You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our Group site.

An open letter from Giubilini and Minerva

2 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate.

“Why not? You should have known!” people keep on repeating everywhere on the web.  The answer is very simple: the article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments.  Indeed, as Professor Savulescu explains in his editorial, this debate has been going on for 40 years.

We started from the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley in 1975 and we tried to draw the logical conclusions deriving from this premise.  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.

Moreover, we did not suggest that after birth abortion should be permissible for months or years as the media erroneously reported.

If we wanted to suggest something about policy, we would have written, for example, a comment related the Groningen Protocol (in the Netherlands), which is a guideline that permits killing newborns under certain circumstances (e.g. when the newborn is affected by serious diseases).  But we do not discuss guidelines in the paper.  Rather we acknowledged the fact that such a protocol exists and this is a good reason to discuss the topic (and probably also for publishing papers on this topic).

However, the content of (the abstract of) the paper started to be picked up by newspapers, radio  and on the web.  What people understood was that we were in favour of killing people.  This, of course, is not what we suggested.  This is easier to see when our thesis is read in the context of the history of the debate.

We are really sorry that many people, who do not share the background of the intended audience for this article, felt offended, outraged, or even threatened.  We apologise to them, but we could not control how the message was promulgated across the internet and then conveyed by the media.  In fact, we personally do not agree with much of what the media suggest we think.  Because of these misleading messages pumped by certain groups on the internet and picked up for a controversy-hungry media, we started to receive many emails from very angry people (most of whom claimed to be Pro-Life and very religious) who threatened to kill us or which were extremely abusive.  Prof Savulescu said these responses were out of place, and he himself was attacked because, after all, “we deserve it.”

We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.

However, we also received many emails from people thanking us for raising this debate which is stimulating in an academic sense.  These people understood there was no legal implication in the paper.  We did not recommend or suggest anything in the paper about what people should do (or about what policies should allow).

We apologise for offence caused by our paper, and we hope this letter helps people to understand the essential distinction between academic language and the misleading media presentation, and between what could be discussed in an academic paper and what could be legally permissible.

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva

By submitting your comment you agree to adhere to these terms and conditions
  • Keith Tayler

    It is good that you have clarified your position and apologised for the misunderstanding. It does bring into question the peer-viewing and editorship of the JME. Surely somebody should have raised some questions about what you hoped to achieve with this paper. To use Harris’ terms, it looks pretty much like a White Paper. I note that it was revised. Did anyone ask you whether it was a Green or White Paper?

  • Harry_piper

     How cowardly is this? Tell me something- what if I published an article in 1938 arguing that a permanent solution to the Jewish problem would not be unethical? And how about after the war I defended my actions as merely an exercise in intellectual thought?
     What kind of human being seriously thinks there is a need to ask whether killing babies is OK? And then comes out with a resounding “Yes”?
     You don't think people should be attacked for writing an academic paper- fair enough. How about people who legitimize hideous evil and then hide behind “I didn't mean it in a policy way!”.

  • Rullgardina

    …'til this very moment, this world and the people in it have always
    been dark and incomprehensible to me, and I've tried to clear my way
    with logic and superior intellect….. and you've thrown my own words
    right back in my face, and you were right too, if nothing else a man
    should stand by his words, but you've given my words a meaning that I
    never dreamed of, and you've tried to twist them into a cold, logical
    excuse for your ugly murder…

  • billiehester

     I'm one of those who sent an abusive e-mail. You deserved it. I have no intention of apologizing for it. If I were a forgiving person — which I'm not — I might have taken your paper as a  poorly written, modern-day Modest Proposal.

    Read your abstract. There's no hint as to what the purpose of the paper is, nor is there a clue in body of the paper itself. Making what you were up to pellucid and making the position you were taking clear were your responsibilities, no one else's. You get an F. That's an F as in Failure, Failure with a capital F.

    Regardless of what you say to the contrary now, it's difficult to see your paper as anything other than an argument favoring — nay, even promoting infanticide — er, umm, “after-birth abortion.”

    The two of you jointly share my Twit of the Year Award.

  • Utenlandsnordmann

    They didn't write the article in a newspaper.

    You on the other hand, deserves the “Enraged Moron Sheep” award.

  • T.B. Stork

    A small suggestion: stop using the tendentious neologism “after-birth abortion.”

    Your article is not a thought experiment, nor is it simply a formal exercise in following through on a particular premise wherever takes us.  It's a practical ethics advocacy piece that argues that since a newborn is a nonperson, if the parent's didn't want it then no harm is done in killing it.

    A newborn infant is a free-living entity, no longer part of the mother's body.  A newborn is physiologically distinct from a late term fetus; birth is a transformative event.  As a member of our species, that condition of no longer being part of another person's body - not unprovable speculations about its ability to attribute to his own existence some basic value - should confer upon the newborn the protective status of personhood. 

    (Admittedly I am a speciesist, and not a utilitarian.)

  • chiefbreakevryting

    Perhaps this episode creates an opportunity for meta-ethics. Instead of defending the academic privileges that assume respect for the expression of provocative ideas, you might inquire into the deficiencies of the process and the fragility of philosophy in such cases. The objections to your paper did not arise singularly from uninformed, backward prejudice. Objections to your paper  arose, it seems to me, not because your ideas were contrary to “logic” but because they were contrary to human experience. 

    One does not need a philosopher to explain why a person should not place his hand in an open flame, and one would also regard with suspicion any philosopher who argues why he should. It strikes the layman as curious that philosophers would note that the ancient Spartans, Bedoin nomads, Ammonites and Nazi eugenicists would all practice infanticide without also noting that the forces of history have pretty much uniformly been in the direction of abolition, not only of such practices, but of the cultures that accepted them. A fundamental question is why would serious philosophers attempt to revive in theory that which has been tried and rejected in practice? 

    Even if one were to accept a purely philosophical exercise, one would expect to find justification for the unspoken assumptions: that there is a single attribute that establishes a test for personhood, that once established it excludes all others, that it is observable and that it is either present or not. Who decides that the test of personhood is X in all cases, and that it cannot be X in one, Y in another? Why define personhood according to a philosophical construct rather than an emotional or cultural one, since emotions and culture are more likely to affect the real world conduct of human beings than are philosophical abstractions? Why bother determining personhood at all? It is observably unnecessary for a killer to make such an evaluation before killing a human being, and if such exercise is simply a balsam for a sensitive conscience, what is the point? This is not to say there is no point, but to ask why the inquiring philosopher does not establish it explicitly at the outset. Does the philosopher accept or reject the notion that there are some facts of life, established by long history, that are unresolvable by methods such as analogy, syllogism, and taxonomy, and it is just as valid to assume the moral status of the newborn rather than assuming a premise that leads to an opposite conclusion? Perhaps, killing newborns is a type of philosophical azeotrope, that you can boil down only so far until you are left with inseparable constituents, and when you attempt to arbitrarily select one, open yourselves up to accusations of bad faith and anti-human malevolence.

    Medical ethicists, theoretical and otherwise, must anticipate both the relevance and irrelevance of their efforts. There are at any given time in the world, more than enough people who torture, kill and abuse children who feel no need to resort to abstract philosophical musing to justify their actions. There are also those who, though their consciences may be untroubled by such acts, find the justifications of academics, faulty or not, useful to facilitate them. It is this population, over-represented in recent history, that provokes a vigorous and non-academic response. The human tendency to protect innocent human life is a result of many processes, instinctive, emotional, rational, and moral that are hard wired to produce vigorous responses to even academic threats. It is neither laudable, nor sad that these responses are not malleable to philosophical argument; it is rather the way the species, and civilized societies have developed in defense of themselves. 

  • Peciorin

    “But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.”

    I'm sorry to say this but legal policies come from concepts, you should be aware of that. You just pushed relativism one step further, that's all, you did nothing wrong or good, what difference does it make anymore?

  • Viognier

    If this was simply a maturbatory exercise in logic, why is it that it vectors in a decidedly pro-choice direction? If it's OK to abort a foetus, ipso-facto, it's OK to kill a newborn. But couldn't one also argue that if it's not OK to kill a newborn, that is it not OK to kill a pre-newborn (a foetus)? How about writing a paper that promotes this progression of logic? 

