Protesters in front of Virginia State Capitol in Richmond demonstrate against antiabortion legislation. (Bob Brown/AP)

“We claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk,” the article reads. “We propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion,’ rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child.”

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva might be book smart, but they truly have no clue. When the work reached a wider audience, it understandably caused outrage and, unfortunately, death threats. Cue the irony.

Is this a pro-choice manifesto, carried to the ultimate, logical conclusion, considering children not their own unique selves but something and someone not quite human?

Or could it be its subversive opposite, the best pro-life argument anyone could imagine, exposing the darkest, selfish reasoning at the end of what seems the sensible point that a “woman is in control of her own body”?

The authors say neither, and have since issued an explanation that tries to quell the firestorm. In an open letter, they say: “The article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments,” referencing debate of the issue going back 40 years.

“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.”

(Want to know the problem with academic jargon? Words like “legal policy” cover the fact that you’re talking about murder, for which — like words — there are consequences.)

The explanation, of course, can never obscure the original paper, which lives on, with its assertions that, just to quote a few incendiary examples: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

They write that adoption isn’t the necessarily the answer because “we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption.”

And the ability or disability of the newborn is not the issue because “having a child can itself be an unbearable burden for the psychological health of the woman or for her already existing children, regardless of the condition of the fetus.”

Pro-life voices have already latched onto the piece and the premise, ascribing motives not only to the authors – who really should have known better – but also to anyone who ever uttered a pro-choice word. This is what is in their dark hearts, or as Kelly Boggs in Baptist Press writes, “The authors use the exact same arguments to justify infanticide that abortion advocates use in defense of killing pre-born children.

“After all, what is the moral difference between killing a full-term baby minutes before delivery — allowed under Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions — and killing it after delivery? If personhood requires a measure of consciousness, an aim or a function, then what do we do with those who are mentally challenged? What about the physically handicapped? How about those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease? Will all these be classified as non-persons and become disposable?”

He takes incredible leaps, as most do when trying to prove a point, raising late-term abortion as common and undertaken without thought or regret.

However, Oklahoma University Law Professor Michael Scaperlanda is calmer when he suggests in a Catholic News Agency article that pro-life advocates should press abortion supporters on whether they are willing to accept the logical implications of their position, as drawn out by Giubilini and Minerva. And there is something in what he says.

At this point in any story on abortion, I find I must identify my belief that life is unique and complete eight seconds, eight months or eight years after conception, and yes, I am Catholic. Beloved friends and family members are disabled in ways that might cause others to question quality of life. I never would and neither, if I asked, would they. I have also criticized bishops who want to punish pro-abortions rights politicians by denying Communion, treating the Eucharist as a weapon for selected sins.

I realize that anything I now say will be cheered or discounted because of my views, so heated has the rhetoric become. We live at a moment when birth control — years after most women thought its use settled and accepted — is being debated, with women who use it attacked as promiscuous and worse. State legislatures consider personhood amendments, and more people than ever wondered now know what a transvaginal probe is.

Sides have hardened, which is what happens in matters of life and death – of mothers and children. When someone murders a pregnant woman and is charged for two deaths, some pro-choice advocates raise objections and wonder why people reject their reasoning. Pro-lifers — viewed from afar as people who unmercifully harangue anguished women making an impossible choice — are seen as motivated by a hatred for women.

Does “unwanted” mean not worth living to the pro-choice camp? Will pro-lifers support social services for children after delivery? Will women and men caught in the middle of difficult decisions ever find an understanding ear rather than advice? Will they ever find peace?

It would be a positive step if once the white-hot anger and defensive reactions cool, there might be dialogue about questions for which there are no easy answers. Instead, an article in a medical journal has just poured oil on an ever-raging fire.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.

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