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Pro-Lifers’ Arguments Might be their Greatest Gift to Pro-Choicers

19 Dec, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Abortion is always going to be a controversial topic.  For what it’s worth, I hold that there’s nothing wrong with it.  That’s me speaking from my habitual non-consequentialist position.  From a more utilitarian perspective, I’m willing to concede that, given the choice between world A, in which abortions happen, and world B, in which they don’t because noone gets pregnant without wanting it, and everyone is perfectly happy to continue with her pregnancy, A is worse.  But A is nevertheless a whole lot less bad than world C, in which women are compelled to continue with pregnancies they don’t want.  In other words, there’s no need or desire for abortion in super-happy-fluffy world, and super-happy-fluffy world is better than the real world – but we live in the real world, and having abortions available makes the real world better than it could be.

I’d like to think that I’m doughty enough to have my mind changed on this, though.  Should someone have a really good argument for the wrongness of abortion, or the overwhelming badness, I’d like to think that I could be persuaded – that I’d let the argument go wherever it takes me.  I think that that’s just intellectual honesty.  It’s just that I have yet to come across an argument that I find persuasive, and I don’t even know what such an argument would look like.

What I can say is that, while I find even the best pro-life arguments unpersuasive, some are worse than others, though.  There’s a guy who keeps posting to the Bioethics Facebook group with links to lamentably bad arguments.  And, of course, there’s the CMF.

On their blog, Philippa Taylor has been getting herself into a tizzy about the recent ruling that Northern Ireland’s very restrictive laws contravene human rights legislation, and suggests that there is a whole range of reasons why the law should not be changed there.

Let’s have a look… more…

Homeopathy, Blacklisting, and the Misuse of Choice

15 Nov, 15 | by Iain Brassington

It seems that homeopathy might at last be facing some serious opposition from within the NHS, with the prospect of its being blacklisted being considered.

There’s any number of people who’ll be entirely on board with that. Homeopathy doesn’t work.  Of course, a lot of medicines turn out not to work, or not to work well.  But the difference between homeopathy and unsuccessful drugs is that the latter are at least more likely to have a plausible mechanism – roughly, one of throwing molecules at other molecules, or coaxing the body to throw molecules at molecules.  Homeopathy doesn’t even have that.  It relies on water having a memory.

At the very best, it contributes nothing. But it does cost money – not much, but more than none, and in the end, the taxpayer has to pony up for it.  Money is being wasted every time the NHS pays for homeopathic treatment, and that looks to be unjust.  (It’s not the most unjust thing in the world, but that’s neither here nor there.  Wrongs are wrongs, even if harms might vary.)

It might even get in the way of effective treatments, if patients use it rather than them.  That might mean that they’re worse off than they could otherwise be.  At the outside, it might mean that they’re a danger to others – they might be spreading illness by dint of not getting treated properly for it.

To that extent, Simon Singh strikes me as being bang on the money: more…

“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…

Jeremy Hunt and Costs to the Taxpayer

2 Jul, 15 | by Iain Brassington

“Personal responsibility” is a strange phrase: while not as slippery as some, it can mean any number of things, and be put to use in any number of political contexts.  It was the title of the speech that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, gave yesterday.  In that, he spoke of three aspects to the concept.

First up, he talked about the need for personal responsibility for health – that while the NHS tops the leagues in a lot of respects, the UK as a whole is bad when it comes to “lifestyle illnesses”, particularly things derived from obesity and smoking.  I guess that telling us that that’s bad and we could look after ourselves better is something of a bromide; but slightly more jarring was the statement that

[t]hankfully people are starting to take more responsibility. Doctors report dramatic increases in the number of expert patients who Google their conditions and this can be challenging for doctors not used to being second-guessed. But it is to be warmly welcomed: the best person to manage a long-term condition is the person who has that long term condition. The best person to prevent a long term condition developing is not the doctor – it’s you.

This is worth noting for a few reasons: first, it’ll be interesting in the context of what I’m going to say in a couple of paragraphs’ time; but there’s a couple of other things worth noting.  While the final sentence may be fairly unobjectionable at first glance, the penultimate and antepenultimate ones seem much less obvious.  Management of long-term conditions may be best left to the patient in some cases; but in all?  That’s not nearly so obvious.  It’s particularly unlikely when Dr Google is the purported source of information.  Dr Google, after all, may send you to NHS Choices – but it may also send you to What Doctors Don’t Tell You*, or sites that are even more obviously written by and for what we may politely call aluminium milliners.  Sometimes, patients doing a bit of homework is a good thing.  But sometimes, they’ll just end up asking for colloidal silver therapy.  (What could possibly go wrong?)

I’ll come to the second theme in a moment; the third thing he talked about was taking responsibility for our families. 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…

Prostitution, Harm, and Disability: Should Only People with Disabilities be Allowed to Pay for Sex?

17 Jun, 15 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp


Is prostitution harmful? And if it is harmful, should it be illegal to buy (or sell) sexual services? And if so, should there ever be any exceptions? What about for people with certain disabilities—say—who might find it difficult or even impossible to find a sexual partner if they weren’t allowed to exchange money for sex? Do people have a “right” to sexual fulfillment?

In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Frej Klem Thomsen[1] explores these and other controversial questions. His focus is on the issue of exceptions—specifically for those with certain disabilities. According to Thomsen, a person is “relevantly disabled” (for the sake of this discussion) if and only if:

(1) she has sexual needs, and desires to exercise her sexuality, and

(2) she has an anomalous physical or mental condition that, given her social circumstances, sufficiently limits her possibilities of exercising her sexuality, including fulfilling her sexual needs. (p. 455)

There is a lot to say here. First, in order to figure out the merits of making an exception to a general ban on prostitution (for people with disabilities or for anyone else), we have to start by deciding what to think about the advisability of such a ban in the first place. For, if we don’t think it’s a good idea to begin with (spoiler alert: this is my own view), then we can skip all the talk about making exemptions, and just argue against the ban.

