Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, 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.
The full text is available here.
What is interesting here is "(1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons". They begin their case by defining terms:
The newborn and the fetus are morally equivalent
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.
This "attributing" action refers to having aims. The mistake here is that all life has aims even vegetation and single celled microbes. The criterion for rights to be applicable and to recognize a person is the possession of a rational faculty, not to actually be reasonable.
Their understanding of rights is flawed. They write: "a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X." Mere harm is not essential, else everyone not yet a millionaire can claim a rights violation. Rights are freedoms to act, not freedoms from harm.
The authors then move on to considering that a fetus and a newborn are both potential persons and whether rights can apply to a potential. Although their classification of a newborns among the potential rather than the actual is fatally flawed the argument against rights for potentials is correct to a point.
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 over-ride any right of future generations, as we should certainly consider the well-being of people who will inhabit the planet in the future. Our focus is on the right to become a particular person, and not on the right to have a good life once someone will have started to be a person. In other words, we are talking about particular individuals who might or might not become particular persons depending on our choice, and not about those who will certainly exist in the future but whose identity does not depend on what we choose now.
They attempt to confine their argument against potentials by restricting it to considering particular individuals, apparently not wishing to sabotage the case for attributing rights to collectives of persons in the future, rights which people in the present are duty bound to honor. The failure here is to recognize that rights apply to individuals and not collectives either in the present or the future. Apparently they wish to avoid undermining the case for enviromentalism, but the logic of their position implies no rights of future collectives can override the rights of present collectives. This delicate sidestepping is itself unethical and even intellectually dishonest as they are plainly aware of the issue.
The paper introduced the possibility of terminating infants after birth by invoking the context of hopelessly disabled infants that could be described as existing in a state of suffering. In the last section of the paper they consider generalizing the applicability of "after-birth abortion" to healthy newborns, so that a mother can avoid the psychological distress and uncertainty of giving the infant up for adoption. Based on the premise that mothers are people and infants are not they conclude infanticide (my term) of healthy newborns "should be considered a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns for adoption."
Small errors in handling abstractions within philosophy can lead to advocating atrocities.
The anti-abortion 'personhood begins at conception' movement will be galvanized by this article and will claim their "slippery slope" argument for banning abortion totally to be validated.
The editor of the Journal defended the article and his decision to publish it on the Journal's blog on the basis that:
... The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defence of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion.
He does not find infanticide disturbing but does find disturbing the vitriolic response against the author, his Journal and him.
A source for other links about the controversy is an article at The Blaze