Killing Infants: The Right to Argue

In defence of Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva and the Journal of Medical Ethics, as per the recent publication about killing newborn infants.

This essentially is an open letter of solidarity with Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, authors of a new article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (JME). Titled ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’, Giubilini and Minerva argue that the same reasons we allow people to abort foetuses can be applied to newborn infants (that is, not looking at the well-being of the infant but the priorities of the parents, as we allow in cases of abortion). I will be covering the article in more detail next week, but for now, this is merely an open letter in defence of free speech, argumentation and the necessity of following one’s argument and evidence, despite outrage. Indeed, this is yet another case-study of outrage overshadowing evidence for many people (as Julian Savulescu highlights).

It seems lately that writing is no longer about “speaking truth to power”, but having the power to speak at all. Tweeting gets one a possible death sentence; proposing possible methods to lower child crime immediately results being labelled the thing one opposes; disgust overshadows implementing more ethical methods to lower suffering for nonhuman animals.

What we see here is a consistent denial of not merely evidence, but even the ability to propose possible alternate ways of solving current problems. In their recent paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva propose that we treat newborn infants the same way we treat foetuses. That is, we should be allowed to kill newborns for the same reasons we abort. This means disregarding the physiological condition of the entity – whether foetus or newborn – since, when women make decisions to abort, the health of the foetus is not often the crucial factor. Couples and individual women who live in dire poverty, or have other reasons for thinking they cannot look after a child, have abortions, regardless of whether the foetus would otherwise have been normal.

For Giubilini and Minerva this means treating newborns in the same way, since, for them, they see no relevant difference between foetuses and newborns. Thus, we should be able to kill the newborns, just as we do foetuses.

I don’t want to get into the specifics at this time, since I will be looking at this more in depth later. However, what I do want to defend is Giubilini and Minerva’s ability, right and, I think, duty to investigate, propose and put forward such arguments. Whether one agrees with their paper or not, no one can justifiably say they ought not to write such papers, think such thoughts, or persuade others to their views.

Giubilini and Minerva are clearly not proposing mindless slaughter of children in hospitals, nor are they proposing this as a solution for all parents. Such outrage was and is aimed at abortionists, but we know these claims lack evidence. A women’s right to have an abortion without unnecessary restrictions from government has been one of the most important progresses in equal rights and equal standing of the better sex in recent history. It has saved lives by preventing lives; it has prevented suffering and continues to aid many women. Even if one disagrees with abortions, one can at least admit the hysteria surrounding abortion (slippery slopes, cruel doctors, etc.) to be unfounded.

The importance of testing ideas

Giubilini and Minerva are testing ethical ideas by proposing ideas everyone accepts or at least tolerates – the legalisation of abortion – and reaching conclusions based upon these accepted/tolerated ideas – if we could show that newborns are essentially no different to foetuses, why aren’t we also allowed to kill newborns?

The backlash has been unsurprising but still a terrifying display of mass outrage. The Internet of course is not merely a double-edged sword, but one dipped in poison. It’s not surprising that people made racist, slanderous, threatening remarks toward both these scholars.

However, people who make such remarks are contributing to the very kind of mind-set we should all be fighting against: one which dictates what may and may not be thought, what may and may not be expressed, based purely on a set of arbitrary feelings that place comfort above reality. By expressing their outrage – as if anyone should really care how they feel, as opposed to how well they justify their views – people calling for Giubilini and Minerva’s death, demanding they shut up, they crawl away, sling a noose of conformity around the branch of mob morality, are becoming the entity rational thinking must oppose: knowledge maintained without good justification but with efficient weapons to stifle opposition. One is reminded of Bertrand Russell’s idea that the world would be a better place “if [people] would learn to pursue their own happiness rather than the misery of others.”

Why would we not want these ideas debated openly, using reason as justification? If they are bad ideas, we can reply to them using the same methodology. Indeed, that is what the editors of the JME (some of whom even disagree with Giubilini and Minerva’s arguments) are asking for. Where else would we want these ideas to be? Away from our knowledge? Locked up behind bars of bureaucracy or curtains of paternalism? This is not a call to be fond of the idea or even like it. But disgust is not an important factor, nor a sufficient one. What matters is using reasoned argument, evidence and counter-argument. This is how we persuade and the best kind of persuasion: one doesn’t persuade because one yells the loudest. Volume doesn’t determine truth; only a madman thinks that by raising his voice he can alter the shape of the earth or the laws of gravity. Reality doesn’t care about what you feel.

We have here the deception of the gunmen who believes he has total control of hostages because of the gun, whereas he merely has conformity and submission. The weapons here are outrage and threats. Those who want Giubilini and Minerva silenced or beaten or hurt are no better than any other bully or thug, unable to put aside their personal feelings and personal outrage, on matters that offend them.

Thus, against this tide of outrage, thuggish behaviour, bullying and threats, I want to express my support and defence of Giubilini and Minerva for being able to write, publish and think what they want. I hope others also express their solidarity, even if they disagree with Giubilini and Minerva's arguments. What matters now is being able to just speak. That this is being attacked as opposed to the arguments is worrying if we wish to continually be an informed citizenship.

If we are silencing each other, how will we know whether or if we've silenced the best explanation or solution to a problem? Who is willing to sacrifice reality to outrage merely for the sake of complacency? I certainly am not, nor should you be. If we care about engaging best in the world, we have to see it for what it is and not what we wish it to be.

Read Nigel Warburon's excellent piece at Index on Censorship blog, too.

Part of my Killing Ethically series. For part one, click here.

Image Credit: "Angry mob" by Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr