to create and abandon children to the state for the sake of adult convenience to have sex without having to deal with consequences?

We are really willing to punish innocent human beings and make THEM pay the consequences of the adults actions because we really want to pretend that adults should be entitled to sex without any responsability to offspring that might result?

We're willing to take it that far? The only reason to question that logic is to "punish women"? The temporary discomfort any woman might feel in relation to me stating that women and men should care about the children they create is nothing compared to a life of growing up in an institution raised by the state.
posted by xarnop at 7:52 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


We're willing to take it that far? The only reason to question that logic is to "punish women"? The temporary discomfort any woman might feel in relation to me stating that women and men should care about the children they create is nothing compared to a life of growing up in an institution raised by the state.

Two people who can't figure out birth control and have such low impulse control that they had promiscuous sex without considering the consequences should not be raising kids. Your momentary condemnation will not turn into responsible parents providing a stable and loving home. If you care about children why would you want to see them tortured like that? Why would you reward the behavior and poor judgement of those parents by letting then have a child?
posted by humanfont at 8:58 AM on March 4, 2012


If you believe that people who have unprotected sex, or birth control failure while not prepared to parent makes them inherently unfit and should have their children removed-- that should be made pretty clear when discussing "pro-sex" ideology. If you have unprotected sex or birth control failure while not prepared to raise children you are thereby unfit and your children should be removed from your care. Let's make the message clear so that people can know they could loose custody of their other children or future children because any unplanned pregnancy proves lack of fitness to raise children. This ideology also pressumes we should bring back maternity homes and forcible infant adoption because any woman in an unplanned pregnancy or without resources is inherently unfit by default of getting pregnant and there for should have the child removed if she refuses an abortion.

Is it only when a woman gets pregnant and feels this way she is seen to be unfit to parent? Why can non-pregnant adults have this ideological base and be pressumed capable of loving and caring for children, but a woman in an actual unplanned pregnancy thinking abotu actually dumping her child on the state is automatically unfit to parent simply because she followed the logic that adults have an intrinsic right to sex with no regard for children affected by it?

And how did children suddenly switch to being a reward from being considered a terrible burden no adult should ever be forced to care for even if they had the sex to create the child? Suppose there was no state to take over the role?

Then are we back to infanticide? Or do adults have some responsability to at least do the best they can by the children they create? What I mean to say is, you suddenly switched to children being a reward and how terrible parents who wouldnt care about their own offspring are--- when the rest of the conversation was actually geared to how terrible it is for parents to be burdened by a child they created. The idea of state care was not thrown out as being in the best interests of the children, but rather in the best interests of the adults who should never have to be inconvenienced or burden themselves for the sake of children they create.

Which is it? I find it interesting that asking women to care offspring they create is considered punishing women, but yet you consider women who create children without preparing to care for them a sign they are unfit to parent. Should they have their tubes tied if they ever thought this way or is it perfectly acceptable to create a child this way, dump them on the state, and then decide it's time to have kept children and make one for keepsies?

How long does the unfit label last? Is it tied to sex without birth control, sex with birth control but without a willingless to love and care for children who might be born on accident? Is she unfit only in the moment of having the sex and later she can be redeemed and fit to parent? Can that transition happen during a pregnancy or does it take years? Or is she always unfit to parent?

There's just some discord between saying that parents should not have to be responsable for their offspring because that is an unfair burden and then saying anyone who actually thinks that way is unfit to parent. Meaning clearly that is not a humane ideology to possess, so why advocate it as a human right? And if we believe it's a human right people should have--- but that using it makes a person unfit to parent-- do we subsequently remove any future child the parent has? How does that work?
posted by xarnop at 9:49 AM on March 4, 2012


What I mean to say is, is every woman who has had sex without being willing to care for children that might result automatically unfit to parent ever?

Seeing as I see this ideology all over the place and many of the same people have the idea they will have children "one day", are all of the people with the ideology they have a right to sex with no obligation to humans that might result actually unfit to ever parent? Or do we think that kind people who could potentially be good parents if they chose to, could have this ideology?
posted by xarnop at 9:55 AM on March 4, 2012


UnSane: If that's your standard then it's presumably okay to murder any human less sentient than a pig.

