After-birth abortion & moral consistency

It was recently reported in the Guardian that some abortion clinics have been offering sex-selection terminations. This led to outrage from pro-life and pro-choice groups and drew criticism from the Health Secretary who condemned the actions as illegal and ‘morally wrong’. At the time, I argued that the moral outrage of the Health Secretary and pro-choice groups seemed odd and misplaced. For my thoughts see ‘Clinics grants sex-selection abortions‘.


Since then two academics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, have published a paper titled ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’. They argue we should now accept the killing of newborn infants for any of the same reasons we currently accept as justifying abortion. They aver that newborn infants are not real people because an “actual person” is one capable of having plans and aims. Just like a foetus, a newborn child is incapable of making plans and aims thus it is only a “potential person”. Therefore, though pain can harm the newborn, death cannot.


It is hardly surprising, given the heat generated by the existence of sex-selection abortions, that this paper has also been roundly condemned. However, as with sex-selection abortions, the condemnation of this paper seems somewhat morally inconsistent. Andrew Brown at the Guardian, argues:

The equation of abortion with infanticide is central to the rhetoric of many anti-abortionists. It is something that most pro-choicers emphatically reject. For them, the moral justification of abortion lies in the fact that an embryo is not a human being, whereas a newborn baby is. The moral status of a foetus changes over time in the womb, and while there will always be arguments about when the change should be recognised, there is wide agreement that a time limit on abortion is morally significant.

It certainly seems to follow from Giubilini and Minerva’s reasoning that there is nothing wrong with sex-selective infanticide. There’s no doubt that having a child of the wrong sex can be frightfully inconvenient for its parents. So if it’s all right to abort a girl for her chromosomes, why not kill the newborns as well?

The truth of the matter, however, is that Giubilini and Minerva are at least being morally consistent, even if morally repugnant. If it is acceptable to terminate a foetus; it must also be acceptable to kill newborn children. As Brown states:

Some modern utilitarian philosophers have argued that there is no huge moral difference between a baby about to be born, at the top of the birth canal, and the same baby when it has emerged into the world. I first heard this from John Harris, at Manchester University. But the conclusion he drew was not that we ought to kill newborns.

But how can we argue anything else if ‘moral status’ is the basis upon which we justify terminations? Indeed, we recognise in law that the age of criminal responsibility is 10 (and we are considered to be harsh compared to most countries in Europe). Therefore, given that we acknowledge children under 10 cannot be legally responsible for their actions, Giubilini and Minerva could indeed extend their theory to cover all minors (certainly those under 10 at any rate).


For the Christian, the answer is clear. The moral case against termination is not based upon an ability to make plans and aims. The case for the Christian lies predominantly in the sixth commandment (Exo 20:13) for which there is no age defining cut off. Indeed, by right of being made in the image of God, all human beings are to be protected and we know that children are ‘a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward (Psa 127:3)’.


Nevertheless, for a society that rejects this Christian view, how can they consistently denounce Giubilini and Minerva?

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