Francesca Minerva is a contemporary bioethicist whose work largely includes medical ethics, technological ethics, discrimination and academic freedom. 

A research Fellow at the University of Milan and the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, Francesca Minerva has published extensively within the field of applied ethics on topics such as cryonics, academic freedom, conscientious objection, and lookism. But she is best (if somewhat reluctantly) known for her work on the topic of abortion. 

Controversy over ‘After-birth Abortion’

In 2012, Minerva and Alberto Giubilini wrote a paper entitled ‘After-birth Abortion: why should the baby live?’ The paper discussed the moral status of foetuses and newborn babies and argued that after-birth abortion (more commonly known as infanticide) should be permissible in all situations where abortion is permissible.  

In the parts of the world where it is legal, abortion may be requested for a number of reasons, some having to do with the mother’s well-being (e.g., if the pregnancy poses a risk to her health, or causes emotional or financial stress), others having to do with the foetus itself (e.g., if the foetus is identified as having a chromosomal or developmental abnormality). 

Minerva and Giubilini argue that if it’s permissible to abort a foetus for one of these reasons, then it should also be permissible to “abort” (i.e., euthanise) a newborn for one of these reasons.  

This is because they argue that foetuses and newborns have the same moral status: Neither foetuses nor newborns are “persons” capable of attributing (even) basic value to their life such that being deprived of this life would cause them harm.  

This is not an entirely original argument. Minerva and Giubilini were mainly elaborating on points made decades ago by Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and Jeff McMahan. And yet, ‘After-birth Abortion’ drew the attention of newspapers, blogs and social media users all over the world and Minerva and Giubilini quickly found themselves at the centre of a media storm.  

In the months following the publication, they received hundreds of angry emails from the public, including a number of death threats. 

The controversy also impacted their careers: Giubilini had a job offer rescinded and Minerva was not offered a permanent job in a philosophy department because members of the department “were strongly opposed to the views expressed in the paper”. Also, since most of the threatening emails were sent from the USA, they were advised not to travel to the USA for at least a year, meaning that they could not attend or speak at academic conferences being held there during that period.  

So why did ‘After-birth Abortion’ attract so much attention compared to older publications on the same topic? While the subject matter is undoubtedly controversial, Minerva believes the circulation of the paper had more to do with the internet than with the paper itself.  

Academic Freedom and the Journal of Controversial Ideas

“The Web has changed the way ideas circulate.” Ideas spread more quickly and reach a much wider audience than they used to. There is also no way to ensure that these ideas are reported correctly, particularly when they are picked up by blogs or discussed on social media. As a result, ideas may be distorted or sensationalised, and the original intent or reasoning behind the idea may be lost. 

Minerva is particularly concerned about the impact that this may have on research, believing that fear of a media frenzy may discourage some academics from working on topics that could be seen as controversial. She believes that, in this way, the internet and mass media may pose a threat to academic freedom. 

“Research is, among many other things, about challenging common sense, testing the soundness of ideas that are widely accepted as part of received wisdom, or because they are held by the majority of people, or by people in power. The proper task of an academic is to strive to be free and unbiased, and we must eliminate pressures that impede this.” 

In an effort to eliminate some of this pressure, Minerva co-founded the Journal of Controversial Ideas, alongside Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan. As the name suggests, the journal encourages submissions on controversial topics, but allows authors to publish under a pseudonym should they wish to.  

The hope is that by allowing authors to publish under a false name, academics will be empowered to explore all kinds of ideas without fearing for their well-being or their career. But ultimately, as Minerva says, “society will benefit from the lively debate and freedom in academia, which is one of the main incubators of discoveries, innovations and interesting research.”