The Journal of Medical Ethics infanticide debate and “acceptable” free speech

A controversial academic paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics has triggered a torrent of abuse, including threats of violence and death.

Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini, who wrote After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?,  argue that given that those who accept abortion typically do so for reasons that have nothing to do with the foetus’s health (even where the foetus clearly is a potential person), then where abortion is permissible, killing a newborn should be permissible, on grounds of consistency. Not a palatable conclusion for many of us, though it could be read as a Swiftian modest proposal that ultimately attacks the morality of permitting abortion.

But should we be free to discuss killing babies at all? Is that on a par with publishing articles that are pro-pedophilia? Julian Savulescu, the journal’s editor, has defended the decision to publish on the grounds that the goal of the publication is not to present an ultimate truth or a simplistic view based on morals, but rather to present well-reasoned arguments based on widely accepted premises. In this spirit, Savulescu is equally ready to publish coherent responses to the controversial article.

This is a test case for the liberal defence of free speech so eloquently advocated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill believed that dissenting, provocative and challenging voices jolt us out of the complacency of our dead dogmas. Mill writes that “Both teachers and learners go to sleep as soon as there is no enemy in the field”. Unless we have had our fundamental views challenged, we are likely to hold them in a drowsy fashion, scarcely aware of why we believe what we do.

Most of us believe that killing babies is wrong; here’s an argument that suggests that if you think that abortion on non-medical grounds is sometimes acceptable, then you probably ought to believe that infanticide is sometimes acceptable. It’s clear from the context of presentation in an academic journal, too, that this isn’t  an incitement to actual infanticide, but rather a provocative move in an ongoing debate, a plea for consistency. No doubt there will be a flurry of refutations submitted to the journal.

For Mill,  as for many who defend free expression, the limit of free expression is the point where someone incites harm. But the only people directly inciting harm here are those issuing death threats. They seem to have confused a contribution to an academic debate with an invitation to kill. Here context is all and quotation out of context likely to lead to misunderstanding. Yet we can take even this category mistake as a stimulus to clarify what it is we value about freedom of expression in this context and where its limits lie.

Julian Savulescu has taken just this opportunity: “Free speech” he told me, “is not valuable in itself — hate speech, for example, is not something we should seek to protect. Rational argument that seeks to engage others — that is worth protecting.”

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  1. Posted 07Mar12 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    When philosophers such as Singer assert that it is as bad to kill an ape as it is to kill a human infant or retarded human adult, and Regan asserts that animals have rights; it is inevitable that other philosophers will invert the argument and rather than raising the status of animals, will diminish the status of humans.

    Human exceptionalism is the foundation of civilised behaviour and all except philosophers know this.

    Minerva and Giubilini either believe what they wrote in which case they themselves are guilty of hate speech or they do not, in which case they are charlatans.

  2. Posted 07Mar12 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    If the limit of free expression is considered to be the point where someone incites harm, what view should be taken when actual harm is caused by free expression?

    As a young woman who has previously made the most painful decision to agree to a termination based on non-medical grounds, I found this blog to be distressing, emotionally harmful if you will. Thus it could be argued that the publication not only incited harm by encouraging subsequent discussion, but the publication in itself was directly responsible for causing harm.

    I believe it is unavoidable that free expression will cause pain to certain recipients, but perhaps it would have been prudent to address an analogous question, such as
    vegetarians: why eat eggs and not chicks?
    My sceptical side suspects that such a question simply wouldn’t warrant publishing given it lacks controversy. The term “free” expression in this light seems inappropriate.

  3. Posted 08Mar12 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I guess part of this is about line drawing. Because lines are arbitrary some fools, e.g. Minerva and Giubilini, say they are meaningless. But arbitrary is not a synonym for meaningless.

    If I break the speed limit or have sex with an underage girl, I can expect limited sympathy if I claim the speed or age limits are different in other countries.

    Similarly with human life. Does it begin with conception as Catholics assert, or when cells start to differentiate two weeks later, or when a foetus becomes potential viable if born, at about 24 weeks as the law states?

    If it were OK to kill a new born baby what about a one year old infant, or someone who has not started school, or not finished school?

    At the other end of life, why not kill off those who are no longer productive, instead of paying pensions?

    There seems to be nothing that philosophers have to say on any of these subjects that is specially worthy of attention. It is just that lowest form of journalism, the opinion column.

    And, while I guess I should make clear that I do not advocate killing philosophers, those who assert (even hypothetically) that it might be OK to kill some defenceless humans, should not be surprised if the argument is turned against them.