As I stated upthread, I consider drawing the line at birth to be an acceptably pro-life compromise given the existence of modern technology over the pre-Judaic standard that considered infantacide OK.

Drawing the line before birth is just an excuse to control force women who don't want to to give birth.
posted by localroger at 10:23 AM on March 4, 2012


localroger, this was an interesting thread that hasn't been political so far. If you don't want to talk about the topic, don't talk about it, but stop trying to drag it into the same boring conversation you can have any political thread, any time you feel like.
posted by empath at 10:29 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Really the people who care about human rights are REALLY willing to extend the right to create and abandon children to the state for the sake of adult convenience to have sex without having to deal with consequences?

I think the idea is to completely separate sex from childbirth, to make them two entirely separate functions, which may or may not overlap. It's an accident of evolution that they're connected, and it would be a great advance for human freedom to correct it, imo.
posted by empath at 10:33 AM on March 4, 2012


Ok, so I just had an idea is that it can't be about consciousness and suffering, because how would you distinguish a sleeping man from a fetus, both are fairly like to become conscious in the future, if left alone.

I think what needs to be considered is that human beings are social animals, not isolated beings. A newborn has a tenuous social connection to a very small number if people, a fetus with even fewer, perhaps even one, or perhaps no one at all, if the mother doesn't know about the pregnancy.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but I think comparing newborns to homeless people, or the mentally ill, or maybe even pets might be instructive, especially in terms of how much has been invested in them by society, how valuable they are to others (potentially and currently) how much we're willing to protect them.

I haven't had a chance to think of this thoroughly yet, but it seems like our treatment of sentient or potentially sentient or possibly sentient beings makes no sense if you insist on trying to base it entirely on their inherent properties as an individual rather than as a node in a vast social network.
posted by empath at 11:01 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think you're onto something, empath -- the value of a person (at whatever stage of development) as a node in a social network (or developing patron of a society) could also enter into the moral calculus.

But this can bring up all sorts of regressive possibilities. We have to speak in hypotheticals, and to follow on to the Trolley Scenario discussion, abstracting the circumstances can be indicative of one's moral impulses (though scenarios should never be construed as complete -- they are instructions from the guy at the Gas Station, not a map, and nowhere near the territory), consider that we have the luxury in the modern era (both technologically and demographically) to choose NOT to reproduce. In a scenario where a given nation/culture could die off entirely, there would be a higher value on reproduction for that group. This doesn't necessarily reduce to the situation where women are forced to proceed with an unwanted pregnancy, but there can be all sorts of incentives that a group can undertake to encourage reproduction because an infant may have higher value to a society than it has to its own mother.
posted by chimaera at 11:37 AM on March 4, 2012


Ok, so I just had an idea is that it can't be about consciousness and suffering, because how would you distinguish a sleeping man from a fetus, both are fairly like to become conscious in the future, if left alone.

Not really. Baby isn't going to grow up without some significant adult supervision.

What I mean to say is, is every woman who has had sex without being willing to care for children that might result automatically unfit to parent ever?

How about we let the woman make the decision about her readiness to raise a kid. Sex is about more than procreation. Most of the time having sex doesn't lead to a fertilized embryo, even when conception happens it is often not viable or the woman's body miscarried it for unknown reasons. Even if she would make a perfectly good mother for a healthy infant she may be totally unable to manage a specific child with severe developmental problems such as downes. The world doesn't always present parents with good options.
posted by humanfont at 11:38 AM on March 4, 2012


"What I mean to say is, is every woman who has had sex without being willing to care for children that might result automatically unfit to parent ever?"

America has a really fucking dark history of declaring some parents to be unfit for superfluously bullshit reasons like this.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:44 PM on March 4, 2012


Blasdelb, completely agree. Humanfont made a claim that people who can't manage their birth control are thereby unfit to begin with and I don't think that's the case. I think people can reach within themselves and find love and compassion for their children. If there is something wrong with a person and this ability to do the right thing has been damaged in them, then I don't think it's their fault. But we should all be encouraged to do right by our children even when it's hard. And if we had the sex that created our children, then we are the ones obligated to try our best to find that love and to do whatever we can to be there for our kids--- even if imperfect.
posted by xarnop at 12:49 PM on March 4, 2012


Humanfont made a claim that people who can't manage their birth control are thereby unfit to begin with

I did not make that claim. You should read what I wrote more carefully.

