Friday, March 09, 2012

Post-Birth Abortion

I've put off writing this post for just about a week because I was completely flummoxed by the whole issue. A fellow Atriot threw out this link to an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. I've read the article a dozen times and I see the logic and reasoning, but it still seems wrong from the get-go.

I'll warn you now that it's not easy reading, but it is decipherable. Essentially, the authors posit that if a baby is born with disabling conditions which would have been grounds for abortion had the mother known about them, or, if the mother's condition has changed which if the new condition had existed earlier she would have aborted the child, then the new-born could be "aborted".

Here's some of the argument:

Severe abnormalities of the fetus and risks for the physical and/or psychological health of the woman are often cited as valid reasons for abortion. Sometimes the two reasons are connected, such as when a woman claims that a disabled child would represent a risk to her mental health. However, having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children,[footnote] regardless of the condition of the fetus. This could happen in the case of a woman who loses her partner after she finds out that she is pregnant and therefore feels she will not be able to take care of the possible child by herself.

A serious philosophical problem arises when the same conditions that would have justified abortion become known after birth. In such cases, we need to assess facts in order to decide whether the same arguments that apply to killing a human fetus can also be consistently applied to killing a newborn human. ...

The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.

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. This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal.

What follows these passages is a closely reasoned argument which attempts to define just what a "person" actually is. Based on the argument, the authors conclude the following:

If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.

I was stuck on the whole issue, especially since there really is no way at present to gauge just when consciousness and self-consciousness arises. Further, even though I saw the red-flag when the authors rejected the term "infanticide" in favor of the term "post-birth abortion", I struggled with a way to somehow rebut their arguments completely.

I am still struggling, but I did discern one concept the authors did gloss over, perhaps even ignored: the fact that while in the womb, the fetus affects the physical functioning of the woman who carries it and who must go through the potentially risky procedure of carrying and then delivering the child. In that respect a fetus is not just like a newborn. It is for that reason abortion is not the same as infanticide, no matter what fancy tag replaces the latter. It is also for that reason that I believe the mother has the right to make the decision on aborting the fetus.

That difference, however, does not resolve the issue, especially when the child is born with significant physical abnormalities which will limit the child to an extremely limited existence (days, weeks, months). That issue still needs the kind of examination this article is calling for and which is needed.

I welcome your comments.

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