Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Stop demanding that academics 'resign' just because you dislike what they have to say!

There is something strikingly odd about activists asking academics they disagree with to 'resign'. This happens ever more frequently (look out for an up-coming issue of the Journal of medical ethics dedicated to an affair that led to a worldwide effort aimed  at removing junior academics from their jobs because of an academic paper they wrote!) In the particular case that I will be writing about the academic in question is actually an emeritus professor (ie the academic is retired and cannot actually resign in any meaningful way, not even when bullied by a rabid activist outfit). 

Well, Gareth Jones, a well-regarded bioethicist at the University of Otago Bioethics Centre, published a piece in the New Zealand Medical Journal. Check out the article, it's available as an Open Access document at the time of writing. The article, co-authored by Jones with a student at the Centre, Robert Cole, defends prenatal screening for Down Syndrome. They defend essentially the introduction of Non-Invasive Prenatal Diagnosis (NIPD) instead of a more invasive technique that is currently used. The piece, by any stretch of the imagination, is uncontroversial. All that Cole and Jones point out is that as a society New Zealand is at ease with prenatal testing for Down Syndrome. Testing enables pregnant women to make reproductive choices according to best clinical information and according to their own reflective values. Enabling them to do this earlier on during pregnancy, courtesy of technological advances, seems a no-brainer, that is unless you are an anti-choice (aka 'pro-life activist') of the variety that led to Monty Python's every sperm is sacred song in their movie Meaning of Life

There are several arguments that have been deployed against testing by disability rights activists and assorted supportive anti-choice folks. These arguments essentially propose that disability doesn't necessarily impact negatively on someone's quality of life. I do think this argument is difficult to sustain on an all other things being equal basis of comparison. They also argue, and this is something any decent society should be concerned about, that an attitude suggesting that it is ok to abort defective fetuses (in their lingo they usually are described as 'unborn children' - you know, like unborn Nasa pilots, unborn painters, that sort of contradiction in terms) would eventually lead to forms of unfair discrimination against people with Down Syndrome.  This could include outright discriminatory attitudes including making fun of disabled people, blaming them unfairly for their condition and so on and so forth. It could also include a reduction in funding society would make available to the smaller number of disabled people coming into being despite screening efforts.

Well, in a liberal society the final word on whether or not the pregnancy is carried to term rests with the pregnant woman (and possibly her partner). There should not be unfair pressures from health care professionals to abort. Cole and Jones also note that there is no evidence that fewer disabled people would necessarily lead to a reduction in societal support services. NIPD could be used very early on in pregnancy (7-10 weeks). That is wonderful news, because fetuses are unable to experience pain before the 24th week of pregnancy. If one holds the view, as I do, that sentience is a necessary condition for moral standing, NIPD is great news, because it would permit women to choose an abortion knowing that their choice would not cause actual pain and suffering to the developing fetus. 

Strangely activists are up in arms about Cole and Jones, demanding that emeritus professor Jones 'resigns'. It goes without saying that their arguments are wrong headed, even if one ignores that retirees have some difficulty resigning from their posts. As always when it comes to this sort of activism there's nice rhetorical games that are being played with language. Accordingly we find statements such as this, 'People with Down syndrome must be accorded the full respect and acknowledgement of human rights that are afforded to other New Zealanders.' Of course, this is precisely what Cole and Jones state in their article. One shouldn't confuse fetuses with real people though! On said activist website there are also statements pronouncing that testing may only be done if it is ideologically anti-choice (ie 'pro-life'), 'To ensure that antenatal screening exists only to provide unborn children with Down syndrome and their parents with life-affirming, unbiased care through education, support and understanding.' That, of course, is unacceptable. One could have an argument about the question of whether or not there should be non-directive counselling, but to suggest that pregnant women should be subjected to anti-choice (ie 'pro-life') agitprop is clearly unacceptable in a liberal society. The objective must always be to provide pregnant women with unbiased, factual information and ensure that they can make their reproductive choices in a non-judgmental environment. This is not quite what the anti-choice activists have in mind on this subject. They have already made up her mind on behalf of the pregnant woman. 

May I suggest to our activists friends out there the following: deal with the arguments Cole and Jones (and many others like them) put forward for discussion by means of countering with sound arguments of your own. Your kind of resignation-demanding bullying is truly uncalled for.

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