Ethicists O.K. Infanticide

If abortion, why not infanticide? This leading question is often treated as a canard by supporters of abortion. However, it is seriously argued by two Italian utilitarians and published online in the prestigious Journal of Medical Ethics this week.

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva are associated respectively with Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia, and with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, at the University of Melbourne.

They argue that both the fetus and the new-born infant are only potential persons without any interests. Therefore the interests of the persons involved with them are paramount until some indefinite time after birth. To emphasise the continuity between the two acts, they term it “after-birth abortion” rather than infanticide.

Their conclusions may shock but Guibilini and Minerva assert them very confidently. “We claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.” This assertion highlights another aspect of their argument. Killing an infant after birth is not euthanasia either. In euthanasia, a doctor would be seeking the best interests of the person who dies. But in “after-birth abortion” it is the interests of people involved, not the baby.

To critical eyes, their argument will no doubt look like a slippery slope, as they are simply seeking to extend the logic of abortion to infanticide:

“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.”

How long after birth is it “ethically permissible” to kill infants? Guibilini and Minerva leave that question up to neurologists and psychologists, but it takes at least a few weeks for the infant to become self-conscious. At that stage it moves from being a potential person to being a person, and infanticide would no longer be allowed.

Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • pnyikos

    “self-conscious” is the ultimate slippery slope word.  How is anyone supposed to ascertain whether someone unable to talk is “conscious of the self”?  For that matter, what does the word “self-conscious” mean to someone using it for an agenda like abortion, infanticide, or euthanasia?  Do these ethicists even try to explain it, or do they naively think that everyone has a clear idea of what the word is supposed to mean in a context like this?

    [I tried to link to the article, but I got a “Not Found” message on the JME site.]

    Perhaps they are just aping abortion rights propagandists who have been using the term for half a century to justify abortion at any stage in the pregnancy. Since pro-lifers seldom engage these people about the use of the term, I would guess that most of these propagandists don’t have a clear idea of it either–they just see that it looks effective, and so they adopt it.

  • pnyikos

    “personhood” is another slippery word.  Most abortion rights zealots fall back on the legal concept: the Supreme Court ruled that there is no legally enforcable sense in which unborn children are “persons”.

    To give these two authors credit, they are trying to apply the concept in a different way, but using the criterion “self-conscious” is loading down the word with excess baggage. It also leaves the door wide open to killing anyone who has not yet been able to communicate a clear understanding that [s]he is a conscious individual.  In other words, the average child under the age of four could be fair game, as could anyone in a coma. 

  • bronwyn

    Should I read this article as I would Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”? In any other way, this is a heinous proposal.

  • Michelle Marie Allen

    My words may fail me in response to this article, but I will try to express as best as I can. The heaviness I now feel in my heart is beyond anything I could ever imagine. Knowing these two so-called humans could blatantly say that infanticide could be the next legal option makes me want to cry. Obviously, they have never fully experienced the joy and the blessing of the birth of a “new” person ! Newborns/unborn are the “perfect” gift of God ! Immediately after birth, a newborn begins to recognize their world. Only God knows what they(newborn/unborn) are thinking alone but the signs are obvious!  Loving parents KNOW these children are ALIVE ! Any woman or man who denies their “new” child’s “person-hood are ignorant about what Life really means !

    God have Mercy on these two ignorant “utilitarians” and their false assertions in their perverted ethics !

  • Dridob

    Obama signed an infanticide bill when in Illinois-watch out.

  • pnyikos

     No, the authors were quite serious.  You can see a letter where they defend themselves here:

    You can also see some replies there, including  two by me, and one in English [much of the website, including several replies, are in Italian] which shows the authors contradicting themselves.

  • markeyjoe

    Watch, in a couple of years HHS will mandate infanticide. After all it will reduce costs for the insurance companies. right Katherine S. ?

  • markeyjoe

    Watch, in a couple of years HHS will mandate infanticide. After all it will reduce costs for the insurance companies. right Katherine S. ?

