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Free speech, democracy, and eugenics
  1. Søren Holm,
  2. John Harris
  1. Editors, Journal of Medical Ethics
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor S Holm
 Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University, PO Box 427, Cardiff CF10 3XJ, UK; holmscardiff.ac.uk

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Attempts to stifle debate in medical ethics must be strongly resisted

On 30 September and 1 October this year a conference on “Ethics, Science and Moral Philosophy of Assisted Human Reproduction” was held at the Royal Society in London. The conference was organised by the German philosopher Edgar Dahl and the eminent embryologist Robert Edwards, and the speakers included scientists, IVF practitioners, and philosophers from the UK, the USA, Europe, and Australia (you can see the programme at http://www.humanreproethics.org/welcome.htm)

Because the programme included discussion of preimplantation genetic diagnosis and reproductive choice the conference was targeted by an anonymous group calling itself “People Against Eugenics” that is hiding its real identity behind an email address.

If this shadowy organisation had had any arguments to present it could have participated in the conference, which was not closed in any way. There was ample room for discussion after the talks, as well as a one hour session where it was possible to question individual speakers at length.

However, this organisation either had no arguments or no willingness to stand up and be personally identified. Instead it tried to stop the conference taking place by threatening the Royal Society with disruption and possible legal action if it allowed the conference to go forward. Luckily this tactic did not succeed, as Robert Edwards agreed to cover any eventual legal costs. This courage deserves the highest praise and admiration.

This attempt to stifle legitimate academic debate about ethical issues is deeply worrying, and must be resisted by the medical ethics community in the strongest possible terms. Unless there can be an open debate where arguments and positions are put forward to be discussed and criticised, not only will the whole field of inquiry wither and die but democratic values will be put at risk.

Think for a moment how the development of medical ethics would have been influenced if people had not been able to discuss abortion and prenatal diagnosis, the issues in research involving incompetent research subjects, or the problems raised by end of life decision making—all controversial issues that in various ways can be linked to eugenics or Nazi Germany.

Free and open debate is the lifeblood of medical ethics—without it medical ethics becomes a dogmatic system devoid of intellectual life. Even those in the medical ethics community who hold substantive views similar to those of the would be conference wreckers therefore have compelling reasons to uphold the principle that academic debate should not be stifled by political correctness.

At a deeper level the position taken by People Against Eugenics is philosophically confused, performatively inconsistent, and extremely illiberal and antidemocratic. It is philosophically confused because eugenics is not a simple concept with a straightforward denotation and connotation. It is impossible to be “against eugenics” in any meaningful sense, unless we are in a situation where we can openly discuss what we mean by eugenics and it is just this discussion that the organisation wants to stop. It is performatively inconsistent because it denies others the right to speak that People Against Eugenics claims so vociferously for itself (or maybe him or herself: because of its shadowy nature we cannot know whether there is really more than one person behind the name). And it is profoundly illiberal and antidemocratic because free and open debate about controversial issues is not only the lifeblood of medical ethics, but the lifeblood of liberal democracy. Without free and open debate democracy loses much of its justification and becomes a mere counting exercise of votes.

Through their actions “People Against Eugenics” has shown itself really to be “People Against Freedom and Democratic Debate”.

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