Yes, this is a real idea. In fact, it was the focus of a recently published essay pitching its merits titled “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” As you can imagine, this article got quite a bit of public attention.
The paper was published (ironically) in the Journal of Medical Ethics by two “medical ethicists” affiliated with universities in Australia. The publisher of the journal is an institute which “aims to help improve the quality of both professional and public discussion of medico-moral questions.”
The authors of the essay summarize the idea succinctly: “What we call ‘after-birth abortion (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is.” Their justification is that a baby, like a fetus, is not an “actual person,” but a “potential person” (this fact being “morally irrelevant”) and therefore has no “moral right to life.” In their words, “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.”
According to this grim extension of pro-abortion logic, a child is a “morally relevant” person, and therefore deserving of the right to life, only if she is “capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.” In the eyes of these “ethicists” newborns, like fetuses, do not value their own existence and therefore the idea of killing them creates no moral dilemma.
To further cloak their chosen moral quagmire in “sophistication,” the authors prefer the term “after-birth abortion” to “infanticide.” This less murderous-sounding term “emphasize[s] that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, this scholarly justification for killing a child caused something of a stir once it got spread over the Internet. The authors and the journal’s editor received a rash of hate mail, and even some death threats. In response, the authors issued a public apology of sorts, though even in this apology they took the effort to point out that those who were offended “do not share the background of the intended audience.”
The editor of the journal went further in his defense of the decision to publish the essay, arguing that “what is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited.” He labeled those opposed to the publication of the essay “fanatics” who oppose the “very values” of free society. His concern was “the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favor of infanticide,” but that there was “fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.”
In a separate defense of the publication (and apparently oblivious to the irony and hypocrisy of his argument), the editor had this to say:
This “debate” has been an example of “witch ethics” – a group of people know who the witch is and seek to burn her. It is one of the most dangerous human tendencies we have. It leads to lynching and genocide. Rather than argue and engage, there is a drive is (sic) to silence and, in the extreme, kill, based on their own moral certainty. This is not the sort of society we should live in.
That’s right. We should not seek to justify murder based on narrow moral “certainties” … unless, of course, you are a medical ethicist talking about killing newborn babies.