  4. Posted 08Mar12 at 9:41 am | Permalink
    Michael James

    In reply to Mike’s claim (in the first comment above) that ‘Human exceptionalism is the foundation of civilised behaviour’, it is extremely doubtful whether it is consistently the foundation of civilised behaviour towards all people (because if humans are claimed to be exceptional, some can be claimed to be more exceptional than others, which has resulted in extremely uncivilised behaviour towards slaves, women, poor people, other races, other classes, people of other religions or beliefs, and anyone else who is ‘other’), and it is certainly not the foundation of civilised behaviour towards animals, at least some of whom are no less feeling creatures than we are.

    As Jeremy Bentham wrote, ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ (which he wrote in the context of comparing human behaviour towards slaves with human behaviour towards animals, as can be seen from the full passage quoted in

    It is true, as Mike observes, that arguments intended to raise the status of the ‘other’ (whether other groups of people or other animals) are inevitably inverted by some people, but even when they are inverted it is never to diminish the status of ‘self’ (that is, whoever is doing the inverting) but only to diminish the status of some ‘other’.

    So long as our ethics justify treating any ‘other’ in any way in which we would not want ‘self’ to treated — in other words, so long as they justify any form of exceptionalism — they will not truly be ‘the foundation of civilised behaviour’.

  5. Posted 08Mar12 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I seem to recall Bentham said words to the effect that playing pushpin (shove halfpenny?) is as good a way of spending your time as any other. I think that aims too low.

    My notion (I will not call it philosophy) is that all humans are ‘us’, and all non humans are ‘other’. Even if you spend your time growing vegetables, you (yes you) will be prepared to see the rabbits starve rather than eat your crop.

  6. Posted 09Mar12 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    1) I am not sure I have seen any evidence that a civilised society exists

    2) I would rather share my produce than see rabbits starve (I am a veggie)

    3) I hold the view that there are animals superior to humans…. as ‘clever’ as we are, I have seen no evidence of other animals destroying their own habitat or indeed any one else’s to a point of irreversibility.
    We live in a society that has evolved predominantly around money, a most unnatural phenomenon used exclusively within human societies. It causes stress, greed and envy, it fuels and pays for many a crime and it takes lives. We will kill our own species and indeed other species in an attempt to get wealth and unfortunately it was partly a lack of wealth that fuelled my decision to have a termination. Of course it could be argued that other animals will kill for the possession of territory and food, but I have never heard of other animals intending to take their own lives due to a debt of resources.
    It is not my intention to dispel all human adaptations, but I think to be in with a chance of winning the ‘world’s best species award’, the positives have to outweigh the negatives to a greater degree for our species then they do for any other and from my vantage this simply is not the case.

    4) Finally, as much as I am enjoying the debate, I fear that we have strayed somewhat ‘off topic’ from the original thread concerning free speech.

  7. Posted 09Mar12 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if we have all gone insensitive to the questions we are asking? Or are we out to plunder our humanity? Is it right to ask should a baby be killed? Of course it is unwise to ask that question for some idiot might try to do so and some other idiot would be put in prison. What is the point of living in the 21century when there is nothing but crap? There is crap on tv and crap on the internet and crap everywhere as if suddenly society is no longer able to understand what is right and wrong. When we speak of humanity when we speak of the animal when we speak of children are we childish? Do we assume to have grown up? Is it wise not to understand that some things are better not said that they might be unwise and vicious and serve no purpose other than to flame up arguments that are pointless? What manner of a fool would do that to a child in a free society? I know society is not free that we are all in a class of capitalism dying of boredom and lack of means because we are bored. Is it a justification to kill when we are bored? So to close what is right and what is wrong? And has the academics no right and wrong that is why they are killing time with this question? Free expression and freedom to commit murder are two very different things or is it not obvious?

  8. Posted 12Mar12 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    As a woman who chose abortion on non-medical grounds, I find this all very interesting. Not especially distressing or offensive…after all, nobody is telling me what I should do with my body and my child (which is the problem I have with the pro-life argument).
    I’m all for free speech on this, although I don’t agree with the case made. My view is that until a child could survive naturally outside the womb, it cannot be considered ‘alive’. It is, therefore, not a matter of killing a foetus (and killing, in fact, is a very value laden term, given my previous statement), but of deciding not to support it. Since a newborn is a distinctly separate entity to the mother, and does not require the mother’s support to live, killing would be unacceptable. That is, it takes an active intervention to end an infant’s life, but only a passive withdrawal of resources to end a foetus’s.
    I’m all in favour of people being able to express any view they have, so long as they do not attempt to infringe my freedoms in the process. Debate such as this makes people look at a topic in a new light, makes them consider their assumptions. I think these people should be applauded for standing up to the modern day P.C. nonsense that currently stifles debate in this country.

