“Post-Birth” Abortion?

September 7, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

There has been a lot of media hype this summer over an article published last February in The Journal of Medical Ethics. http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full  Supposedly, the article makes an argument for “post-birth abortion,” that is, allowing legal infanticide for an unspecified period of time after a child is born, giving the parents a bit of extra time to decide if they really want this child or not. The argument is that this is only taking the justifications for pre-birth abortions one step farther and that all important moral justifications for pre-birth abortions apply equally to post-birth abortions, since no clear moral line of distinction can be made between a fetus about to be born and that same fetus some minutes or hours or days later after birth.

I first heard about this article on an ethics discussion list last winter. Most people thought it was a hoax. But the authors and the journal present it as a serious article, and over the last few months I have been “confronted” with this article numerous times by people claiming it is the “logical extension” of pro-choice thinking. Feeling perhaps a bit goaded, as well as enjoying a bit more free time this summer than I usually have, I finally actually read the article.

The authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, summarize what they see as the central moral arguments supporting abortion, noting that the thread that runs through them all is that they all place the convenience of the adults above the good of the fetus. They then engage in an “if…then…” thought experiment. They say that “if…” arguments for the legitimacy of abortion based on what is convenient for the adults only are morally valid, “then…” there is no moral difference between pre-birth abortion and after-birth infanticide.

They are not (I don’t think) advocating infanticide, but playing the Devil’s Advocate role concerning arguments for the legitimacy of pre-birth abortion set forward by others (that they play the role so well is the source of confusion about their intentions and why one can easily read them as actually advocating legal infanticide.)

Now, if it were true that abortion rights supporters draw solely or even mainly on what is convenient for adults as the basis for their moral reasoning, this article would have a lot of force behind it. In fact, it probably would have been already written by someone else years ago. But that is only very peripheral to the moral reasoning of those who support policies of choice in specific circumstances (it is, in fact, the perspective on abortion advanced by those who want to proscribe it entirely.)

The central pillar of pro-choice moral argument is the woman’s right to bodily integrity, plain and simple. This is why distinguishing between stages of fetal pre- and post-viability is of crucial importance in reasoning toward moral support for policies allowing for abortion in specific circumstances. Pre-viability, we are looking at a circumstance in which assertion of the woman’s right to bodily integrity (autonomy) must be protected above fetal right to existence, because the existence of the fetus is completely dependent on the will of the woman to continue the pregnancy. Post-viability, that is no longer the case, and therefore once viability has been reached, the right of the fetus to existence must be weighed much more equally with the woman’s right of bodily integrity.

Even once viability has been reached, in my view, the decision to continue the pregnancy is still strongly that of the woman herself, but the right of the fetus to existence increases along with the length of the pregnancy. Regardless, there is a crucial moral difference between pre-viability and post-viability. For the most part, we have set viability at about the end of the second term of pregnancy (approx. 6 months.) Increased medical technology is constantly pushing that backward into the 5th month, but there are certainly limits as to how far this can or (morally speaking) even should be pushed.

The authors of this article totally ignore and dismiss viability as a moral watershed in pregnancy termination, which is certainly why 99% of medical ethicists who read the article initially thought it was a hoax of some kind. It turns out it wasn’t a hoax, but it certainly was laughably poor, scholarship–about like someone making an argument about how high humans can jump but neglecting to take gravity into account. While “if…then” thought experiment has a place in academic discourse, no serious ethicist will have learned anything from this article about actual policy.

One thing I hope we have learned from this episode is that with the advent of the internet, articles of this type, on issues related to “culture war” hot buttons, are bound to be hyped and exploited far beyond the intentions of the authors or the journal editors. Much more cautious hesitation about publishing such articles is in order.



  1. Mr. Liechty, what in your opinion is the best moral defense of abortion? I’d love a book or journal article recommendation.

    I’m progressive on most issues, and yet I’ve never been able to completely buy into the pro-choice position. (Which isn’t to say that I’ve been able to completely buy into the pro-life position either.) It’s just such an incredibly complex issue. I feel it’s wrong to tell women what they can’t do with their bodies, but at the same time I feel it’s even more wrong to murder a human being — and it seems clear that at some point (and I can’t say when that point is) the fetus is a human being.

    Again, I’d really appreciate any reading recommendations. Thanks so much.

    • Don, there are a number of good sources on this. I used the “rights-based approach” above, but there are other very cogent approaches. All of them cohere around a similar policy – that in the first trimester of pregnancy abortion should be an available, accessible and safe procedure. In the third trimester, abortion should be undertaken only when the woman’s life and basic health is strongly endangered by continuing the pregnancy. And the second trimester is a gray area probably best left up to the individual states to legislate. I agree with this perspective, and would probably be on the more conservative side (though not a hard-liner) in relation to the second trimester.

  2. With due respect Don don’t even go there. Anti-abortionists expect rape victims to bare the children of their attacker, what more do you need? I have first hand up close and personal experience of the effect of rape on the closest thing you will find to an Angel in this world.

    No-Go Area, surprised that Dan brings this up.

  3. What we can’t think about: Aborted Foetus’s can be the mainspring of a fundamentalists death denial and inauthentic guilt expiation.

    Why we can’t think about it: Because the human reaction is vile.

    Perhaps it would of been better for Dan to title his piece – “pissing in the poinsoned pisspot” at least that would of been factual and honest.

  4. Interesting post. It raises what seems to be a fundamental question: are there circumstances where exercising one’s “right to autonomy” is not done for the sake of “convenience?”

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