Outrage over newborn abortion claim

JULIE ROBOTHAM
Last updated 07:40 02/03/2012

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Killing newborns is morally the same as abortion and should be permissible if the mother wishes it, Australian philosophers have argued in an article that has unleashed a firestorm of criticism and forced the British Medical Journal to defend its publication.

Alberto Giubilini, from Monash University, and Francesca Minerva, from the University of Melbourne, say a foetus and a newborn are equivalent in their lack of a sense of their own life and aspiration. They contend this justifies what they call "after-birth abortion" as long as it is painless, because the baby is not harmed by missing out on a life it cannot conceptualise.

About a third of infants with Down syndrome are not diagnosed prenatally, Drs Giubilini and Minerva say, and mothers of children with serious abnormalities should have the chance to end the child's life after, as well as before, birth.

But this should also extend to healthy infants, the pair argue in the BMJ group's Journal of Medical Ethics, because the interests of a mother who is unwilling to care for it outweigh a baby's claims.

The academics call an infant, like a foetus, only a "potential person", but they do not define the point at which it gains human status, saying this depends on the baby's degree of self-awareness and is a matter for neurologists and psychologists.

Julian Savulescu, the journal's editor, said the authors had received death threats since posting the article last week, via the publication's own website and online discussion forums.

His goal was "not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument," wrote Professor Savulescu, from the University of Oxford. If others made a similarly refined case for recriminalising abortion he would also publish that.

"What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited ... Proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat."

Steve Clarke, the chief executive of the advocacy group Down Syndrome NSW, said the paper was "very theoretical".

"I don't think it does have any relevance or insight for the real world. It is so beyond our social mores and values that it is beyond the pale and I wouldn't want to dignify it with any further comment," he said.

Bernadette Tobin, the director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at St Vincent's & Mater Health and the Australian Catholic University, said the Melbourne academics should "speak forthrightly" and use the word infanticide if they wanted to persuade people that killing newborns and terminating pregnancies were equivalent.

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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