A storm in an NZ tea cup – or another “controversy” like post-birth abortion

By David Hunter

I thought our readers might be interested in this story which is happening in New Zealand as it has echoes of the Post-Birth abortion “debate” that occurred on this blog last year.

Then as now academics have argued in an academic journal (in this case the New Zealand Medical Journal) for a position that some find controversial – although the position seems considerably more innocuous than post-birth abortion since they are arguing that the introduction of earlier less invasive diagnosis of genetic disorders such as downs syndrome is morally acceptable and indeed preferable. You can see the paper here since it is open access at the moment.

In reaction to this disability activists have claimed that the authors are promoting discrimination against those with Downs syndrome and are calling for the resignation of the Head of the Otago Bioethics Centre.

Now there are several problems here. Firstly and most obviously the authors of the piece and in particular Gareth Jones who they have focused on is not in fact the Head of the Otago Bioethics Centre (that would be John McMillan) so it is hard for Gareth Jones to resign that position. Worse still as Udo Schuklenk points out in this thoughtful piece – Gareth Jones is in fact an emeritus professor – it is slightly difficult to resign from being retired… It’s also argued that some of the statements they are attributing to Gareth Jones (not that they seem that controversial) were actually made by a different Gareth Jones.

Still factual issues aside what seems illegitimate here is the personal attack involved. I must admit this looks to me like activists shamelessly latching on to an opportunity to kick up a fuss about an issue which they care deeply about, without any consideration of the potential impact on the individuals involved. While discussions like this one must be written with consideration and due care as John McMillan points out the paper is both careful and considerate, so why attack the authors?

While they of course have a right to their opinion and to express them vocally – given that what they are arguing against is the status quo there doesn’t seem to be any reason to demonise academics, why not engage with the arguments – play the ball not the player. After all if their position is strong then the truth should out right? Resorting to smear tactics like this makes the position they are defending seem weaker than it actually is, I share the concern that selective abortion of the disabled may constitute discrimination – although like abortion itself I’m inclined to view this as regrettable rather than morally objectionable.

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