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“Our lives are not actually our own”

23 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Long-term readers of this blog will know that, every now and then, I have a look at the CMF’s blog.  This is largely because of my interest in the ethics of assisted dying, and the blog is actually a pretty good way into developments on the other side of the lines.  There is rarely, if ever, anything new produced that’d move the argument on – but then, those of us who’re sympathetic to legalisation really aren’t doing any better.  It’s become rather a sterile debate.

I do tend to blank out the apologetics; bet every now and again, something catches my eye: a part of this recent post, about the latest attempt to introduce an assisted dying Bill into Parliament, is one such.  There’s a part where Peter Saunders claims that the Sermon on the Mount moved away from a literal take on the prohibition of murder to something more in keeping with the spirit of the law.  This, though, prompts a question for me: why can’t we accommodate a person’s desire to die within the general law against killing?  Might that desire mean that assistance is properly described as something other than murder?  It is tempting to infer from what Saunders says elsewhere that he is at least not too worried about some forms of intentional killing: writing about the Kermit Gosnell story a couple of years ago, his headline noted that Gosnell may face the death penalty – but the body text did not mention that at all, let alone take a position on it.  Yet if all deliberate killing is so straightforwardly wrong, we might expect that killing at least to be noted.  If deliberate killing by means of the death penalty doesn’t raise a peep of objection, then we might wonder why assisting in someone’s death at that person’s behest is more of a worry.

Saunders does have an answer to this query, though: more…

On the other hand…

20 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

… the phenomenon of apologising for the wrong thing comes alongside people taking umbrage at the wrong thing.  Last week, the BMJ ran a head-to-head feature on the “question” of whether doctors should recommend homeopathy.  This was the latest in a series of articles in which a question is posed, apparently strictly on the understanding that it’ll accommodate a polarised debate, and one person is invited to give a “yea” response, and another to give “nay”.  I won’t bother here with a screed about homeopathy: Edzard Ernst does a good job in the BMJ piece, as have many others across the blogosphere.  (You could do worse, for example, than to have a wander through the Anomalous Distraction blog, which is written by an ex-schoolmate of mine, and which also has lots of pretty pictures of proteins and things.)  Since it’s a nice day, and I’m in a reasonably good mood, I’ll even admit that when Hahnemann was working, something like homeopathy was probably as good a punt as anything else that medicine had to offer.  But… y’know.

Aaaaaanyway…  A rather angry letter appeared.  I think it’s worth examining, because it makes a number of normative and value claims; and if norms and values aren’t the meat and veg of an ethicist’s life, then we might as well go home. more…

Apologising for the Wrong Thing

11 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

A little addendum to yesterday’s monster post.

Ivan Oransky reports that, before deleting her Twitter account, Hope Amantine had apparently also said in a tweet that the story was “not meant to offend”.  I’ve noticed that a lot recently: a person does something wrong, is publicly called out for it, and apologises for any offence caused.  Greenpeace apologised for any offence caused when they trampled over the Nazca lines.  Gary Barlow apologised for any offence caused by the stories about his tax-dodging.  (Not for offence caused by tax dodging, but for offence caused by the world having come to know of it, natch.)

I hate it when people say that.

It reduces moral discourse to one of whether or not Smith was sufficiently courteous.  Moral discourse is richer than that.  Hell, moral discourse has got almost nothing to do with that.

More, I doubt anyone was offended in any of those cases.  That wasn’t the problem.  Lying was; trampling humanity’s patrimony was; dodging tax was.  Apologising for causing offence is a non-apology, and leaves the real moral problem utterly unremarked.

I just wanted to get that off my chest.  As you were.

Bad Surgeons and Good Faith

10 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

This is a bit of a strange post, not least because it involves citing sources – a blog post, and a whole blog -that have since been taken down from the net, for reasons that will become clear.  It’s also going to involve a pair of fairly hefty quotations, largely because it’s the absence of a source that motivates this post – which means I can’t simply tell you to follow the links.  It has to do with an apparent case of a surgeon deliberately causing a serious injury to a patient in the name of teaching, and with deceptions, and with apologies for those deceptions.