  • GF Sagredo

    In the letter:
    “However, we never meant to suggest that after-birth
    abortion should become legal.  This was not made clear enough in the
    paper. “

    In the paper:
    “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

    Can we call it “logic” when the first principle (non contradiction) is violated?

  • Iain Brassington

    I disagree with your point about personhood; but I think that this might be one of the more productive lines of argument about the paper. Irrespective of the status of the newborn, can we say exactly the same thing about a baby in utero and a baby ex utero. If we can't, then the argument in the paper might have difficulties. I suspect that some of the responses to the paper doubtless being penned at the moment will develop this thought.

  • Dr No

    IB – Dr No posted on this paper yesterday, and developed the idea that the premise (person-hood is central) is wrong, and that is how an absurd conclusion (infanticide, with no upper age limit defined) is reached. Dr No suggests instead that it is the sanctity of (human) being that is central, and with that premise, then a sensible conclusion can be arrived at. Dr No wonders if that is what you may be hinting at in your recent reply below to T.B. Stork.

  • Iain Brassington

    But if the letter admits that there were things not clear in the paper, why is it a surprise (or a problem) that there're things in the paper that don't match what the letter says.

    Suppose I make a statement S1, and shortly afterwards make a second S2 that modifies S1. The fact that the two are different is hardly a serious charge, given that that was the whole point of S2.

  • Iain Brassington

    Nope, because sanctity arguments are tripe, and species membership is irrelevant.

  • T.B. Stork

    “can we say exactly the same thing about a baby in utero and a baby ex utero.”

    Indeed, we cannot.  As mentioned, they are physiologically different; the requirements for survival in utero differ from survival ex utero.  They are also experientially different – even if that experience of being an organism outside of the uterus is just seconds.  And therefore cognitively different.  The passage from uterus to the external world constitutes such an experiential rift that that a temporal 'before' and 'after' is manifested in the organism at multiple levels.  That sense of temporal direction is a necessary (but not complete – that completion takes years) foundation to any futural sense, and hence of sense of lost potential from that future being deprived it – that is, for the ability to value its own life.  Thus the crux of the authors' argument – “attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value” – is incipient in the event of birth.  If we deny the importance of that event in the generation of that attribution, then we must choose at some arbitrary point along its unfolding.

    The human organism is never an isolate but changes – cognitively, physically, experientially - in response to its milieu, which it in turn affects (influencing the behavior of other agents, adding sound and body products in its external environment, etc).  That contextual change transforms the organism from essentially an organ of the mother to an active agent in the world that has a role in shaping its own future.  All other criticism of the paper aside, the authors' argument fails on its own terms.

  • Iain Brassington

    All of which is fine by me.

    Not necessarily because I completely agree – I'll leave that to one side – but because it engages with the paper, and allows for engagement in return.  I'm sure that if you were to develop this line into something paper-length, it'd be worth submitting to the Journal.

  • Dr No

    IB – Dr No understands that some people enjoy tripe, especially when cooked with lots of onions and tomatoes.

    Perhaps instead of making a priori statements about sanctity arguments, perhaps you could enlighten us as to why such arguments are on a par with the intestines of certain species. 

  • Iain Brassington

    The first sentence of this made me feel too queasy to respond adequately to the second. But I'll soldier on.

    It's up to the defenders of sanctity to demonstrate that the evidence is on their side, not on sceptics to show that it isn't. And whether any such thing could be shown without – at best – some rather stretched metaphysics is, shall we say, uncertain.

  • GF Sagredo

     Oh came on Iain, the sentence “”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.” is very clear and does not need a better explanation. If they had wrote that there was a wrong sentence in the paper (ERRATUM) I could have understood it.  Something like “The authors DO NOT argue….”. Please, do it.

  • jonolan

    Apology not accepted since it only came after these vermin realized that they'll face the logical consequences of endorsing infanticide.

    Mod edit: And with that, jonolan became the first person in the four-year history of this blog to get blacklisted. Bye.

  • Steve Buckley

    Ok, since this was JUST a discussion on some philosophical ideal, why not discuss the ideas of using such to justify not only the future of human civilization, but also its past. I.e., if it's so easy to justify infanticide, what say we discuss the justification for killing the elderly, simply because they cost too much in medical care, are a drain on their families, and cost too much to maintain– you know, convalescent homes, retirement communities, the entire industry of geriatrics, etc….
    Oh, then, once that's discussed, we should really discuss the weak, infirm, lame, disabled, etc….– of ALL ages, because it's clear they too cause a drain, inconvenience, and cost society far too much.
    And once we do them, we need to discuss those healthy people who experience a traumatic injury due to some sporting, or life activity, and they too pore such a drain on civilization. Oh, hell… why don't we just go raise hitler from the dead, and give him free reign…..
    I suppose I have only one real question– once you start down this road, where does it stop???!!!
    I suppose I'd then like to ask– who shall be the one's to decide who lives, and who dies? And… of yea, it gets waaay better….
    If those who are the one's who say who lives and who dies, winds up on the death lists, what's to keep them from finding a way around this rule, and shirking “their duty” to “make way” for future peoples?
    Which by the way, will be fewer, and fewer, all because we've already found simplistic justification for slaughtering innocent babies due to their “inconvenience”!!
    Well, one thing is for sure. You've just reminded a lot of people I know about Nazi Germany, Circa 1930-'s to 1945…. Well done, well done indeed!!!

  • Paolo Aranha

    Mod Edit: Sorry, but I'm not accepting comments that aren't in English. You'll appreciate that some very unpleasant things have been said about and to the people involved in this; and while I have a fairly liberal modding policy, comments that're in a language other than English are impossible to mod fairly. If you resubmit in English, I'll almost certainly let it through.

  • jonolan

     Good job, Mod! We can’t have these anti-abortion types or moral absolutists preaching their crap here. That sort of open debate doesn’t serve society well.

    Kidding – this is jonolan making a snarky comment about your issues with some free speech while defensing others’

    I didn’t like you before but now I disrespect you as well.

    Mod replies: I’m letting this through just so I can respond to it. You were blacklisted not because you disagreed with the paper, but because you described Giubilini and Minerva as “vermin”, and talked repeatedly in terms of killing of Giubliani, Minerva and Savulescu. Free speech means I can’t stop you spouting crap like that; but I don’t have to let you do it here. Nor does it give you carte blanche to post death-threats, even patently juvenile ones. So – y’know, I think I’ll keep you on the index.

  • Marie

    I likely agree with the authors’ premise; that is abortion = infanticide.

    They put forth that since abortion is legal, infanticide should also be allowed.

    I state that since infanticide is the abhorrent taking of human life, abortion is also the abhorrent taking of human life.

    If we take all that is legal (ignoring the ethics or morality) and argue for a natural extension, we could have argued for slavery based on the existence of apartheid.

  • Perusic_antil2

    Re: Mod replies: Oh, come on. There’s a world of
    difference between examining an idea – even one like this – and throwing
    it out for scrutiny, and (on the other hand) making threatening
    comments about the wellbeing of the people examining it. If there are
    flaws in the paper, that’s one thing: but the civilised response to that
    is to engage with it, and prepare a rebuttal.
    I have not read anything else by jonolan. If it would be true, however, that papers like the one by G&M are similar to the pre-Nazi eugenicist publications (which in fact examined the “idea” to kill a group of people), jonolan’s response would be OK.

    You should really try to understand that there are many people in the world, not only fanatics (as Savulescu thinks), that are, for very good reasons, not willing to accept academic freedom and ‘business as usual’ (scrutiny etc.) when it comes to public attacks against entire groups of people. (I prefer to call children ‘people’.) Maybe it sounds absurd to you, but it is for many people very hard to grasp the differences between self-proclaimed liberals such as Savulescu and fascists.

    Maybe jonolan just wanted to make the point that there can be no civilised response to a proposal (or “examination of an idea”) that is utterly uncivilised?

  • Perusic_antil2

    >But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.

