The editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics today defended his decision to publish an article in which two ethicists advocated “after-birth abortion.” What was truly surprising about the article, editor Julian Savulescu writes, is not that the authors find infanticide morally permissible — but, rather, that opponents to infanticide would react to the article with vehemence. From Savulescu’s defense:

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. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.

What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.

Savulescu might have a point that some of the responses to the article crossed the line. Of those he quoted, a couple were overtly racist and at least one was an outright death threat to anyone who would willingly perform an “after-birth abortion.” But that he doesn’t see the arguments forwarded by the authors as evidence of “the deep disorder of the modern world” is far more disturbing than comments thoughtlessly dashed off by justifiably outraged opponents of infanticide. The Blaze outlines the article’s original arguments:

The authors go on to state that the moral status of a newborn is equivalent to a fetus in that it cannot be considered a person in the “morally relevant sense.” On this point, the authors write:

“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.


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.”

Giubilini and Minerva believe that being able to understand the value of a different situation, which often depends on mental development, determines personhood. For example, being able to tell the difference between an undesirable situation and a desirable one. They note that fetuses and newborns are “potential persons.” The authors do acknowledge that a mother, who they cite as an example of a true person, can attribute “subjective” moral rights to the fetus or newborn, but they state this is only a projected moral status.

Once upon a time, abortion advocates would accuse pro-lifers of “slippery slope logic” when those pro-lifers suggested it was only a matter of time before someone would use the abortion advocates’ arguments to defend infanticide. According to Savulescu, that began to happen a long time ago — and it continues to happen today. Turns out, it is a slippery slope, after all. If humans don’t have a right to life from the moment of conception, when does the right to life kick in? The moment a human becomes a person? When is that? Who determines when? The standard becomes movable — and, consequently, impossible to uphold.