It’s also a very long post, even by my prolix standards.

OK: so, as quoted by Orac on his Respectful Insolence blog, here’s the case that gets the story going.  It was originally recounted by someone calling themselves “Hope Amantine”, and was cross-posted, which bills itself as “social media’s leading physician voice”, is written by someone called Kevin Pho, and is a part a site called MedPage Today.  This means that Orac’s version is at least third-hand; but I can’t do better than that, for reasons that will become clear.  That’s a pain, but I’m going to have to take things on good faith – which, given what comes later, is perhaps asking for trouble.  Either way, here’s the story:

So here I was, handling the plane (the layer, or space) around the IVC [inferior vena cava] with care to avoid ripping it. It seemed like the intelligent thing to do. My attending asked, “Why are you being so dainty with your dissection there?” I answered that I wanted to avoid ripping the cava because they’re so much harder to fix.

Big mistake.

I take it he interpreted my comment as fear, and decided upon a teaching moment. He took his scissors and incredibly, before my eyes, and with no warning or preparation of any kind, cut a one-inch hole in the cava.

I was stunned. As I tried to process what I just saw, incredulous that he would actually intentionally make a hole in the cava, and as dark blood poured out of the hole, the tide rising steadily in the abdomen, he remarked, “Well, are you just going to stand there or are you going to fix that?”

And so I did. Whatever thoughts I might have had about his behavior, his judgment, and his sanity (and believe you me, there were many), I put my fingers on the hole to stop the flow.  I suctioned out the blood that had already escaped, and irrigated the field, the Amazing One-Handed Surgeon did nothing to help me.  This exercise was clearly a test. I got two sponge sticks to occlude flow above and below the hole which I instructed him to hold in position (which he dutifully did), and then I got my suture and I fixed the hole.  No problem.

All he said was, “Good job.” And we proceeded to complete the case uneventfully.


Though I may not have agreed with his actions on that day, I do understand them. How do you teach someone to take charge when there is a crisis? I am certain that if I was put on the spot and shriveled and sniveled, and couldn’t control the bleeding, he would have taken over. And I would have failed.


So on that day, when the vascular attending cut that hole in the cava, he was preparing me, both for the oral exam, and for life as a surgeon. He wanted to see if I could handle it.

I guess I made the cut.

The excisions are mine – they’re where Orac makes a comment.  However, there’s one more part that’s important – and this is now in Orac’s voice:

The reaction to Dr. Amantine’s post was furious and uniformly negative, both in the comments and in the Twittersphere, and yesterday there was an addendum:

Author’s note 7/8/2015: This is a fictional article. No one was harmed, then or ever, in my care or in my presence. I apologize for any remark that may have been misconstrued.

Orac calls BS on this, and I’m tempted to do likewise; but I’ll put that to one side for now.  I’ll also note that I can’t check the flow of the original post, because it no longer exists.  Indeed, Hope Amantine’s whole blog would seem to have been taken down.  In the meantime, other blogs and pages also picked up the story from KevinMD: PZ Myers noted it on Pharyngula, Janet Stemwedel commented in a piece on Forbes‘ site, and I’m sure there were more.  This is noteworthy, because, as I said, the OP has now gone.  If you want to read it, you’ll have to go to where it was cross-posted or quoted (which makes this whole thing rather like a game of Chinese Whispers).

Indeed, not only has the OP gone: the KevinMD post has also gone.  Where it was, there’s this message: more…

On Being a Hypocrite

1 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

A piece appeared in The Atlantic a few days ago that aims to prick the perceived bubble of professional ethicists.  In fact, the headline is pretty hostile: THE HYPOCRISY OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICISTS.  Blimey.  The sub-headline doesn’t pull its punches either: “Even people who decide what’s right and wrong for a living don’t always behave well.”

