A blaze of controversy revisited

Michael Cook
4 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

In late February last year, two Italian academics working at Monash University in Australia flicked a match into a highly combustible pile of old abortion debates, caricatures of pointy-headed academics, news-hungry journalists and recycled protest posters about Peter Singer.


Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva's article in the UK-based Journal of Medical Ethics was "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" It wasn't a very original argument for the morality of infanticide - Peter Singer and Michael Tooley had made the same point decades ago - but the arresting title tossed even more petrol on the blaze. The authors contended that the same reasons which justify abortion are also sufficient to justify killing a child up for an unspecified time after birth.

"If criteria such as the costs (social, psychological, economic) for the potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the fetus is healthy, if the moral status of the newborn is the same as that of the foetus and if neither has any moral value by virtue of being a potential person, then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn."

BioEdge may have been the first to pick up the story, but it went viral when it appeared on The Blaze, the website of American shock-jock Glenn Beck. There it attracted hundreds of comments. Many of these were not supportive -- fairly typical was: "These people are evil. Pure evil. That they feel safe in putting their twisted thoughts into words reveals how far we have fallen as a society." From there it moved into all the major news media. There were well over 2,000 comments in the London Telegraph. The authors were attacked in the US Congress.

Since it may have been the first time that many readers of The Blaze and even many journalists had ever heard of bioethicists, the publicity may have been a major setback for the public image of bioethics. The controversy continued for weeks. Giubilina and Minerva received hundreds of emails, some of them containing death threats.

Now that the dust has died down, the Journal of Medical Ethics, a redoubt of utilitarian ethics, has responded to the crisis with a special issue containing 31 commentaries from a range of ethicists, some of whom have argued for years that infanticide can be a moral action; others who believe that even suggesting it is a vile stain on academic integrity. Editor Julian Savulescu introduces the issue with these words:

"Infanticide is an important issue and one worthy of scholarly attention because it touches on an area of concern that few societies have had the courage to tackle honestly and openly: euthanasia. We hope that the papers in this issue will stimulate ethical reflection on practices of euthanasia that are occurring and its proper justification and limits."