Audrey Echevarria on the ever increasing practice of 'outsourcing pregnancy'

In another thought provoking piece, triggered by Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban's reference to their child's mother as a "gestational carrier", we reprint an article by Audrey Echevarria on the ever increasing practice of 'outsourcing pregnancy'. The commercial surrogacy that lies at the heart of the growing business known as 'Reproductive Tourism' is fostering a view that children are dispensable commodities.

Richard Stith on the moral status of the human embryo and fetus

Finally, in a very readable article, Richard Stith provides a philosophical framework for making sense of the different understandings people have regarding the moral status of the human embryo/fetus. The widespread vision of the embryo and fetus as "under construction" is the key to understanding why good people may find pro-life arguments to be non-rational or absurd. The construction versus development approach may also help to clarify mutual misunderstandings regarding the moral acceptability of euthanasia.

‘After-birth abortion’ a new euphemism?

P J Cullinane

The recent claim of academics Giubilini and Minerva, made in the online Journal of Medical Ethics that the killing of new-born infants (referred to by the authors as "after-birth abortion") is permissible gives rise to many questions that should not be evaded.

Academic standards

A cluster of questions arises around standards of academic scholarship. The issue is not whether there should be academic freedom or the right to publish dissenting opinions. The issue is whether academic freedom now means that provided certain procedures are followed, 'anything goes' as to content. Do universities still insist on objective levels of achievement and an academic's ability to think clearly? Giubilini and Minerva claim that a child is not a person until he or she is capable of attributing a certain value to their own life, able to make plans for the future, and able to appreciate that they are actually alive. But the authors admit they do not "know when exactly" this occurs. The implication is that at some stage in the process of becoming aware, the baby might not yet be, or might already be, a person.

Ethically, the situation is no different from that in which the deer shooter knows that the moving object shrouded by the trees might be a person, or might be a deer. The very existence of such doubt forbids shooting it on the mere probability that it might not be a person. If a baby must first become aware in the ways Minerva and Giubilini require for it to become a person and if they don't know exactly when that occurs, then they may not condone its killing. This is basic stuff.

Power over others' lives

A further cluster of questions surrounds the implied claim that to some is given the power to decide who shall live and who shall not, for reasons which Giubilini and Minerva acknowledge need not have "anything to do with the foetus' health", as is the case with abortions. In fact, the reasons they give to justify the killing might simply be that the mother no longer has the time, money or energy to care for the baby. Others have described this claim as 'chilling', and some have observed that expecting doctors to be agents of death effectively changes their basic role of preserving life.

Giubilini and Minerva accept that adoption is an option, but say it could cause undue psychological distress to the mother. Are they not aware of all that has been happening in relation to post-abortion trauma and its long-term damage to women (and to some fathers as well)?

The real challenge

The one thing going for Giubilini and Minerva's argument is the implied and even explicit parallel with abortion. If it is acceptable to kill babies inside the womb – for other persons' reasons – then it is likewise acceptable to kill them outside the womb – for other persons' reasons. In this way they effectively, even if unintentionally, challenge a hypocritical society over how glibly it accepts abortion. They argue that killing a new-born should be permissible "in all cases where abortion is, including cases where the new-born is not disabled".

The challenge to re-examine what we are allowing in the matter of abortion is all the more timely because some of the reasons previously used to support more liberal abortion have been proved false. It is reported that in the USA

"In the years leading up to the legalisation of abortion its advocates assured everyone that legalised abortion would reduce child abuse, strengthen family-life, and improve society. But all the evidence shows that after three decades of legal abortion, all these problems have gotten worse". (Janet Morana, Address to the Pontifical Council for the Family, Vatican City, 26 March 2010)

This is hardly surprising because abortion perceived as a solution to social problems requires a certain blunting of sensitivity and of conscience due to accepting the violence involved in the dismembering of babies in the abortion process.