  • markeyjoe

    Terri Schiavo was starved to death March 31, 2005 (just two days before Blessed John Paul the Great) by the order of a circuit court judge who apparently had the authority to order the murder of an American citizen.

  • Matt B

    The ironic thing is that these two eminent thinkers justify infanticide wherever “the well-being of the family is at risk,” and they ground this evaluation in “social, psychological and economic costs.”  Can anything be so short-sighted and imbecilic?

  • Cass

    Shocking though it may be it should come as no surprise that these two so-called ethicists advocate the legitimacy of killing newborn. The utilitarian “ethicist” Peter Singer has similarly argued the justification to kill infants up to about three months old. Mankind is perpetually engaged in the war between good and evil. Where relativist and utilitarian philosophies prevail, as they do in our modern society, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are perfectly acceptable. For people such as these, the Beatitudes are a joke.

  • Pingback: After-birth Abortions - Page 4 - Christian Forums()

  • Cesarsmith75

    When I posted the article on Facebook for my secular family, I was surprised at the response I received on this issue.  I was relieved with their response, stating the fact that these children are people.  Then I reminded them of their social stance…then silence.  I was able to bring to light what taking contraception does to a child in utero.  I praise this article for the simple action of opening the eyes of some of my family members to becoming Pro Life.  If your able to stand for a newborn child then you are able to be the voice for a child just conceived, there is no difference…the vial is lifted.  

  • Trot_on88

    I just feel disgusted that people are playing God with this. These two are bold enough to make a statement that the baby is not considered a person, but then are unable to claim at which point the child becomes a person? They leave this up to neurologists and psychologists? I say if you are not well educated enough to fully justify the fact that you are playing God then you should hang up your white coat and feel ashamed. Murder is murder, unborn, born, or developed. What is to separate a three week old from killing someone’s one, two, or three year old child.. The minute we start making exceptions all the lines become blurred. It is infanticide and throughout history women could be publicly humiliated, beaten, divorced, and sentenced to prison or death for the death of their child, even if the child died shortly after birth of natural causes or pathogens. When did society digress to such a blatant lack of respect for life period! I am just unbelievably disgusted….

  • Wicked and evil, but the “logic” follows. May God grant these people the grace to see that the supposed logic behind abortion and euthanasia are not admissible; too many ifs involved on top of the faulty premises. Any child that knows his Ten Commandments, knows the answer to this quandary. The Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.

  • Andy

    This is extraordinary and evil. Allow me to give these two proponents of murder another perspective. Time is an unbreakable continuum. It marches on at its own pace. We cannot slow it down, we cannot speed it up. If it stops, life stops. So now these two in their pursuit of ethical questions, should ask themselves this one: Is it OK to kill a ten year old boy playing in the park with his friends? If, one would hope, the answer was “No”, then the follow-up would be: Why would you kill the same boy when he’s in his mother’s womb, or at any time in the life of that boy? The logic goes like this: before the ten year old boy could be ten, he must first be nine; for him to be nine, he must first be eight; for him to be born, he must first be in his mother’s womb; for him to be in his mother’s womb, he must first have been conceived. Every instant in time, no matter how small, precedes the next in the formation and continuity of life. Life is not divided into post-birth and after-birth. A human must first gestate to be able to exist after this phase. It’s precisely this logic that destroys Giubilini’s and Minerva’s argument.

    Oh great God in heaven, help these two to understand . . .

  • What are you talking about…? They weren’t “serious'” in the sense of actually proposing that infanticide be a viable policy. I see no logical contradicton between proposing infanticde in an academic paper as a logical exercise and not supporting infanticide as a legal policy said… Fortunately there is a very WIDE gap between pure logical reasoning and moral decision-making!!! If you had ever read moral philosophy before you would understand that.

    . Quoted from the above blog post:

    “It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.  We expected that other bioethicists would challenge either the premise or the logical pattern we followed, because this is what happens in academic debates.  And we believed we were going to read interesting responses to the argument, as we already read a few on this topic in religious websites.

