By Raafay Syed


Baby-killing is a notion that is bound to stir up controversy, concern, and – as reflected by reactions to a recent bioethics paper – dangerously high levels of misunderstanding.


Just last week, the paper titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” was published by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Their ultimate argument was that “killing a newborn should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”


As soon as the paper entered the online world it went viral, igniting  a firestorm of reactions. While many responses, both within the philosophy and bioethics worlds and outside, engaged with and debated the author’s arguments, some news stories reflected misunderstandings over the authors’ apparent intentions, in identifying the work as a policy proposal. To the contrary, the authors were engaging in a philosophical exercise of argumentation; they were not making the case for actual policies that would allow doctors to kill newborns. There was a clear conflation of the realms of morality and legality.


For instance, one headline reads “Doctors ’should have the right to KILL unwanted or disabled babies at birth as they are not a real person’ claims former Oxford academic.” Another says “Ethicists Say Killing Babies Should Be Legal, Draw Controversy.” Realizing that his own views on the morality of infanticide might be conflated with policy prescriptions, bioethicist John Harris quickly posted a comment clarifying his position. See his distinction between “green papers” (purely academic papers) and “white papers” (policy papers) here.


Responses even included death threats against the bioethicists involved in the publication of the paper. Saying that the paper touched sensitivities is clearly an understatement.


Should those involved in the publication of the article have anticipated such a reaction? Should they have anticipated how their arguments would be received? Can we blame them for a scholarly contribution that has not resulted in productive dialogue and has likely increased polarization?


Yes and no.


On one hand, it would have been more appropriate for the authors to present their arguments with greater sensitivity and caution. Stylistically altering one’s presentation of an argument does not necessarily require sacrificing substance.


Presentation is even more important when it is likely that the audience will be broader than a particular academic niche. While the Journal of Medical Ethics publishes a lot of philosophical material, it is still widely read by doctors, nurses, and health care professionals outside of philosophy. Moreover, bioethical topics in general, and abortion in particular, receive considerable attention and interest in the public realm.


The authors didn’t make the issue of presentation easier on themselves by purposefully framing the topic as a type of abortion, or by conjoining the words “killing” and “babies” so liberally, and often superfluously.


On the other hand, it’s not completely surprising that the authors failed to anticipate how much attention their academic paper would attract. Once it did go viral, it took on a life of its own.  While YouTube videos of politicians or pets doing crazy things often go viral, it is more rare that an academic paper accomplishes such a feat. In an open letter responding to the responses, and apologizing, the authors made this very point.


Moreover, at least part of the confusion cannot solely be attributed to the authors of this paper. A broader disconnect between language usage in the philosophical world and the public is at least partially to blame. There are many terms used by people everyday that have completely different meanings  in philosophy. For instance, there are vast and unique bodies of literature in philosophy on very specific uses of common terms such as “person,” “intuition,” “well-being” and “world.”


A non-academic who hastily reads a headline or looks at an abstract stating that newborn babies are not “persons” and finds that this claim is associated with the claim that it is morally permissible to kill them, probably won’t think “Oh, this is very interesting. I wonder how this philosopher defines ‘person’ and what the moral significance of that definition is.” Instead, a normal response would probably look exactly like the kind of emotional and adversarial comments that we have seen.


This is not to say that philosophers should become paranoid and obsessive about defining each and every word they use in unnecessarily excessive detail. However,  there are some topics, such as abortion, that are likely to reach non-academic audiences and should be discussed with extra sensitivity, awareness and lucidity.


For example, when the philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse published her paper titled “Virtue Theory and Abortion” in Philosophy and Public Affairs, she made sure to spend a few introductory paragraphs distinguishing between morality and legality before getting into the arguments. Such preventive measures would probably have been useful for Giubilini and Minerva.


Once the dust has settled and this media storm dies down, there will still be important questions and challenges for philosophers and bioethicists with respect to their relationship with the public.


With the growth of social media and the impact of many bioethical issues on the everyday lives of so many people, philosophical and ethical arguments will make their way down to the public faster than  philosophers can stand up from their armchairs. In our social media world, academics must take proactive steps to improve and increase positive engagement with the public. Only then can we move toward more civil, productive, and meaningful discourse.


Raafay Syed is an undergraduate intern at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, and is majoring in Philosophy and Public Health Studies. He is primarily interested in virtue ethics, research ethics involving the cognitively impaired, and philosophical issues related to end-of-life care.

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