The Corner

Bioethics Needs Disinfectant of Public Scrutiny

Bioethics is an increasingly radical movement that seeks to push public policy in a distinctly utilitarian and anti-human exceptionalist direction.

Its primary purveyors usually support policies or ideas that most people–who would be affected directly if translated into policy–often oppose.

But ideas like infanticide, killing the cognitively devastated for their organs, and health care rationing are promoted–and their terms debated respectfully–above public scrutiny. This is dangerous because in our growing technocracy, “the experts” often get the final say.

Julian Savulescu is a utilitarian bioethicist of the Peter Singer ilk. Like Singer he supports crass anti-humanism, and if his views were implemented, they would destroy any hope of achieving universal human rights because the weak and vulnerable would be denigrated has having lives less valuable than some other people.

And like Singer–because of these views, not in spite of them–he has a powerful and prestigious major university academic chair; Oxford for Savulescu while Singer is at Princeton.

In an interview with the splendid Bioedge, Savulescu reflects on the fire storm that exploded over the pro-infanticide article (“after-birth abortion”) published in his edited Journal of Medical Ethics:

Q: Back in 2012, a JME article on “after-birth abortion” created global media storm. Did that come as a surprise to you? What lessons have you taken away from the incident? Do you welcome media coverage any more?

S: Yes, I was surprised by the extent of the coverage — it was a new phenomenon. The article did not introduce any radically new ideas. The arguments made had been discussed in philosophy and medical ethics by a number of different philosophers over more than 30 years. What was different was the audience.

Exactly. Killing babies does not cause a wrinkle to furl the brow of many bioethicists. Just another day at the shop.

But the people, that was a different story. Once they got a glimpse of what passes for ordinary discourse in the field–they saw the maw–and erupted in protest.

Savulescu is less than amused at the public scrutiny:

Blogs and social media connected these articles with Christian-right groups that then moved them around the internet. What I have learnt is that it is not Big Brother who is watching, but everyone.

In the current era, everything that is published can be instantly accessed by nearly everyone .Ethicists have to be prepared for titles and one-liners to be pumped around the internet. You have to be prepared to defend what you have written or published against the harshest criticism.

Do I welcome media coverage? I used to and it was part of my previous job to engage with the media. These days, I think it can sometimes do more harm than good. It is mostly the people who violently disagree who get involved, not those who agree or even who are open to an engaged debate.

Some things should be beyond debate. The JME would never publish an article advocating racism–no matter how credentialed or skilled the author. (See my post advocating for treating Peter Singer’s utilitarian advocacy in the same way we would if he were a racist.) 

But bioethics journals routinely publish equally radical and invidiously discriminatory agenda items, toward the end (or with the consequence) of pushing them into respectability.

That is why we need increased public scrutiny of-and general conversation about–bioethics discourse, not less.

The more light we cast on their “conversation,” the less likely they will be to implement awful ideas into destructive public policies. As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. 


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