Problems with “after-birth abortion” argument

A recent paper entitled After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? has caused quite a stir amongst the religious because it purportedly shows that abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide. Their argument is no more than an argument of the form “If you think abortion is morally acceptable for reason X, then you also think infanticide is acceptable.”

This begs the question “what is reason X?” In their paper, reason X is “because a fetus not a person.” It is very important to note that even if their logical argument is flawless, it only applies to people who support abortion rights for this one very specific reason: that a fetus is not a person (as defined below). They have not shown that anyone actually supports abortion rights for reason X or that any existing laws are based even in part on reason X. That is, they have not shown that the “if” statement actually applies to anyone.

This point is important enough to re-iterate: their conclusion does not hold in general. It only holds for those who support abortion rights specifically because of reason X.

Their argument

(1) A person is “an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

(2) Neither fetuses nor newborns are capable of attributing value to their existence.

(3) Therefore, neither fetuses nor newborns are persons.

(4) Therefore, fetuses and newborns have the same moral standing.

Can you see the flaw?

Even if we accept (1) (2) and (3), (4) does not immediately follow. To see why, I will use a glaringly obvious and simple-minded analogy, following their line of reasoning.

(1) A cat is a creature that says “meow.”

(2) Neither horses nor dogs say “meow.”

(3) Therefore, neither horses nor dogs are cats.

(4) Therefore, horses and dogs are equivalent.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Even if you grant me the first three, (4) still doesn’t follow. Just because horses and dogs are both not cats doesn’t mean they’re the same animal!

In order for (4) to be a logically valid conclusion in their case, they need a further claim — that personhood is the only relevant factor in determining moral equivalence classes. Otherwise, while fetuses and infants may both be non-persons, they have not been shown to be equivalent to each other. In order to show this, the authors must show that all other differences between fetuses and infants have no bearing on their moral standing. One particularly glaring omission is that the authors have conveniently ignored the fact that fetuses take residence inside the body of another human while infants do not. If this fact is irrelevant to the moral status of fetuses as compared to that of infants, an argument must be made to explain why. Since the authors have neither made nor proven this crucial claim, they cannot logically conclude (4).

Their claim that supporting abortion is the same as supporting infanticide has not been shown as a valid, even within their narrow framework and using their non-standard definition of personhood. I hope this analysis was of use to someone. Please feel free to share this with anyone attempting to equate abortion and infanticide, or with anyone experiencing doubt about their pro-choice stance due to Minerva and Giubilini’s paper.

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2 thoughts on “Problems with “after-birth abortion” argument

  1. Hey Dolly,

    Thanks for taking the time to write a lengthy response. I hope my responses will be helpful to you, both in understanding the ethicists’ argument properly and refining your rebuttal to it.

    To say that the ethicists’ logic only applies to those who support the existing laws on the basis of that logic is a false assumption. If an argument is “logically flawless,” (logically) it would apply to every logical person regardless of the state of existing laws. You may say it has no legal precedent, but you cannot say it is entirely irrelevant to a moral discussion. (And who’s to say a new precedent cannot be established based on a new legal argument?) To count a logical argument off you must refute it logically, not presumptuously.

    Moreover, to assert that a logical argument is irrelevant to the current legal debate seems to me like hogging the debate. It’s sort of like folks back in the day arguing that the logic — that all human beings are equal and therefore should not be forced in to slavery — does not apply to those who hold to the current laws on slavery because they hold to them based on other reasons (such as the rights of the slave owners to their ‘property.’) But that’s not only unfair, it’s non-sensical.

    Here’s why the ethicists’ argument is eminently relevant to the current legal debate. The argument concludes as it does in (4) because implicit in (3) is the idea that all persons are moral agents, not that all persons are “equivalent” in every way (this is another false assumption you make). If persons were not moral agents, no law or legal system would even matter, much less Roe v. Wade. So the idea of personhood is a terribly important idea when it comes to any legal matter. And because the ethicists have concluded (logically) that if fetuses are not persons neither are babies, they conclude that neither has any inherent right to life or protection under law.

    So your analogy is deeply flawed. You missed their point that only persons can be moral agents, and then you used non-moral agents (horses and dogs) as analogous creatures. But animals are not moral agents, so it truly wouldn’t matter if horses and dogs were “equivalent” or not; as animals they have no equal moral standing. So, I’m afraid you’re the one who raised the most irrelevant point of all.

    The logical problem remains for every logical and moral person – if neither fetuses nor babies are persons, how are they not (at least in their moral standing) equal to animals, i.e. non-moral agents? Why can’t we kill these non-persons like we kill every other animal? The pro-lifer’s answer is, ‘Both fetuses and babies are persons, that’s why you can’t kill them like animals.’ The ethicists’ answer is, ‘We define personhood differently, and in a society where killing fetuses is legal, so should killing babies.’ Both of these are logical answers with a differing definition of personhood. What is your answer to the question based on your definition of personhood?

    It seems to me that the ethicists have employed logic without their moral intuitions (or their moral intuitions are deeply flawed). I hope you would employ both in your answer.

    In sum: 1.) you’ve failed to establish your point that their logical argument is irrelevant to this discussion, and 2.) you’ve misunderstood the argument that assumes that only persons can be moral agents.

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    1. You’ve failed to understand the criticism, and I think you’ve probably failed to understand the ethicist’s argument too.

      The argument they give is in the form “If you believe that abortion is morally justifiable for reason X, then, by extension, you also believe after-birth abortion is morally justifiable.”

      EVEN IF the argument they put forth were logically sound (which it is not, for the reason dolly highlighted), it would not apply to people who believe abortion is morally justifiable for a reason other than X. That’s how logic works. She has not made an assumption, and she has not conveniently ignored the argument.

      The claim she’s putting forth is that she (and just about everyone else in the same camp) does not cite X as the primary reason that abortion is morally justifiable.

      Maybe it’ll be easier for you to understand with an analogy.

      If I tell a group of people “If you robbed a bank, you’re going to jail!”, and you say “Uh… but I didn’t rob a bank.”, then I’d reply “Oh. Well, then what I just said doesn’t apply to you.” That’s what’s going on here. The hypothesis they require in their argument is rejected by dolly and most others in the pro-choice camp. It’s not an assumption. It’s not an empty assertion. It’s the rejection of a moral hypothesis that they require for their argument to work.

      You clearly didn’t understand the analogy about horses and dogs. The analogy was there to show the fallacy the authors made, and does not rely upon the moral standing of horses and dogs.

      The authors said, in summary, “Both fetuses and newborns are morally different to humans. Therefore, they have the same moral standing.” But two things sharing a single property doesn’t make them the same. Perhaps you should give it another read. Maybe you’ll understand a little better a second time through.

      The authors have failed to justify this claim, and I don’t think they can.

      Their condition for personhood is not satisfied by people in a coma, or people who are asleep for that matter. It’s probably more obvious that saying sleeping people are morally different than people who are awake is ridiculous. It’s a deeply flawed condition for personhood, and their whole argument relies on it.

      You can keep believing abortion is morally reprehensible if you like, but don’t go equivocating it with infanticide, citing this argument as evidence. This argument is deeply flawed, and you’ll only look silly to people who have the ounce of critical thought it takes to see what’s wrong with it.

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