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