This brings us to the questions that need to be asked about the role of law, its present formulation in New Zealand, and the responsibilities of our law-makers. The practical interpretation of New Zealand's current laws is consistent with the USA's watershed Court decision (Roe vs Wade, 1973) which allowed abortion at any time for any reason. But the legal situation in USA has not stood still. Individual States, with acceptance by the Courts, have made many amendments corresponding to experience and to a greater recognition of human rights. For example, parental involvement laws that require parents to either be informed of, or consent to, the abortion of a minor-aged daughter before it can be performed; informed consent laws that require that women seeking abortion be given accurate information about the development of the child, the alternatives to abortion, and the risks of the procedure; foetal homicide laws that proscribe the killing of a child other than by abortion – so-called partial birth abortion; ultrasound laws that require abortionists in some States to provide the patient with an opportunity to see her unborn child by ultrasound; and an Unborn Victims of Violence Act which protects the unborn from acts of violence other than abortion.

These restrictive modifications have come about because of the increasing opposition of feminist groups who have recognised the potentially life-long harmful consequences of abortion for women. In other words, socially and politically, there has been a strong and still growing movement away from permitting abortions to stricter limits on them. It is only lack of courage among NZ politicians that leaves our laws lagging behind these developments.

It might give heart to our law-makers to learn that far from being a denominational or even religious issue, the increasing alarm and opposition to abortion is being found across a broad section of the community, and especially among young people. They may also take heart from the sciences. The biological sciences have long-since taught that the fertilised ovum is already 'a microscopic human being' even before it is implanted, and that once implanted it requires only time and nurture to develop, grow and prepare for birth – in utero it already is a separate unique human being. The medical sciences are frequently having to deal with post-abortion trauma, which in some cases does not manifest itself until years later. These are matters our elected representatives are not entitled to ignore, because looking after the well-being of all citizens, especially the more vulnerable, is part of their core business.

A consistent ethic

If persons are defined in terms of what they are capable of doing, rather than what they are, and if problems of 'time, money or energy' are sufficient reasons for killing those who are more dependent on others, then the threat to life is at both ends of our lifetime.

The threat exists also for those in between birth and death in as much as social and economic planning too easily reduces human wellbeing to just one or other aspect of well-being – e.g. one's ability to contribute to the economy. Planning based on reductionism of any kind tends in the direction of a privileged position for the strong, and a kind of Darwinian attrition of the rest. Only by recognising the sacredness of human life and the innate dignity of every person, premised on their being human, can we arrive at a consistent respect for them at every point on the spectrum between conception and natural death. There is opportunity here for parliamentarians who are interested in finding a consistent, cohesive and coherent basis for all social and economic planning.

Bishop Peter Cullinane is Emeritus Bishop of Palmerston North Diocese and a former New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference deputy for The Nathaniel Centre.


1 Giubilini, A., and F. Minerva. "After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?" JME Online First (2012).

After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? A disability perspective


Martin Sullivan

When I first heard reports of a couple of bioethicists promoting the idea of after-birth abortion I thought, “they’re at it again; coming up with more justifications for killing us; the b******s!”  Of course not all bioethicists hold to this position (as evidenced by the number who have since expressed outrage at the notion of after-birth abortion) but I find it profoundly alienating and quite sad that the only time the discipline or bioethicists themselves seem to show any interest in disability and disabled people is when they are arguing over when its OK to kill us. 

As a disabled person who knows his history, I can never separate these kinds of arguments from the situation which occurred  in Nazi Germany when over 200,000 disabled people – ‘useless eaters’ ‘life unworthy of life’ - were murdered in the Aktion T4 euthanasia programmes[i].  Justifications for after-birth abortion sound awfully like a reopening of that door, a rekindling of the Silent Holocaust; that is why my response is so personal, so visceral.  

Unfortunately, this after-birth abortion debate flows logically from the zeitgeist of consumer capitalism where the body is seen as a prime site of consumption and the neoliberal precepts of individual freedom and choice rule. In this environment ableism thrives.  Ableism promotes a particular kind of ‘able’ self and body as fully human. In light of that, any impairment or disability is seen as inherently negative and should be ameliorated, cured or eliminated[ii].  While Giubilini & Minerva’s argument is not entirely ableist insofar as they hold that after-birth abortion should apply to any abled or disabled infant who qualifies for abortion as a fetus, it begins with and builds upon ableist assumptions about children with ‘severe abnormalities’ whose lives are consequently judged as not worth living.