I think people can reach within themselves and find love and compassion for their children.

They can, although often they often they don't and you can't make the parents do it.

And if we had the sex that created our children, then we are the ones obligated to try our best to find that love and to do whatever we can to be there for our kids--- even if imperfect.

Tired platitudes cribbed from country songs won't get the diapers changed.
posted by humanfont at 2:10 PM on March 4, 2012


Tired platitudes cribbed from country songs won't get the diapers changed.

The cynicism is strong in this one.
posted by unSane at 4:04 PM on March 4, 2012


Yes but in the event there were no government or other people willing to do it, I still don't see how making infanticide legal benefits the children. If the parents are willing to do anything to keep the child alive, the child has at least a chance at experiencing good things in life. If the parents want to commit infanticide they can do so and face the legal ramifications, that's always as option. I'm not sure how throwing infanticide into the mix of socially approved actions benefits the children. I think it's thrown in there as an out for the parents. I don't think parents need that out. I know many people from really awful circumstance who are happy to be alive despite the circumstances of their upbringing. I know some who don't feel that way, or who have gone back and forth in being happy to be alive, but the point is, since you can't ask the infant, it's better to encourage the preservation of the life and if they really wish they didn't exist their are options.

I also know parents who had thoughts of being violent to their colicky infant or during bouts of ppd and did not act these thoughts out and turned out to be very dedicated parents after the initial crisis level thinking was resolved.

Im just not seeing how infanticide being legal will actually benefit children--- and of course considering in a developed nation there are certainly other options to relieve the responsability to parent it certainly doesn't make any sense. I absolutely believe in having compassion for the reasons people resort to harmful actions that are currently considered criminal. I don't think the solution is to pretend we can ignore the harm that happens as a result of those actions, or to decriminalize harmful behaviors because we have compassion for the criminals circumstance or behavioral state.

In general many forms of child abuse are criminal. There are understandable reasons why it happens, but that does not make it ok for the children who experience it, nor does decriminalizing child abuse suddenly improve situations for children either. Further more if you're going to say death is preferable to being parented by crappy begrudging parents-- then what makes that end at three days? What if the parents decide they don't want to care for a 3 year old? A five year old? If it's better to be dead than begrudgingly cared for people who aren't that into it... then why should parents ever face criminal charges for "mercy killing" the children they no longer feel like dealing with?
posted by xarnop at 4:15 PM on March 4, 2012


Im just not seeing how infanticide being legal will actually benefit children

I don't think that's the point in question. One does not have to show that it benefits a group in order for something to be morally permissible. And though I personally think it's a bad idea (for reasons I could go into further), I think it a defensible position that infanticide in certain circumstances can benefit both the parents and society at large -- the ramifications of this are clearly odious to many people (including myself) and I think that argument can handily be overwhelmed, but it's still defensible.*

*By defensible, the argument neither requires assumptions or circumstances which cause it to contradict itself, nor is arbitrary (i.e. the positive case for the argument is not unique or definitive).
posted by chimaera at 5:26 PM on March 4, 2012


I still don't see how making infanticide legal benefits the children. If the parents are willing to do anything to keep the child alive, the child has at least a chance at experiencing good things in life

What about when the situation is totally hopeless? For example infants with Tay Sachs or Patau syndrome. The kid is going to be tortured by a series of medical interventions for months to a few years and then die after a lifetime if suffering. Suffering which they will never understand. How is that in the best interests of the kid.
posted by humanfont at 5:40 PM on March 4, 2012


That is certainly warrents a different consideration humanfont. However the article specifically mentions it is arguing the moral permissability of infanticide outside of those disabled infants who are in terrible with a certainty of not recovering. And of course that begs the question of killing disabled adults who are in pain and can not communicate but who are not on life support who have little chance of ever recovering. But it's a different issue than infants who are not in specific pain or carry certainty of never experience a positive moment.
posted by xarnop at 7:56 PM on March 4, 2012


Yes but in the event there were no government or other people willing to do it, I still don't see how making infanticide legal benefits the children. If the parents are willing to do anything to keep the child alive, the child has at least a chance at experiencing good things in life. If the parents want to commit infanticide they can do so and face the legal ramifications, that's always as option. I'm not sure how throwing infanticide into the mix of socially approved actions benefits the children.

