When I was a kid, the big reproductive rights controversy was birth control. (As a teenage boy with rampaging hormones, I was heartily in favor of birth control. As a senior citizen I still am). One of the arguments against allowing birth control was that it would lead to abortion on demand. Birth control advocates pooh-poohed the very idea that it would lead to abortion on demand. They derided the argument as an example of the “slippery slope” fallacy. The slippery slope argument is supposedly fallacious because going halfway down the hill doesn’t mean you will continue to the bottom. You can stop any time you want to. When I first learned about the slippery slope fallacy, I didn’t buy it, and I never have. The argument that appears to me to be fallacious in this point-counterpoint is the argument that “I can stop any time that I want to.” I have a name for this standard refutation to the slippery slope argument. I call it the drunkard’s fallacy. I gave it this name because I’ve heard numerous alcoholics voice this argument, and they seldom make good on it.
Well, we have slipped right on down the slope from birth control, and it looked like we hit the bottom of the slope with “intact dilation and extraction,” a procedure more commonly known as partial birth abortion. I’m no medical expert, but as I understand partial birth abortion, a full term baby is delivered feet first, and while the head is still inside the mother, the skull is punctured and the baby’s brain is sucked out.
I’m not kidding. Here’s how it is described in the Princeton University web article: “Intact Dilation and Extraction,” http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Intact_dilation_and_extraction.html.
Under the Intact D&X method, the largest part of the fetus (the head) is reduced in diameter to allow vaginal passage. According to the American Medical Association, this procedure has four main elements. First, the cervix is dilated. Second, the fetus is positioned for a footling breech. Third, the fetus is partially pulled out, starting with the feet, as far as the neck. Fourth, the brain and material inside the skull is evacuated, so that a dead but otherwise intact fetus can be delivered via the vagina.
I have never heard what I believe is a good medical reason for delivering a baby feet first and killing it while its head is still in the mother’s womb. (The explanation on the Princeton site sounds to me like a plausible excuse rather than a valid explanation). I do, however, know of a legal reason for doing this. A baby is considered stillborn if, after birth, it never takes a breath. It is alive if it takes even one breath. When dead newborns are found in trashcans, the medical examiner checks the lungs to see if they have taken a breath. If they have, then you have a murder case.
Let’s apply this to the partial birth abortion. If the doctor delivers the baby head first, it may take a breath before its brain gets sucked out. That would be bad. That would be murder. The solution is to suck the baby’s brain out while the head is still in the womb and it’s impossible for the baby to take a breath. The horrific nature of such a procedure gave rise to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, http://news.findlaw.com/wsj/docs/abortion/2003s3.html, which prescribes the draconian punishment of up to two years in prison for killing a baby this way. Compare that to the maximum penalty if you happen to be in a death penalty state and kill a baby after it takes a breath.
Whew! We got it stopped before we hit rock bottom. Or did we? In an online article from the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argue for “post-birth abortions” or “after-birth abortions.” They summarize their arguments in favor of post-birth abortions in the following words:
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. “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” J Med Ethics, doi:10.1136/medethics-2011-100411, http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full#aff-1.
Why not just put the baby up for adoption? Giubilini and Minerva have a ready answer:
Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone's right but possibly increase the happiness of people involved (adopters and adoptee)?
Our reply is the following. We have previously discussed the argument from potentiality, showing that it is not strong enough to outweigh the consideration of the interests of actual people. Indeed, however weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people [aka newborn babies] to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero. On this perspective, the interests of the actual people involved matter, and among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief. 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. Ibid.
In effect, their argument is, “Let’s kill the baby because it might make the mother feel bad. It makes no difference that infertile couples will be deprived of the opportunity to love and cherish a child or that the child could grow up and lead a happy, productive life. Birthmom’s fragile feelings might be hurt if we allowed that to happen.” It gives me great pleasure to report that the firestorm of criticism ignited by this article has fractured the fragile feelings of both the authors of the article and the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics. See, e.g. Christopher Smith, “Premeditated Murder of Newborns,” The Washington Times, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/mar/12/premeditated-murder-of-newborns/?page=all, and Wesley J. Smith, “ ‘Bioethicist’ Upset by Public Criticism of ‘After-Birth Abortion’ Idea,” http://www.lifenews.com/2013/05/03/bioethicist-upset-by-public-criticism-of-after-birth-abortion-idea/.
This is just a tempest in a teacup, isn’t it? After all, Giubilini and Minerva are just a lunatic fringe, aren’t they? Afraid not. Look at this article from the web: William Saletan, “After-Birth Abortion: The Pro-Choice Case for Infanticide,” Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2012/03/after_birth_abortion_the_pro_choice_case_for_infanticide_.html, and Mark A. Thiessen, “Planned Parenthood’s Defense of Infanticide,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/marc-thiessen-defending-infanticide/2013/04/08/36e44294-a061-11e2-9c03-6952ff305f35_story.html. It seems that the Florida Legislature is considering a bill to require abortionists to try to save the lives of babies who accidentally get born alive when they botch the abortion (See CS/CS/CS/HB 1129 - Infants Born Alive, http://www.myfloridahouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=50434), and Planned Parenthood is opposing the measure.
The ball started rolling down the hill with the advent of birth control (not a bad thing in itself if we could have stopped the ball at that point). Then it started picking up speed when Roe v. Wade legalized first trimester abortions. We started putting on the brakes with partial birth abortions, and we’re trying to keep pressure on the brakes by requiring abortionists to try to save the lives of infants who are accidentally born alive as a result of a botch abortion. But there are those out there who want to apply pressure to the gas pedal and move on down the hill toward infanticide. It would be nice if the drunkard could be right just this one time and we can stop any time we want to.