They begin by accepting that while it is easy and common for many in our contemporary society to conclude that living with severe abnormalities is not in the best interest of the child, it is hard to find definitive arguments supporting the case that such life is not worth living.  At this point an article of faith transmogrifies into scientific certainty as they assert that the potential of a child with Down syndrome can never equal that of a “normal’ child”.  Somewhat conveniently, their paper overlooks the question: potential for what?  Next, Giubilini and Minerva, somewhat incredulously, note that, despite this lack of potential, people with disability “are often reported to be happy.”  But these two important pieces of evidence – no definitive support for the “unworthy lives” thesis and severely impaired people reporting that they in fact have happy lives – are overridden by Giubilini and Minerva appealing to the “unbearable burden” thesis as justification for after-birth abortion.

The “unbearable burden” thesis states that a child with severe impairments will impose “unbearable” emotional and financial burden on the family and the financial costs of social provision on society as a whole.  Now the argument about the permissibility of after-birth abortion of such infants is justified on the basis of empirically verifiable claims about an infant’s financial impact on the family and broader society.  This marks an adroit shift – a claim that rests on assertion is suddenly presented as having a degree of ‘logic’ and legitimacy it does not warrant.  Also, somewhat conveniently, the burden thesis overlooks those parents who report that while not necessarily without struggle, their lives have been enriched by the child they refused to abort.

This is very much a ‘final solution’ which is not only abhorrent to me, but one which I find deeply ableist and difficult not to take personally.  I would argue that notions of “lives not worth living”, “potential” and “unbearable burden” are so context dependent, so deeply embedded in the social milieu, that it would be far more humane to address those variables before adopting a final solution. Ultimately, the solution lies in how much tax we are prepared pay in order to provide a just social wage which covers education, health and housing as well as a high enough welfare safety net so people don’t bruise themselves when they fall into it.   

To be fair, Giubilini and Minerva do spend some time in philosophical reflection on when a human becomes a person and at what point after-birth abortion is no longer permissible.  For someone who sees dignity and value in all human life, Giubilini and Minerva may as well be philosophising about how many angels can fit on the head of pin for all the good it will do in justifying after-birth abortion to me.

But I guess this is what many philosophers and bioethicists do: they engage in logic games and in this particular one they reduce themselves to playing the role of instrumental technocrats. It is a dangerous game they have begun playing because it is all theory about vulnerable lives and this is far too serious an issue to play with.

Undeniably, the most chilling aspect of this paper is its advocacy of after-birth abortion for those infants not wanted. Not-wanted!  As someone who lives with the shadow of the Silent Holocaust, these logic games are the opening gambit in a deadly game taking place in straitened times; times where it is quite possible the “unbearable burden” thesis may gain traction.  Under these conditions, no matter how repugnant, the bioethicists’ argument that after-birth abortion is permissible in cases where the potential life is deemed not worth living, too much of a burden or too expensive, may sound like commonsense. I cannot help thinking that it would not be too long before the justifications for a euthanasia programme for those ‘useless eaters’ began to be heard again.


Martin Sullivan, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in disability studies and social policy at Massey University.

[i] Jones, D.A. (2012) Perils of pure logic, The Tablet, p.12, 17 March 2012

[ii] Campbell, F.K. (2009) Contours of Ableism. London: Palgrave Macmillan           

Potential and Actual Persons

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva's paper, After-birth Abortion: why should the baby live? is, as the title suggests, confronting. The authors suggest that the grounds for killing newborns should be no different than the grounds required for an abortion. They form their argument in the following way:

  1. A fetus and a newly born baby are biologically no different.
  2. While a fetus and newborn are potentially persons (a person is one who is "able to make aims and appreciate their own life") they are not actual persons.
  3. Only actual persons have moral status.
  4. Therefore, fetuses and newborns are not "subjects of a moral right to life". Only the rights and interests of actual persons should be given consideration.

It is, on many levels, an objectionable argument, one that has provoked responses from many different avenues. I will restrict my response to a discussion on the terms, 'potential' and 'actual' by situating them within the philosophical context in which they derive their meaning. But first, it may help to situate Giubilini and Minerva's argument within the context of differing ethical theories. This may help us to understand how they come to put forward an argument that most people will find abhorrent.