    Such a cowardly response… (You wrote: “However, if a disease has not been detected during
    the pregnancy,
    if something went wrong during the
    delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change
    such that taking
    care of the offspring becomes an
    unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of
    not being forced
    to do something they cannot afford.”)

  • Thomas10 Mh

    I would like to read the paper for myself. How can i get a copy? All i see are are news articles about it.

  • Iain Brassington

    Why is this cowardly?

  • Perusic_antil2

     The tergiversation is cowardly because they deal with policy issues in their article (“people should be given the chance…”)

  • jonolan

    I call them as I see them. I did, however, never a make a death threat
    on your blog, nor did I ever insult anyone actually on this blog, even
    ones who chose to personally attack me – apparently with impunity from sympathetic moderators.

    In point of fact, I did nothing more egregious – the “vermin” insult
    possibly an exception – Guibilini and Minerva did. I merely said that
    some people should be killed. The only difference was I spoke of
    individuals whereas they spoke of whole classes of people and I spoke
    based upon the proposed victims' actions and they spoke in terms of
    killing for mere convenience.

    You do, of course, have the right not to publish any of my comments. You
    do not have to provide me a venue any more than you, as a company, had
    to provide a venue for Guibilini and Minerva – or people who directly
    insulted me here.

    Mod replies: Oh, come on. There's a world of difference between examining an idea – even one like this – and throwing it out for scrutiny, and (on the other hand) making threatening comments about the wellbeing of the people examining it. If there are flaws in the paper, that's one thing: but the civilised response to that is to engage with it, and prepare a rebuttal. A few people have done that already – see the post currently at the top of the page, for example, and follow the links; there'll be more appearing over the coming months, no doubt. Some of those rebuttals will be convincing; some of the original paper might survive scrutiny, and other bits won't. That's the way it goes.

    If you're prepared to engage with the paper in a civilised manner, and ditch the childish threats, then you're more than welcome to do so. You're staying on the blacklist for the time being, but there's no reason to think it permanent.

  • Perusic_antil2

    Many bioethicists believe they are acting in a social no man's land. Their thought experiments would be acceptable if their social role would be similar to the social roles of, say, bioartists or satirists. Bioethics is an increasingly important element of the policy world however. Therefore the rest of the world, if it cares about bioethics at all, quite rightly expects bioethicists to act responsibly as political actors. These young people from Italy did not. The real problem are Savulescu and others who very well understand and profit from the political relevance of ethics but teach their pupils to act like this.

  • pnyikos

    On one of the blogs where Giublini and Minerva posted this same apologia, someone pointed out a clear contradiction to something they write in the apologia:

    In the letter:
    “However, we never meant to suggest that after-birth
    abortion should become legal.  This was not made clear enough in the
    paper. “

    In the paper:
    “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

    I have not seen the paper myself because I saw no sign of it in the table of contents for either the March or February JME, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the “In the paper” quote.  But I have posted two comments in the same blog (7th and 8th comments), in which I  critique two other things they say in their apologia.

  • no offence caused

    Thank you for this open letter. I have read your article and as a pro abortionist you made me question if I did not follow my way of arguments though as it should.
    However you should not  have given permission for the withdrawal of the article. If science cant debate without fear we will enter the Middle Ages again.

  • David Gillon

    “We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.”

    Suppose that you had called for the death of a minority group in a racially charged society, would you expect to be praised?

    The paper explicitly sets out to validate the argument that a disabled life is a lesser life, that disabled people can be written off as non-people, and ultimately killed without ethical consequence. No matter how you try to obfuscate it, that is the basic premise around which your argument revolves. I cannot believe that you do not recognise the historical parallel between what you have written and Aktion T4, I also can’t believe that your peer reviewers let you through to publication without requiring you to address those issues, and ultimately I think the entire bio-medical ethics establishment needs to take a long, hard look at the reality and consequences of its behaviour for people living out there beyond the ivory towers.

    I am disabled, I live in the UK, a country in which the rise in disability hate crime is so alarming that even rabbis are now drawing explicit parallels with the situation for disabled people in Germany in the late 1930s. Disabled people are being abused in the street on a daily basis, because we are considered frauds and scroungers, and ultimately just less than human. I personally am into double figures with incidents of abuse from complete strangers, including one physical assault, and I am far from atypical. Two friends have already been abused in separate incidents this year, and many disabled people are now scared to leave their homes, I even find that happening to me, and I’m far more able to defend myself than most.

    When you write that a disabled life is a lesser life you do not write in a vacuum, there are people out there on the street who not only believe that, but who actively seek to attack disabled people, spurred on by a government eager to portray us as scroungers and frauds in order to justify welfare cuts and fully capable of misrepresenting scientific research in order to justify economic and political aims (c.f. UNUM and Cardiff University’s twisting of the Bio-Psycho-Social Model of Disability into a tool to allow the UK Government to force disabled people into work, see also criticism of Department of Work and Pension’s disability-related press releases by both the Parliamentary Select Committee on Work and Pensions and the UK Statistical Authority).

    2012 is a very scary time to be a disabled person, not only are we attacked in the street, but we are vilified in the media on a daily basis, even our Prime Minister feels confident enough in his reception to go on national TV and argue that he’s ‘sure voters wouldn’t want their taxes going on benefits to people like that’. When you argue that a disabled life is a lesser life, you aren’t just writing for bio-ethicists, there are people out there positively eager to find a justification for their disablist views, and when you provide those arguments for them you actively take the side of those who attack me and people like me. I know several disabled people who have been approached on the street by utter strangers and told to go to Switzerland and avail themselves of the euthanasia facilities offered by Dignitas – is that any different to the view of disability expressed by your paper? Does your paper not in fact positively encourage people in such behaviour? And there are people who will go further; I am in no way exaggerating when I say that the most hideous murders in the UK in recent years have been torture-murders of disabled people by people who are convinced that we are less than they are (See Katharine Quarmby’s superb ‘Scapegoat’ for a explanation of the background of hate your paper is actually written against).

    If you argue that a disabled life is a lesser life, do you really believe that that argument exists in a vacuum? As a disabled person I am here to tell you that it does not, that I am attacked and demeaned by it, whether I am aware of it or not, and that in making that argument you are no different to the people who have abused and assaulted me in the street. If you find that accusation uncomfortable, imagine how I find being told that my life is worth less than yours.

    You do have a right to explore these views, but only if you explore them within  both the historical and contemporary contexts and only if you recognise them as construing an explicit attack on the human rights of disabled people (c.f. the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With a Disability). I do not think the failing is solely yours, it extends to your peer-reviewers, and ultimately to the bio-ethical establishment as a whole. For the last decade or more there have been a series of bio-ethicists taking the position, some more publically than others, that a disabled life is a lesser life. Disabled people have felt rightly threatened by this resurgence of eugenics, and the changes in the attitude of society towards disabled people demonstrate that our fears are entirely justified, What has been very visibly lacking is a concerted repudiation of these views by the bio-ethical establishment acting en-masse, and in fact we have been much more likely to see a defence of the views than anyone taking the side of disabled people. Would the same be true for a bio-ethicist arguing for the extermination of non-Caucasians? And if not, why not? Ethics is about asking yourself the hard questions, and from where disabled people stand, the ethicists have been failing that test for a decade or more.

  • David Gillon

    Taking a slightly different position to Perusic, I would argue that it is cowardly, or perhaps utterly naive, by presuming a disconnect between argument and reality. When you’ve had the embodiment of the argument that to be disabled is to be less try to throw you to the ground for no reason other than that you happen to be walking while disabled then it becomes difficult to regard statements such as “But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.” with anything other than utter contempt. This is a paper that argues that to be disabled is to be less, at a time when disabled people are being attacked on a daily basis with precisely that justification, and then tries to disclaim any responsibility. What else should we call it?

  • Philipp Giese

    So the authors wanted simply to discuss objectively about infanticide. Even though I agree with the uproaring people that infanticide is nothing to be discussed, I actually read the paper and have not “only” a subjective, but an objective issue with the suppositions written there.  

