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Ethicists who argued that 'after-birth abortions' are ethical receive death threats

Newborns cannot be considered "persons," meaning there is no moral reason not to perform "after-birth abortions," argue a pair of Australian ethicists in a controversial paper that has drawn death threats.

The authors, both of whom work at Melbourne University, say that killing even a healthy newborn could be acceptable if raising the child would put an unacceptable burden on the family.

"We claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be," write Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in a Journal of Medical Ethics paper.

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The authors argue that a newborn cannot be considered a person because it has not developed a sense of self and future.

"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," they write. "It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth."

They make no specific determination of how old a newborn must be to move from being a "potential person" to personhood, saying that is a question for neurologists and psychologists.

The paper comes at a time when socially conservative groups in North America are working in the other direction, trying to extend personhood into the womb.

Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth defied his party's establishment by launching a debate on when a fetus becomes a human being, saying the current definition of complete emergence from the mother is outdated. And in the United States, the group Personhood Florida is one of many advocating for laws re-defining when life begins.

Once news of the JME paper began to spread beyond the academic community, it set off a firestorm.

Dr. Minerva told the Sydney Morning Herald that she feared for her safety after receiving death threats. She also argued their work was being taken too literally.

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''This was a theoretical and academic article,'' she said. ''I didn't mean to change any laws. I'm not in favour of infanticide. I'm just using logical arguments.''

Julian Savulescu, editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, slammed the "hostile, abusive, threatening responses" that had been hurled at the authors and his publication.

"The goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view," he wrote in a blog post earlier this week. "It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises."

He acknowledged that the argument that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn could be used to advocate an end to abortion. He said the journal would consider publishing a paper making such a case "coherently, originally and with application to issues of public or medical concern."

In the JME paper making waves, the authors note that abnormalities that might have prompted abortion are not always evident in the fetal stage and may, in fact, be caused by being born. They also argue that raising a child could harm the psychological health of a mother, positing the example of a woman who loses her partner and must act as sole parent. And they dismiss adoption as a fail-safe solution to these situations, arguing that the finality of death may be better for mothers than the vague dream that children given away may some day be returned.

"We also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption," they write. "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."

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Dr. Minerva noted that this paper is only one of a debate that has been going on for decades. And although she argued it has no relevance outside the bioethics community, she felt compelled to go to the police after getting "hundreds of emails saying, 'You should die'."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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