Why a relational account cannot rule out infanticide if abortion is permissible

By Bruce Blackshaw and Daniel Rodger

It is widely recognised that late-term fetuses and infants differ little in features that are thought to be morally relevant such as consciousness and rationality. This poses a problem for ethicists who argue for the permissibility of abortion but wish to rule out infanticide. Some just bite the bullet—Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva famously argued that infanticide should be permitted in all cases that abortion was permitted. But for many ethicists, endorsing the permissibility of infanticide is a step they are not willing to take, for obvious reasons—most people find the idea horrifying.

We have written on this topic previously, arguing that certain accounts of moral status justify not only infanticide, but even more horrendous acts such as organ harvesting and experimentation. So, we read Prabhpal Singh’s relational account of moral status with interest to see whether he had come up with a viable solution to this conundrum. Unfortunately, we conclude that he has not—just as late-term fetuses differ little from infants in their morally relevant features, we argue that they differ little in the relational features that form the basis of Singh’s account. While birth marks an important change in the parental relationship, it does not mark its beginning.

This means the task of justifying abortion without permitting infanticide (based on moral status) remains. In our view, a more plausible approach is to bite the bullet in the other direction—to accept that if infanticide is seriously immoral, then we need to reconsider whether abortion should be regarded similarly.


Paper title: Parental Responsibilities and Moral Status

Author(s): Bruce Blackshaw and Daniel Rodger

Affiliations: University of Birmingham and London South Bank University

Competing interests: None declared.

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