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Life and Death

How Not to Argue against a Proposed Law

5 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

Yes, yes: it’s tedious and internecine, but it’s almost a year since I had a pop at Kevin Yuill’s book on assisted dying; how about an update?  Well, conveniently, there’s this, in which he tries “to convince my fellow liberal minded atheists to reconsider their support for legalized assisted dying”.  OK, then.  First up, this isn’t a pro-legalisation post: I’m much more interested in looking at the arguments presented in their own terms.  I think they’re bad; but that is to do with their form rather than their content.  Indeed, one of Yuill’s opening moves is something to which I’m sympathetic: in respect of Lord Falconer’s latest Bill to legalise assisted dying, he points out that

the chief sponsoring agency (Dignity in Dying) lamely differentiates between the dying (those with six months or less to live) and those with more time.
If the latter ingest poison in a room by themselves – well, that’s suicide.  But if those with less than six months take poison with the intent to end their lives, that is not suicide at all but <ahem> assisted dying. Nope, me neither.

I agree that the six-month time limit is arbitrary, and probably morally indefensible.  But…

*deep breath*

But note how Yuill botches even this point. more…

Their Poor Little Heads might Explode

1 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a nice little piece by Martin Robbins in this week’s Guardian in which he talks about the fact that women seem to be less supportive of abortion than men.  That does seem counterintuitive, given that… well, given the obvious physiological facts and the relative burden of risks related to pregnancy.  So there’s an interesting little anthropological puzzle here; and he suggests a number of factors that might explain the phenomenon. For example, there’s some research that finds that women are more likely than men to agree that life begins at conception – though, as he points out, while that might help explain the different views of termination, we’d still need to know why more women think that to begin with. Another potential explanation is that men like the idea of not having to do the right thing by their pregnant partners by paying child-support or, if you’re reading this in the 1950s, marrying them: abortion gives a way out of that.  But – and Robbins doesn’t mention this – that again presupposes keeping the baby as the default position to which people are looking for an alternative.  We could also talk about social pressure, and the way that women are still expected to be mothers, and how that feeds into attitudes.  In fact, we could talk about a lot of things:

So which is it? Internalised sexism, men’s liberation, fundamentally different ideas about the point at which life begins, or something else entirely? I doubt only one factor is at work, but it seems that we lack a definitive answer. And that’s a shame, because in the ongoing battle of ideas it seems like a very important question to ask.

I suspect some will deride his “we need to do more research” conclusion, but it seems eminently sensible to say that, faced with a quirk of attitudes, a full explanation would be at least aesthetically satisfying, even if not especially urgent.  He also provides lots of useful links.

Over at the CMF blog, Philippa Taylor’s suggestion – which also has lots of useful links – is a little different. more…

Resurrectionism at Easter

23 Apr, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a provocative piece in a recent New Scientist about what happens to unclaimed bodies after death – about, specifically, the practice of coopting them for research purposes.

Gareth Jones, who wrote it, points out that the practice has been going on for centuries – but that a consequence of the way it’s done is that it tends to be the poor and disenfranchised whose corpses are used:

[T]he probably unintended and unforeseen result [of most policies] was to make poverty the sole criterion for dissection. [… U]nclaimed bodies are still used in countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Brazil and India. While their use is far less in North America, they continue to constitute the source of cadavers in around 20 per cent of medical schools in the US and Canada. In some states in the US, unclaimed bodies are passed to state anatomy boards.

For Jones, the practice of cooption ought to be stopped.  His main bone of contention is the lack of consent – it’s a problem that’s made more acute by the fact that the bodies of the disenfranchised are more likely to be unclaimed, but I take it that the basic concern would be there for all.

One question that we might want to ask right from the off is why informed consent is important. more…

Oh, and while we’re talking about media hype…

1 Apr, 14 | by Iain Brassington

… there’s this, from last week’s Independent:

Thousands of unborn foetuses incinerated to heat UK hospitals

The bodies of more than 15,000 unborn foetuses have been incinerated in the UK, an investigation has found, with some treated as “clinical waste” and others burned to heat hospitals.

The practice was carried out by 27 NHS trusts, with at least 15,500 bodies burned over the last two years alone.

Ten of those trusts admitted to burning more than 1,000 sets of remains along with other hospital rubbish, while two said they were incinerated in “waste-to-energy” furnaces that generate energy used to power and heat hospitals.

Gasp!  One kind of human tissue is disposed of in the same way as other kinds of human tissue!

