The UK Telegraph knows how to write a headline. How's this for an attention-grabber: "Killing babies no different from abortion, experts say." The subject of the headline is an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics and written by two former associates of the Journal's editor. The title of their piece was only a little less inflammatory than the Telegraph's: "After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?"
Alberto Guibilini and Francesca Minerva are academics involved with bioethical issues-she at Melbourne University, and he at Monash University (also in Melbourne). Their article re-hashes points their Melbourne colleague, Peter Singer, has been making for years. But it goes a little further by removing all restrictions from infanticide (no "quality of life" parameters) and by explicitly equating the same with abortion. In other words, they agree with what pro-lifers have been saying all along: Abortion is killing babies. But it doesn't follow that a baby is a person. They wrote, "We take 'person' to mean an individual who is capable to attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her." Therefore, a newborn (and older) may be killed for any of the reasons that abortions are performed. (See "After-birth abortion," by Marvin Olasky, March 24 issue of WORLD.)
When a flood of agitated comments hit the JME website, its editor, Julian Savulescu, wrote a follow-up piece expressing his disappointment with the state of public discourse. In his view, Guibilini and Minerva had written a reasoned argument for their position and deserved a hearing. What they didn't deserve was a barrage of hysterical accusations ("MURDER!"), slurs ("These people are evil"), and death threats (they "need to be delivered for immediate execution"). The authors, Savulescu wrote, "proceed logically from premises which many people accept [abortion as a matter of choice] to a conclusion that many of those people would reject." He generously offered to publish an argument for the re-criminalization of abortion, if it were equally "rational."
Almost 300 years ago Jonathan Swift penned "A Modest Proposal," suggesting that the Irish might deal with their perennial poverty by raising and selling their children for meat. His arguments are a model of logic and rationality, and the majority of his readers recognized satire when they saw it. An essay arguing for "After-birth Abortion," if it appeared in 1959, could have been published in a respected journal only as satire. The number of readers who responded with outrage to the JME piece is somewhat reassuring-we're not at the precipice yet. But for "after-birth abortion" to be treated as a serious debate topic shows how far we've slid.
Savulescu betrays too much faith in rationality, possibly forgetting that rational arguments have been made for eugenics and genocide. Some topics really are, or should be, out of bounds. Opening them up to discussion is immoral in itself, another crack in the foundation that supports, among other institutions, the university. But then (to change the metaphor), how many academics are industriously sawing off the branches they're sitting on?