Ethical theory

There are three principal approaches to ethics:

  • Utilitarian Ethics considers consequences and asks what the outcome of an action will be. Will it bring about the greatest good, the most happiness? From this standpoint a person will need to be proficient at weighing up what the best course of action will be by imagining future possibilities.
  • A Kantian approach will take into account moral rules (laws) and hold that a person is bound to act in accordance with these rules. A person coming from this standpoint is first required to recognize that a rule needs to be applied and then consider how the rule should be applied.
  • A third approach – Virtue Ethics – highlights the importance of being a person of virtue. A person who favours this standpoint will ask themselves what a virtuous person would do in this situation.

In short, the emphasis will be on the end result, or on the action itself, or on the person who performs the action. In practice, most ethicists who maintain one approach will also admit that the themes of the alternate approaches cannot be ignored. Thus, a Kantian ethicist will also explain how certain ends are significant and that virtue does have a place and a Virtue ethicist will explain that there needs to be an element of rule-following etc. Giubilini and Minerva put forward a rigid Utilitarian argument, one that lacks nuance. As such, virtue is trumped by adult interests and the occasion of the action itself is stripped of moral significance. When consequences and future possibilities are all that is considered in ethical decision-making, then terms like 'potential' and 'actual' and 'person' will lose much of their moral force.

Disconnecting the notion of 'potential' from the notion of 'actual'

The terms 'potential' and 'actual' have their origin in an ancient and complex philosophical theory about the nature of living beings. It is a theory that originated in the writings of Aristotle and was later adopted and developed by Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle recognised that every being capable of change (trees, cats, human beings etc.) must be composed of two distinct but mutually interrelated principles, what he calls potentiality and actuality.

All of nature, Aristotle realised, is in process – living beings change and there is something about them that enables that change to occur. Living beings advance – by their own power – toward higher levels of potential. A newborn, for example, has a more developed capacity for life than an 8-week-old fetus. Potency, as such, constantly unfolds and also does not cease once something actual comes into being. 'Potential' and 'actual' are not static or unrelated concepts. Rather, all living beings possess, at all stages of growth and change, potency and act.

When Aquinas and Aristotle argue that an entity has 'potency' they recognize that the capacity to become what it will be in the future is already present. The emphasis is not on a future possibility but on a present reality. A fetus, for example, already possesses the potential needed to become an adult human being. It is not as though it could become something else. What is 'potential' and what is 'actual' are necessarily associated. This is particularly important to the present discussion – there must be something about the nature of the dynamic, growing, changing fetus/newborn that makes possible some future actuality of being a person who makes decisions and forms aims.

Giubilini and Minerva accept that fetuses and newborns have potentiality. They do not doubt that a newborn infant is potentially capable of one day making decisions, forming aims and appreciating her own life. They even point out that a baby may potentially live a very happy, healthy and fulfilled life. However, despite the potential a newborn has to become a fulfilled adult, Giubilini and Minerva argue that this should have no bearing on our moral decisions. Only an actual person, already at the stage of making aims and forming decisions has a right to be valued and protected.

To argue in this way Giubilini and Minerva need to mark a sharp distinction between what is potential and what is actual. In doing so, they use the terms, 'potential' and 'actual' in a way that is inconsistent with Aristotle's logic. They ignore the causal link that exists in the transformation that occurs when a fetus becomes a newborn and then becomes an adult capable of making choices. Their description of human life, as such, is fragmented, as if the stages of change and growth were disconnected. They choose to ignore the continual process that is potency and act. As noted, a living being cannot have potential unless it is already an actual something, nor can it reach a point of actuality such that all potency ceases. Potentiality is forever unfolding as long as a living being is said to exist.

Giubilini and Minerva further misrepresent the notion of potential by implying that it is a capacity that lies dormant and inactive in a fetus or newborn infant. In Aristotle's logic potential is in process, so living beings constantly change and evolve toward what is actual. The terms 'potency' and 'act', as such, express a dynamic reality that can be lost when using the equivalent terms, 'potential' and 'actual'. This seems to be a mistake that Giubilini and Minerva make. Their argument can leave the reader with the impression that once actuality is attained, potentiality ceases, as if 'potency' and 'act' are independent, disconnected realities.

