The Progeny of Roe: After-Birth Abortion and Other Evils

by Teresa Ackley

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the now infamous article published by the Journal of Medical Ethics, entitled ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live.’ Inside, the authors argued in favor of legal infanticide—what they termed after-birth abortion.


You read that last sentence correctly. The authors, a collection of well-educated philosophers and medical ethicists affiliated with Oxford University, actually argued that mothers retained the right to “abort” (aka kill) their newborn babies because newborns, according to them, did not possess moral personhood and therefore did not warrant the law’s protection.

I will not address here the merits of the authors’ nauseating proposition. Many scholars eloquently countered the fallacies posed by the article at the time it was published. In addition, I trust that societal morality is such that the wickedness of legal infanticide is readily apparent.

However, I would like to take the opportunity of the article’s one-year anniversary to discuss more typical abortions, the pre-birth kind, and how one of its main rationalizations—that unborn children lack the moral personhood necessary for legal protection—built the intellectual framework used by the authors to justify infanticide.

The fact is that legal abortion, and the philosophy behind it, has diluted our commitment to natural rights. It has made it so that rights are conditional and that inconvenient groups can be shuffled out of the law’s protection. This has led to the slow acceptance of unbending evils (see after-birth abortion above).

The authors defending after-birth abortion made a frighteningly simple argument. They claimed that if abortion is an acceptable way to terminate a child’s existence in the womb, then it should be an acceptable way to terminate a newborn because both are only “potential persons.” They lack, in the authors’ words, “those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life.” After all, nothing substantial occurs to the body or psyche of a baby to distinguish it from what abortion proponents call a mere ‘fetus’. The principal difference between the unborn and a newborn is geography.

Shouldn’t it therefore be permissible to terminate the existence of one if law and morality already permit the termination of the other? The authors simply built on what pro-abortion movement paved before them.

The article did not propose some new idea. Rather, it voiced an already existing philosophical proposition within a strain of the pro-abortion community. The pro-abortion movement had shifted its main arguments away from the assertions that unborn children are not living towards more ambiguous assertions that unborn children are not ‘persons’ entitled to protection of the law. This is in part because developments in science have demonstrated that the unborn child is at least an independent, living organism that is separate and apart from the mother (albeit dependent).  Circumstances, therefore, necessitated that the movement alter its contentions, attacking not the biology of the unborn child but its humanity. The movement argues that since an unborn child has not developed a separate personality with hopes, dreams, and fears — because it does not exhibit self-awareness — it has not attained ‘personhood’ under the law and therefore does not share a moral right to life. Sound familiar?

I used the descriptive term “ambiguous” intentionally. The definition of “personhood” does not have a definite structure. Unlike the bright-line event of conception or even implantation, there is no single defining moment where we can identify when ‘personhood’ begins and when it ends, nor is there an accord on what degree of personality or level consciousness would constitute a person. As a consequence, the designation of personhood is arbitrary. It can expand and recede depending on the needs of the definer. Very often those needs reduce to economic and social benefits.

The result is a vague standard that can be manipulated easily to carve out and exclude growing segments of the population from the protection of law and the right to equal dignity – all in the cold name of a societal cost-benefit analysis. Whether the unborn child, the disabled, or the newly arrived infant, all face the burgeoning risk of dehumanization and calculated disregard.

Thus, the defense of after-birth while distressing is not unsurprising. Pro-life thinkers forewarned of this very philosophical conclusion. By redefining the nature of rights so that they attach at ‘personhood’ and not creation, the pro-abortion movement made possible a broad erosion in the quality and wellbeing of all our rights. It depreciated liberal society’s reverence of life and human dignity, corroding it to the extent that the society is no longer able or willing to defend the inherent rights of its members. Yesterday, the philosophy assailed the rights of the unborn child; today, it harasses the rights of the newborn; tomorrow, it will hound and assault a new victim (euthanasia of the elderly?).

Liberal society is distinct from its predecessors in that it is structured around the defense and preservation of its members’ natural rights. The philosophy of abortion eats at that foundation. It provides a mechanism for society to justify the dehumanization and, therefore, exclusion of inconvenient populations from the law’s protection. ‘After-birth abortion’ is simply the next step. If we wish to preserve our society’s dedication to equal rights, we must terminate the philosophy of so-called ‘personhood’ mid-gestation.


Teresa Ackley is a human rights lawyer based in Washington, DC.

One Comment

  1. Logically the authors of the paper are correct in their use of pro-choice logic. Ergo pro-choicers should agree with infanticide. But they do not, which tells us something about human nature.

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