When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate.
“Why not? You should have known!” people keep on repeating everywhere on the web. The answer is very simple: the article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments. Indeed, as Professor Savulescu explains in his editorial, this debate has been going on for 40 years.
We started from the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley in 1975 and we tried to draw the logical conclusions deriving from this premise. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y. We expected that other bioethicists would challenge either the premise or the logical pattern we followed, because this is what happens in academic debates. And we believed we were going to read interesting responses to the argument, as we already read a few on this topic in religious websites.
However, we never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal. This was not made clear enough in the paper. Laws are not just about rational ethical arguments, because there are many practical, emotional, social aspects that are relevant in policy making (such as respecting the plurality of ethical views, people’s emotional reactions etc). But we are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy.
Moreover, we did not suggest that after birth abortion should be permissible for months or years as the media erroneously reported.
If we wanted to suggest something about policy, we would have written, for example, a comment related the Groningen Protocol (in the Netherlands), which is a guideline that permits killing newborns under certain circumstances (e.g. when the newborn is affected by serious diseases). But we do not discuss guidelines in the paper. Rather we acknowledged the fact that such a protocol exists and this is a good reason to discuss the topic (and probably also for publishing papers on this topic).
However, the content of (the abstract of) the paper started to be picked up by newspapers, radio and on the web. What people understood was that we were in favour of killing people. This, of course, is not what we suggested. This is easier to see when our thesis is read in the context of the history of the debate.
This explanation is, to say the least, disingenuous. As Wesley J. Smith points out, the authors state numerous unequivocal beliefs and presuppositions in their original article, none of which are recanted or clarified in their "Open Letter."
“In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth’ abortion,’ rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than that of a child.”
“Therefore we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all circumstances where abortion would be.”
“If the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practice after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too.”
“Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”
“Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone’s right but possibly increase the happiness of the people involved? … On this perspective … we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving up her child for adoption.”
Moreover, as Smith observes in his more detailed critique, the claim by the authors that they were merely speaking hypothetically does not hold up under the light of historically established patterns in "bioethics."
Here is the pattern: In the 1960s, the propriety of abortion was actively promoted in professional journals, leading directly to the great denouement of Roe v. Wade. Similarly, in the 1970s, bioethicists argued that it should be acceptable to withdraw feeding tubes from people with severe brain damage, an idea that was once beyond the pale. After a general bioethical consensus toward that end was achieved, the “concept” soon became public policy. Now, people who are unconscious and minimally conscious are dehydrated to death in all 50 states as a matter of medical routine. Terri Schiavo was only unusual in this regard because her blood family made such a stink.
If anything, the authors' attempt to allay public outrage makes their proposition all the more sinister. They are all but admitting that they wanted to pursue their sick agenda in total darkness, away from the light of public scrutiny (Smith uses the term, "above the radar"). They got caught this once, but that will not deter them. They will only be more careful, which means we must be ever more vigilant.