  9. Posted 12Mar12 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
    Emer Mullen

    I think it’s important to remember the human aspect to this problem. An unplanned pregnancy can be a very serious issue for a woman if she’s not in a position to bring the pregnancy to term. It may be misleading to equate abortion with other forms of ending life given how fully involved a woman has to be in a pregnancy and susequently looking after the child. I think the question of whether a child after birth should be treated in the same way as a foetus is probably a bit of a red herring. Maybe we should settle how we feel about abotion itself before we go down that route.

  10. Posted 12Mar12 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Having re-read and re-interpreted the paper, it would appear that the authors trying to draw attention to what they believe are inadequate grounds for pre- birth abortion.

    The paper explores post birth abortions, post-birth abortions means that the mother would have been physically capable of carrying the child full term, so the only legal reason for opting for a post-birth abortion would be based on mental health grounds, grounds that the authors do not consider to be ‘medical.’ Using post-birth abortions illustratively, they show that actually disabled children tend to live happy lives, this certainly seems to be true for children who have down- syndrome; yet potential parents can choose to abort a chid because of this disability, abortion in this case would therefore be for the benefit of the mother’s ‘mental health’ and not for child.

    Although I cannot dispute that the laws and practices surrounding abortion seem too lax, my concern is this paper seems to be indiscriminative in its condemnation of abortions that are carried out for non-physical reasons. Given the influence academic papers have on legislation; it seems dangerous to undermine mental-health and mental health illness, particularly in light of existing prejudices and social vulnerabilities. For this reason I feel this paper represents ‘unacceptable’ free speech. After all an academic would probably not be permitted to write a paper defending, contributing or indeed inciting anti-Semitic views would they?

  11. Posted 13Mar12 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m one of those Catholics who believes life begins at conception and every human life is of infinite value.
    I actually think it’s free speech that’s the red herring in this case and not the issue of abortion or infanticide.
    Let’s face it, abortion is a subject that’s much more personal and close to the bone for many people than free speech in general, so our views and beliefs are personal, heartfelt and sometimes invoke pain, but the paper does postulate a serious question that should be considered rather than burying our heads in the sand and dismissing it under the pretence of unacceptable free speech.
    In relation to this subject there are three points I’d like to make.

    1. The surgical killing of a foetus is not a passive withdrawal of resources as suggested in one of the posts. The procedures I’m aware of are shocking and violent. Rather than describe them I will just list them;
    Suction Abortion, Dilation and Curettage, Dilation and Evacuation, Saline, D&X, Prostaglandin, and intercardiac injection abortion.

    2. A newborn cannot fend for itself and without care, will die. For this reason the passive withdrawal of resources idea doesn’t work. If a person with responsibility for a newborn simply withdrew their care with the rationalisation “I’m not actively killing the child, just not caring for it”, they would be guilty through neglect.

    3. My third point is more a philosophical question. Since science doesn’t tell us exactly when the human life begins, (conception?, 8 weeks?, end of first trimester?) there is a risk that terminating a foetus means killing a human. It could be human, we don’t know.
    Is it not glaringly evident that if something could be a human, it should be enshrined in law “You must not kill this, because it could be human”. Instead we have, “This might not be human, so it’s ok to kill”.

  12. Posted 14Mar12 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Rich,

    Not being of Catholic denomination, I am intrigued to know what your view point and indeed the church’s view point is when pregnancy poses a real risk to the mother’s life.

    I have to say I agree with you that abortion is not a passive withdrawal of resources. You would quite rightly be imprisoned for starving a child to death once born.

    As for your third point, well, my perspective is that I was responsible for killing my baby – therefore my decision was not made lightly.

    So, should the law be changed? well abortions used to be illegal in the UK, and when they were, many women died as a result of having back street abortions and I dare say this would be the case if it was banned again. Indeed the doctor who performed by termination was a practising Catholic. He prayed daily for forgiveness, but he had started practicing in a country where abortion was illegal. He witnessed many women dying as a result of backstreet abortions and he too believed that every life was of infinite value, including the would have been mothers, therefore he chose to risk imprisonment in attempts to keep women safe.

    It therefore seems that to make abortion illegal, the mother’s life is devalued compartively to that of her developing baby’s.

    I personally feel ealy abortions should be permitted if the baby cannot feel pain and the mother’s health is compromised.
    later abortions should only be carried out when the mother’s health is at serious risk.

