Philosopher talks to CAF about death threats and career obstacles

CAF has spoken to a philosopher who authored one of the first academic papers to provoke a “viral” backlash.

Dr. Francesca Minerva is a philosopher at the University of Milan specialising in bioethics, and a cofounder of the Journal of Controversial Ideas. In 2012, together with another philosopher, Alberto Giubilini, she published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics arguing that the moral status of a newborn baby is the same as that of a human foetus. It follows, the authors claim, that “after-birth abortion” is morally permissible in all those cases in which abortion prior to birth is permissible. (Minerva and Giubilini use the term “after-birth abortion” rather than “infanticide” to stress their view that the killing of a human infant before and after birth may be morally equivalent.) The paper makes no claims about whether abortion (before or after birth) is actually permissible – it argues only that if abortion before birth is permissible, then “after-birth abortion” must also be permissible.  

Dr. Francesca Minerva
Dr. Francesca Minerva

Following publication, the paper was widely shared on a number of pro-life blogs in the United States and Minerva, as the corresponding author, was inundated with death threats, from both pro-life and pro-choice individuals. At the time, Minerva was employed at the University of Melbourne: one email told her “Goodnight. Watch your back. I live in Melbourne too.” Concerned for her safety, she stayed away from her university office for several weeks. Minerva has continued to receive threatening emails informing her, for instance, that she is a “waste of sperm” and that “we should get rid of you”. She tells us that while such threats were initially intimidating, there has to date been no attempt on her life.   

Minerva’s paper has got her into trouble among fellow academics too. At the time of publication, she was employed as a researcher on a temporary contract and was looking for a permanent position. Following an application to one university department, the chair of the department’s job committee wrote to her stating that they would like to offer her the job but could not as “some colleagues were strongly opposed to the views expressed in the paper”. 

On another occasion, Minerva discovered an anonymous post on the blog “beingawomaninphilosophy” describing the case of three women shortlisted for an academic position in the US. The author, who claims to have served on the hiring committee, states that one of these three women had previously written a controversial article on abortion – and for this reason explicitly was not given the job. Minerva thinks it likely that she is the woman referred to, since she was applying to jobs at US universities at the time and knows of no other papers on abortion which attracted a similar degree controversy. She believes that this constitutes a second instance in which she suffered what is in effect a reprisal against her for her views in the paper. 

Minerva adds that it took her 11 years – an unusually long time, even in academia – to find a permanent academic position after completing her doctorate, despite holding temporary posts at distinguished universities including Oxford (as an unpaid research associate), and Warwick (as a research fellow). She believes that there may be further instances where she was refused a position because of her views, but has no means of finding out for sure. 

Francesca Minerva’s views are clearly objectionable to many. However, this is not in itself a good reason for refusing her an academic job. Academics should be hired on the basis of the quality of their work, not its standpoint. And needless to say, threats of violence and death are always deplorable.  

To the knowledge of CAF, the mass public backlash against Minerva and Giubilini’s paper constitutes the first case of its kind in recent history. Since 2012, the persecution of academics with minority views by other academics has intensified and become organised. Academics, unions, and university authorities have begun to use mass emails, letters of denunciation, and outright sacking to silence academics to whose views they object. None of this happened in 2012, when Minerva and Giubilini published their paper, though it is worth noting that an offer to Giubilini to sit on a prestigious ethics committee was immediately rescinded. Minerva and Giubilini’s experience is a worrying illustration of the decline in academic freedom.