Paul Greenberg

Something happens to ethics when it becomes a specialty. It becomes professionalized, certified, rarefied. It becomes something besides ethics. It becomes expertise, not thought or depth so much as focus. Specialization sharpens the mind by narrowing it. As in medical ethics or legal ethics or business ethics. Or, to use a phrase cynics consider an oxymoron, the ethics of journalism.

The new science of ethicism shouldn't be confused with ethics any more than theology is religion. But it's a common enough misapprehension as professional ethicists take the place of ancient sages who taught ethics, not reduced its scope. You can tell exactly when this transformation takes place: when some qualifying prefix must be added to ethics. As in bioethics.

As with any other specialty, bioethicists develop their own jargon, their own code of conduct, their own preferred practices. And their own secrets. They become professionals. And as George Bernard Shaw noted in "The Doctor's Dilemma," "All professions are conspiracies against the laity."

By their prefixes ye shall know them. The prefix bio- lets us know that something besides ethics is being practiced here. The meaning of the word has been changed, its quality altered. Prefixes can serve as a warning.

. .

It should have come as no surprise not long ago when the Journal of Medical Ethics published an essay by a couple of bioethicists who made a case for what they dubbed "after-birth abortion."

Only the innocent layman, attached to the plain meaning of words, and accustomed to thinking of ethics rather than bioethics, might think "after-birth abortion" a contradiction in terms.

Not so, these experts explained: "What we call 'after-birth abortion' (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."

It's a perfectly understandable position once you accept that abortion itself is ethically -- well, bioethically -- permissible for whatever reason. And not just to rid the world of those we call disabled, or who might not be of the preferred sex.

Now we get "after-birth abortion" -- a natural enough progression in the history of "abortion rights." The born, the unborn, why insist on the technical distinction between them? It's the same organism, isn't it? Why let the accident of birth determine an ethical question?

By now we all know what partial-birth abortion is: destroying a baby only halfway out of the birth canal. Why not post-birth abortion, too? It's a logical extension of the same principle. At least to these two bioethicists.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.