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As a society, what does it take to provoke us? What stimulus is needed to rouse us from our intellectual languor, or indifference, or fear of being conspicuous (or non-PC), and to elicit a sustained, visible, productive public debate? It quite literally took riots for us to talk about disaffected urban youth. We don't discuss immigration; we don't do God. And certainly not abortion.  

Two quite extraordinary abortion-related stories emerged recently. They gained media attention but, given their gravity, died down again remarkably fast. What a very large carpet we keep for such under-sweepage.

The first was a successful piece of investigative journalism in the Daily Telegraph — or, depending on your perspective — "the Daily Telegraph's attempt to entrap and discredit" doctors and abortion clinics. Journalists established that a number of private clinics across the UK were offering a gender selection service, aborting infants of the "wrong" gender.

While this did generate publicity, it was short-lived — and by no means universally negative. The influential openDemocracy website published a letter, signed by the head of one of the largest abortion providers, BPAS, declaring that now was a time to "stand up for doctors", for "sex selective abortion is not gender discrimination. Gender discrimination applies only to living people. A fetus does not have rights in the same way as a living person does, and therefore cannot be said to suffer from discrimination." An Observer editorial at least condemned the practice, but quickly moved on to the story's more important lesson: "Don't make termination more difficult than it is." After all, "abortion is heavily regulated and strictly licensed in Britain." (Almost 200,000 abortions are carried out annually in England and Wales, about 1 per cent because the baby would have been born with a disability.)

The second story was based in theory rather than practice, but was no less shocking for that. It cannot be common for a peer-reviewed paper in an academic journal to become headline news, but late in February the Journal of Medical Ethics (part of the British Medical Journal stable) published an article by two Australia-based postdoctoral philosophers working on bioethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, arguing that infanticide might be considered morally acceptable in many circumstances. 

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