On Giubilini, Minerva and Public Perception

I have loosely followed the discussion raging (for want of a better word) on the JME blog and in some other media about Giubilini and Minerva’s article on abortion and infanticide. I won’t pretend that I managed to read all of the contributions to the mêlée and I have to admit that it got pretty boring after a while, so I started to skip many of the comments that were simply repetitions of others.

Briefly, Giubilini and Minerva (two Australia-based academics) published an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (a very reputable academic journal, doing exactly what it says on the tin) where they developed an argument that has been around for a while, namely that there seems to be no significant moral difference between an abortion and an infanticide. You can read the article here (if the sinister publication cartels have deemed you worthy of being able to access research output which, in some way or other, you funded in the first place).

Whilst I didn’t read all the responses (have a look here for some of them), I did read the original publication. I didn’t like it much – I felt that the language was intended to provoke (though I appreciate that Giubilini and Minerva probably didn’t expect quite the extent of the response they provoked); I also thought that the arguments they were advocating didn’t exactly blow my scholarly skirt up (their use of “best interest” in relation to death and adoption, for example, was (from a medical lawyer’s perspective) a tad weak, to put it charitably). Nevertheless, there was probably enough flesh on this bone to merit publication and I bow to the editors’ decision to publish the piece. My first intuition was that the paper was probably welcome ammunition for militant ‘pro-lifers’ (I get back to that below) to attack the concept of abortion – they could have simply argued the paper’s reverse point and used the alleged lack of a morally significant difference between abortion and infanticide, given the clear moral intuition against infanticide, as a pretty good argument to say that abortion is thus indefensible (or at least poorly justified).

Instead, the discussion left the conventional modus of academic debate, where no thought is prohibited and all protagonists appreciate that their opposer may well argue against her own convictions in order to deliberate a point to its end (whether emotionally painful or not). Mainstream media have to accept a great deal of the blame for this, with papers across the world picking up on the juicy bits of the story and failing to provide adequate contextualisation.

Giubilini and Minerva were subjected to horrific abuse, and I understand that they received death threats as a result of their paper. Bizarrely, those who accused the authors of Nazi-style thinking, many of whom were self-professed pro-life advocates, engaged in Nazi-style thought prohibition exercises by arguing that scholars ought to be banned from discussing certain things, and went decidedly contra-life when they suggested that Giubilini and Minerva should be killed for their thoughts. I’ll not get into how idiotic this style of thinking is (res ipsa etc) and how all of these people would still be squatting in caves if science and academia did not challenge accepted boundaries occasionally.

My university, along with most of my colleagues’ universities across Europe and beyond, desire, nay, require, that we engage with the general public but – bloody hell – at what cost? I agree that much of the medico-legal and ethics work I do ought in some way reflect and interact with public stakeholders but it is ultimately exasperating to have to argue with others in this way. It is like playing against the kids who would pick the ball up in their hands and run with it when it became clear that their motor skills weren’t up for a game of football. It’s just not cricket, if you know what I mean. It also stifles debate and shackles progess – and here comes the point I want to make: In medical law and medical ethics we constantly discuss beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues that challenge intuitions – we need to see where the argument goes to work out whether it is useful or not. I’m working on a piece where I argue, together with a colleague, that the fair innings argument is a bit too soft for our liking – what if, on the basis of the experiences of Giubilini and Minerva, we decide that it is too risky for ourselves and our families to go public with this type of argument? (Old age pensioners in need of expensive healthcare provision might picket my institute or attack my family with their Zimmer frames in the street – you get the picture). Maybe I’ll just concentrate on acceptable mainstream work instead and write one boring article after another saying that individualised informed consent rocks, because hey – the patient is the man (or woman).

If that were to happen, I would have to return to working as a lawyer (and properly qualify as one, which means exams and stuff and I am so past that). I am also not sure that it would solve my problem – the last time I worked as a fee earner it was in defendant child abuse litigation (which probably attracts just as much hatred as arguing for infanticide).

It would be nice if our engagement with the public would lead to a realisation (and support by the mainstream media) of the principle that we need people like Giubilini, Minerva and others to provoke discussion, discourse and disagreement which creates progress and evolution in society. And lawyers who defend the indefensible to sustain a society worth sustaining. Rant over.

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