An attack on academic freedom?

Michael Cook
4 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Some bioethicists who feel at home in the utilitarian common room of the Journal of Medical Ethics described the imbroglio as an attack on academic freedom. Udo Schüklenk of Queen's University, in Ontario, who is also the editor of Bioethics, a distinguished international journal, complained bitterly that "bioethics journals are under increasing and sustained fire from political activists" of all stripes, from "the left, feminists, disability activists [to] religious conservatives".

He singles out two gadflies who "busily scan bioethics journals for evidence of the secular liberal bias they claim exists … and also attack, pretty much immediately, papers - and by extension the journals that publish them - that they disagree with."

The first is Wesley J. Smith, the editor of the Human Exceptionalism blog on the website of the US magazine National Review Online. The other is the editor of BioEdge, whose "outputs are routinely picked up by search engines such as Google's news service, thereby arguably providing the site with a larger real-world impact than most bioethics journals could dream of".

Of the two, although he regards both as "agitprop", Dr Schüklenk prefers BioEdge which, he says, "is less caught up in the US culture wars, so there is less of a permanent doomsday flavour to its outputs".

But the controversy also brought to light a difficult issue for editors of bioethics journals. How should they deal with inflammatory theories and articles? Infanticide is not the only topic which is taboo in the media. No doubt an article defending non-voluntary euthanasia for patients in a permanent vegetative state would provoke a similar response. "When all is said and done, this is an academic freedom issue. It has to do with ensuring both that we are able to ask difficult questions, and that we are able to defend conclusions that most people will disagree with."

Malcolm Oswald, of the University of Manchester, made a novel suggestion. He proposed that bioethics papers be tagged "green papers" or "white papers". The latter would be purely theoretical discussions; the former practical policy proposals. "Had it been labelled as 'green', readers could have understood what Giubilini and Minerva explained later: that it was a discussion of philosophical ideas, and not a policy proposal advocating infanticide."

Giubilina and Minerva subsequently explained that their article was published as a thought-experiment, not a serious public policy proposal. Schüklenk says that this loss of nerve is a serious failing.

"Bioethics analyses offering practical conclusions are not theoretical games," he writes. Peter Singer and Michael Tooley, two bioethicists who have defended the moral legitimacy of infanticide, have never asked not to be taken seriously. "Respect for free speech has a flipside, requiring of us to take responsibility for the views that we defend. On what other grounds could we expect our views to be taken seriously. What kind of debate could we reasonably have with discussants who - when cornered - will say 'I didn't really mean it'?"