    In the mentioned article Giubilini and Minerva state on the one hand that a potential person does not have the same set of human rights as a real person, thus it might be killed if parents choose so. On the other hand, concerning future generations they write: 

    “We might still have moral duties towards future generations in spite of these future people not existing yet. But because we take it for granted that such people will exist (whoever they will be), we must treat them as actual persons of the future. This argument, however, does not apply to this particular newborn or infant, because we are not justified in taking it for granted that she will exist as a person in the future. Whether she will exist is exactly what our choice is about.”

    And that is a point where I cannot follow their logic.  If killing a “potential person” is not in contradiction to human rights and morally acceptable, why do we have to look upon future generations? Is the point that “the (future) humanity” is more important than a particular human? Or is it because an actual killing of a newborn (or abort a child) actually kills while irresponsible treatment of the nature (for example) makes the life of future generations only difficult? Even with one of these answers I would still see a logical flaw in the article. 

  • Philipp Giese

    But here we are at the core of the problem, dear mod! The claim of Giubilini and Minerva (and yes, of the people before them like Singer etc.) is to make a distinction between “real” and “potential” persons – who do not have the same right to live. For people who hat a newborn child in their arms this statement sounds like a claim that these babies are vermin. 

  • T.B. Stork

    It may be ellucidating to consider the lineage of these ideas.  Julian Savulescu is the editor of Journal of Medical Ethics, which published the infanticide article.  His PhD advisor was Peter Singer.  Savulescu, Giubilini, and Minerva belong to the philosophical school of thought called utilitarian bioethics, which Singer is the most influential and prominent representative of.

    Singer on the disabled:

    Practical Ethics, Cambridge U Press, 1993:

    “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant
    with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness
    will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The
    loss of the happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a
    happier life for the second. Therefore, if the killing of the
    hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others it would be right to
    kill him.” “It may still be objected that to replace either a fetus or a
    newborn infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living
    today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people
    who are not disabled. Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny
    that, on average, this is so.”

    Why We Must Ration Health Care, New York Times, 7/19/09:

    “If we return to the hypothetical assumption that a year with
    quadriplegia is valued at only half as much as a year
    without it, then a treatment that extends the lives of people without
    disabilities will be seen as providing twice the value of one that
    extends, for a similar period, the lives of quadriplegics.”

    Giubilini and Minerva use Treacher-Collins Syndrome as an example of a defect that may not be detectable until birth that parents may decide warrants the death of the newborn baby.  People with TCS are not mentally disabled; the most frequent issues are moderate facial deformity and reduced hearing.

    Even the absence of disability may not be good enough.  Savulescu has called for a “new eugenics” to breed more intelligent and altruistic humans; otherwise, he claims, we face extinction.

    One doesn't need to be a pro-life theist (in fact, I am a pro-choice atheist) to discern problems with the reasoning and conclusions of utilitarian bioethics.  The appeal of utilitarian bioethics, despite its conceptual impoverishment and moral vacuity, may be due to the superficial appearance
    of logical infallibility and authority conferred by its aping the quantitative
    and objective language of scientific discourse.  Utilitarian bioethics is the ideological descendant of the mentality that produced the 1917 US pro-infanticide eugenicist film The Black Stork. 

  • M Sloand

    I note that the paper, as well as the logical defense in this letter, rely on the bioethicists' premise that since abortion is “ethically permissible”, it follows that “after-birth abortion” similarly is “ethically permissible”.  I agree with you that this is a logical progression.

    It is important to realize that in fact, there is a single barrier to logically extending this discussion to destroying nearly every human life deemed not of worth according to any mutable standard.  That barrier is merely small changes to Tooley's definition of a person.  I am certain that logical genocidal maniacs will find this to be a simple avenue, and that they can forthwith justify killing “the Jews”, or “the demented”, and so on and so forth.  Countering their logical progression will be a torturous exercise for ethicists at best, since all is based on mere definition.

    I trust that you good people do not intend this logical progression, but please justify that Tooley's definition must be immutable.  If it is not, you must concede that your logical exercise demonstrating “after birth abortion” to be ethically permissible has morphed into a  “reducto ad absurdum” proof that the propositions and premises on which this whole academic effort, to determine when it is acceptable to take a worthless human life, has stood for decades are untenable. 

    Frankly I am surprised that it has taken this long for such a proof to be published, but it is a logical extension of your work. I encourage you to recognize this, and utilize it to reshape the debate in such a manner that logical and atrocious results will not arise based on mere definitions  I am encouraged that you did not advocate for the legality of “after-birth abortion”, but were instead simply following the logical consequences of Tooley as well as the logic that has led in these years to abortion being considered ethically permissible.

    I see no other way forward than a supreme reliance on the primal sanctity of all human life, but perhaps you can.  We can now see the consequences of relying on logic following from this mere definition clearly violate a quest for the common good of humanity.

  • David Hunter

     The claim I believe is instead that there will be some people in the future and hence whoever they are we have duties towards them – however when talking about specific people such as a particular infant, they either will be or won't be in the future so we either will or won't have moral duties towards them (on the supposition we don't have moral duties now). So in other words there will always be future people there won't always be future that person.

  • David Hunter

     The paper hasn't been withdrawn. See here:

  • David Hunter
  • David Hunter

     The paper can be found here:

    There is a significant difference between moral permissibility (which the authors were discussing) and legality which rather undermines this objection.

  • notfittolive

    Wow!  I guess we poor dumb public weren't supposed to know the future plans of killing babies that are “a burden”.  We were supposed to be brainwashed first into thinking mankinds survial or  “Mother Earth” hinges on these “useless human babies” being extermindated!

  • Erwin Zundl

    “When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate.”This is what people seeking to gain prominence by provoking scandals will always say. Not very original. It is like: “When I called you a shithead I didn't think I was insulting you.”

  • Heiner Bussy

    If infanticide is the same thing as abortion, then that's the best reason to prohibit both.

    The problem with Giubilini/Minerva is that they argue in favour of accepting both. They write to legitimize murder, like Goebbels and Rosenberg. 

  • Wilhelm Winkelschreiber

    Why do these two morons believe that their own arguments are “rational”? Only because somebody back in 1975 has written a similar idiocy?

    Sir, Madam: you are insulting the very notion of “rationality”.

  • Ad101867

    T.B., you've written a great response here; I really mean that.  Unfortunately, if you're an atheist, then you really have no right to make any moral judgment whatsoever, because if atheism is true, then anything goes.  There simply is no universal moral standard you can justifiably impose on anyone else.  Killing babies – and any other form of murder – is WRONG because there is a Creator who created us for a higher purpose, AND HE CALLS MURDER SIN.

    That's the reason.  There simply is no other.

  • Msimmon67

    How about we call a “spade a spade”.  After birth abortion is a sanitized term describing infant murder.  Plain and simple.  Evil…absolutely.   

  • Kevin Wight

    Unless it's the creator that is doing the murder. Or Abraham being willing to murder his son at his creator's behest. I'm sure you could find some passage in the Bible to justify the death of someone you don't like if you tried really hard, or just picked a page at random.

  • Kevin Wight

    Well maybe those people should try not to have such a knee-jerk reaction. They might drop the baby in outrage or something.

  • Rootles

    Who do you two think you're kidding?
    I read your article, and I have to be honest: I don't think the media representation was harsh enough. It's not a serious piece; it's a total joke!
    In the first place, you never once back up your distinctions between “actual” and “potential” persons. You do not offer a single piece of evidence to back up your claim that newborns do not have the same moral status as an older child. You assert that “the moral status of an infant
    is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those
    properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an
    individual' and there isn't a citation anywhere for this. It's a pretty dubious claim to be making.
    Then there is your absurd argument on the nature of harm. Had this article not been printed in a serious journal, and had you not affirmed your support for abortion at the end of your article, it almost reads as a satire.”It might be claimed that someone is harmed because she is

    prevented from becoming a person capable of appreciating her own being
    alive. Thus, for example, one might say that we would have been harmed
    if our mothers had chosen to have an abortion while they were pregnant
    with us or if they had killed us as soon as we were born. However,
    whereas you can benefit someone by bringing her into existence (if her
    life is worth living), it makes no sense to say that someone is harmed
    by being prevented from becoming an actual person. The reason is that,
    by virtue of our definition of the concept of ‘harm’ in the previous
    section, in order for a harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is
    in the condition of experiencing that harm.”So, you assert that harm is an experience. Dying is not harmful to someone who is not capable of experiencing death. If you kill someone but they don't actually “experience it,” then they have not actually been harmed. What innovative definitions of experience and harm you have discovered. I wonder, if someone kills me in my sleep, will I experience it? If I miss out on the experience because I was sleeping, can my husband smother me the next time I snore, and get away with murder? After all, by your definitions, I did not “experience” my own murder.
    You close your “argument” with the following nonsense: “First, we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible, and we do not think that in fact more than a few days would be necessary for doctors to detect any abnormality in the child.”A few days? What!? You just spent four pieces of paper attempting to argue that “post birth abortions” are ok, but you you don't really know how far “post birth” should extend? Do you wish to make a successful argument or not? You want to lamely add a sort of “well, it's ok but we don't really know how long it will be ok for.” Is this a joke? Either follow your argument to its logical end, or please spare the Journal of Medical Ethics anymore of your drivel.

