After birth abortion debate

"It is so beyond our social mores and values that it is beyond the pale and I wouldn't want to dignify it with any further comment.'' ... Chief executive of Down Syndrome NSW, Steve Clarke.

Killing newborns is morally the same as abortion and should be allowed if the mother wishes it, Australian philosophers have argued in an article that has unleashed a firestorm of criticism.

Alberto Giubilini, from Monash University, and Francesca Minerva, from the University of Melbourne, say a foetus and a newborn are equivalent in their lack of a sense of their own life. They say this justifies what they call “after-birth abortion” as long as it’s painless, because the baby won’t be harmed by missing out on a life it can’t conceptualise.

Mothers of children with serious abnormalities should have the chance to end the child’s life after, as well as before, birth. 

About a third of infants with Down syndrome aren’t diagnosed prenatally, Drs Giubilini and Minerva say, and mothers of children with serious abnormalities should have the chance to end the child’s life after, as well as before, birth.

But this should also extend to healthy infants, the pair argue in the Journal of Medical Ethics, part of the British Medical Journal group, because the interests of a mother who is unwilling to care for her baby outweigh the baby’s claims.

The academics call an infant, like a foetus, only a “potential person”, but they don’t define the point at which it gains human status. They say this depends on the baby’s degree of self-awareness, and that the point is a matter for neurologists and psychologists to debate.

Julian Savulescu, the journal’s editor, said the authors had received death threats via the publication’s own website and online discussion forums since posting the article last week.

His goal was “not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument,” wrote Professor Savulescu, from the University of Oxford. He said that if others made a similarly refined case for recriminalising abortion he would also publish that.

“What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited … Proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat.”

Steve Clarke, the chief executive of the advocacy group Down Syndrome NSW, said the paper was “very theoretical”.

''I don’t think it does have any relevance or insight for the real world. It is so beyond our social mores and values that it is beyond the pale and I wouldn’t want to dignify it with any further comment,” he said.

Bernadette Tobin, the director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at St Vincent’s & Mater Health and the Australian Catholic University, said the Melbourne academics should ''speak forthrightly” and use the word infanticide if they wanted to persuade people that killing newborns and terminating pregnancies were equivalent.