We have some splendidly active debates on this Blog. This time I want to propose a topic which is of (literally) vital importance yet hard to solve in a way to which everyone would subscribe.
In February 2012 a paper was published by Giubilini and Minerva. The burden of this paper was that the reasons given to justify an abortion apply in exactly the same way to a newborn infant. The argument turns on the meaning of the word, person; it claims that the infant is not yet a person, but only potentially so. Consequently the infant’s parent, being undoubtedly a person, has superior rights, and so may dispose of the infant. The abstract of the paper is as follows:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
You will not be surprised that the paper caused a considerable stir.
What is a person? It seems not enough just to say that a newly conceived embryo is not a person but that an adult like myself is certainly a person. To have meaning we must stipulate the characteristics which qualify for personhood. And in what way are these essential to the definition? And why is personhood held to be the crucial criterion for human rights?
In considering the meaning of potential person, are we thinking about an entity which might or might not become a person? Or are we claiming that, say, an embryo is precisely structured to develop into a person? Does the latter claim form a basis for human rights such as the right to life?
The Giubilini and Minerva argument is a double edged sword. One edge could lead to infanticide becoming a general norm. The other edge could lead to the claim that, since the argument is logical and since infanticide is clearly wrong, it must follow that the personhood tests which justify abortion must be wrong.
I have no illusions about the difficulties in discussing these issues, and their ethical outcomes. I have thought about such problems for many years without arriving at fully satisfactory conclusions. But perhaps the combined wisdom of Second Sight Bloggers can help me and others to clearer answers.
You do not, I think, need to have read Giubilini and Minerva to discuss these issues. They would still need answering if Giubilini and Minerva had never existed. But those who would like to do so should go to: http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/04/12/medethics-2011-100411/suppl/DC1.
There you will find the paper itself, and evidence of the row it caused.