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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lightning visit to UK

I'm planning a lighting visit to the UK in the last week of October. I have responsibilities bookending that week, so I'm not going to be able to segue this into more than a week overseas.

However, I am going to be in Liverpool as part of the lauching of a book called Human Futures: Art in an Age of Uncertainty and an associated symposium. I've contributed a chapter to the book, in which I argue for the acceptance and accommodation of human enhancement technologies by modern liberal societies - the theme of my recently-completed PhD thesis.

As part of the symposium, I'll be giving a short talk on the ethics of the unknown.

As I've been informed, it's going to be an interesting time to be in Liverpool with the BBC Freethinking Festival on, as well as the Liverpool Biennial.

6 comments:

clodhopper said...

Oooo. Let me know when/where the talk will be as I am just a hop skip and jump away from the pool.

best
clod

Brian said...

Russell, just thought I'd ask you your thoughts on the church of misery's argument against the new abortion bill. Apparently requiring a doctor who has a problem with abortion to refer the patient seeking an abortion to another doctor who has no problem is an attack on that doctors conscience or religious freedom. I'm stumped by the apparent hypocrisy. Are doctors meant to help patients or controls patients choices? Whose conscience takes precedence? No one is forcing the doctor to perform an abortion. It seems the church not only wants doctor's in its employ not to perform abortions, but to deny patients all information and choices because it harms the doctors conscience. The church has no qualms getting doctors in its hospitals to deprive patients of choices.....
I read this in an article in the Age. I'm only surprised they didn't trot out the undefined 'human dignity' thing.

Russell Blackford said...

I've been meaning to blog about this, but I actually think it's quite complicated. We obviously don't want the state taking sides on highly-contested moral issues, but we do want it to look after its citizens.

There seem to be four issues:

1. Should abortions be legal?

2. If so, should doctors have a legal right to decline to perform them?

3. If so, should they have an obligation to refer the woman to a doctor who is willing to perform the abortion?

4. What about cases where there is no time to refer to someone else and the woman's life is at stake?

It looks as if the new law will give the following answers:

1. Up to a certain number of weeks, yes.

2. Yes, subject to the answers to 2. and 3.

3. Yes.

4. Doctor must perform the abortion in these cases.

I think that's probably a fair balance, but there's much to be said as to why, and much that could be said for either a stronger right of conscientious objection or for none at all.

We need to separate the moral issues from the political issues. The moral issues are things like: is abortion morally wrong? is it morally wrong for a qualified doctor to refuse to perform an abortion on a woman who wants it? The political questions are along the lines of should the state be imposing its answers to these moral questions on people who disagree? or if it sometimes should, in what circumstances?

I don't think that abortion is morally wrong, and even if I did I don't think the state should impose such a view on women who disagree. I'd legalise all abortions without a time limit.

I do think that refusing to perform an abortion is morally wrong but don't want to impose this on people who disagree. Note, though, that doctors are not just "people". They are people who are invested by the state, and by society as a whole, with great power and privileges. I don't think they can expect to exercise these based purely on their own conception of the good, letting their personal views trump the needs of ordinary citizens. The state should not try to impose a particular of morality on Catholics who disagree, but once the welfare of citizens is at risk, Catholic doctors should expect to have to make some compromises or else adopt another profession. They shouldn't expect to be able to exercise their power to deprive women of information or to refuse to take action that is needed to save a woman's life. On these issues, the state should put the liberty and welfare of its citizens above the wish of doctors to bring their personal religious conceptions of the good into the exercise of medical privilege.

In fairness, though, note that they are forced to perform an abortion in some extreme circumstances. That may be necessary (I think it is), but there's no perfect result here: in those circumstances, the state is saying that you must do something you believe to be immoral. We are generally reluctant to let the state do that ... or at least we should be.

Russell Blackford said...

I meant "subject to 3. and 4.", of course.

Brian said...

I found a good article by Gab Kovacs, who's an IVF expert, about the issue at crikey. (It's free for non-subscribers)

The bit that was most pertinent:


Recently there has been publicity about the difficulty Catholic hospitals would have if the Act was passed. The Catholic Church has a significant role in providing health care in this State, especially in obstetrics, and the quality of care they provide is of extremely high standard. No-one would wish for this to be compromised.

All clinicians have to provide healthcare that they may not personally approve of, but our duty is to do what is best for our patients. A doctor who has a personal opposition to abortion cannot and must not inflict his or her views on a patient who has no such beliefs.

If a doctor or nurse is put in a "conflict of conscience" situation, he or she should refer that patient to another colleague/hospital. Similarly no doctor or nurse should be required to take part in an abortion procedure if they have a moral objection. This situation is already clear in the training of O & G specialists.

One can only hope that common sense will prevail in the Legislative Council, so that the Bill can be passed in both Houses, and abortion can disappear from The Crimes Act.


I think that works for me.

Russell Blackford said...

Of course one might wonder why it was necessary to do more than publish a statute containing just one substantive sentence, repealing the relevant section of the Crimes Act (i.e. the section forbidding "unlawful" abortions). Simplicity has a lot to be said for it.