  • Mariaber63

    I think that once you go down the path of subjective views on who exactly should be awarded the title of personhood, there is no limit on how far this could be taken. Even if the quality of life argument was a legitimate one, who can ever predict how anyone's life will unfold? Who or what body could claim to have the final say over life or death? 

    This letter seems to me to be a poor attempt to back away from the original arguments. It's probably been rattled up to try and calm the storm, but comes across as arrogant and somewhat elitist. I really don't think the average man or woman needs to be a bioethicist to understand where Giubilini and Minerva are coming from and the ” brave new world” they like to theorise about. 

  • David Gillon

    Illuminating post! The utilitarian school is precisely what I was discussing in my post. Here you have a subset of bio-ethicists arguing, and in the public domain, not simply academic journals, for reinstating the morality of the T4 programme, but we don't see the rest of the bio-ethics community taking a public stand against them. I think disabled people have a right to find that tolerance for their rights, but not for our rights, to be more than a little disturbing

    I have to laugh at your quoting Savulescu on eugenics. As a friend was pointing out just today, her disability is associated with higher than average IQ scores. And it's far from alone in disabilities in conferring an evolutionary advantage alongside the odd negative.

  • Miss Doyle

    Some philosophers fail to understand that ideas have actual consequences.
    It is naive to think that 'just putting something out there' for discussion won't justify the actions of others. 
    The philosophy adopted by various movements around the world had actual consequences – for eg. Communist ideology ran several nations for a long time and as a direct consequences removed human freedom and permitted various abuses of human rights. Nazism did the same. They all relied on philosophical ideas to justify their actions. They even embodied their philosophies in law. 
    In the stand in Nuremberg, many defendants stated that what they did was legal. 

  • Iain Brassington

    Hang on: aren't you skipping ahead a bit too quickly here? You seem to have decided (a) that there' an analogy between the G&M paper and the T4 programme, and (b) that analogy is sufficient to demonstrate sameness. But (b) is just false, and (a) is disputable, and could be false.

    As for the “silence” of the bioethicists: well, there's a number of possible explanations for that. One is that we're all baby-eaters. I find that to be unlikely. Another is that there are responses in preparation, but that the haven't yet appeared. Some will dismiss the paper out of hand; others will accept elements but claim that other aspects are mistaken; a few might defend the paper. I find this explanation to be much more likely.

    It's true that there haven't been many bioethicist contributing to things like this comments thread – but, really, that's not going to be a surprise. I suspect that even those of the community who're going to reject the paper fairly comprehensively think that it still needs to be demonstrated what's gone wrong with it – and assertions on a blog simply don't do that. It'd be hard to pretend that all of the responses here or elsewhere on the net have been particularly rigorous, after all.

    A proper response takes time. Silence isn't always permanent, and isn't always a bad thing.

  • RightKlik

    “We did not recommend or suggest anything in the paper about what people should do (or about what policies should allow).”

    Absolutely false:

    “…we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth
    such that they would have justified abortion, what we call
    after-birth abortion should be permissible.”

  • Ad101867

    Kevin, you simply don't understand what's going on here, because you are approaching the Bible with a negative bias from the outset; therefore you don't give it a chance to explain itself; you refuse to look at the larger context.  You assume you already know what it's saying or teaching.

    First of all, without a Creator to whom we're all accountable, there IS NO such thing as “murder.”  That's a term without meaning unless there's actually an Objective Moral Standard that defines what is “murder” and what is not.  And there can BE NO Objective Moral Standard without a Creator to establish it.  So unless you presuppose a Creator you actually have no right to complain about something you call “murder.”

    Secondly, the Bible is overwhelmingly clear that God hates murder and hates human sacrifice.  Even the Abraham story by itself demonstrates that it was never actually God's intention to have Abraham sacrifice his own son.  When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering,
    my son.” (Genesis 22:7-8)  And that is precisely what ended up happening (22:13)  And that experience in their lives foreshadowed the God-Man who would himself love humanity so much that he came to be “the Lamb of God
    who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)

    Part of your problem is that rather than sincerely trying to understand the Bible on its own terms, in its own context, you jump to the conclusion that I “must” be attempting to use it to push my own ideas or to justify bumping off this or that person.  That is simply not the case.

  • David Gillon

     ” You seem to have decided (a) that there' an analogy between the G&M paper and the T4 programme”

    Both argue that a disabled life is a lesser life and that disability alone is sufficient to justify killing, there's no decision or interpretation involved, the common arguments and conclusions between G+M and Aktion T4 are clearly stated. I'm not saying that there is some slight 'analogy', but that they are identical in their opinion of disabled people.

    If you believe I am wrong, demonstrate to me that G+M does not argue that disability provides a justification for killing.

    “As for the “silence” of the bioethicists: well, there's a number of
    possible explanations for that. One is that we're all baby-eaters. I
    find that to be unlikely. “

    And yet time and again over a period of decades we have seen ethicists arguing a disabled life is a lesser life, without seeing other ethicists making an equally prominent case that a disabled life is at least as valuable as any other. Do you understand that my concern is both a) the apparent fact that these views are accepted as legitimate within the ethics community, and b) that there is real damage done to the acceptance of disabled people as equal members of society by these headlines, yet we never seem to see ethicists taking an equally public stand that they are wrong.
    From my perspective, your academic community is allowing damage to be done to the acceptance of my demographic by ethicists who appear to remain in good standing within your community, and you're more likely to be seen defending their rights to deride us as lesser beings, than defending our rights to be seen as equal.

    Isn't it reasonable for me to find that troubling? 

    Can I presume that at some point there have been ethicists who have argued that a non-Caucasian life, or a gay life, or a Muslim life, is a lesser life that justifies killing, and that they have been extended similar protection by your community? Or was the reaction different in those cases, and if so why? Or if those views haven't been advanced, why is that? What is it about disability that makes it acceptable to argue that disabled people have inherently less worth?

    “It's true that there haven't been many bioethicist contributing to things like this comments thread”

    The damage is done when these stories make headlines, and are not immediately repudiated, I have no doubt that there are people who will comprehensively dismantle M+G's logic in papers to come, but they won't attract the attention that M+G did. What will people remember from this story in a month or a year? Simply that bio-ethicists consider disabled people to be a lower form of life. And it won't be the first time that a story on disability and ethics has proceeded to the same conclusion.

    I understand the scientific process, and you seem to be trying to interpret my points within that model and solely with reference to M+G, but I'm not talking about a single paper or about the scientific process of thesis and counter-thesis, I'm talking about the real world issues of the damage done to the acceptance of disabled people when apparently respected scientists draw headlines saying that a disabled life is a lesser form of life, particularly when no equally respected scientist steps promptly forward to argue that these views are both wrong and unacceptable. I wouldn't expect an academic response within the half-life of a headline, but is it unreasonable to expect a prompt statement of disagreement first in order to register that this isn't a universal position within ethics while the story is still live, and then a detailed paper later?

    “A proper response takes time.”

    An academic response takes time, an appropriate response to a headline cannot afford to take time, the two can co-exist.

    “Silence isn't always permanent, and isn't always a bad thing.”

