Swift justice for newborns who might be a 'burden on society'


THE OTHER day on the Guardianwebsite, I came across a reference to a paper in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. After reading the paper, I immediately re-read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal,or to give it its full title, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.

Why? Because it is not possible that the paper could be anything except a brilliant homage to satire in the style of Swift and the Roman Juvenal. Both wrote in a sarcastic, abrasive style designed to stir desire for reform of social evils.

Swift famously proposed that the dire conditions of the starving Irish could be alleviated by getting them to sell their well-fattened one-year-old children to the meat market. This would accomplish several important social aims, such as providing an income to impoverished parents, allowing the well-off to demonstrate their gastronomic expertise and greatly improving the economic situation of Ireland as a whole.

The title of the JMEpaper is After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?The resemblance to Swift should be immediately obvious by the use of a ludicrous term like “after-birth abortion”.

Straight-faced, the authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, say this is why they prefer the term to infanticide: “In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a foetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be.

“Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the wellbeing of the family is at risk.”

How brilliant this is, to deliberately appear to be endorsing the killing of newborn babies! But it gets better.

Having bewailed the fact that only 64 per cent of babies with Down syndrome are detected by ultrasound, and mothers therefore unwittingly give birth to them, they then concede such children are often reported to be happy.

It rouses them to further heights. “Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a foetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”

What a nod to the master this paragraph is, just leaving out the word “poor” from the full title of Swift’s Modest Proposal.

But they surpass themselves by the criteria they choose to justify “after-birth abortion”.

“If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons , she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives.”

Fantastic. The reader is obviously intended to realise how wonderfully arbitrary this criterion is, because clearly, no one’s aims are anything other than a projection of their minds on a potential life.

Not to mention the fact that it excludes as “actual persons” most babies up until at least a year old, because crying for a feed or attempting to walk can surely be defined as instinctive behaviours, not aims. It also rules out those suffering from dementia, from severe mental illness, people in comas – you could go on and on.

The piece de resistance is that adoption is not a viable alternative to “after-birth abortion” because it does not provide closure to the mother.

Ethicists such as Peter Singer have long said there is no moral difference between newborns and foetuses. It is no great leap for the authors to say “after-birth abortion” should be permitted if newborns will “damage” their families. After all, we allow people to kill before birth on those grounds. Why not after?

It is a masterpiece. The only logical conclusion to draw from it is that if you have any moral objections to killing infants in the first few weeks of life, you couldn’t possibly believe abortion is morally justified.

How prescient it is, too, given that the paper must surely have been submitted for publication before it emerged that some British clinics are illegally allowing abortion on the grounds of gender.

If you can satirise abortion on the grounds that it is exactly the same in moral terms as killing a newborn, it is surely worthy of satire to object to abortion on the grounds of gender, while being perfectly willing to provide it for any other criterion a woman might nominate.

Can you believe it? Some silly people thought Giubilini and Minerva were being serious, rather than just penning the best anti-abortion argument ever written. Isn’t that funny?