I know that headlines are frequently not written by the person whose article they head, and so these won’t tell us much about the article – but, even so, I’m beginning to twitch.  Do I decide what’s right and wrong for a living?  I don’t think I do.  I possibly thought that that’s what an ethicist does when I was a fresher, or at school – but I’m not certain I did even then.  And even if I did, I discovered pretty quickly that it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  For sure, I think about what’s right and wrong, and about what “right” and “wrong” mean; and I might even aspire to make the occasional discovery about right and wrong (or at least about how best to think about right and wrong).*  But as for deciding what is right and wrong?  Naaaah.

Anyway: to the substance of the piece, which – to be fair – is more moderate in tone, pointing out that “those who ponder big questions for a living don’t necessarily behave better, or think more clearly, than regular people do”.  That’s probably accurate enough, at least a good amount of the time.  I’d like to think that I’m thinking better about a particular problem than most people when I’m working on it; but I’m also thinking better about in that context than I would be at other times.  (Ask me about – say –  genetic privacy while I’m drafting a section of a paper on genetic privacy, and I’m your man.  Ask me while I’m making pastry… not so much.)  If we allow that I’m better at dealing with (a) specific moral question(s) while “on duty”, that won’t mean I’m not susceptible to the same intellectual shortcuts and fallacies as everyone else at least most of the rest of the time.  I’m probably almost as susceptible to them even when I am on duty.  I’d assume that the same applies to others in the profession, too.

The article does make great play of the apparent inconsistencies between what ethicists say and what they/ we do.  So there’s the finding about how many more say that eating meat is morally problematic than actually avoid it, and the chestnut about how ethics books are the ones most frequently stolen from libraries.**  At least there are decent sources cited – peer-reviewed papers like this one that are philosophically informed, to boot.

So: ethicists aren’t reliably better behaved than others.  I don’t think that should surprise us, though.  But, there’s a couple of questions into which we might still want to dig more deeply. more…

Flogging and the Medic

3 Mar, 15 | by Iain Brassington

You must, by now, have heard of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi.  Just in case you haven’t (really?), here’s a potted biography: having set up the secularist forum Free Saudi Liberals, he was arrested for insulting Islam and showing disobedience.  Among the formal charges he faced was one for apostasy, which carries the death penalty in Saudi.  The apostasy charge was dropped, but he was convicted on other charges and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes.  He appealed, and this sentence was changed: it became 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison.  Why?  Does it matter?  Because Saudi Arabia.  The latest update is that the apostasy charge may be renewed, so for a second time, he faces beheading.  Part of the evidence against him is that he “Liked” a post on a Facebook page for Arab Christians.  (Remember: Saudi is one of our allies against religious extremism.)

The lashes were to be administered in batches of 50, weekly, after Friday prayers.  As I write this, he has only been flogged once; doctors have attested that he is not well enough to be flogged again.  And – with thanks to Ophelia for the link – it’s  not hard to see why:

Dr Juliet Cohen, head of doctors at Freedom from Torture, explained: “When the cane strikes, the blood is forced from the tissues beneath… Damage to the small blood vessels and individual cells causes leakage of blood and tissue fluid into the skin and underlying tissue, increasing the tension in these areas.

“The more blows are inflicted on top of one another, the more chance of open wounds being caused. This is important because they are likely to be more painful and at risk of infection, which will cause further pain over a prolonged period as infection delays the wounds’ healing.”

There is also the long-term damage done to the victim’s mental health caused by flogging.

“Psychologically, flogging may cause feelings of fear, anxiety, humiliation and shame. Anticipation of the next scheduled flogging is likely to cause heightened emotions especially of fear, anxiety and difficulty sleeping… pain and fear together over a prolonged period have a deeply debilitating effect and recovery from such experiences may take considerable time,” said Cohen.