From the tone of the reporting, one would only be mildly surprised to find people employed to encourage abortions in order that hospitals can save money on fuel.

Except that that’s nonsense.  If clinical waste is incinerated in waste-to-heat plants, it doesn’t follow that it’s being incinerated to provide heating; rather, it’s that the heat from the incinerator is captured and put to use, rather than being wasted.  For sure, the physics is the same; but the emphasis makes a heck of a difference.  (And, as PZ points out, for abortus* to be an effective fuel would require them to be “the most energy-dense substance in the world”.)  So what we actually have is a situation in which an abortus is incinerated.

And the problem with that is…?


Well, I’m sure there must be one, because health minister Dan Poulter is reported as describing the practice as “totally unacceptable”, and Poulter is an honourable man.

Actually, there is a few things that might strike us as questionable – though as we’ll see, the fact that something prompts a question doesn’t really tell us much, since some questions can be answered easily.   more…

What should we Think about Belgium’s Child Euthanasia Law?

15 Feb, 14 | by Iain Brassington

With any luck, the nuts real-world work schedule of the past few months* will begin to ease in a few days, so I should be able to start blogging more frequently soon; but I thought I’d take a moment out from writing jurisprudence lectures to do some thinking out loud about Belgium’s recent change to its euthanasia law, which legalises it for children.  This is partly because it’s interesting in its own right, and partly because I’m debating it on Radio 4’s Sunday programme this week.  I’ve drafted this post before the interview’s recorded, but I’m not publishing it until after (though before the broadcast); let’s see how my thoughts here pan out on air…**

For reference, the text of the law is available here in French, and here in Dutch – thank goodness for A/S levels.  A decent précis provided by AP is hosted here; and Christian Munthe has an unofficial translation here.

OK: so, what should we think about it? more…

Sex-Selection and Abortion: Is there a Problem?

17 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington

This is just a quick post, and it’s mainly to draw your attention to a couple of other posts worth reading elsewhere.

A little background: there’s been a minor fuss* in the media over the last few days concerning sex-specific abortion**, after The Independent reported that

[t]he practice of sex-selective abortion is now so commonplace that it has affected the natural 50:50 balance of boys to girls within some immigrant groups and has led to the “disappearance” of between 1,400 and 4,700 females from the national census records of England and Wales, we can reveal.

Now, there’s something a bit fishy about the article even on its own terms: alarm bells should be got ringing by this:

[O]ur deeper statistical analysis of data from the 2011 National Census has shown widespread discrepancies in the sex ratio of children in some immigrant families, which can only be easily explained by women choosing to abort female foetuses in the hope of becoming quickly pregnant again with a boy.

After all, it does seem to reduce to a claim along the lines that “I can’t think of a better explanation than e for phenomenon p, therefore e obtains” – but that tells us far more about the limits of the speaker’s imagination than about the state of the world.  Besides, while there are good reasons to favour the most simple explanation of p, one ought to keep a distinction between the simple and the simplistic.  Bluntly, an easy explanation isn’t any more likely to be true by dint of being easy.  E=mc2 is simple once you’ve derived it, but its derivation isn’t easy.

But how reliable is the Indy‘s analysis anyway?  I’ve not gone through the data myself, but Unity has, and has a couple of really good posts: the first is here, and the followup is here.

They’re very worth the read – but I recommend that you make yourself a good cup of tea before starting them.  They’re looooooong.  I’d be interested to know what others think, though.


UPDATE: There’s even more.  I think Unity’s enjoying himself with this.


* Minor in the sense that it’s been eclipsed by things like Oscar nominations.

** Here’s Christina Odone, for example, blaming it all on feminism.  Surprised?  You could knock me down with a bulldozer.

Identity and IVF

11 Jan, 14 | by Iain Brassington

It’s good to see that Stephen Latham is blogging again after a short hiatus; and he’s come back with a really thought-provoking post on IVF and problems of identity.

The background is this: apparently, there is evidence that children conceived by IVF are at an elevated risk of health problems compared to kids conceived naturally:

Compared to spontaneously-conceived singletons, singletons from assisted conception were almost twice as likely to be stillborn, more than twice as likely to be pre-term, almost three times as likely to have very low birth weight, and twice as likely to die within the first four weeks after birth. Outcomes varied by type of assisted conception. Very low and low birth weight, very preterm and preterm birth, and neonatal death were “markedly” more common in births from IVF and, to a lesser degree, in births from ICSI. Use of frozen embryos elminated the risks of ICSI, but not of IVF. But frozen embryos also had increased risk of macrosomia.

