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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Bioethics Hates the Light



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Last year, the Journal of Medical Ethics–a reliable fount of radicalism–published an article promoting “after-birth” abortion, e.g., infanticide–as an ethical action. It sparked a firestorm, and I was one of the match lighters, along with the clearing house of bioethical articles and news, Bioedge

Now, Udo Schüklenk, the editor of Bioethics, has bitterly criticized the public criticism of the article in general–and me, specifically, for calling attention to it–in a just released “special edition” of the Journal of Medical Ethics devoted to debating infanticide and the public’s reaction to the after-birth abortion article. Please excuse this extended reply, but the record needs to be kept straight.

Typical of these oh, so intellectual academics, Schüklenk’s complaint is long on polemics and innuendo, and short on actual facts. From,In defence of academic freedom: bioethics journals under siege” (subscription needed):

He [yours truly] has tried for a long time to establish a secular basis for human exceptionalism, with respect for human dignity flowing from that idea. Both his attempts at academic contributions and his internet based outputs are, ironically, published pretty much exclusively in religious outlets. Peer-reviewed journal outputs (the bread-and-butter activities of mainstream academics) in your average bioethics journal are not on his agenda.

Poppycock. I have published several times in the American Journal of Bioethics (secular), as well as the pro life Human Life Review, which isn’t a religious journal. I have also published in law reviews (secular). 

Schüklenk is correct that my main approach is not academic. I don’t really care about being published in bioethics journals, although I am always happy to write for them when asked. I am trying to alert the general public to the dangerous agendas that mainstream bioethics discourse promotes–whether infanticide, harvesting organs from cognitively devastated people, euthanasia, human cloning, etc.–advocacy in favor of which is ubiquitous in these journals. Also, once ideas are deemed legitimately “debatable,” by definition they become “respectable.” Whenever I help impede that process, I consider it a successful day.

Again, I am not a religious writer nor do I publish in that sector. Rather, I mostly appear in secular popular media outlets--like this one, National Review. I also frequently publish in the Weekly Standard (secular), the Daily Caller (secular) and newspapers, ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Daily Telegraph. I do write for First Things, which is religious, but also cultural, which is my beat. With very rare exceptions, I don’t write about religion or promote my views based on religious precepts.

Schüklenk doesn’t actually dispute what I write, or quote me much beyond the title of one article. Nor does he point out anything I have written that was erroneous. Instead, he accuses me, essentially, of being a pen for hire:

However, so the argument might continue, as with us writers in bioethics, the strength of their stances will live or die by the persuasiveness of their arguments. What differences are there then, really? I should like to think that there are several relevant differences between them and us. The Discovery Institute employee is paid by his creationist lobby group employer to campaign on the types of issues his organisation espouses. The same cannot be said for academics working in secular universities. Protected by academic freedom we do not have to sing to our employers’ tune to pay our bills.

Again, not true. I am not an “employee” of the Discovery Institute, nor is it a “creationist lobbying group.” The managers of the DI don’t direct me in any way. I am a senior fellow, which means the DI helps support my scholarship and work, for which I am deeply appreciative. But it is a no-strings-attached deal. I don’t write what I do because they support me, they support me because they apparently like what I write.

I would also point out, that in many secular universites, one generally doesn’t receive tenure–the protector of academic freedom–unless one remains within accepted liberal ideological lines. I mean, how many of you think that Schüklenk’s philosophy department at Queens University in Canada would ever hire an open and notorious pro lifer–no matter how excellent his or her academic credentials? Yet, Peter Singer, the world’s most prominent advocate for infanticide, was given an endowed and tenured chair at Princeton without a Ph.D.! I submit that wasn’t in spite of his views, but because of them. 

Schüklenk really just resents the light I am trying to bring to the debate because it leads to intense public controversy: 

Academic journals finding themselves under sustained attacks from lobby groups do find themselves in a difficult situation. While political activism is legitimate—in fact, desirable—it can become so intense and well-orchestrated that it begins to threaten academic freedom.

Boo, hoo. Nobody’s academic freedom is jeopardized. However, the intellectual hegemony that these “experts” have enjoyed is in jeopardy, which is precisely the point. 

Here is the context, and why this discussion is so important: Bioethics isn’t a monolith. But it also isn’t just about debating radical ideas over a lager at the pub. As prominent bioethicists I quoted in Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, my award-winning expose of bioethics, have acknowledged:

Once bioethics moved away from ivory tower rumination and to actively influence public policy and medical protocols, by definition the field became goal oriented.  Indeed, University of Southern California Professor of Law and Medicine, Alexander M. Capron, notes that from its inception, “bioethical analysis has been linked to action.” If dialogue is linked to action, at the very least, that implies an intended direction if not a desired destination.  Even bioethics historian Albert R. Jonsen, a bioethicist himself, calls bioethics a “social movement.” Has there been any social movement that was not predicated, at least to some degree, in ideology?  Moreover, the bioethics pioneer, Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the bioethics think tank, The Hastings Center, has admitted that “the final factor of great importance” in bioethics gaining societal respect, was the “emergence ideologically of a form of bioethics that dovetailed nicely with the reigning political liberalism of the educated classes in America.” Thus, mainstream bioethics is explicitly ideological, reflecting the values and beliefs of the cultural elite.

This is why it is urgent to expose what the bioethical elite are discussing in the journals and at symposia: As happened with eugenics, abortion legalization, and the now routine dehydration of the cognitively impaired, policies that are enacted in the field start with the discourse. Journal articles are then used to justify legislation and regulation, as a basis for court rulings, and to support political activism toward achieving those ends.  

Schüklenk then goes back to moaning about the (nonexistent) threat to academic freedom:

When all is said and done, this is an academic freedom issue. It has to do with ensuring both that we are able to ask difficult questions, and that we are able to defend conclusions that most people will disagree with…

Academics have always challenged assumptions taken for granted by the mainstream. That is how progress is possible. Some of the challenges succeed and lead to societal change, some fail after significant societal controversy, the majority probably sink without a trace altogether.

That is why I will continue to expose odious articles that are published in the bioethics, medical, and science journals in the popular media. Alerting people to the dangers that this way come is the best way to ensure that “the majority” of these ideas and proposals do indeed ”sink without a trace.” 



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