At the beginning of February, Vincent Iacopino had a post on the main BMJ blog in which he claimed that health professionals should play no part in Badawi’s flogging: more…

Free Speech and the CMF

5 Jan, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Despite a slight reticence when it comes to quoting Mill approvingly, I do have to admit that sometimes he does articulate a thought clearly and pithily, and sometimes it’s a thought in which all right-thinking people ought to see the merit.  Like, for example, this, from the opening paragraph of chapter III in On Liberty:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

The general point ought to be clear: whatever your prima facie right to say what you want, it doesn’t mean there’re no limits on the circumstances in which it can be said.  Mill is concerned about excitable mobs, but the basic principle could, I think, be extended without too much difficulty: if your free speech causes severe inconvenience or distress or inconvenience to others, you ought to moderate it or take it elsewhere.  Having the freedom to make a point is, and ought to be, compatible with others’ freedom not to be bothered by your making it.

I think that that’s pretty reasonable: your liberty is one thing, but it’s not the only thing.  There’s the liberty of others to avoid you to consider, for one thing.  Pushing things a bit further, we might be inclined to argue that liberty is a good because of its relationship with, and contribution to securing, the general welfare – but that there’re other things that contribute to that, too, which therefore ought also to be considered good things worth protecting.  Basic civility might be one such good.  Mill doesn’t make much of that, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t say that that’s a good worth preserving – and why we couldn’t fit that into a modified Millianism, should we so desire.  On Liberty isn’t Holy Writ: its good ideas might be extendable.

Keep that in the back of your mind for a moment.

Many readers will have seen the video posted a few weeks ago by Sunny Hundal in which a woman berates a group of pro-life protesters outside an abortion clinic.  The background detail is that there is reportedly an increasing prevalence in the UK of pro-life protesters congregating outside such clinics.  Sometimes those protests take the form of prayer vigils; sometimes – as in the video – they’re more direct, with posters of babies and foetuses, sometimes quite graphic.  Occasionally there’s barracking; I think that this is more common in the US, but I suspect that the trend may appear here soon enough, not least because these things do tend to escalate.  Yvette Cooper has apparently mulled the idea of buffer-zones around abortion clinics, within which pro-life protesters would not be allowed to protest.

Writing on the CMF blog, Cheryl Chin is not happy about Cooper’s idea; she thinks that “It would appear that once again, liberties are under threat of being curtailed by the proponents of the pro-abortion brigade”.* more…

Would the Falconer Bill Increase the Suicide Rate?

8 Dec, 14 | by Iain Brassington

This is just a quickie – I promise.

A tweet this morning from Kevin Yuill raises what he sees as a scary prospect:

The Falconer bill will treble suicides amongst the terminally ill, according to Dignity in Dying. Is that what we want? Reject this bill.

He bases his claim on two things, both from Dignity in Dying: first, this document, which estimates that 332 of the 4513 suicides in the England in 2012 (p 1); second, this document, which estimates that there would be 1000 assisted deaths in England and Wales under an Oregon-like law (p 10).

Dignity in Dying has disputed his interpretation of the figures, and I’ve spotted a couple of problems with them.  Some of those who committed suicide while terminally ill may not have committed suicide because they were terminally ill; that might skew the figures.  So might the leap from “England” to “England and Wales”.  And, most importantly, we don’t know how many people would have killed themselves but for the current legal setup.  (Neither does DiD.)  Hence the trebling rate is at best an educated guess, but probably not even that.

But I’m going to allow that Yuill’s interpretation is reasonable for the sake of the argument.  I’ll also allow – in keeping with the Falconer Bill – that all legal assisted deaths in the UK would be assisted suicides, rather than allocides.  It occurs to me, though, that his claim still doesn’t do quite what he thinks it does, or wants it to do.  Importantly, he assumes that an increase in suicides would be a bad thing – and that DiD has therefore blundered in admitting that the rate would rise.

