Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Journal of medical ethics courts controversy

Good bioethics will invariably challenge boundaries. As my friend and colleague Julian Savulescu, Editor of the Journal of medical ethics has found out to his chagrin, publishing controversial ethical analyses will lead to very serious personal abuse.[1] His journal published on-line early a paper the authors of which take a stance on infanticide that is not terribly new or original in bioethics, as Savulescu rightly notes. The authors apply these arguments to maternal and family interests. Of course, an argument on infanticide, particularly one that does not reject infanticide out of hand, will likely upset some or even most readers. The same is true, to a smaller extent, for other issues. Bioethics runs occasionally invited guest editorials. A few issues back we published a guest editorial with a plea to ‘queer bioethics’.[2] Conservative commentators had a field day on the internet with what was arguably a tame editorial suggesting we should take into consideration patients belonging to sexual minority groups. As we have discovered in academic analyses of former US President Bush’s bioethics chief’s indefensible claim that if we find something repugnant it’s probably morally wrong, feelings of disgust and even horror are bad indicators of the moral soundness or otherwise of normative views, behaviors etc. Otherwise interracial marriages would likely have never come about, given how disgusted people were about this possibility just a few decades ago.

Good bioethical analyses will continue to challenge and test boundaries we take for granted. In that context it is legitimate to publish papers discussing infanticide as much as it is legitimate to publish papers discussing the participation of doctors in torture under certain circumstances. As Editors of bioethics journals we are interested in sound critical analysis, wherever those analyses take the substantive conclusions of papers in question. At Bioethics we have published religiously motivated analyses as much as we have published papers driven by secular modi of analysis. We will continue to do so. Savulescu certainly was right to publish the controversial paper in his journal, especially given that his peer reviewers indicated that the manuscript in question was worthy of publication in the Journal of medical ethics. No doubt there will be critical responses to the article, and that, too, is to be applauded. Arguments in our field cannot be tested by other means. It will be important for editors of bioethics journals not to yield to ideologically motivated outside pressures. We must not permit self-censorship to occur in anticipation of outcries by readers who find themselves in disagreement with content we publish. Instead, we encourage our readers to submit sound critical responses to analyses we publish. Express your rational disagreement in letters to the editor, critical notes, even article-length ripostes. I cannot think of a bioethics journal that would not welcome your response. Do not expect us, however, to respond to excited hand-waving in non peer reviewed outlets or on partisan internet sites. Time is too precious for this.

[1] J Savulescu. 2012. “Liberals are disgusting.’ – In defence of the publication of ‘After-birth abortion’. [Accessed February 29, 2012]
[2] L Wahlert, A Fiester. 2012. Queer bioethics: why its time has come. Bioethics 26(1): ii-iv.

1 comment:

  1. Could not agree with you more. Critics should always provide written rational arguments to the contrary of whatever views they oppose. By writing, they will be forced to analyze closely their own thoughts which they seek to put on paper, see possible shortcomings in their own thought-analysis, and be the wiser for the endeavour. Individuals and academia will be the better for such a process.

    Derrick Aarons MD, PhD


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