by Jose Luis Bermudez

The Moral Significance of Birth

Ethics, Vol. 106, No. 2 (January 1996)

This paper challenges the claim that there can be no morally relevant difference between a foetus inside the womb and just about to be born, on the one hand, and that same foetus just after it has been born, on the other. It argues that the lives of neonates (newly-born infants) can have certain features which make them valuable in a way that many contemporary theorists would deny. In particular, attention is drawn to recent and important work in developmental psychology, which suggests that a primitive form of self-awareness can be ascribed to infants engaging in neonatal imitation behaviour. It is argued that this bestows derivative moral significance on the lives of neonates, in virtue of the intrinsic moral significance that attaches to the lives of fully self-conscious beings. The primitive form of self-awareness that emerges in neonatal imitation behaviour can in principle only be possessed after birth. It is a function, not just of the infants physiological, neurophysiological and psychological development, but also of the fact that they are outside the womb. This forces rejection of the claim that the end-of-term foetus and the neonate are, in most normal circumstances, morally equivalent.

Jose Luis Bermudez
Faculty of Philosophy
University of Cambridge
Sidgwick Avenue
Cambridge CB3 9DA
United Kingdom

Jose Luis Bermudez

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