You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our Group site.


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…

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…

Does religion deserve a place in secular medicine?

26 Feb, 15 | by bearp

By Brian D. Earp

The latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics is out, and in it, Professor Nigel Biggar—an Oxford theologian—argues that “religion” should have a place in secular medicine (click here for a link to the article).

Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious. After all, different religions require different things, and sometimes they come to opposite conclusions. So whose religion, exactly, does Professor Biggar have in mind, and what kind of “place” is he trying to make a case for?


Strange Happenings in Belgium

3 Feb, 15 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a part of me that recognises this story as having been in the news before – but I don’t think I’ve written on it, so here we go.  It’s from the Telegraph, under the headline “Son Challenges Belgian Law after Mother’s ‘Mercy Killing'” – which is a reasonably pithy summation of what’s at issue.  A man, Tom Mortier, is attempting to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights that would have Belgian laws on euthanasia scrutinised and – he hopes – declared contrary to the ECHR:

A Belgian man is going to the European Court of Human Rights after his depressed mother was killed by lethal injection under the country’s liberal euthanasia laws. […]

Mr Mortier is trying to take his mother’s case to the Strasbourg court under the “right to life” legislation in the European Convention of Human Rights. He hopes, at the very least, to trigger some debate in his country, and secure greater oversight in the way the existing rules are applied.

OK – so it’s not clear whether he’s actually got the Court to agree to hear his case (which is what “going to the ECtHR” suggests in ordinary usage), or whether he’s still attempting to get it to agree to hear it.  If it’s the latter, then he might be going to the ECtHR in the sense of being physically present – but that’s not going to achieve much.  The Telegraph isn’t clear on this.  Oh, well.  But is there anything of substance to his case?  It might have substance and still fail, of course – it’s perfectly possible for a court to say that they can see a person’s point, but that it’s not sufficiently powerful; but if it has no substance, then it ought to fail.

Based on the Telegraph‘s report, it seems that there really isn’t much substance to it.  This is not to say that there’s none – but there’s not much.  And, as we’ll see, it’s a bit strange in some ways. 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…

JME blog homepage

Journal of Medical Ethics

Analysis and discussion of developments in the medical ethics field. Visit site

Creative Comms logo

Latest from JME

Latest from JME

Blogs linking here

Blogs linking here