I’m not so sure.  Suicide may be a bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily bad in the way Yuill thinks.

Here’s one consideration.  Assume that some people who are terminally ill would take assistance to kill themselves were it available, but don’t kill themselves under the current regime.  Maybe they’re housebound and can’t procure the means, for example.  Something like the Falconer Bill would make suicide easier for them; and so we’d expect the rate to increase.  But we oughtn’t to forget the alternative, which is not not dying, but dying from a different cause.  This being the case, it isn’t necessarily going to matter too much to a defender of assisted dying that the suicide rate would increase, since his whole position would be that being able to end your own life in the way you choose is preferable to dying without any control.

In other words, the defender of assisted dying could, I think, accept that the suicide rate’d increase, and point out that, in a way, that is the whole point.  An increase in the suicide rate may be, in a certain light, a welcome development, not something to be feared.  I don’t know whether DiD would endorse that view, but it seems coherent, and not obviously vicious; hence Yuill seems to have committed an ignoratio elenchi.

And this leads to another consideration, which is that you don’t – as far as I can see – have to deny the badness of suicide to defend assisted dying.  All you have to think is that there are circumstances in which it’s less bad than the alternative.  Being the better option doesn’t mean it’s a good option, in just the same way that amputation of a limb may be preferable to dying from gangrene without that meaning that amputation is a particularly good thing in its own right.

Even if Yuill’s use of the figures is statistically sound, his claim doesn’t have any of the normative punch he thinks it does.


Questions to which the Answer is Yes

28 Nov, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Over at Practical Ethics, Charles Camosy asks a question: Can bioethics be done without theology?

Yep.  It can.

Well, that was quick and simple.

But – oh, all right: I probably ought to say a bit more.  Now, Camosy’s post is quite long, and that means that if I want to scrutinise it in any detail, I’d have to generate something at least as long.  I’m not sure if I – or any reader – has the patience for that, so what follows is probably not going to be without the odd gap.  All the same, this post has turned out to be something of a monster in its own right – so it might be worth going to make a cup of tea first if you intend to read it.

The tl;dr version is that I think that Camosy’s argument is fallacious in several places.  And though I’m arguing from a position of godlessness, I think that the problems ought to be apparent to those who do have faith as well.  With that caveat issued, here we go… more…

Oh, dear, Richard…

20 Aug, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Look, I know that Twitter really isn’t the place for nuanced debate.  But, by that token, everyone else should realise that as well – especially intellectual superstars. So how, then, to explain Richard Dawkins’ spectacular foot-in-mouth moment earlier today? It started off reasonably enough, with him tweeting about Catholicism’s stance on abortion and providing a link to this piece by Jerry Coyne in the New Republic; lots of people are going to agree with both Coyne and Dawkins, and lots to disagree, but we should expect that.  The tweet got a couple of replies.  I can’t be bothered transcribing them, but here’s a screenshot; you should be able to click to enbiggen it. Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.50.23

So far so good.  Dawkins’ reply is about as good a version of the sentience argument that you could cram into 140 characters; and InYourFaceNewYorker’s point articulates a problem faced by any number of women who are carrying a child with a disability of some kind.  (Well, by any number of parents, I suppose, except that it’s women who hold the moral trump here simply by dint of being the one carrying it.  Fathers could agonise about the best thing to do, too; it’s just that they don’t get to make the final decision.  Oh, you know what I mean.)  Where you stand on abortion doesn’t preclude recognising that it’s a genuine moral dilemma for many people, and a that there are respectable arguments and proponents of those arguments on both sides – by which I mean that people on either side should be able to recognise that their opponents are at the very least worth the effort of an argument. InYourFaceNewYorker goes on to articulate some of the aspects of the debate that make it so emotive and so intellectually rich:

Screen shot 2014-08-20 at 19.58.49

That doesn’t reflect Dawkins’ response to the dilemma, though.  Brace yourselves. more…

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