    However, we never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal.  This was not made clear enough in the paper.  Laws are not just about rational ethical arguments, because there are many practical, emotional, social aspects that are relevant in policy making (such as respecting the plurality of ethical views, people’s emotional reactions etc).  But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.”

    You can understand the academic field of moral philosophy or not, but until you do you have no basis for calling the authors evil.

  • If you think these authors seriously advocate or support infanticide, you ought to read a bit more in the field of moral philosophy. I’m not saying I advocate for moral philosophy as a good use of time, but an ethicist takes and defends a point of view, logically, for the sake of doing so, and to provide insight into the way we think and make moral decisions — not necessarily because the author himself wishes to advocate for a particular ethical viewpoint (something the authors emphatically clarified on their own blog post:

    The thing… which the authors understand perfectly… is that there is far more to moral decision-making than pure logic. Would anyone in their right mind ever come to the conclusion that infanticide is OK?  No!  Because fortunately our moral decisions are based on more than cold intellectual logic…  they have to be. There could be no preference for one  decision over the other without emotion or societal conditioning (as it happens infanticide is almost universally taboo across various societies, for the obvious reason that we as humans are programmed to protect and cherish our young).

    I’m appalled that someone referred to being relieved by their secular family’s opposition to the article about infanticide. You DO NOT need to be religious to think that murdering pre-self-conscious babies is wrong!  The very presumption that atheists or “secular” folks would support infanticide is a disgusting symptom of a widening disconnect between religious and non-religious folks in the US.

    OK. So now that we understand that the authors DID NOT advocate for ACTUALLY allowing babies to be killed- and probably would have been horrified if they heard of any such case resulting from their article -since, let’s keep in mind, they wrote this article for other nerdy ivory-tower academics who they assumed would perfectly understand their context…

    Let’s look at an actual practical implication of their article? They’ve given all Pro-Lifers a strong deck of hands. It doesn’t seem that they meant to do so, but if the same logic that permits abortion also permits killing already-born babies, a concept that any emotionally healthy person – religious or not – would reject as disgusting and absurd – then abortion is on shaky ground. Take advantage, pro-lifers!.

  • Peter Singer makes a career out of philosophy, with the expectation that those reading the material have the critical thinking skills to analyze and evaluate what he says. There is a difference between academic philosophical writing, and practical application. There is a BIG difference Jack Kevorkian and Singer, for instance…

    If you look at Singer’s track record, he is actually a person of great compassion and an activist for human and animal rights, donating a substantial amount of time and income to the causes. He has never performed an abortion, nor euthanized someone, including an infant. It seems to me that folks just take advantage of him as an “other” to villainize.

    We could argue that his lines of reasoning are dangerous and a “slippery slope”, but since when was infanticide or euthanasia as commonly accepted as abortion in our relativist/utilitarian society?  By-and-large, people make moral decisions on their life experience, early education, and emotions, not based on what some  ivory-tower philosopher writes in an obscure journal.

    And last time I checked, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia have existed even in the most stringently religious societies…  They are not “running rampant” now that our society has begun to accept moral relativism. A certain percentage of a population will always have aberrant tendencies toward murder or violence, while most will remain guided by certain key moral principles that have been unchanged since the 10 commandments, and are hard-wired into our emotional processing.

    Is critical thinking and questioning our commonly-held viewpoints really evil? Do we think that exposing people to different moral perspectives is evil? What a sad perspective on the human species… That we are mindless and need to be controlled by strict religious mandate, rather than trusting our innate moral goodness to guide us. 

  • Michelle Marie Allen

    Now that you have portrayed yourself as the “devil’s advocate”, let me ask you this… why does ANY moral/ethicist even ENTERTAIN the idea such as infanticide ? Perhaps they have too much time on their hands ?

    Morals will always be debated as well as ethics. You said the article was written for “nerdy ivory-towered academics”. Hmmm … if this is the case, why is it (this article) appearing to the public in forums such as this ? If the author(s) intents were just to get a reaction from these other academics, the article would have circulated within those parameters of academia.

