|The Dreaming Spires of Oxford|
Several disturbing articles by bioethicists have been drawing a buzz of outrage recently. We noted some on this blog last month. Since then, bioethicists based at Oxford University have claimed that a pill "can affect a person's subconscious attitudes towards race," so journalists not unreasonably said that it could "combat" or even "prevent" racism. And a different pair of Oxford-connected bioethicists published a paper suggesting that it could be ethically permissible to kill newborns, in what the authors explicitly call (it's in the title) "after-birth abortion."
Fortunately, there has been some vigorous pushback.
Michael Cook at BioEdge has done excellent work following these issues, especially the infanticide question, in a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4). He also highlighted the racism pill and the proposal to engineer humans to mitigate the effects of climate change. (Disclosure: on other issues, he has acknowledged Biopolitical Times.) Cook, as usual, remains relatively polite — firm but courteous — in his criticisms. Others are less restrained, but often thought-provoking; see for instance Amanda Pustilnik on racism as a cultural issue.
In particular, Ari Schulman has analyzed, shredded and ridiculed the "moral acuity" of the "after-birth abortion" paper in a tremendous post at The New Atlantis. It's hard to excerpt, since many of the best parts are his reactions to direct quotations from the original paper. Considering the authors’ suggestion that newborns with Down syndrome might place “an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care,” he asks:
Can you think of any cases before where groups of individuals have been denied rights or killed on the basis that they are not full persons, are disabled, and/or that they are a burden to society?
As he says, the paper is full of "senselessness and sophistry masquerading as rational inquiry." But Schulman goes a step further, and considers the authors' defense against criticisms of their paper, which was essentially that they are simple philosophers, unused to the ways of the world. Specifically:
When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate.... It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.... We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.
Oh, right, says Schulman:
It’s all just about logic and academic freedom and the boldness to ask challenging questions! Why are people getting so bent out of shape!
Just to put peoples’ silly reactions to this paper in context, imagine that instead of the paper making the case for infanticide, it advanced an I’m-just-saying or gee-hey-why-not daring defense of some other practice, like, say ... rape, murder, slavery, or genocide. Actually, I guess I’m tilting the question by using such condemnatory terminology. “Genocide,” for example, should just be called “heritage-selective aggregate after-after-birth abortion,” lest we acknowledge “the best interests of the ones who die.” Anyway, who would dare fail to celebrate such a harmless intellectual exercise?
Who indeed? After all, when Herman Kahn was "thinking the unthinkable" about nuclear warfare, that surely had no effect on nuclear weapons policy in the 1950s and 60s. The continual drumbeat about the technologies involved in cloning mammoths (or even Neandertals) is certainly not intended to encourage such activities. When advocates of genetically re-engineered humans began to discuss how and when post-humans would be created, that was never meant to affect actual policy or the direction of science. No, these are mere academic speculations, with no real-world consequences at all.
The Oxford connection is no coincidence. That's also the base of two of the three authors of the paper about engineering humans as a response to climate change, and where the third used to work. The central figure in these connections is Julian Savulescu (another is the noted transhumanist Nick Bostrom). Savulescu got his inspiration from Peter Singer, who, as Michael Cook has noted, "has become world famous as a theoretician of animal rights and advocate of infanticide for disabled babies." Singer is admittedly often provocative in an interesting way — his "Escalator of Reason" is worth reading — but Savulescu's entrepreneurial approach to academia seems set to metastasize as the Uehiro Center he directs turns out more and more newly minted doctorates. And that could be very dangerous.
Kudos to those pushing back against spurious logic and simplistic utilitarianism. And to end on a somewhat hopeful note, it does seem that bioethics is starting to respond to criticism, with discussions like this one in the Journal of Medical Ethics on the real-world limitations of informed consent. That's a topic with many pitfalls surrounding it, but it's the kind of discussion academia needs to be having. Not ungrounded "thought experiments" about making humans smaller or murdering those who don't fit someone's stereotype.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in A "Post-Human" Future?, Bioethics, Eugenics, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts
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Comment by Robyn Fahy, Mar 22nd, 2012 8:50pm
Anna Krohn's response to the article by Giubilini and Minerva is also excellent. Available online @ http://www.cwla.org.au/annas-blog/renaming-infanticide-is-it-more-frightening-than-satire.html