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Yes, We Are Serious': 'Ethicists' Defend 'After-Birth Abortion' Argument in Raucous Radio Interview


"...interest of academic freedom of debate."

The two ethicists who made an argument for allowing "after-birth abortions" -- the killing newborns who were not considered people by the authors' definition of personhood -- in a peer-reviewed academic article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics have received threats for their logic and thus have felt called upon to defend their position.

(Related: 'Journal of Medical Ethics' stands by publication of 'after-birth abortions' article)

One of the authors of "After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?", Francesca Minerva with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, joined radio host Simon Conway for WHO 1040 out of Des Moines, Iowa, to clarify the argument made in the journal article.

Conway launches into the the interview first asking Minerva "Are you serious?" To which she responded "Yes, we are serious." Minerva then goes on to answer Conway's questions for clarification about if what she and co-author Alberto Giubilini with Monash University in Melbourne are in fact making a case in their piece for killing a baby after it has been born. Minerva confirms this and gives explanation as to why.

"For the same reasons of why you can have an abortion during a pregnancy," Minerva said. "People have different reasons, right?"

Listen to the interview:

She notes that after-birth abortions should be permitted if parents decide that they want to prevent their child from having a difficult or painful life. One of the reasons many people abort fetuses, she notes, is due to diseases or other deformities. But, some of these disorders are not detected while the child is in the womb. In cases such as this, Minerva and Giubilini argue in their paper, termination of the newborn should be allowed. This sentiment should also apply then to healthy newborns, she says, because some people abort perfectly health fetuses for a variety of personal reasons as well.

The crux of the argument is Minerva and Guibilini's definition of personhood and when that begins. For some, like Conway, personhood begins when the fetus is in the womb. Minerva and Guibilini, who later joins the call, base their argument on a different definition of personhood, which they note and the editor of the journal pointed out in a blog post, is not new to the academic world. Here's how they define a person in the article:

Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. 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.

Minerva and Guibilini understand that others may hold a different definition of personhood and when this begins, but emphasize that for their argument, this is the definition that stands. The two also state that they are not advocating in this paper that the practice become law, but as ethicists it is their job to "put forward moral arguments." Minerva stated on the radio show that "We didn't write a proposal to suggest this should be legal."

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the function of an ethicist, such as a medical ethicist, is in part to "[study] ethical standards in medicine" and to potentially provide a "method, procedure, or perspective for deciding how to act and for analyzing complex problems and issues."

Minerva also spoke about the fact that this was published in an academic journal with technical language for discussion in academia. It is this technical language, such as the importance of recognizing the definition of personhood they take on and the flow of logic they follow from there to reach their conclusions.

"This debate has been going on in academia for many years," Minerva said. "This is technical language. The meaning of personhood is being discussed in academia."

Minerva says because of this debate and understanding of technical language in the academic world "academics are not shocked by this." Kenneth Boyd, a Revd Professor Emeritus of Medical Ethics and Associate Editor of JME, understands this view point as an academic himself who helped review the piece for publication. He explains this position further in a blog post:

I know that arguing strongly for a position with which many people will disagree and some even find offensive, is something that philosophers are often willing, and may even feel they have a duty, to do, in order that their arguments may be tested in the crucible of debate with other philosophers who are equally willing to argue strongly against them.

Of course for that debate to take place in the Journal of Medical Ethics, many of whose readers, doctors and health care workers as well as philosophers, may well disagree, perhaps strongly, with the paper’s  arguments, we needed first to make sure that the paper, like any other submitted to the Journal, was of sufficient academic quality for us to publish; and the normal way in which we determine this is to invite academics in relevant disciplines to review the paper critically for us, so that we can eventually make an informed decision about whether or not to publish it, either in its original or (as in this case) a form revised in the light of the reviewers’ reports.

Satisfied by the reviewers’ reports and my further editorial review that the paper was of sufficient academic quality to be published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and being charged with making the decision as an Editor with no conflict of interest in the matter, since unlike my fellow-editors in the relatively small world of international academic medical ethics I have never met the authors, and indeed personally do not agree with the conclusions of their paper, I decided that it was appropriate to publish it in the interest of academic freedom of debate.

The authors of the paper state that the have received threats, including ones to their physical well-being for the argument they put forward.

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