    It is when it allows a message that we are a lower form of life to embed itself in society's meme-space as the ethical view of disability.

  • David Gillon

     Ultimately I'm trying to do two things here: a) encourage any ethicists
    reading this to consider the damage that their arguments can cause to
    real people when they argue for propositions that undermine our

    And b) try to understand how articulating a viewpoint that would be considered profoundly discriminatory and verging on hate-speech in any other venue, is considered acceptable behaviour within the ethics community.

    I haven't really seen either point addressed as yet.

  • David Gillon

     “The objections to your paper did not arise singularly from uninformed, backward prejudice.”

    In fact the position of the disability community would be that their paper _articulates_ “uniformed, backward prejudice”.

  • T.B. Stork

    Here's an excellent response from Kenan Malik, an atheist trained in neuroscience:

  • Ep127

    Who are you?
    The proposal of the so-called post-birth abortion, in the article by Giubilini and Minerva, is astonishing but not surprising. As the journal editor pointed out, this issue has been largely discussed in the past, after it was formally advocated for the first time by Prof. Michael Toolan in 1972.
    The option of killing the human fetus has been part of medical practice in most western countries over the past decades. As we agree with the authors that no substantial difference is present in the individual before and after birth, we recognize that killing babies ‘after birth’ only increases the total number of individuals being eliminated, but not the matter at stake. The authors are well aware of this, and conclude that since abortion is commonly permitted, even infanticide should be.
    Our question for the authors is, who would be entitled to decree the death of an infant or any individual who ‘might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society’ (line 1, page 2) or is anybody at all entitled to make such a decision?
    No one of us decided to be born, when to be born and where to be born, it happened in a specific time in history, in a precise geographical place, and in a family we did not choose. We are indeed confronted with an unavoidable question, who decided of our existence and who called us to existence? The fact of our own birth and our own life brings about, whether we like it or not, that we are not ‘in charge’ of our life and even less of the life of others. Life is given to us.  
    Therefore we hold that each individual has an untouchable value that springs from this mysterious relationship.
    Moreover, we argue that, since medicine was started in human history in order to heal illnesses, alleviate suffering and comfort patients, the answer to a present or future disability or to parents’ anxiety should not be death but solidarity.
    We propose that any patient, whether aware or unaware, capable or incapable, young or old, potentially disable or chronically ill, even when is incurable, holds an unconditional value and therefore should be object of profound respect and care.

  • Iain Brassington

    Yup: I've already posted it in the thread ^up there^

  • Iain Brassington

    I'm curious about your reference to “the disabled community”. Are the disabled univocal about this (or anything), any more than white/ black/ gay/ straight/ insert-descriptor-of-choice-here are univocal about anything?
    What counts as being a member of the community? Is there a difference between those who're disabled due to genes and those disabled due to injury?

    What kind of thing is this community? Does it have opinions in its own right, or are we talking about the accumulated voices of everyone? Or the most vocal? Or what?

  • David Gillon

     “I'm curious about your reference to “the disabled community”.”

    I'm curious as to why you're curious. You might find a piece of writing called 'The Self-Narrating Zoo Exhibit'interesting:

    Do disabled people hold a single view? No. Are certain views overwhelmingly commonly held. Yes. In terms of adult euthanasia we tend to split in two, those who believe there is a case for it where palliative care has failed, and those who believe there is a case for it, but that the biases of contemporary society makes the consequences of legalisation too dangerous to pursue. I belong to the second group, and prolonged discussion over a period of years on disabled social-media sites leads me to believe we're roughly split 50-50. Most prominent spokesman for the first group is probably Terry Pratchett, most prominent spokesperson for the second, Baroness Jane Campbell. In terms of eugenics, it's so vanishingly rare for a disabled person to speak in favour of it that I can't actually think of an example. In terms of people expressing a revulsion for eugenics, no shortage of examples whatsoever.

    “Are the disabled univocal about this (or anything), any more than white/ black/ gay/ straight/ insert-descriptor-of-choice-here are univocal about anything?”

    I somehow doubt you'll find many gays arguing that being gay justifies gay-bashing, or people of African heritage arguing that they should be treated as slaves, or Muslims insisting on their community being universally viewed as terrorists. The nature of the topic in relation to disabled people make your question and the way you phrase it particularly interesting.

    “What counts as being a member of the community?”

    Being disabled obviously helps, but we usually consider carers and supporters to have valid, if secondary, voices. Carers, in particular, tend to have common interests with us on issues of social care, How disability charities and other organisations are viewed is heavily dependent on how user-led they are.

    “Is there a difference between those who're disabled due to genes and those disabled due to injury?”

    There are differences in experience, and (other than when talking about specific inheritance issues) it isn't an issue of genes vs acquired disability, but more of early acquisition vs adult acquisition, it tends to make a difference in the grieving process, and in how up to speed people are with the politics. Someone disabled from childhood grows up knowing this stuff, someone with adult onset disability takes a while to pick everything up.

    “What kind of thing is this community? Does it have opinions in its own right, or are we talking about the accumulated voices of everyone? Or the most vocal? Or what?”

    While we managed to muster several thousand people for the Hardest Hit march on Parliament last year, and to force several defeats on the government in the House of Lords over the past couple of months through the Spartacus Report, we're overwhelmingly an online community and largely amorphous, simply due to access issues, equally we're politicised by current circumstances, rather that inherently political. Social media, through disability websites such as Ouch, has enabled disabled people to come together in a way that hasn't been possible before, drawn by a common experience and common interests that exist independent of individual disabilities. In essence the online communities offer a shared experience that disabled people may not even be able to find within their own families.

    OTOH the history of activism predates social media through the activities of the British Council Of Disabled People and the like, many of whose founders went on to establish Disability Studies as an academic discipline. As with any community there is a common understanding of the community's position and the threats it faces, though individual variations within that.

    Two core positions tend to be 'Nothing for us, without us', which dates back to BCODP's campaigns that ultimately lead to the Disability Discrimination Act and insists that no policy wrt disabled people can be valid unless disabled people are fundamental in the creation of that policy; and the Social Model of Disability, which rejects the Medical Model concept that a disabled person is something which needs to be fixed, and defines disability as the discrimination we face through the failure of society to adapt to our needs.

    As with any community, leaders and spokespeople tend to emerge through a combination of native ability and the coalescence of community members behind them. We're currently seeing a new generation of groups, activists and leaders coming through in trying to oppose the attacks on disabled people in the Welfare Reform Bill and the consistent and calculated demonisation of disabled people in the media and in government statements. I guess I'm reasonably prominent in that as one of the people writing for Where's the Benefit? and working with groups such as DPAC and Broken of Britain, and as one of the people often asked to speak about disability discrimination and hate crime in the papers and on radio and TV.

    I'll close with a question: if you don't know this stuff, how can you, or M+G, or any other ethicist, feel competent to comment on disability issues? Remember, 'Nothing for us, without us.'

  • Ari

    I find your opening sentence to be so ridiculous as to be scarcely believable.

    It is simply not credible that two people, with your level of education and critical thinking abilities could have been surprised by the reaction your “though experiment” has received.

    It is, to my mind, demonstrably mendacious to claim such and cheapens your argument.

    If you believe, as the likes of Singer and Savulescu do, that such arguments can be made, then make them, openly, proudly and be prepared to defend them. Instead, you claim, in a furious backpedalling from your original position, that you never meant that the logical proposition was to suggest that after birth abortion (what a weasel phrase that is and how clearly it shows your contention that you had NO IDEA that there would be, justifiable, outrage is a complete falsehood. Why not use the term that currently applies to terminating children after they're born: Infanticide) “should be permissble for months or even years”. You never needed to suggest that at all. But you did make the argument that it was LOGICAL. Without suggesting at what point it CEASES to be logical, the “if x, then y” nature of excuse is applicable ad infinitum.

    This open letter is riddled with elitist apologetics, repudiation of the logic you relied on to make the argument in the original article, the most “weasel” of weasel phrasiology and, worst of all, unmitigated cowardice.

    You should be ashamed of the original article but even more deeply ashamed and embarrassed, if that's possible, by this most weak and laughable attempt to back-pedal, obfuscate and excuse.

