American philosopher George Santayana famously wrote in Life of Reason, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Whether history repeats itself, as Santayana suggested, or merely rhymes, as Mark Twain suggested, is a matter for debate on the nature of historic recurrence. I agree far more with Solomon’s aphorism that there is nothing new under the sun. As a current example of nothing new under the sun, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva recently wrote an article published on February 23, 2012, in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a peer-reviewed journal for health care professionals and researchers in medical ethics.

In the article, titled After-Birth Abortion: Why Should The Baby Live?, the authors say that parents should have the right to kill their newborn infants because infants are not people. Professor Giubilini, of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Milan, Italy, and the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and Professor Minerva, of the Centre for Applied Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Oxford, England, write that murdering newborn infants should be legalized.

They write that in “circumstances occur[ing] after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.” The authors prefer the term “after-birth abortion” as opposed to “infanticide” because the term after-birth abortion emphasizes “that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable to that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child.” The authors also do not like the term euthanasia for post-birth abortions as it is not necessarily the best interest of the child being killed that is the primary reason for his killing. (Really??) In other words, the parents would determine in their best interest to kill the newborn.

So, what do our erstwhile ethicists suggest are acceptable circumstances under which the newborn may be killed? This might include a situation where the well-being of the family is at risk, even if the newborn had the potential for an “acceptable” life. Downs Syndrome is an example cited by the authors. The authors write that while the quality of life of individuals with Downs Syndrome is often reported as happy, “such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care.” (Emphasis added.)

Thus, a newborn whose family (or society) can be socially, economically or psychologically burdened or damaged by the newborn should have the ability to seek out a legal after-birth abortion. The authors further contend that the moral status of a newborn as a potential person is equivalent to a fetus (which incidentally is merely the Latin word for an unborn child), in that it cannot be considered a person “subject of a moral right to life.” For those who might have an interest, here is the text of the article.

So, why do I start this blog referring to history and that there is nothing new under the sun? Several months after the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, on July 14, 1933, the Nazis enacted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” The law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism. With the law’s passage, the German government also propagandized against the disabled, calling them “life unworthy of life” or “useless eaters,” as they highlighted the burden on society caused by the “useless eaters.”

Weeks before the German invasion of Poland, on August 18, 1939, the Reich Ministry of the Interior circulated a decree compelling all physicians, nurses, and midwives to report newborn infants and children under the age of three who showed signs of severe mental or physical disability. At first, only infants and toddlers were included, but eventually juveniles up to 17 years of age were also killed.

Many historians have long observed that the intellectual underpinnings for eugenics and social Darwinism that led to the heinous acts by the Nazis and others began in the philosophy and other academic departments of German and other European universities many decades earlier. As much as we might consider the proposal by Professors Giubilini and Minerva to be absurd and morally reprehensible presently, please remember that history might just rhyme.

I can readily imagine that we might see such events happen again in our lifetimes. If you want to know more or to share your thoughts, you can write to Professor Minerva at the following email address: francesca.minerva@unimelb.edu.au. I am sure she would welcome your thoughtful comments. Posting your emails to her and her response would be of interest to readers of my blog as well.