Disconnecting the notion of 'human being' from the notion of 'person'

Some of the confusion that arises in this debate occurs because of the narrow definition given to the notion of 'person'. Just as Giubilini and Minerva describe 'potential' and 'actual' as though they were independent and disconnected realities, so too, they discuss what a 'human being' and 'person' are as if they were disconnected entities. It is indeed significant to the moral status of human beings that, unlike other living beings, there comes a point where we are able to form aims and act in response to decisions we make, and to do so under our own volition. In the exercise of freedom, potency and act take on a new and remarkable form. When this occurs human beings are not restrained by mere biological necessity (the rhythms of potency and act as occur in nature), but are able to act in independence from this reality. However, this level of consciousness does not disassociate the human person from her biological nature – the person who can make decisions and act on them is still the same being who is subject to biological change and growth. A person is a human being. When this point is lost – as it is in Giubilini and Minerva's paper – a disembodied capacity to act (called 'person') is affirmed and credited with moral status while the physical, biologically evolving human being is denied moral status.


Giubilini and Minerva's argument is flawed on many levels. I highlight here how it is flawed because they disconnect the notion of 'potential' from the notion of what is 'actual' and make the same mistake in distinguishing between a person and a human being. I have focused on the discussion from a philosophical standpoint. Otago University Ethicist, Grant Gillett sums up well the senselessness of such a stance: "Human potential looks out at us from the eyes of a child. And the ability to recognize and acknowledge the moral demand of human potential fuels education and the healing professions, and it marks the difference between a self-serving society and one that celebrates the human spirit in all its guises." (See Otago Daily Times, 23 March, 2012).

Rev Dr Gerard Aynsley is a parish priest in the diocese of Dunedin. He recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Monash University in Australia.

Alarm over genetic control of embryos

Letter published in The Times 20 March 2013

Sir, We are writing in regard to the HFEA’s recent consultation on what it calls “mitochondrial replacement”, about which we have a number of serious ethical concerns. 

In the procedures being proposed, the chromosomes of unfertilised eggs or of newly conceived embryos are, in fact, replaced, and these are clearly examples, therefore, of germ-line genetic manipulation. The reconstructed egg or embryo will have an altered genetic composition that will be inheritable. It would be the first time such intentional genetic modifications of children and their descendants were expressly permitted and would open the door to further genetic alterations of human beings with unforeseeable consequences. 

Chromosomal replacement would cross the Rubicon into germ-line genetic interventions. Moreover, we are concerned that these proposals for research and possible treatment which rely on egg donation will greatly increase the possibilities for the exploitation of egg donors. 

Because of the implications for all of humanity, intentional germ-line interventions are prohibited in every national jurisdiction that has considered the issue. They are also banned under a number of international legal instruments, such as the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine which prohibits the genetic modification of spermatozoa or ova for procreation. 

We urge the British Government to consider its international responsibilities. This is because persons created through germ-line interventions, which may subsequently be revealed to be detrimental, will be able to travel and have their own children abroad. For the UK to isolate itself from its duties by allowing “mitochondrial replacement” to take place without consulting its international partners would create a very serious precedent. 

Prof David Albert Jones1 Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford, UK. 

Prof Emmanuel Agius Dean, Faculty of Theology, University of Malta, Spain. 

Rev Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P. Associate Professor of Biology, Providence College, RI, USA. 

Prof Stéphane Bauzon State University Roma Tor Vergata, Italy. 

Prof Francoise Baylis Novel Tech Ethics, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. 

Prof E. Christian Brugger Saint John Vianney Theological Seminary, Denver, CO, USA. 

Prof Donna Dickenson Professor Emeritus of Medical Ethics and Humanities, University of London, UK. 

Rev Prof Norman M Ford Catholic Theological College of the MCD University of Divinity, Brunswick, Australia. 

Prof Anne Barbeau Gardiner City University of New York, NY, USA. 

Prof Robert P. George Visiting Professor of Law, Harvard University and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Princeton University, NJ, USA. 

Prof Jozef Glasa Institute of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Institute of Health Care Ethics, Slovak Medical University in Bratislava, Slovak Republic. 