I thought the point was that 'what benefits the children' isn't relevant, because a newborn (like a fetus) isn't entitled to the same consideration that a fully conscious human being is.
posted by empath at 7:56 PM on March 4, 2012


It most certainly does not beg the question.

However the article specifically mentions it is arguing the moral permissability of infanticide outside of those disabled infants who are in terrible with a certainty of not recovering.

It sounds like you didn't read the whole paper. They define some narrow cases where it would be permissible to kill a healthy newborn, but the examples are unlikely. They also discuss cases as above where the newborn is profoundly disabled.

I've created the following dilemma based on the article in hopes of driving your understanding of their work.

Suppose healthy twins are born in a remote location to a mother by herself. The mother's milk does not produce as it should, and she only has enough for one child to survive until help arrives. For purposes of the thought experiement the only options are limited to the following and any alternatives you might imagine are disqualified:

A. one newborn starves to death, one kid lives
B. both newborns starve to death
C. kill one newborn immediately and the other lives
D. kill both newborns immediately

First consider how you would go about determining the ethical choice. Then consider how the authors of the paper would suggest we evaluate this options. Contrast and discuss.
posted by humanfont at 8:51 PM on March 4, 2012


For purposes of the thought experiment the only options are limited to the following and any alternatives you might imagine are disqualified:

In other words, assume a spherical cow.
posted by straight at 12:20 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


It sounds like you prefer option B, via the process of denial and begging god for some escape. A very common choice.

The limitation on choice correctly simulates the real world where choices are limited. Occasionally a mother will be placed in a position where she has to sacrifice one child, so the other can live. There are also circumstances in which the choice would be the newborn or the mother. In such circumstances the paper suggests that we give primacy to the impact on the mother. Her health and well being is significantly more important than that of the infants.
posted by humanfont at 12:51 PM on March 5, 2012


The problem with these kinds of thought experiments is that in the real world is very often extremely unclear what the parameters are. The experiment is clearly designed to legitimatize infanticide in certain circumstances. However, in the real world the decision would be far murkier.

How remote IS the location? Why will help take so long to survive? How does the mother know how long it will take? How does she know how long the children will survive on the milk she produces? How does she know how much milk she will produce? Why are the options limited to those you stipulate? Why can't she try to go for help? Why can't she find other ways to feed them?

So, yeah, given your thought-experiment, perhaps in a utilitarian view infanticide would be the best option for a mother marooned on the dark side of the moon with perfect knowledge of when help would arrive and what her present and future lactation will be. But it tells us nothing whatsoever about infanticide in the real world -- for example, if infanticide is permitted in extreme cases, what will be the social consequences for cultures where female infanticide is practised. Your example saves one life, but perhaps more lives would be lost because the practice of infanticide is subsequently seen as less stigmatic.

If you really want to take your thought experiment to the extreme, should the mother be charged with murder if she knowingly fails to kill one child to save the other, and thereby loses both?
posted by unSane at 1:35 PM on March 5, 2012


But it tells us nothing whatsoever about infanticide in the real world

But it tells you about whether people can find infanticide acceptable in any circumstance.
posted by empath at 1:40 PM on March 5, 2012


But it tells you about whether people can find infanticide acceptable in any circumstance.

The question is whether the contrived thought experiment counts as a "circumstance."

These contrived situations usually assume you have some knowledge about the exact limits of your choices and the exact outcomes you would get from each choice that we almost never have in the real world. In this case, for instance, how are we to suppose the mother knows this with sufficient certainty to justify infanticide?

she only has enough for one child to survive until help arrives.
posted by straight at 1:48 PM on March 5, 2012


What really happens with 'thought experiments' is that they are used to shift the Overton window. For example, the ticking bomb scenario/thought experiment is used to peel off the blanket injunction against torture, but then what happens is that torture is used routinely as an interrogation method because, y'know, what if there's a ticking bomb we don't know about? After all, we're trying to save lives here.

I'm curious to know how many people who genuinely believe that infanticide is sometimes justified also think that torture and the death penalty are never justified?
posted by unSane at 2:28 PM on March 5, 2012


I think that torture might be justified in some extremely limited but possible circumstances, but that doesn't mean I think it should be legal or institutionalized. I feel the exact same way about infanticide.
posted by empath at 2:30 PM on March 5, 2012


"What really happens with 'thought experiments' is that they are used to shift the Overton window."