    Apology most definitely NOT accepted.


  • Iain Brassington

    It's an interesting post behind the link.  But I remain suspicious of the idea of appeals to “the community” in discussions, not because of the position that is putatively being articulated, but because of a more general question of what it is that means it makes sense for one person to speak on behalf of an entire community (and, correlatively, whether “the community” might be used simply to refer to “people who think the way I do”).  I'm not saying that that's what's going on here – just why I think that appeals to “the community” can be problematic.

    The other reservation about appeals to “the community” is this: if an argument or position is sound, it doesn't matter who makes it.  If it's unsound, it doesn't matter who makes it either.

    There are times when appeals to “the community” are used to make weak claims look to have an authority they don't warrant.  Granted, people who self-identify as belonging to a particular community might be quicker to spot problems with a given claim – but then the normal rules apply about assessing whether or not the problem is real, big, and so on.  Nor is there any reason to suppose that it's only people who self-identify in that way who have these insights.

    Again, I'm not saying that your particular claims are weak – just articulating another reason why appeals to the community can be problematic.  What is said seems to me to be much more important than who is saying it.

    I would be very surprised indeed if the kinds of worry you've articulated here aren't articulated elsewhere, and don't get picked up in the academic responses – the likes of which will no doubt appear in the JME in the not-too-distant future.

  • David Hunter

    Hi Gillon
    Let me answer on behalf of at least this ethicist.
    In regards to A this is something I am to be sensitive to, I am reluctant to recommend policy without fully thinking through the consequences. That said I think it is unfair to characterise this paper as arguing for propositions that undermine your equality – I don't read anywhere in the paper as claiming that you don't have personhood. I assume you are inferring this from the claim about it being sometimes better to abort disabled foetuses or kill disabled babies. But seeing as the authors think the same about healthy foetuses and healthy babies in some circumstances I am not sure they are promoting discrimination… And more to the point, preventing X from coming into being isn't the same as discriminating against X once X exists.

    In regards to B. Again this is only discriminatory if it is actually the case that foestus and babies have moral status, but that is actually the subject up for debate. Ethicists and philosophers often proceed on the basis of suspending judgement about common assumptions (ie all humans count morally – nothing other than humans count) to see where an argument takes them – since we cannot just assume that our beliefs are correct after all.

  • David Hunter

    I'd like to see some kind of justification for this, very strong, claim:  “And there can BE NO Objective Moral Standard without a Creator to establish it.”
    It would seem there can be other objective standards without a creator, so why not moral ones?

  • Alexandra Greeley

    Your premise, philosophical or otherwise, is totally immoral. Clearly you do not object in real life to doing away with (i.e., killing) those beings who don’t fit into your framework of viable humanity. As a Catholic who values the sanctity of life, I find your “philosophy” or whatever you wish to call it, reprehensible. Your weak excuses of writing this as an argument for other bioethicists is flimsy at best. Why don’t you spend your time thinking of practical ways to help humanity rather than destroy it?

  • Francesca

    Mod Edit: I’m not allowing this, because it’s not in English. If you want to translate and resubmit, then feel free.

  • marcellous

     Yes, but do they argue the circumstances before birth which would justify abortion?  Isn’t the “when” in this sentence logically akin to an “if”?

  • Pingback: Abortion or Murder? « alex933

  • David Gillon

    “I think it is unfair to characterise this paper as arguing for propositions that undermine your equality”

    I don’t, and I have a rather more personal stake in the matter than you do. Shouldn’t you be trying to address our points, rather than simply dismiss them? Remember, ‘Nothing for us, without us’.

    Whether or not non-disability issues are discussed, G+M take an explicit example of a disabled baby, argue its life is devalued by that disability, that the negative effects of the disability on the parents can be considered a point weighing against its continued life and then develop these to ‘justify’ killing it. There are two fundamental attacks on the equality of all disabled people buried at the heart of the assumptions that drive their supposed logic. The first attack on disabled people is the assumption that our lives are devalued by our disability. The second attack on disabled people is the assumption that we inconvenience other people through our disabilities and therefore should again be regarded as a lesser form of life.  Both of these are core issues in the rights of disabled people to be regarded as equal members of society. At a time when disabled people are under daily attack in the media and on the street, assertions of this kind in an ethical journal are not simply offensive, but actively dangerous.

    “this is only discriminatory if it is actually the case that foestus and babies have moral status”

    I assume you recognise that many people will find simply questioning that right to be deeply offensive. Concentrating on the disability aspects, the ethical views advanced towards disability have historically been deeply offensive, and have been used to justify the killing of disabled people in their hundreds of thousands in Nazi Germany and its occupied territories, and the sterilisation of disabled people in a far wider range of countries, Sweden and the US most notably. There is almost universal revulsion for the Holocaust, but knowledge of Aktion T4, the extermination campaign against disabled people that presaged it, is much less common. Disabled people are frightened by an apparent rise in both the general hostility they face, and by the instances of ethicists proposing eugenics based concepts – and you know, probably better than me, that members of G+M’s school have not restricted themselves to theoretical discussion, but have actively proposed implementation of eugenics-based policies in general media. (There was a deeply offensive comment from my semi-namesake, Ranaan Gillon, in the national papers just last week over the ‘Pillow Angel’ case), Just to suggest that it might be legitimate to discuss our ‘moral status’ is deeply offensive, G+M have gone beyond that to argue that our ‘moral status’ can justify killing us, and in the current climate we have to regard any paper of this nature as deeply dangerous. What genuinely concerns me is that ethicists don’t seem to care for the consequences of their thought-experiments, or even admit that there are consequences. It seems we really are non-people, or lesser people, to them.

    “Ethicists and philosophers often proceed on the basis of suspending judgement about common assumptions (ie all humans count morally – nothing other than humans count) to see where an argument takes them”

    But isn’t a paper that doesn’t then double back to standard morality in order to understand why the paper’s logic fails to match the ethics of society only doing half the job? G+M have proposed something that is actively dangerous and contrary to international law, but have made no attempt to demonstrate where their logic fails and why it should be discounted. To switch to a hard science metaphor, their theory fails to represent recorded data and therefore is implicitly falsified, which in a hard-science journal wouldn’t even get to peer review, never mind past it to publication.

    Ultimately what I can’t get past is that the ethicists seem to be saying they have a right to argue for anything, no matter the consequences to real people. I’m struggling even to get people to accept that we have a right to be frightened, and that frightens me too.

  • David Gillon

    M+G’s paper attacks the status of disabled people en masse, but you argue that we can’t respond by articulating the concerns we feel as a community because you say that has no value* – do you see how I might regard that as problematical?

    My whole point is that we can’t seem to get ethicists to engage with us and to understand our fears, three quarters of your response amounts to disparaging community-based concerns and the rest to ‘well I’m sure the adults will talk about it where you can’t see it’.

    ‘Nothing for us, without us’ remember?

  • Joree

    First, the authors plead ignorance and innocence, ‘Sorry, we never thought this would happen’. In the internet age, adult professors in philosophy! If they merely wanted to bat around some entirely theoretical arguments, they could have clearly said so. What planet do they live on? The pre-internet, pre-library, pre-printing press, pre-bush telegraph age? 

    Second, if they are as professorially astute as they pretend to be, they should understand that today’s academic debate often becomes to tomorrow’s practice. This has happened in Nazi Germany, with aborion, euthanasia, and many other issues. Academia is NOT simply an interesting debate in an ivory tower. And they know that much better than we do. No point in pretending otherwise.  

  • Pingback: Life and Death: Bioethics as crypto-eugenics |

  • Pingback: WARNING!! Life and Death: Bioethics as crypto-eugenics « Anti Oligarch

  • Ad101867

    When you refer to “other objective standards,” you’re speaking out of your own worldview–presupposing that the universe we know could, in fact, exist without a Creator.  That by itself is debatable.

    As to morality, well, that can’t exist without purpose.  I like to use the analogy of a car radiator: it’s “wrong” to put dirt in my radiator, if, in fact, the purpose of the car is to get me from Point A to Point B.  If, however, I want to let the car rust out and use it in my yard as an interesting setting for a flower display (as I’ve seen done), then it doesn’t matter what I put in the radiator.