Prof Geoffrey Hunt Centre For Bioethics and Emerging Technologies, St. Mary’s University College, London, UK. 

Prof Christian Illies Chair of Philosophy, Bamberg University, Germany. 

Dr June Jones Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Ethics, University of Birmingham, UK. 

Prof John F. Kilner Franklin Forman Chair of Ethics, Professor of Bioethics and Contemporary Culture, Director of Bioethics Degree Programs, Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL, USA. 

Mr John Kleinsman Director, The Nathaniel Centre/The New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Prof Regine Kollek Professor of Health Technology Assessment, Research Centre for Biotechnology, Society and the Environment, University of Hamburg, Germany. 

Rev Joseph W. Koterski Department of Philosophy, Fordham University, Bronx, NY, USA. 

Prof Mette Lebech Department of Philosophy, National University of Ireland, Maynooth. 

Prof Abby Lippman McGill University, Montreal, Canada. 

Prof Natalia López-Moratalla Professor of Biochemistry, University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain. 

Dr Calum MacKellar Director, Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, Edinburgh, UK. 

Prof Nur Masalha St. Mary’s University College, London, UK. 

Dr Pia Matthews Lecturer in Healthcare Ethics, St. Mary’s University College, London, UK. 

Rev Kevin McGovern Director, Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics, East Melbourne, Australia. 

Dr John McLean 

Dr Emilio Mordini Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship, Rome, Italy. 

Prof Anselm Winfried Mueller Professor of Ethics at Keimyung University, Daegu, South Korea. 

Prof Dónal O’Mathna Senior Lecturer in Ethics, Decision Making & Evidence, School of Nursing and Human Sciences, Dublin City University, Ireland. 

Prof Craig Payne Professor of Humanities, Indian Hills College, Iowa, USA. 

Prof Hilary Rose Professor Emeritus of Physik, Gresham College, London, UK. 

PD Dr. phil. habil. Ingrid Schneider Centre for Biotechnology, Society and the Environment, Research Group Medicine, University of Hamburg, Germany. 

Dr Joseph Shaw Fellow, St. Benet’s Hall, Department of Philosophy, Oxford University, UK. 

Dr Jiri Simek Chair for Ethics and Philosophy in Helping Professions University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice Faculty for Health and Social Studies, Czech Republic. 

Dr Robert Song Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, UK. 

Dr Trevor G. Stammers Programme Director in Bioethics and Medical Law, St. Mary’s University College, London, UK. 

Dr Agneta Mauléon Sutton Visiting Lecturer, Heythrop College, University of London, UK. 

Prof Rodney Taylor Fellow, Faculty of the History and Philosophy of Medicine, Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, Middlesex, UK. 

Prof Nicholas Tonti-Filippini Associate Dean and Head of Bioethics, John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Lateran University, Rome, Italy. 

Dr Verena Tschudin Visiting Senior Fellow, University of Surrey, UK. 

Prof Günter Virt University of Vienna, Austria. 

Dr Helen Watt Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford, UK. 


1 All signatories of this letter do so as individuals and their views should not be assumed to be those of any institution or professional body to which they are affiliated. This proviso also holds of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre through whose office the letter has been co-ordinated.  

The abortion debate – an unhelpful dichotomy

The Catholic tradition holds that the right to human life is inviolable. It is based on a notion of human dignity that is ‘intrinsic’ – that is to say, not dependent on, or subject to, any calculation of ‘value’ or values based on values ‘extrinsic’ (or external) to the life in question. These extrinsic factors include human perceptions about the ‘quality’ of this or that life.

In Catholic teaching this approach is applied consistently from the moment a unique human life begins. “A life is begun [at fertilisation] which is neither that of the father nor the mother. It is already the human being it will always be and will only grow in size and complexity. On that basis, all embryos are entitled to be granted a place in the human family and treated with the same respect as persons.”(New Zealand Catholic Bishops, Submission on the use of gametes and embryos in human reproductive research, 2007.)

