Tuesday, March 06, 2012

An update from somewhere near the bottom of the slippery slope

Commentary by James H. Shott

We not infrequently hear an admonition against taking a particular action because doing so is the first step down a slippery slope that leads to disaster, or at least to some negative situation.

Over the last several decades we have seen a steady decline in what once was called “morality,” a concept increasingly regarded as something from the Stone Age; senseless restrictions hampering the good times of no rules and no responsibilities.

Perhaps it is a natural human reaction to want total freedom to do as one pleases, but wisdom and past experience show us that a society cannot succeed without some rules. However, social rules do not carry fines or jail time; breaking the rules brought only shame and having people whisper as you walked by. And as more and more people chose to ignore certain rules, the whispering faded out and the rules and the stigma attached to them gradually disappeared.

Without significant social penalties, the predictable results of casual and often careless sex increased, the most serious being unwanted pregnancy. Back in the day, when a female got pregnant, usually she had the baby and became a mother, and the male involved became a father. But that was inconvenient for one or both parents, so along with the loosening of sexual customs came a relaxed sense of responsibility for one’s actions, and unwed mothers and absentee fathers grew in number, along with children put up for adoption.

But having a baby you didn’t want was inconvenient for the mother, so abortion that was once used only when medical conditions warranted, such as when the health of the mother was at risk, became after-the-fact birth control.

Abortion advocates argue that a fetus, at least in the early stages, is not a human being, only a mass of cells. Therefore, relieving the woman of this tumor-like inhabitant is not killing a child, because it is a “nonviable tissue mass,” not a child.  The determination that a fetus is not a child is based upon the unresolved question of just when the fetus becomes a person: at conception, at viability (however that is defined) or at birth.

Now, two Australian ethicists – Alberto Giubilini with Monash University in Melbourne, and Francesca Minerva at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne – have provided an answer to the question: it doesn’t matter. They argue in the latest online edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics that if abortion of a fetus is allowable, so, too, should be the “termination” of a newborn. This is what can happen when you climb onto that “slippery slope.”

And what is the philosophical, ethical justification for what once was considered cold-blooded murder? “[If] circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”

In the abstract to the article Giubilini and Minerva explain that “abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” The authors say that adoption is not a viable alternative “because the mother might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption,” but not from killing it, apparently.

In the enlightened 21st century, merely being human does not mean that humans have an actual right to life.

Our two ethicists conclude their article: “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 infant 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.” Being a newborn, you see, is just another stage along the way to becoming an “actual” person.

In their intellectual wanderings through the amoral desert, the authors discovered that there are “actual people” and persons who are not “actual people,” but merely “potential persons.”

Only a few decades ago this discussion would never have gotten out of the padded room in which it was hatched; today it is considered reasonable, perhaps even enlightened.

However, when a newborn is expendable on the whim of its mother, for any reason or no reason, and is considered less important than some endangered critter like the Clanwilliam Redfin, the Zerene Fritillary, or the Coffin Cave Mold Beetle, how long will it be before “no longer viable persons” with some disease, a mental or physical disability, or who are merely too old to take care of themselves, will also be disposable?

Cross-posted from Observations

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