Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Protesting too much

Readers will remember that article in the Journal of Medical Ethics which pointed out, (correctly), that the moral status of a new-born infant was the same as that of the same infant immediately prior to birth, and argued (incorrectly) that as we now accept abortion, we should likewise accept ‘post birth abortion.’

I blogged about it here.

Thanks to the indefatigable and always interesting Stuart at Echurch blog  I have been enjoying (?) the authors’ open letter.

Clearly, it is quite wrong of anyone personally to abuse the authors and threaten them.
It is true that it is hard to know precisely the correct response to someone advancing an ethical argument for infanticide; outrage and anger are both appropriate, I think, but they should be directed at the arguments and the culture which produces them (modern ethics) rather than the individuals.  Hate the sin, love the sinner, remember? 

However if the response was, in some quarters, intemperate (to put it mildly) I do think the authors  protest too much.

In the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) which is the national exercise run by HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England and Wales) to judge the quality of research undertaken at Universities, in order to allocate core research funding to them, there is, for the first time, to be a lot of emphasis on ‘impact.’  While the meaning of impact is somewhat unclear, it does seem to me unthinkable that academics publishing at the moment will not be giving the concept some thought.

So when Giubilini and Minerva claim: ‘we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate,’ I am left scratching my head.  Part of me, if I’m honest, wonders if heated debate was precisely the impact they wanted - it just got rather more heated than they liked.

They claim their article was about logic: ‘It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.’

As the paper has since been removed from the online publicly available version of the Journal, I can’t check the precise words they used, but I seem to remember their saying ‘we prefer the term after-birth abortion’ or words to that effect.

That strikes me as rhetoric: it is not logic, which is what they claim the paper was about.  Rhetoric serves a different purpose from logic: to influence or persuade.

So their claim that ‘we never meant to suggest that after-birth abortion should become legal’ raises the question: what where you trying to persuade people of?

Their further claim: ‘Moreover, we did not suggest that after birth abortion should be permissible for months or years as the media erroneously reported,’ does seem to concede that they were in fact suggesting that after-birth abortion should be permissible for some period of time; which was clearly how many who read the article interpreted it.

They continue: ‘What people understood was that we were in favour of killing people.  This, of course, is not what we suggested.’ Yes, it was.  They can only use this arguement because they are busy re-defining ‘people’ to mean ‘people whom we deem worthy of life.’

They further write: ‘We did not recommend or suggest anything in the paper about what people should do (or about what policies should allow).’  That is clearly rubish.  Their discipline is ethics.  That is what ethics is about.  The kind of stuff published and debated in ethical journals filters through into ethics committees in hospitals, universities and professional bodies.  They then lobby in parliament.  The doctors say ‘we’re not ethicists: that’s an important debate, but it is held elsewhere.’  Where? In journals such as this.

If some sections of the public protested too much at this outrageous article, (or more precisely, protested in the wrong way) I think it is also true that the authors protest their innocence rather more than the facts sustain.

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