This is the paper that Stephen mentions; but it’s not the only one to report potential risks associated with IVF.  A rather kneejerk response to this is to go “Eeeep!  This means that IVF is dangerous, and we’re harming kids by conceiving them by this method”.  (I suspect that there’s an element of that in posts like this – though admittedly if that element is there, it’s being deployed merely as a part of a wider attack on IVF, motivated for different reasons.)  But, of course, kneejerk reactions are rarely all that morally insightful, and the conventional response to concerns about IVF is rather more sanguine.

Borrowing heavily from Parfit, the standard response is this: each of us is reliant on a particular egg and a particular sperm having fused in a particular way.  Had that been different, we would not have come into being.  A month later, and it’d’ve been a different egg; and it could easily have been a different sperm cell.  Any resultant child would be related to us only in the same way as a sibling – except that it wouldn’t be our sibling, because we wouldn’t be there.  This indicates that, if IVF represents a child’s only chance of coming into existence – and it probably is – it is hard to say that the child has been harmed or wronged thereby.  There may be a qualification to add, along the lines that should the child’s life be so bad that non-existence would be preferable, existence may be a harm; but that kind of outcome is probably hyperbolic in practice.  An elevated risk of any congenital characteristic is therefore unlikely to count as a harm.

So, as Stephen points out, we can ask a question: more…

News from Wisconsin: It’s not OK if your Child Dies, even if you’re Praying

17 Jul, 13 | by Iain Brassington

(Note: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t actually post it for some reason.  I’ve no idea why it’s taken me so long.  But it’s here now…)

Via Facebook a couple of weeks ago, I came across this story, about a couple whose conviction over the death of their child has been upheld:

A mother and father who prayed instead of seeking medical help as their daughter died were properly convicted of homicide, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that dramatically limits legal immunity for parents who turn to God rather than science to heal their children.


Most states, including Wisconsin, created exemptions from child abuse charges for prayer-healing parents in the 1970s to meet federal requirements.

That last sentence is one I find pretty astonishing; and I thought it worth having a dig around to see what I could learn about Wisconsin’s laws in particular.

This one sets the scene:

Practice of Christian Science. No law of this state regulating the practice of medicine and surgery may be construed to interfere with the practice of Christian Science. A person who elects Christian Science treatment in lieu of medical or surgical treatment for the cure of disease may not be compelled to submit to medical or surgical treatment.

I’m puzzled by the particular emphasis here.  Does Christian Science have a big following in Wisconsin?  Why does it get special mention?  Still: I guess that the gist of the law is unobjectionable – it says, in effect, that a person with capacity mayn’t have treatment forced on them, which is fair enough.  We might even infer that the person who drafted the law thought Christian Science so daft that it needed to be spelled out explicitly that people invoking it have capacity, whatever the appearance.

Still: electing to refuse treatment is one thing; refusing it on behalf of another is another.  It’s at this point that things get a bit weird.  This law, for example, states that

[a] determination that abuse or neglect has occurred may not be based solely on the fact that the child’s parent, guardian, or legal custodian in good faith selects and relies on prayer or other religious means for treatment of disease or for remedial care of the child.

And this feeds into the statute that is, as far as I can see, most relevant to the Neumanns’ case, with §6 being particularly noteworthy:

Treatment through prayer. A person is not guilty of an offense under this section solely because he or she provides a child with treatment by spiritual means through prayer alone for healing in accordance with the religious method of healing permitted under s. 48.981 (3) (c) 4. or 448.03 (6) in lieu of medical or surgical treatment.

Crikey.  I don’t know how that’s justifiable.  I mean, it’s one thing to say that families have the right to function as they will, and that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.  I’m not sure that they do (morally, I mean, not legally) – but even if they do have such a right, one would have thought that it has limits.  It’s not hard to think of lurid examples of where the “right” might run out.  But it’s tempting to think that praying instead of seeking treatment that, y’know, has a good evidential basis, might be a straightforward and non-lurid instance of the right petering out.  “Treatment by spiritual means” is a bit rum, too.

If you’ve got certain convictions, you shouldn’t be surprised if you end up with a second conviction of  a quite different sort.

Charles Foster ponders the case here.

JME Special Edition on Infanticide and “After-Birth Abortion”

2 May, 13 | by Iain Brassington

It’s going to be a little while before regular blogging resumes here – I’m aiming to get back up to speed in the next 10 days or so – but, in the meantime, the special edition of the JME devoted to The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak is now out and available here.  Some of the papers are open access; others aren’t.