    Infanticide is now being practiced in China…openly I might add, if a couple has more than the one child allowed by their laws.

    You cite that this article gives “pro-life” people the upper hand with this faulty system of logic. God gave me logic and reason and your argument on behalf of these two utilitarians morals/ethics rings like a thunder clap in my soul ! It should be a warning to ANY human that the impending storm of chaos is getting ready to hit with a ferocity never before known to mankind !

    Like the tip of an iceberg, the other hidden “evils” of the “Culture of Death” are being revealed. And you would have a sane person steer right into this mindset by defending this article as being “only” a poke at academia. How insane is that ?

  • I’m not playing devil’s advocate here. Having taken two classes on moral philosophy, I really believe that the authors meant their article be read  by other academics. They weren’t bored with too much time on their hands, but probably looking to publish in a reputable journal and keep tenure.

    We would have to ask the author of this Catholic Exchange post why he wrote it — or ask any of the media outlets — but I’m pretty sure it was not because the authors of the original article asked him to or because they wanted more attention paid to their proposal. I sense that the article has gotten attention in the public media because it’s a “hot-button” topic that sells and attracts a lot interest, not because the authors intended it to.

    On that vein, I really think people are giving the authors way more attention that they deserve.  As I said, if anything, a critical examination of their argument is a basis for making abortion look absurd – a boon for pro-life activists. That argument might offend you, but not everyone thinks the same way and if you feel called to work to change people’s minds, you have to appeal to their reason and their emotion. People are susceptible to these sorts of arguments, thanks to the logic and reason God gave us.

    I also see little practical harm coming of it. If a group of people goes around actively promoting
    infanticide to parents that would be far more appalling. But, that was not the authors’ intent, and I highly doubt anyone has ever consulted a moral
    philosophy journal before committing infanticide (which, for the record, a small percentage of any population has always done across religions and cultures. It’s so sacredly taboo to us  precisely because it’s been a problem in human societies for millennia.)

     And, whether you want to think about it or not, it happens in all societies, including ours, for various reasons.  It might be a grave epidemic in China or India, but how many people is this article going to convince that infanticide is okay now?  At its core infanticide
    must be an extremely emotional decision — a philosophy article is not going to sway someone’s actions… if people even have access to the article at all… which the reactionary and outraged response seems to be assuring.

    My other main point was that it is a frightening thought that you must be religious to oppose infanticide. I highly doubt there is any correlation between degree of religiousness and opposition to infanticide, at least in the US. Data indicate that infanticide rates have dropped in the US over the
    past thirty years, actually, even as a lower percentage of the
    population identifies as Christian.

    The majority of people across cultures have a morality based on emotion and reason which tell them infanticide is deeply wrong — but it’s my opinion that whether we attribute that morality to God is between Him and us.

  • Michelle Marie Allen

    Steph, it may seem like I am comparing apples to oranges with my next line of thought, but here I go :

    During Hitler’s “rise” to power, a new ethic was being developed… “The Final Solution”. Before the “The Third Reich” took over the German people’s way of thinking morally and ethically, everyday German people thought nothing of being neighbors with the Jewish or Catholic communities in their country.

    Then, by way of “The Final Solution”, their minds and hearts changed. Not all of course, but a majority wanted to “please their new found “Fuehrer” and then “The Holocaust” was started. Why ? If a “government “sanctions” that it is morally and ethically ok to “kill”, those without a strong spiritual side, will succumb to the government’s way of thinking. It happened Steph.

    Now… since the US government sanctioned that “abortion” was legal back in 1975, who is to say that infanticide wouldn’t be next ? You know like China and India.

    My point is that when the majority place their morals and ethics into the hands of a government that is only viewing their future/geriatric citizens as liabilities rather than assets… that is the “Perfect Storm” in the making.

    Some would say ,”Oh that CAN’T happen in America !” Remember , “The Holocaust”. It DID happen in Germany back in the 1930’s and it CAN happen here.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it !”- George Santayana