But Thomsen doesn’t pursue that route. Instead, he wants to make a case for an exception. So, he has to try to convince his reader that a general prohibition makes at least some kind of moral and/or practical sense. How does he go about making this argument?


The Moral Desirability of Early Fatherhood

5 Jun, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest Post by Kevin Smith

It is well known that the risk of disorders resulting from chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down’s syndrome, correlates with advancing maternal age.  Less widely known is the correlation between the age of fathers and an increased risk of a range of disorders in their resultant offspring, the most prominent of which are neuropsychiatric conditions including schizophrenia and autism.  This is the paternal age effect, the importance of which has recently become clear through a growing body of molecular genetic and epidemiological data.

The paternal age effect results from new mutations occurring in the stem cells from which sperm cells are derived, resulting in an accumulating mutational burden as the male ages.  Genetic abnormalities resulting from these paternal mutations are usually subtle at the molecular level (involving as little as a single nucleotide change), highly heterogeneous, and do not usually result in detectable foetal abnormalities.  Accordingly, the opportunity for prenatal detection of such cases is very limited.  (By contrast, the genetic abnormalities associated with maternal aging typically involve substantive chromosomal aberrations, comprise a relatively restricted range of commonly occurring forms, and frequently produce marked foetal defects; these features ensure that routine screening and testing reveals the majority of such cases prior to birth, permitting termination of affected foetuses.)  Additionally, and again in contrast to genetic aberrations associated with maternal age, paternal de novo mutations are transmitted through successive generations of males, with a concomitant intergenerational accumulation of genetic abnormalities.  Moreover, at least in Western societies, the average age of fatherhood is increasing markedly, a situation that will increase the burden of these mutations.  It follows that the age of potential fathers is of significant ethical importance.

My paper explores the ethical aspects of paternal age, in respect of both individual procreative decisions and societal responsibilities.  I argue inter alia that, somewhat contrary to the commonplace disapproval of young parents, early fatherhood is ethically desirable.  The most immediate practical means to achieve a reduction in paternal de novo mutations and associated genetic disorders would be the promotion of sperm banking amongst young males.

Read the full paper here.

Animal Liberation: Sacrificing the Good on the Altar of the Perfect?

24 Apr, 15 | by Iain Brassington

For my money, one of the best papers at the nonhuman animal ethics conference at Birmingham a couple of weeks ago was Steve Cooke’s.*  He was looking at the justifications for direct action in the name of disrupting research on animals, and presented the case – reasonably convincingly – that the main arguments against the permissibility of such direct action simply don’t work.  For him, there’s a decent analogy between rescuing animals from laboratories and rescuing drowning children from ponds: in both cases, if you can do so, you should, subject to the normal constraints about reasonable costs.  The question then becomes one of what is a reasonable cost.  He added to this that the mere illegality of such disruption mightn’t tip the balance away from action.  After all, if a law is unjust (he claims), it’s hard to see how that alone would make an all-else-being-equal permissible action impermissible.  What the law allows to be done to animals in labs is unjust, and so it doesn’t make much sense to say that breaking the law per se is wrong.

Now, I’m paraphrasing the argument, and ignoring a lot of background jurisprudential debate about obligations to follow the law.  (There are those who think that there’s a prima facie obligation to obey the law qua law; but I think that any reasonable version of that account will have a cutoff somewhere should the law be sufficiently unjust.)  But for my purposes, I don’t think that that matters.

It’s also worth noting that, at least formally, Cooke’s argument might be able to accommodate at least some animal research.  If you can claim that a given piece of research is, all things considered, justifiable, then direct action to disrupt it might not have the same moral backing.  Cooke thinks that little, if any, animal research is justified – but, again, that’s another, higher-order, argument.

One consideration in that further argument may be whether you think that there’s a duty to carry out (at least certain kinds of) research. more…

The Talking Cure Taboo

20 Apr, 15 | by Iain Brassington

Guest post by C Blease

Talking cures have never been so accessible.  Since 2007 the UK government has invested £300 million launching its Improved Access to Psychological Treatments scheme.  The goal is to train up to 4000 therapists in a particular branch of psychotherapy – cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).  CBT is the most widely researched and most commonly used “talking therapy” in the world.  It is also on the rise: globally, a quarter of all practicing therapists use it.

The UK government’s decision to invest in CBT seems praiseworthy: as Bob Hoskins used to counsel in the old BT adverts, “It’s good to talk”.  It is certainly a sentiment shared by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) – which adopts the familiar tag line for its URL (

On the face of it, this seems like good advice.  Even a cursory look at the evidence base is encouraging.  Meta-analyses show that around 80 per cent of people who undergo psychotherapy for the treatment of depression are better off than those who receive no treatments.  They are also significantly less likely to relapse than those treated with antidepressants; some evidence even indicates that psychotherapy acts as a prophylactic, preventing future lapses into depression.  Given that the WHO estimates that depression will be the leading cause of disability in the world by 2020, the health benefits of psychotherapy carry enormous promise.  The potential relative healthcare costs of successfully treating (and preventing) depression with psychotherapy are significant too: in the UK depression incurs annual costs in lost earnings of £11 billion annually, and prescription rates for antidepressants are now at an all-time high.

Yet talking about talking cures is still taboo. more…

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