For better or worse, part of being unable to do much blogging at the moment is that I’m not going to be around much to mod any comments that come in – as I’m sure they will – over the next few days.  Don’t go thinking you’re being blocked: it’s much more likely that I’m marking essays.

Italian Pop Music’s Role in Bioethical Debate

12 Feb, 13 | by Iain Brassington

Sadly, the list entitled “Great Moments in Italian Pop” is short; but the entry that must surely be at the top is probably very near the top of the list entitled “Great Moments in All Pop”.  It’s a 1972 song by Adriano Celentano.


It’s pure gibberish – a parody of what anglophone pop sounds like to people who don’t speak English.

I mention it here for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it’s great.  The second is that it’s a nice way of talking about people who appear to be going through the motions of thinking about ethical matters, but who just get it wrong, and are actually talking gibberish.

Via Dominic Wilkinson, this gem from BioEdge is a lovely example of bioethical prisencolinensinainciusol.  On the face of it, it’s a plea for consistency when it comes to policymaking.

[I]n the Australian state of Queensland […], the police union has argued that pregnant women who abuse alcohol should be forced to live in safe houses. “Those [unborn] children also deserve a right to full life and health and should not be disadvantaged simply because of the actions or inaction of their birth mother,” said Union president Ian Leavers.

Obviously this is a controversial issue, but I can’t understand how one can both defend access to legal abortion and lock up women who might harm their children.

The link provided is to The Australian, which is behind a paywall, so not something I can access.  However, carries the story, too, reporting Union president Levers to have said that the state should be able to intervene in cases where children are at risk of foetal alcohol syndrome and drug addictions.

“Those children also deserve the right to a full life and health and should not be disadvantaged simply because of the actions or inaction of their birth mother.  The state must have the ability to intervene and protect the unborn child when its mother refuses, or is incapable or unwilling to do so.”

Mr Leavers said tougher laws would complement the criminal code, which provides for a charge of killing an unborn child or grievous bodily harm for any person who violently kills or harms an unborn child.

This is a bit odd, all told.  I mean: it might be easy enough to agree that pregnant women probably ought to reduce, or even eliminate, certain behaviours.  But the idea that that might be a matter for the law is very strange indeed.  What would the sanction be?  Is the idea that it’d be better for pregnant women to be in prison?  Fined?  And what about the plausible claim that alcohol or drug abuse is itself a health problem?  Or the distinct possibility that women who do drink or use drugs are much less likely to seek any medical advice at all during their pregnancy if they think that the state might punish them for their behaviour, thereby making a suboptimal situation even worse?  Legal intervention of the sort indicated would be both cack-handed and unjust.

But what about BioEdge‘s plea for consistency?  From what I can see, there’s a fairly obvious set of rejoinders.  First, the police union can say what it likes about what the law should be, but the role of the police is to enforce the law as it stands.  So not interfering with a woman’s legal right to abortion is not the same as defending it.  Likewise, mooting the idea that women might be sanctioned for risking the health of the foetus is not the same as locking women up.  BioEdge seems to have got the difference between voicing an idea, and enforcing a policy, utterly the wrong way around.  BioEdge‘s writer makes it sound like a moral argument is being made; but, really, it isn’t.  Second, that it’s odd to defend abortion but advocate sanctions against risky behaviour in pregnant women may be true – I mean, it’s not a crazy suggestion – but it doesn’t follow from that that one ought to change one’s mind about abortion (which is, I think, given BioEdge‘s commitments generally, what the implication is): all else being equal, and given a whole truckload of secondary arguments about the moral status of the foetus and the moral status of the mother, it’s at least prima facie more likely that it’s the risky behaviour claim that’s off.  Third, that the representative of a policing union has made a statement about what the law should be is in no way an indication that that statement should be taken seriously.

Come on, BioEdge.  Fair play to you: you look like you’re doing the job… but… Prisencolinensinainciusol.

Maybe there’ll be richer pickings from the other story behind the link.  In Tasmania,

the premier and deputy premier have released a long report on legalised euthanasia. They insist that there is no “sound evidence” of potential elder abuse. However, rates of child abuse are nearly 60% higher there than in other Australian states. Isn’t that a bit inconsistent? The kind of people who abuse children probably won’t mind abusing grannies.

Ummm… wait a sec: What?

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