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“After-birth abortion” or how to justify the killing of newborns

You think that advocating for the killing of newborns would discredit you for good as à scientist in today’s world? Well, think again. Alberto Giubilini is an Italian bioethicist known for questioning the right to life of newborns and for developing the theoretical background for the legalization of infanticide. Today, he is one of BBC’s specialists regarding vaccination policies and a fervent supporter of mandatory vaccination against COVID-19. 


Fiction or reality?

In her book published in 1993 under the title The Giver, the American writer Lois Lowry depicts a sanitized world deprived of colors and emotions. This imaginary society reminds of Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. In both these books, everything seems to be under control in society. People tend to be predictable and do not think outside the box. 

Like in Orwell’s 1984, the society of The Giver elaborated its own form of newspeak. The concept of death itself is unknown to people. However, the killing of newborns and the elderly is not only tolerated, it is seen as part of the great achievements of civilization. People are being put to death during so-called “ceremonies of release”. Everything is organised in a way that the execution is perceived by all the parts as beneficial. 

One may argue that these books should be considered as science-fiction and have little to do with reality. Well, such a person would be wrong or at least, misinformed. I read The Giver in 2006 as an eleven-year-old boy. It is the first genuine book I ever read. My conclusions were clear: the author tried to warn the reader that we should take care of the weakest people of our society as they are the ones who need it the most. Otherwise, we risk waking up in a world in which these “burdens” can be legally executed “for the common good.” At the time, I perceived this as a sad yet realistic prediction of the (very) far future. 

Little did I know that four years before, in the neighboring Netherlands, the Groningen Protocol, allowed to actively terminate the life of “infants with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering” with or even without the child’s consent (however absurd it sounds).

“It should be legal to kill a healthy newborn”

In February 2012, a distressful text from two Italian bioethicists entitled After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? has been published online. Its authors are Alberto Giubilini (Research Fellow at the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and on the Oxford Martin Program on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease) and Francesca Minerva (Research Fellow at the University of Milan). 

The main point of the authors is the following: given the fact that abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health, killing a newborn should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is. 

The authors start by reminding that “having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children”. They continue by expressing their distress regarding the birth of children with Down Syndrome. 

“An examination of 18 European registries reveals that between 2005 and 2009 only 64% of Down’s syndrome cases were diagnosed through prenatal testing. This percentage indicates that […] about 1700 infants were born with Down’s syndrome without parents being aware of it before birth. Once these children are born, there is no choice for the parents but to keep the child, which sometimes is exactly what they would not have done if the disease had been diagnosed before birth.”

Giubilini and Minerva go on by stating that “ (…) it is reasonable to predict that living with a very severe condition is against the best interest of the newborn” and that to bring up such children “might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion.


Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child.


Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk. Accordingly, a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion for the choice, contrary to what happens in the case of euthanasia.”

“Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life”

The madness doesn’t end here. Let us have a look at what Giubilini and Minerva have to tell us about what they perceive as human dignity and who is and, most importantly, is not entitled to it.

“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. Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.


This means that many non-human animals and mentally retarded human individuals are persons, but that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons. Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life. Indeed, many humans are not considered subjects of a right to life: spare embryos where research on embryo stem cells is permitted, fetuses where abortion is permitted, criminals where capital punishment is legal. 


Those who are only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure (…) have a right not to be inflicted pain. If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth. (…)”

“Since babies have no moral right to life, there are no reasons for banning infanticide”

The authors claim that fetuses and newborns are “potential persons” rather than persons as such because they can develop “those properties which will make them ‘persons’ in the sense of ‘subjects to a moral right to life’: that is, the point at which they will be able to make aims and appreciate their own life.”

They further claim that “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.


A consequence of this position is that the interests of actual people over-ride the interest of merely potential people to become actual ones. This does not mean that the interests of actual people always override any right of future generations, as we should certainly consider the well-being of people who will inhabit the planet in the future.”

Giubilini and Minerva are so concerned with “the well-being of people who will inhabit the planet in the future” that they emphasize their theory according to which “merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought to existence. Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions. (…) Whether [the ‘potential person’] will exist or not is exactly what our choice is about. 

“Infanticide should be a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns for adoption ”

In the last part of their allegedly scientific work, the two Italian bioethicists reach new heights of cynicism by claiming that giving the newborn child to adoption (if she is unwanted by the parents) is not necessarily better than to deliberately kill her.“It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible’.


What we are suggesting is that, if interests of actual people should prevail, then after-birth abortion should be considered a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns for adoption.”

The authors conclude their blood-chilling fantasies by assuring that they “do not suggest any threshhold” until which infanticide should be permissible. We learn that they “do not claim that after-birth abortions are good alternatives to abortion. Abortions at an early stage are the best option, for both psychological and physical reasons. (…) People should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford.”

What does the theory of “potential persons” teach us?

Since our childhood, we have been incentivised, and rightly so, to the atrocities which occurred in the XXth century, mostly during the Second World War. The massive killing of millions of people was made possible because of the spreading and acceptance of the theoretical background that dehumanized several groups of people. 

Communism dehumanized the bourgeois and pretty much anyone who opposed this ideology. Nazism dehumanised Jews and Slavs among others. Nowadays, it is the preborn children who are being denied an unquestionable human dignity. Satanists in the US go as far as considering abortion as a “religious ritual”. According to the WHO, an estimated 40 to 50 million children are being killed on a yearly basis in their mother’s womb. It is the equivalent of the total number of civilian casualties from WWII… Every single year. 

As the great G.K. Chesterton remarks in his book Eugenics and Other Evils, “Say to them [eugenists and euphemists] ‘the persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generation does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to the females’; say this to them and they will sway slightly to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them ‘Murder your mother,’ and they sit up quite suddenly. Yet the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same.”

Chesterton draws our attention to a crucial element permitting the trivialization of murder, namely the skillfull manipulation of the language. For example, in France, the killing of a newborn is not even called an abortion but an IVG (“voluntary interruption of pregnancy”). So called assissted suicide is often named euthanasia which ethimoligically means “good death”. 

Let us come back for a moment to Minerva and Giubilini. What may be one of the scariest things with their pseudo-scientific text is their consistency. Indeed, if we agree that a 12 week-old fetus has no right to life, why would a newborn have one? We could push this logic to an even further extreme by claiming that a 7-years-old child is not yet able to “appreciate his own life” or “give value” to it and that it should therefore be permissible to kill him. Absurd, right? Most people agree on the fact that infanticide is wrong. Yet, when it comes to the child being still in the womb, it is a whole other story. Why is it so? Where is the limit?

The “civilization of death” about which Saint John Paul II warned us about is no science-fiction but an undeniable reality. A good first step to tackling it would be to acknowledge its existence rather than denying it.

Sebastien Meuwissen

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