    If there is no Creator, then humanity has appeared by accident (again–presupposing that this would even be possible).  Accidents by definition have no purpose.  Ergo, it doesn’t matter how one human being treats another.

    Sure, it “matters” to the person being mistreated, because they wish to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.  But if there’s no Creator, then it’s not objectively “wrong” for me to rape, steal, murder, or otherwise victimize others for my own pleasure or gain.

    In other words, something is “objectively wrong or right” only when it’s wrong or right for *everybody*, regardless of how we feel about it.  “Objective” means it’s a standard outside of our subjective feelings or instincts.

    It is wrong for me to mistreat you because you were created by God for a higher purpose, and if I mistreat you, that violates your creationary status and purpose.  But if you’re just an accidental molecular mash-up, then I can treat you any way I feel like.  You can say, “No, you have no ‘right’ “–but I’ll just retort, “Says who?”

    David, the reality is that mistreating you is WRONG because God exists.  Period.

  • Jobel2000

    I have not felt offended at all…I was astonished at reading what I was reading. I do not know how long this debate has been going on, one day, one year, ten years or forty years is absolutely irrelevant, as far as I am concerned. The only thing that matters is that a life may be considered worth living only if one is perferctly well and in good health.

  • Pingback: Bioethics & the New Media | Dissertation Reviews

  • Pingback: Abortus, infanticid, sloboda govora… | Mind Readings

  • Pingback: rimonabantexcellence site title

  • Pingback: Let’s use our thinking caps, people! « Oddly Said

  • Pingback: Answering Objections to “A Dark Day for the Unborn” -


  • MMatic

    I’m a theoretical physicist and I welcome anyone, not just my fellow physicists, to read my articles and critique them. This is actually one of the prime examples of the scientific method to which we should all adhere to. That is why I will now critique your article in JME.

    Your cognitive capacity argument is self defeating. For instance, you are biomedical “ethicists”. Wagering a guess, you chose
    this career in “science” because you likely were not very good at the
    hard sciences and math. Despite what many would claim this is proof of your inferior cognitive capacity. It is beyond your ability to ever understand, say, Chern-Simons theory. Why should you be allowed human rights if you can’t grasp the mathematical elegance and beauty of gauge symmetry? Extending this even further would only leave Ed Witten the status of a human being. It is absurd. Obviously being human is about being genetically human.

    • Aeron Haworth

      I think you may have missed the point – well, several points actually. The authors clearly state above that they were ready for their position to be challenged by other bioethicists. What, in fact, happened was that their paper was picked up by the mainstream media, for which it wasn’t intended. What resulted is a cautionary tale for all academics writing on controversial matters. The nuances of philosophical debate don’t automatically lend themselves to the column inches of the press; if we wish to extend the debate to the public then care and consideration should be taken. Experienced bioethicists have become adept at this, raising important societal and ethical questions in a succinct, accessible way, but this has rarely been done by simply presenting a 5,000 word paper to a journalist and saying, ‘Go ahead, interpret away’.

      The danger of such an approach is evident in your erroneous interpretation of this paper. Nowhere do the authors suggest that only the cognitive brilliant have person rights. In fact, Tooley’s definition of personhood sets the bar incredibly low. One only needs to have a sense of self and future being (to paraphrase) to be classified a ‘person’ and accordingly have rights. Neonates, it can be argued, do not possess such capacities and so lack personhood status. This is not a new argument in bioethics. We’ll have to give the benefit of doubt to theoretical physicists as to whether they qualify under Tooley’s criteria, whether they appreciate the mathematical elegance of Chern-Simons theory or not.

      Finally, can I add that some of the world’s greatest physicists were also our most brilliant philosophers, and vice-versa. Physics, of all the sciences, often requires us to make great leaps of faith in order to accept scientific theory, especially when it comes to the origins of the Universe, for example. Philosophers can bridge the gap between truth and perception. Dismiss their musings at your peril.

      • MMatic

        I believe that it is you who have missed my point. “Tooley’s definition” sets the bar for personhood low, as you say. My point was that there is no objective criteria for setting “the bar” anywhere. One can set “the bar” as high and as low as one desires. How can one argue that setting “the bar” this low or this high is appropriate, or even using this bar and not some other bar? After spending more time than, in retrospect, I should have, I find it obvious that most of this field of bioethics is some attempt at realizing an utilitarian pseudo-philosophy of one “Prof.” Peter Singer and any answer to my question will most likely have to appeal to this philosophy. Why should I accept this philosophy? I do not and neither do all these people making death threats, obviously.
        Furthermore, the sense of self can mean many things, from being able to feel pain to being aware of the difference between yourself and the world around you. Again, the term needs definition and justification as a criteria of being a person. For instance, to get from first principles to the conclusion in this sad paper one
        needs to make several unjustified steps in logic. The only way one
        can reach the conclusion reached in the paper is if one wanted to a
        priori to reach these conclusion.

        You use the term academia to set yourself above journalists, etc. The only reason that this term has any weight in the world is because of the success of natural sciences. And many other people working in academia essentially parasite off of this success in order to create the impression that they somehow know something better than, journalists, for example. Your wish to keep this discussion inside the field of bioethics supports my claim that bioethics has no semblance of the scientific method and objectivity. Discussions behind closed doors between the select few is not how science, or even philosophy, works. It’s how CULTS work. In order to have an objective working method of obtaining knowledge everyone and everything should be able to be challenged by anyone in a sound, logical, empirical manner. Anyone can look up a paper in theoretical physics and attempt to find a error, for instance. There are no leaps of faith because nothing is claimed with absolute certainty, except mathematically within some framework of assumptions. Every empirical claim is made with an error margin, albeit, in physics, this is usually means 5 sigma certainty.
        In my opinion, as an actual scientist, professional proponents of Singer’s utilitarianism, whether cloaked, like bioethicists, or not have no place in academia. This philosophy is naive and self-defeating as it is not difficult to see that employing 10 post-docs in, say, biochemistry will be more useful than employing 10 bioethicists.

        I know that many of my colleagues in natural science agree with me, or at least they would if they knew what bioethics was about and I certainly hope that one day actual scientists will become organized enough to kick out these various pseudo-sciences, half-sciences and almost-sciences out of academia. This paper just adds fuel to the fire started with Alan Sokal.

        Setting aside science and speaking philosophically, utilitarianism was thoroughly discredited by Marx in his Das Kapital. It is, at best, a tautology and whatever “philosopher” wishes to see is filled in. This whole idea about it being morally justified to kill babies is perverse and is typical of liberal bourgeoisie ideology straying into fascism, as Lenin predicted.

        Finally, to reiterate, what you are doing is not science, it is not even philosophy. It is an
        attempt to push a pedestrian form of utilitarianism as objective academic

  • Jonathan Farrow

    Essentially, as they said, their position is no more than a supposed logical progression, we currently do in vitro testing for a variety of diseases and women choose to terminate their pregnancies based on test results. There is no law preventing abortion on the grounds of disability so all they are doing is carrying that idea beyond the point of delivery. It is obvious that your replies are emotion driven and carry a personal bias. I will admit when I first read an article based on their paper I felt the same way, but in reading their reply it is obvious that they were simply trying to make an argument based on current standpoints and ethical standards carried beyond the socially acceptable endpoint. I am sorry that you have been assaulted due to your disability but they were not making a position on the value of life but instead on the limits of socially accepted behavior and how that limit could shift into a realm of dangerous possiblities.

  • Jonathan Farrow

    With people who are far too poorly educated to understand their paper making claims about their intentions perhaps they have the right to be a little elitist

  • Pingback: More Ethicists Come Out in Support of Infanticide (UPDATED) | Catholic Moral Theology

  • Pingback: As mentiras escondidas nos argumentos dos manipuladores pró-aborto – parte 3. | Vida sem Dúvida

  • Pingback: [Commentaar] Bedreigingen abortus-ethici zijn altijd brug te ver » Vrijzinnig Evangelisch

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Latest from JME

Latest from JME

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here