- Philosopher and medical ethicist Francesca Minerva argues that killing a newborn is little different to aborting it in the womb
- Even a healthy baby could have its life snuffed out if the mother decides she can’t afford to look after it, Dr Minerva suggested
- Doctor receives death threats and hate calls telling her to ‘burn in hell’
- Anti-abortion vicar: ‘If infanticide is morally repulsive, then abortion is too’
By Fiona Macrae
Last updated at 2:00 PM on 1st March 2012
Doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers, an academic with links to Oxford University has claimed.
Francesca Minerva, a philosopher and medical ethicist, argues a young baby is not a real person and so killing it in the first days after birth is little different to aborting it in the womb.
Even a healthy baby could have its life snuffed out if the mother decides she can’t afford to look after it, the article published by the British Medical Journal group states.
The journal’s editor has defended the piece, saying the publication’s role is to present well-reasoned arguments, rather than promote one particular moral view.
But the article has angered other ethicists, peers and campaigners. They have described the call for legalised infanticide as chilling and an ‘inhumane defence of child destruction’.
The doctor, a research associate at Oxford, has received death threats and hate calls telling her that she will ‘burn in hell’, and she said the last few days since publication have been ‘the worst of my life’.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Dr Minerva and co-author Alberto Giubilini, a University of Milan bioethicist, argue that ‘after-birth abortion’ should be permissible in all cases in which abortion is.
They state that like an unborn child, a newborn has yet to develop hopes, goals and dreams and so, while clearly human, is not a person – someone with a moral right to life.
In contrast, parents, siblings and society have aims and plans that could be affected by the arrival of the child and their interests should come first.
The article, After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? first addresses scenarios in which parents are unaware their child is disabled until after it is born.
The piece argues that, though the child may be happy, it will not reach the potential of a normal child.
‘To bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole…On these grounds, the fact that a foetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.’
The ethicists are also in favour of the infanticide of a healthy baby when the woman’s circumstances have changed and she no longer has the time, money or energy to care for it.
They argue that while adoption might be an option, it could cause undue psychological distress to the mother.
As the hate calls came in, Dr Minerva she had not been expecting the overwhelmingly negative reaction.
She said she believes her argument was taken out of its academic and theoretical context, and that ‘I wish I could explain to people it is not a policy – and I’m not suggesting that and I’m not encouraging that’.
She believes the majority of threats have come from religious or Pro-Life groups.
Some of the hate messages told her that she would be punished by God, while others suggested she should ‘burn in hell’.
The article also provoked responses from religious and pro-life groups.
Rev Joanna Jepson, came to public attention when she spoke out against a late abortion that had been carried out in 2001.
Doctors are permitted to carry out abortions beyond the 24-week legal limit if they believe a baby’s disability is serious enough, but Joanna argued that a cleft palate was a minor physical flaw, not a severe abnormality.
She revealed that, until surgery at the age of 19, her own face was disfigured by a congenital defect. Her upper jaw overhung her lower jaw, which receded into her neck, and posed the question: ‘Would it have been right to abort me?’
She said: ‘It’s misleading to call this ‘after birth abortion’. The pregnancy is already over, there is nothing to abort. What is being discussed is infanticide.
‘There is a logic to their point – if we consider it acceptable to abort a baby up until birth then why not allow it to die afterwards? It is just a difference in geography – within or outside the mother’s body.
‘Of course, I would see this a compelling reason to abolish late-term abortion, if infanticide is morally repulsive then abortion is too.
‘If a baby, because of it’s physical disabilities, is seen as being “incompatible with life” then we need to let life and death take its course. Becoming agents of death fundamentally changes doctor’s role as healer and physician, and it also has massive repercussions on society’s conscience shifting what is understood to be morally and socially unacceptable to become acceptable.
Of course motherhood is inconvenient, physically, emotionally, psychologically, financially – but this inconvenience is not allowed to become acceptable grounds for abandoning one’s child.
‘If a child or an adult has a life-changing accident or illness, do we suggest we’ll put them down because their goals and dreams now have to change?
‘My brother, Alastair, has great and huge goals and he goes after them with great courage. His Downs Syndrome does not stand in the way.
‘They are very different dreams and goals to my own but no less valuable or of contribution to society. At what level would Dr Minerva assign somebody’s meaning and value to be worth a life?
When infanticide was mandatory: How values have changed through history
While infanticide may seem an inhumane concept for many people, there have been periods in history where it has been accepted behaviour – and even a legal obligation.
In Roman culture, disabled infants were often abandoned after birth by parents who did not want or could not afford the financial burden.
The child would simply be left outside to die from starvation and the elements in a practice known as ‘exposure’. It was an established and acceptable procedure.
In 1912, Yewsden Villa (right) was excavated in Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, and researchers were shocked to find the bodies of 97 babies in a mass-grave.
The babies had apparently all been killed shortly after birth, and the prevailing theory is that the site was near a brothel.
With a lack of contraception in Roman times, unwanted pregnancies would likely have been much more common, and the mass grave is another example that infanticide did not pose such an ethical dilemma in that era.
Archaeologists believe Romans did not consider infants to be ‘full’ human beings until about the age of two, and babies who died before that age were not buried in cemeteries, but instead in public or domestic areas.
However a Roman couple were entitled to raise a disabled child. In Sparta, there was little choice in the matter.
Newborns were seen as the property of the state and all babies were inspected by a community leader. If the child showed signs of deformity or ill-health, the parents were ordered to expose it.
Many parents in ancient Greeks would also expose their newborns because of sickness, financial pressure, or simply for being the ‘wrong’ sex in the male-dominated society.
Many religions had did not raise moral objects to infanticide, although Christianity and Islam notably rejected it.
Leaving the child to the elements was the preferred method to ‘dispose’ of the child, because it meant the child died of natural causes, which was a more ‘moral’ death than directly killing the child.
The practice generally died out, and was outlawed in the last years of the Roman Empire. However there are references to infanticide in many cultures in every historical era, and is believed to still take place in certain parts of India, Africa, and China.
China’s controversial ‘one-child’ policy leads to many children being abandoned after birth.
Trevor Stammers, a lecturer in medical ethics and former chairman of the Christian Medical Fellowship, described the viewpoint as ‘chilling’.
Gill Duval, of the ProLife Alliance, said every life is precious and added: ‘Everybody talks about what women want but women wouldn’t want this.’
Lord Alton, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Pro-Life, told the Catholic Herald: ‘It is profoundly disturbing, indeed shocking, to see the way in which opinion-formers within the medical profession have ditched the professional belief of the healer to uphold the sanctity of human life for this impoverished and inhumane defence of child destruction.’
Julian Savulescu, the journal’s editor, said that the article’s argument has been made before by eminent figures.
He added: ‘I’m not defending practising infanticide. I’m defending academic and intellectual freedom.’
He said that Dr Minerva has a ‘loose relationship’ with Oxford and her main position is at the University of Melbourne.