The fallout from the “after-birth abortion” article in the Journal of Medical Ethics continues. Writing in an influential conservative American magazine, The Weekly Standard, senior editor Andrew Ferguson says:
“On the list of the world’s most unnecessary occupations—aromatherapist, golf pro, journalism professor, vice president of the United States--that of medical ethicist ranks very high. They are happily employed by pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and other outposts of the vast medical-industrial combine, where their job is to advise the boss to go ahead and do what he was going to do anyway (“Put it on the market!” “Pull the plug on the geezer!”). They also attend conferences where they take turns sitting on panels talking with one another and then sitting in the audience watching panels of other medical ethicists talking with one another. Their professional specialty is the “thought experiment,” which is the best kind of experiment because you don’t have to buy test tubes or leave the office. And sometimes they get jobs at universities, teaching other people to become ethicists. It is a cozy, happy world they live in.”
In many respects Ferguson is quite unfair. He tars all bioethicists with the utilitarian brush wielded by the authors of the article, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. But it seems clear that immense damage may have been done by the global publicity given to the infanticide article.
Wesley J. Smith, of Secondhand Smoke, a widely-read bioethics blog, lamented the decline in the prestige of bioethics even though he has often been highly critical of some of its practitioners. “Bioethicists could have been contenders. They could have led the country into finding ways to deal with the new difficulties of high tech medicine and resource scarcity without sacrificing the Hippocratic values that patients count on as their protection.”
He reminded readers that:
“The pioneers in the field were very serious men and women who set out to do an honorable thing, that is, work through the difficulties attendant to a medical world of high tech medicine. Thus men like the late Paul Ramsey, Daniel Callahan, Gilbert Meilander, Leon Kass, H. Tristram Engelhardt, Art Caplan, Al Jonson, and others–some of whom I agree with and some of whom I don’t, and some of whom are my friends–were at least morally serious and dedicated to improving the human condition. Bioethics can be credited, for example, for ensuring that people could say no to unwanted life-sustaining treatment because, as Ramsey noted, that is treating the patient as a person–in the rightful use of the term.”
Unfortunately, the notoriety of “After-birth Abortion: Why should the baby live?” threatens to bring the whole profession into disrepute. If a conservative occupies the White House next year, it could even affect the composition of the presidential bioethics commission and government attitudes towards advice offered by bioethicists.