Yes, clearly, that is the real intention behind anyone's posing of thought experiments. You've sussed out the truth. Congratulations, you've saved the world from the secretive manipulations of the cabal of moral philosophers.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:23 PM on March 5, 2012


Sometimes shifting the Overton window is desirable. There was a time when homosexuality was ouside the window as was interracial marriage.

I understand your criticism of the experiement. Perhaps it is better restated with the options:
1. Wait and choose later
2. Kill one child
3. Starve one child to try to save the other
4. Kill both children.

If one chooses option 1 or 3 one also presumes one may attempt to forage, find rescue or otherwise escape the dilemma. For the subject it is not known if these actions will be effective. Probabilities of escape might be defined and randomly checked with each action along with a possibility that one or both infants die. Thus one might wait until one child dies and the do everything to save the other; but there is a chance that will be too late. The experiement ends on escape, or when one of the three infanticide options is chosen. How long does one wait or fail to escape before choosing between 2,3 or 4? Is it better to choose one of those options or continue to wait and try. Even though at some point one's chances of both infants dying becomes increasingly certain.
posted by humanfont at 4:32 PM on March 5, 2012


I'm curious to know how many people who genuinely believe that infanticide is sometimes justified also think that torture and the death penalty are never justified?

I'm not sure these get to the same issue -- torture involves, well, torture, whereas infanticide could be (and often is) handled humanely. Likewise, the death penalty involves issues of protection and punishment which just aren't there with infanticide.

As for the thought experiment: like dragonsi55's link suggests, infanticide happens in situations far more mundane than that. Depression ("Jennings et al's study of depressed mothers with children under age 3 found that 41% had thoughts of harming a child, compared with 7% of mothers in the control group") or poverty ("neonaticidal mothers are often young, unmarried women with unwanted pregnancies who receive no prenatal care") can and does trigger it with surprising frequency -- the murder rate for neonates parallels the suicide rate worldwide, not the homicide rate, and is even much higher than the general murder rate in some countries (up to the end of the first year, by which time the rate matches that of the general population).

I question whether one can "shift the Overton window" on something which already happens with significant frequency. IMHO we should be discussing infanticide (and suicide, and euthanasia, and and and) in terms of real-world harm reduction, not in terms of "gasp, what if we lived in a world where X happened all the time!?"

Because guess what: we do.
posted by vorfeed at 5:12 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


What really happens with 'thought experiments' is that they are used to shift the Overton window.

Roe v Wade was decided two years after Thompson's A Defense of Abortion, so maybe you're on to something about the sinister power of the Trolley Problem.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:50 PM on March 5, 2012


I'm not suggesting that the originators of thought experiments are deliberately attempting to shift the Overton window, or that shifting the Overton window is right or wrong. I'm saying that these thought experiments are frequently seized upon and used rhetorically by interested parties to justify actions which are far beyond the (usually ludicrously narrow) constraints of the original experiment.
posted by unSane at 6:42 PM on March 5, 2012


That's a weird way of talking about a thought experiment, especially since we often disagree about what to do in the trolley case or the various ticking time bomb scenarios. I agree that sometimes people make hasty generalizations on the basis of thought experiments, but I don't think that this is the fault of the experiment. You can get the same hasty generalizations from real life situations: Michael Sandel uses the real life case of the Queen v. Dudley and Stephens to generate the same kind of consequentialist intuitions that we can also generate in Trolley Cases.

Perhaps it's better to think of thought experiments as intuition pumps: as ways of getting people to think about different kinds judgments and distinctions. It's an argument from analogy, but because it's fictional we can alter different features to see which parts seem to be doing the work. If it seems to matter to people whether you just pull a switch or you have to push a fat man off a bridge, we can wonder why it matters, and whether it should.

That has nothing to do with the Overton window, does it? The way people talk about this, sometimes, I feel like I'm being accused of mind control. A nation doesn't suddenly condone torture because of what I say in an Ethics classroom: it's not propaganda, and it's not brainwashing. People condone torture because they're scared of terrorists. They've got a few real life examples to help pump that fear intuition, but we're not learning anything about ethics when we ask people with irrational fears what we should do to keep them safe.

