Beyond Personhood as Moral Status

The latest bioethical event of the on-going culture wars originates, somewhat unusually, in the UK, at least in so far as the Journal of Medical Ethics is a UK organ. The JME has in the past week published an article entitled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” The author’s choice of term for the action they seek to consider is at best distasteful, at worst pointlessly misleading and obviously provocative. Seeking to describe the killing of newborn infants as ‘abortions’ is about as helpful as those who describe abortions as the murder of innocents or, in broader terms, as a genocide. Frankly at a time when a woman’s right to abortion services is being challenged across America and the UK the authors should question the ethics of using this terminology. 

Clearly this is an article designed to attract attention and, I think, one can question the sincerity with which it is offered on that basis alone. One could also question the motives of the JME in publishing it; certainly, as everyone has acknowledged, the article is not particularly original. This charge is, however, mitigated by the fact the handling editor was Rev Prof Ken Boyd (who offers his perspective here) someone who is obviously opposed to the point of view presented and is, in my view, unlikely to have approved the piece for the publicity alone. As the Editor in Chief of the JME Prof Savulescu defends his position here and further concerns over the controversy appear on the Guardian’s Comment is Free (another CiF point of view is here). I am in agreement that the intemperance of the response (understatement alert) exhibits a greater immorality than the article itself but equally no one should be surprised that it provoked such a response.