Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Abortion and infanticide - what's the difference?

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 13.)

WHEN I read recently that two medical ethicists had suggested it should be legal to kill newborn babies, my first thought was that they must be anti-abortion campaigners choosing an unusually dramatic way to make their point.

After all, what’s the difference, ethically speaking, between aborting a baby at 20 weeks’ gestation or waiting till it’s born, then quietly suffocating it or administering a lethal injection? None that I can see.

And that’s exactly the point made by doctors Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini in a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
As it turns out, the two “ethicists” are not opposed to abortion. Far from it. They are simply advancing, in a clinically dispassionate way, the argument that it doesn’t make any difference whether babies’ lives are terminated in the womb or after birth.

Newborns aren’t “actual” persons, they suggest; merely “potential” persons. Neither the foetus nor the newborn baby is a “person” with a moral right to life. Only “actual” persons can be harmed by being killed.

It’s a proposition that would shock decent people. Yet it exposes the fundamental flaw, both logical and moral, behind liberal abortion laws such as those that apply in New Zealand.

Most people who think it’s okay to abort babies in the womb would recoil in horror at the thought of snuffing their lives out once they’ve been born.

But I ask again, what’s the difference? Some babies that are legally aborted under present law (there were 16,630 in 2010) have reached a stage in their development when they are capable, with intensive medical care, of surviving outside the womb.

Newborn babies also need intervention to survive. So at what point do we decide a baby has a right to life – at six months old, perhaps? One year? Only when it’s capable of feeding itself and walking?

No civilised society would countenance the killing of babies at any of these ages. It would equal the worst horrors of Nazism.

Yet the Australian state of Victoria already allows babies to be aborted right up to the time of birth, and pro-abortion lobbyists would like the same law adopted here. It’s only a short step from there to infanticide.

And why not? After all, Drs Minerva and Giubilini make it clear there is no ethical difference between killing babies in the womb and murdering them after birth. Any point after conception at which society decides it’s legally permissible to end their lives is entirely artificial and arbitrary.

One chilling argument advanced by the “ethicists” is that parents whose babies are born disabled without prior warning, as happens frequently, should be able to have them killed.

A society that considers itself humane would draw back in horror from such a proposal – but it’s simply a logical extension of what we’re doing now.

* * *

EVERY NOW and again, debate erupts in a journalists’ online discussion group that I belong to about the difficulties of dealing with government PR people.

Theoretically the function of these public servants is to facilitate the flow of information between the bureaucracy and the public. In reality, their purpose often seems to be to obstruct journalists making legitimate inquiries.

This is frustrating for reporters, but it points to a much deeper problem.

A couple of years ago, the head of a high-profile government department casually remarked to me that he employed more journalists than most newspapers. In fact he boasted that his communications staff could easily put out a paper of their own.

This illustrates how the balance of power, for want of a better phrase, has shifted from the media to the bureaucracy. Media management has become almost an obsession in many branches of government. More and more journalists have abandoned the media for better-paid jobs funded by taxpayers and ratepayers.

Many of these ex-journalists, in a variation of the old poacher-turned-gamekeeper model, seem to regard it as their mission to make life hard for their former colleagues. Their primary task, after all, is to protect their masters.

Should this concern people outside the media and PR businesses? Of course it should, because participatory democracy depends on the free flow of information. Disrupt that flow, and ultimately it’s the public that suffers.

* * *

IT’S FASHIONABLE to sneer at the 1970s as the era of flares, disco and fondue parties, but in retrospect it can be seen as the high-water mark of television.

It seems inconceivable now, but that was the decade when state-owned TV showed Kenneth Clark’s masterful documentary series Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man in prime time. What’s more, everyone watched them.

What do we get in prime time now? The World’s Strictest Parents, Masterchef New Zealand, American Idol and Hotel Inspector. Look no further for proof of the state-sanctioned decline of popular culture.


kowtow said...

The World at War.

The probligo said...

I have no major problem with abortion up to 14 weeks gestation. After that, no way. There should also be a limit to the number of abortions a woman chooses to have; with compulsory sterilization following her third.


Blame the OIA...


Not to mention "I, Claudius", "Last of the Summer Wine", John Cleese, oh so many...

Richard McGrath said...

Like The Probligo, I have no issue with first trimester abortions, but wouldn't advocate compulsory sterilisation after 3 terminations. I remember reading years ago that the average woman of child-bearing age in the Soviet Union had had 5 abortions.

The probligo said...


Why compare us with the USSR? Surely we would want better than that?