I mean, I hope this is clear, but you can't make people do things with crazy thought experiments. I can tell the Trolley Problem a lot of different ways, like: the only way to stop the trolley and save five lives is for you to eat human flesh, or commit consensual incest, or whatever. That doesn't suddenly create a mania for cannibalism or end the incest taboo or make people say their prayers in backwards Latin.

It's just a story, you know?
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:01 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm curious to know how many people who genuinely believe that infanticide is sometimes justified also think that torture and the death penalty are never justified?

Well, anyone who agrees with the main argument in the paper at hand could well believe these things without any contradiction. One might take the point of view that taking an actual human life (or intentionally inflicting pain on an actual human) is never justified, but that newborns are not yet actual humans.

I am not convinced that the papers' authors convincingly showed that newborns are not yet actual humans, but if one did think this, these views would not be inconsistent with each other.
posted by lollusc at 9:28 PM on March 5, 2012


This is helpful: "What the After-Birth Abortion Article Said" in two parts, one and two.
As far as I can make out, there’s nothing particularly original about the article, Tooley (in particular) made an almost identical case a long time ago. But to say that Tooley’s case is “almost identical” is not to say that it is “identical”. The authors do present the argument in a different way and it’s my goal to figure out the logical structure of their reasoning.

As it turns out, this is not a particularly easy thing to do. While the article is a short easy read (just three pages), I struggled as I read it to figure out exactly where each section fit in to the central argument. I concede that my difficulties may stem from my desire to project my own understanding of what the argument should be onto the article, but I can only speak from my own perspective and from that perspective I do genuinely think the central argument is not as clearly presented as it could be. Thus, I dedicate this first post in the series to an attempt at reconstructing the central argument.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:55 AM on March 6, 2012


A friend of mine was thrown out of his philosophy program for faking the data in a thought experiment.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:10 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're friends with Saul Kripke?
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:40 AM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm curious to know how many people who genuinely believe that infanticide is sometimes justified also think that torture and the death penalty are never justified?


Somewhat late, but I wanted to respond here. The very occasional infanticide, if the infant will suffer severely otherwise, is mercy. It's for the infant's benefit. The entity doing the killing gains nothing.

Torture and the death penalty are never, never for the recipient's benefit. They are abuses perpetrated by those with power to help themselves keep power. In both these specific cases, the techniques are used to try to hold a population subservient through the use of fear. (Torture does not result in actionable intelligence; the ONLY true use of it is to keep a population cowed.)
posted by Malor at 6:16 AM on March 9, 2012


From a utilitarian point of view, surely it makes no difference who the killing benefits?
posted by unSane at 6:21 AM on March 9, 2012


Torture does not result in actionable intelligence;

Can you say for certain that this is always the case? What if it were the case that it sometimes does? Would it matter?
posted by empath at 6:53 AM on March 9, 2012


Can you say for certain that this is always the case? What if it were the case that it sometimes does? Would it matter?

What if torture is about applying reciprocal violence against an enemy instead of merely extracting information? The prohibition against torture only works if one believes that one's allies who will be captured in the struggle are be subject to reciprocal treatment. In the case of Al Qaeda there was no reason to believe that their treatment of captured allies would be within the rules of the Geneva convention. In fact at the time the Taliban and the Al Qaeda members were capturing, torturing and killing our allies rather than holding them prisoner. KSM and his group had demonstrated this most clearly through the capture torture and execution of Daniel Pearle. Under the principles of tit-for-tat is his torture ethically justified within the context of a violent military confrontation?
posted by humanfont at 9:10 AM on March 9, 2012


I think it's fairly easy in theory to come up with ethically justifiable cases of torture. I think it's very hard to go from that to making a case for torture to be legal under any circumstance, though -- considering the difficulty of knowing if it would work, and the implausible 'race against the clock' scenario that has to be in place, and the tremendously awful consequences to society of legalizing it and institutionalizing the practice of it. I think in the exceedingly unlikely event that anyone finds themselves in a Jack Bauer situation, the best they should hope for, should they torture someone, is to throw themselves on the mercy of the court and hope the jury doesn't convict them.
posted by empath at 6:06 PM on March 9, 2012


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