While this stance is rejected by many, it is arguably the most philosophically coherent of all approaches. When we consider that all human embryos are biologically and ontologically the same kind of being, it is actually illogical to accord greater or lesser respect based on their perceived status as routinely occurs within the IVF industry. The highest status, for example, is reserved for ‘wanted’ embryos by couples anxious to conceive a child. Over time the same embryo can become ‘unwanted’ if a couple no longer desire to have more children. Then again, in some countries, an 'unwanted frozen embryo' may, if the parents agree, be granted a certain (although much reduced) status as a potential object for donation or research – wanted by others on the basis of its usefulness as ‘experimental laboratory material'. In this scenario dignity for human life is directly linked to subjective human preference, i.e. to extrinsic factors.

It is of grave concern that there are moves afoot by some members of Young Labour to persuade the Labour Party to make the decriminalisation of abortion an active part of its 2014 policy platform. This move is derived from the view that the present law denies women their rightful autonomy; abortion is subject to the judgements and favour of others when it should, quite simply, be a woman’s choice. It is further argued that this reflects a lack of trust towards women; a woman’s own judgement is discounted in favour of ‘state mandated control over women’s bodies’ – seen as an unwarranted assault on women’s freedom.

The most vocal proponents of abortion decriminalisation advocate that access to abortion should be subject to nothing more than a woman’s choice, with no necessary consideration of the rights of any other party, including the father or the unborn child. For these people, the very existence of any law is seen as too restrictive and therefore unacceptable. Thus, Alison McCulloch writes of the “real freedom to choose.”[1] McCulloch and others hold this view even while they acknowledge that New Zealand women already have access to safe and legal abortion services – a situation described by persons on both sides of the debate as virtually ‘abortion on demand’.

While not considered as inviolable, the rights of the unborn child are nevertheless acknowledged in the current abortion law which, in its longer title, speaks of providing “for the circumstances and procedures under which abortions may be authorised after having full regard to the rights of the unborn child.”[2] As noted above, the right to life of the unborn child is a fundamental tenet of those opposed to abortion. It has led to what may be described as a ‘competing rights narrative’ in which the right of the woman to choose has been pitted against the right to life of the newly conceived human being.   

I would not want to disregard arguments centred on the embryo and its right to life. However, closer consideration of the facts reveals that the existence of a robust process requiring critical discernment by the woman and some form of external evaluation, far from restricting a woman’s choice, is in fact a necessary component for protecting women’s choice. Why? For a variety of reasons, including relationship stress, family and financial pressures and a real or perceived lack of support, many women make the ‘choice’ to have an abortion under real duress and even coercion. This figure is said to be as high as 64% - almost two out of every three women. In another survey of women who sought help after abortion, 83% said they would have carried to term if they had had greater support. In other words, pitting the ‘right to choose’ against the ‘right to life’ is an unhelpful dichotomy.

True freedom for women demands a transparent robust process that includes a high degree of professional and compassionate scrutiny in which women are provided with real alternatives and the support needed to carry a baby to term. Decriminalisation will not achieve this – it will only further undermine the authentic choices of women.

Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre

[1] McCulloch, A. (2013) Fighting to choose: the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand. Victoria University Press, Wellington, p. 276.
[2] Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act, 1977, emphasis added.

Beneficiary birth control: Just enough of me – way too many of you


Richard McLeod

The idea of using birth control to prevent undesirable populations being born and burdening society has been around for a long time. It goes back to the founding godmother of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger who wanted “More from the fit, less from the unfit,” or words to that effect. By the late twentieth century, however, the job was not quite finished. A new class of undesirables, the welfare dependent, was proliferating.

Enter Norplant, the long-acting contraceptive that would relieve welfare mums of the bother of taking a daily pill and give them a strong hint that, paraphrasing Lady Bracknell, “To have one child without visible means of support may be regarded as a misfortune, but having two looks like carelessness.” As for three… A Kansas legislator seems to have been the first in the United States to suggest that states could actually give mothers on welfare an incentive payment to get their implants. The idea is de facto policy in most western countries.

