(Felicia Nimue Ackerman, "Saving an Angel," in "Letters," Time 169 No. 7 (12 February 2007), 20.)
As a Bioethicist, I have a question about the justification of infanticide by Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecology on the grounds that "a very disabled child can mean a disabled family." Why should the College apply this consideration only to disabled infants? Cheating husbands, alcoholic wives, and nagging mothers-in-law are just a few of the many sorts of people who can mean a very disabled family. Why not kill them to?
If we take a logical point of view and look only at the adequacy or cogency of the arguments advanced in this controversy, the truth or falsity of the ethical positions being taken are not at issue. The question we are asking is whether or not Professor Ackerman's argument is good reasoning--i.e., whether her argument is valid or correct.
Initially, we can surmise that Professor Ackerman would oppose "active euthanasia" on the grounds that she uses the term "infanticide"--a term which has a considerably different emotive significance from other neutrally appropriate terms. The definition in Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, of "infanticide" is as follows:
(William Little, et. al., The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 998.)
a. The killing of infants, esp. the killing of new-born infants, as a custom among savages, and in the ancient world. b. spec. The crime of murdering an infant after its birth, perpetrated by or with the consent of its parents, esp. the mother."
(By way of contrast, those opposed to Professor Ackerman's position might use the emotively significant term, "mercy killing." The question as to whether Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecology's use of term "active euthanasia" is a euphemism, is left open.)
Without access to the article Professor Ackerman comments upon, we might suspect that, if fallacies are committed in her response, they might include the fallacies of (1) slippery slope, (2) accent, and (3) complex question. (Arguably, there could be additional fallacies suspected such as equivocation and straw man.)
Let's take a look at the proposal Professor Ackerman opposes. The Time magazine article describes the case of parents choosing to sterilize and minimize the height of their severely disabled and brain-damaged daughter, Ashley. The parents argue that they are seeking to "improve [their] daughter's quality of life and not to convenience her caregivers." This is the relevant section of the article concerning what is termed there, "the Ashley Treatment":
(Nancy Gibbs, "Pillow Angel Ethics," Time, 169 No.4 (22 January 2007), 57.)
To warnings of a slippery slope, [Dr. Daniel] Gunther tilts the logic the other way. "The argument that a beneficial treatment should not be used because it might be misused is itself a slippery slope," he says. "If we did not use therapies available because they could be misused, we'd be practicing very little medicine.
Those deploring the Ashley Treatment as a medical fix for more than one family are watching the direction that Britain is taking. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecology has proposed that doctors openly consider allowing euthanasia of the sickest infants, which is legal in the Netherlands. "A very disabled child can mean a disabled family," the college wrote to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and urged that it "think more radically about nonresucitation, withdrawal of treatment decisions ... and active euthanasia, as they are ways of widening the management options available to the sickest of newborns."
(1) It seems evident that Professor Ackerman has overlooked Dr. Gunther's admonition concerning slippery slope. The question raised by the Royal College is to consider the "management options available to the sickest of newborns." To presuppose that questions concerning "cheating husbands, alcoholic wives, and nagging mothers-in-law" are comparable to the questions concerning the fight to preserve the life of a severely disabled and brain-damaged newborn, is indeed to confabulate uses of the term "disabled" and to commit the fallacy of slippery slope. The Royal College is raising the questions of nonresuscitation and active euthanasia with respect to the "sickest of newborns" and the consequent effect on the family--those kinds of disabling effects differ substantially from the sociological effects of "cheating husbands, alcoholic wives, and nagging mothers-in-law."
(2) Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecology is not attempting to justify infanticide as Professor Ackerman asserts in her first sentence. To seize on the phrase "disabled family" is to commit the fallacy of accent or quoting out of context.. The College seeks to open the options discussed by medical ethics review boards in debating the issues facing severely disabled newborns. Needless to say, the question-at-issue is not the advisability or inadvisability of euthanasia for nagging mothers-in-law. The quotation being taken out of context is as follows:
A very disabled child can mean a disabled family. If life-shortening and deliberate interventions to kill infants were available, they might have an impact on obstetric decision-making ... We would like the working party to think more radically about non-resuscitation, withdrawal of treatment decisions, the best interests test, and active euthanasia, as they are ways of widening the management options available to the sickest of newborns.
(3) The fallacy of complex question is the fallacy of phrasing a question that, by the way it is worded, assumes something not contextually granted, facts not in evidence, or something not true. What Professor Ackerman assumes is that a "disabled family" resulting from the problems of the most severely disabled and brain-damaged newborn is similar to a "disabled family" resulting from a cheating husband, alcoholic wife, or nagging mother-in-law. The difference is not simply that parents cannot divorce their extremely disabled baby. The difference results from the equivocation involved in the phrase "disabled family."
It's important to note that even though Professor Ackerman's argument is flawed, that finding does not imply that any of the other ethical positions discussed here are, as a result, made more likely to be logically correct. Even so, Professor Ackerman's response is not a helpful contribution to the complex social, religious, medical, scientific, philosophical, and, especially, personal aspects of this intractable problem in bioethics.