  13. Posted 16Mar12 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Hi Gill,
    I don’t really want to turn the forum into a faith discussion as I expect people wont want this.
    I’m also conscious that as a male, I will never fully grasp the complexity and mystery of femininity, so I acknowledge that on this topic I’m a little outside my comfort zone, but as you have made the most contributions its only right that I reply to your last post.

    When there is a risk to the mother’s life, most religions, including the CC, recognise the principle of the double effect, which means any treatment done to save a woman’s life that also results in the death of the unborn baby is not a true abortion, since the primary purpose of the treatment was to save a life, not to take one.
    The most common examples of this would be the removal of the fallopian tube (salingectomy), certain cancer treatments, and hysterectomy of the uterus. In such cases, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the action is not considered an abortion as the result is an indirect effect, as distinct from a direct abortion.

    Personally, I have suspicions about other circumstances in general where the woman’s life is deemed to be in danger. My suspicions are based on the fact that abortion is a huge revenue industry,introduced to various countries throughout the world by means of the two step approach, step 1, hard cases, step 2, women’s health, but women’s health basically means abortion on demand.
    Abortionists grossly overstated the alleged dangers of pregnancy/childbirth by defining a threat to the life of the mother in the same terms as a threat to her health.

    “I feel there is a medical indication to abort a pregnanvy where it is not wanted. In good faith, I would recommend on a medical basis, you understand that it would be 100%” (Transcript, 3 August 1977. at 99-101, McRae v. Califano, 491 F.Supp. 630 E.D.N.Y 1980). Abortionist Jane Hodgson said this ubder oath.
    She also said “A medically necessary abortion is any abortion a woman asks for.”

    Yet, Alan Guttmachar of Planned Parenthood, who actively worked to promote abortion, stated in 1967, before the two step steategy was finalised; “Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal disease such as cancer or leukemia, and if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save a life.”
    (Alan Guttmacher. “Abortion Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” The Case for Legalized Abortions Now. Berkeley: Diablo Books, 1967)

    And in 1990, former abortionist Bernard Nathanson; “The situation where the mother’s life is at stake were she to continue a pregnancy is no longer a clinical reality. Given the state of modern medicine, we can now manage any pregnant woman with any medical affliction successfully, to the natural conclusion of the pregnancy.”

    In terms of women’s deaths from illegal abortions, yes they did, and still do occur, but again, the abortion industry greatly overstated the figures to justify abortion.

    Pro-abortion groups commonly claim that anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 women died in US from illegal abortions before it was legalised. Dr Bernard Nathanson, the former operator of one of the largest abortion clinics in the world was one of the originators of the “5,000 to 10,000 deaths” figure. He later said; ” was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year”. I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think about it. But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the anti-abortion laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.” (Bernard Nathanson, M.D. Aborting America, Doubleday, 1979, p.73)

    And pro-abortionist author Marian Faux in her book Roe v. Wade; “An image of tens of thousands of women being maimed or killed each year by illegal abortion was so persuasive a piece of propoganda that the pro-choice movement could be forgiven its failure to double-check that facts.”

    So in terms of the question of whether the law should be changed – I think so.

    Lastly, I noticed in your first post that you mentioned this subject could be distressing. If I have, even in the tiniest measure, been the cause of any hurt or offence by my words I am very very sorry. Again, as I said I am out of my conform zone because I’m making factual statements that for me, require little emotional investment because I haven’t been through what you’ve been through – it’s been on my mind today that anything I say should be respectful to your life and experiences, while honestly expressing my own views.

  14. Posted 16Mar12 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    What an intriguing and interesting debate. It is only when you are alive can you truly appreciate to what extent such a debate stimulates and increases my knowledge of human behaviour and attitudes.

  15. Posted 16May12 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    If I might just weigh in, I agree that just about anything (but not everything) should be able to be said and I am all for the exchange of ideas, opinions and viewpoints. But I also agree with one of the above posts that the issue here is not free speech, but when a human becomes a person. This is the “slippery slope” that has so often been described by the pro-life movement. If a human baby can be destroyed and removed from within its mother’s womb, why can it not be killed after it has already emerged? In the views of many in the pro-choice camp, a baby inutero is not a person, therefore not entitled to any kind of rights. The simple fact of where the baby is in relation to its mother’s womb does not affect its “right” to rights…in the view of some. I disagree and believe firmly that a human is a person from the moment that person is conceived. He or she is intrinsically valuable because he or she is a human and his or her value is not based on location or brain function.

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