Now it’s New Zealand’s turn. The conservative National Party led government has announced a policy of granting free long-term contraception to women on a benefit and to their daughters. It is designed to complement its policy of penalising those beneficiaries who have further children: “We certainly have concerns about children being born to those on welfare and we see the access to contraception as being a barrier, particularly the cost around it,” says Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett, herself once a solo mum on a benefit. Bennett glibly portrays the initiative as a kind of gift for beneficiaries, “so they’ve got choices”. Many agree. Prime Minister John Key has endorsed it as “pragmatic and common sense”, while a prominent TV talk-show host called it “a sincere attempt to discourage pregnancy amongst the most vulnerable women”.

It’s all a ghastly problem, we’re led to believe, this “beneficiaries-having-babies” syndrome. Leading media are worried. The Dominion newspaper, published in the shadow of the national legislature, has pointed to evidence “that overwhelmingly shows that those born into welfare-dependent homes have far worse health, educational and social outcomes than those born into families with parents who work”. The Listener magazine, beloved of middle-class liberals, tells us that some 220,000 children in this country depend on welfare. Apparently, that’s far too many “far worse outcomes”.

The government’s solution is to contracept the whole class out of existence, by providing beneficiaries with free contraceptives on the one hand, while penalising them financially if they don’t use them effectively. It is difficult in all of this to see what the “choices” are that Bennett speaks of. Of course, it’s well-known that Maori and Pacific Island communities dominate New Zealand’s unemployment statistics, so it is no wonder that the Maori Associate Minister of Social Development, Tariana Turia, has reacted strongly. Perhaps she detects the insidious form of Kiwi-style eugenics the initiative espouses -- a baby born in upmarket Ponsonby is a valuable New Zealand citizen, a baby born in working-class Porirua is some beneficiary’s contraceptive failure.

It all has that “just enough of me – way too many of you” whiff to it, a sanctimony aptly attributed to the UNFPA in PJ O’Rourke’s 90’s bestseller, All the trouble in the World: “Going around the poor parts of the world shoving birth control pills down people’s throats… is to assume that those people don’t want babies as much as we do, that they won’t like those babies as well as we like ours, and that little brown and yellow babies are not as good as the adorable, pink, rich kind.” It seems they are just not producing enough Ernest Rutherfords or Jane Campions in Rotorua.

If eugenics isn’t alarming enough, there’s demography and the economy to consider. Although we are one of the few developed countries to have near-replacement level fertility (with a TFR of 2.07) we suffer a net migration loss of one New Zealander every 2 hours, 47 minutes, and some 50,000 Kiwis leave the country each year, many of them young, many to Australia. And there are barely 4.4 million of us, all up. We abort on average 16,000 children each year (that’s 160,000 per decade). And by the 2030s, one in four New Zealanders will be aged over 65 years (compared with almost one in ten in 2005) while our population growth will be slowing. Who’s going to be around then to support John Key and PC talk-show hosts and their generation?

It’s not the time to have cynical, eugenically-driven government contraception drives when our country is inexorably headed towards a crisis involving a scarcity of children and a burgeoning elderly population. New Zealanders instead need to wake up to the reality that people are the world’s greatest resource, and that we need more of them. Tariana Turia certainly sees it that way: "I've always supported the growing of our population, the growing of our hapu and iwi and so I'm certainly not one who's ever believed that we should be controlling people's fertility."

It’s a no-brainer. History shows that people of all socio-economic conditions build countries, societies, cultures, political systems and economies. Mr Key and Ms Bennett are hardly the ones to tell us they don’t, seeing they’re both successful products of the very welfare system they now seek to eugenically modify. Only last August our Prime Minister Mr Key told the country (in a speech on building a more effective welfare system), “I believe very strongly in the welfare state. When I was growing up, my mother was on the widow's benefit for a time and we lived in a state house. I'm really grateful for the opportunities the welfare state gave me.” Key is living proof that a country that cares about its needy children – rather than coercing their parents to stop having them - produces great success stories. No doubt many other successful Kiwis – and not a few All Blacks, Super 15 rugby players and Warriors - would agree.

It’s at times like this our Prime Minister would be well advised to borrow a little wisdom from the old Maori adage, He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata. “What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.” As the low fertility countries of Europe head towards demographic and economic oblivion, the one thing our government should not do is tell any New Zealander to stop having kids.

Richard McLeod is an Immigration & Human Rights Lawyer based in Auckland.

This article was first published on on 11 June 2012 under a Creative Commons Licence.