Friday, October 30, 2015

Do we need a delay on the implementation of assisted dying in Canada?

There's movement on the assisted dying frontiers. Yesterday representatives of religious organisations held a press conference declaring that they are opposed to assisted dying and that we ought to strive to improve palliative care. As far as I can see they are not insisting any longer - democracy be damned - that assisted dying must not come to Canada, no matter what. The reason for this, presumably, has also to do with the fact that their own followers are in favor of the decriminalization of assisted dying. Other than that, they stated the obvious, it's a good idea to improve the state of palliative care in the country. It's not an either-or type situation, of course. We can have assisted dying and improved palliative care!

We also had a federal election that turfed out Stephen Harper and his merry band of evangelical government ministers. After the Supreme Court judgement declaring the bits of our criminal code that criminalize assisted dying unconstitutional - government was given 12 months to change relevant legislation - Mr Harper did nothing to implement the ruling. Eventually, in the dying days of his government, and seeing the writing on the wall for a return to power, he quickly installed fellow anti-choice activists as a federal panel to advise his government on the implementation of the Supreme Court ruling. His political calculus with regard to this panel might well be paying off. Its chairperson was yesterday on the CBC's Power and Politics and announced that he thinks his panel is still appointed to report to government, alas, the government that appointed him doesn't actually exist any longer by the time it plans to release its recommendations. Because it's also so very partisan in terms of its membership, it's unclear why anyone would want to take its views as anything other than the utterances of people who supported the Harper government's efforts during the Supreme Court hearings. They worked tirelessly to prevent Canadians from exercising their constitutional rights. Well, that's true for two of the three panelists.

Comes Justin Trudeau, our Prime Minister elect. He will ask the Supreme Court to give him another 6 months to implement the ruling. Initially I thought that that was not unreasonable, but then I wondered. The delay is supposedly needed for his government to decide on how to regulate the matter. The question is whether that is actually needed. The Supreme Court declared parts of the criminal code invalid. Health care is a provincial matter. The provinces and territories have established a task force aimed at advising them on how to implement the Supreme Court judgment. Quebec's legislation is already in place. Once the other provinces have put their legislation and regulations in place, there does not seem any need for federal regulations.

So, why wait?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Quixotian attack on Bioethics journals leads to retraction

I have blogged a few weeks ago on this website about a Quixotian attempt by a team of authors aimed at blaming leading mainstream subscription based bioethics journals for their alleged imperialist nature and what not else. A version of this blog entry has since been published here. I pointed out that the analysis of said article rested essentially on a questionable letter by the same team of authors that manipulated categories of the Human Development Index in order to generate a particular result plus false empirical claims about the availability of these journals through access schemes administered by the World Health Organisation.

I am pleased to report that the journal that published said article as a peer reviewed output has since retracted said content. There is no shame in retracting content found significantly wanting.

Discussion of 'Treatment resistant depression and assisted dying'

Readers of this blog might recall that Suzanne van de Vathorst and I published a paper in the Journal of medical ethics arguing for the desirability to make assisted dying available to competent treatment resistant depressed people. There has been a bunch of responses, namely this and this and this and this and this to which we responded here. Since then Frank Miller also offered a thoughtful commentary here to which we responded here.

Today a website dedicated to mental health issues has published a lengthy summary of the debate in the hope of triggering a discussion about our analysis and those of our critics.

Check it out when you have a minute, well worth reading.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mustn't we talk in universities about whether trans women are women?

I have been watching for some time with ever-growing horror a movement of - let's be honest, mostly progressive - folks, aka my friends, that strives to limit what we can and cannot debate in university settings. It happens on various levels and is quite insidious. There's the thing about trigger warnings where we are supposed to warn our students each time they might encounter something in class that might deeply upset, disturb or even distress them. Well, I teach bioethics, there's a fair chance that that could happen in every class that I teach. My students are also all of mature age, so should I really aim my classes at not upsetting their emotional well-being or should I aim to challenge and potentially even upset them? It's a rhetorical question. I begin my classes by issuing a general trigger warning for the rest of the course, including every class without exception. Box ticked. Sorted. Would I change my content based on whether a student might be deeply disturbed by the topic, or a case scenario, or a video clip? Not a chance. What's the point of taking a bioethics class and not being challenged frequently to reconsider how you look at the issues we are considering in class. There is no way to run a class on, say, the ethics of animal experimentation, abortion, euthanasia, even cochlear implants, without upsetting someone.

I'm not a junior faculty member in a tenure track position, 'student led' teaching evaluations will neither make nor break me. I doubt junior colleagues would be able to afford doing the same.

Part of this ongoing campaign to keep universities conflict free, and to avoid 'offending' students are no-platform events. No-platform events are events where particular speakers are no platformed, meaning they are prevented from speaking on campuses. This is either achieved by student organisations declaring particular speakers persona non grata, or by university administrations preventing invited speakers from speaking due to 'security' concerns. This has been going on for some time, mostly in the UK, not so much in North America. Initially the objective was to keep neo-Nazi organisations off college campuses. No platform to the BNP or the KKK, that sort of thing. More recently though the victims were secularist speakers aiming to address Muslim fundamentalism on college campuses (including enforced seating arrangements for men and women attendees, enforced head covers, and other such medieval niceties) and there were invariably 'concerns' expressed and offense taken about their 'racism'. 'Racism' here is the preferred misnomer for critiques of a man made ideology.

The latest round of no-platform campaigning has hit feminist author Germaine Greer. She doesn't think that trans women are women. I do think one can have a legitimate debate about human-made categories such as 'man' and 'woman'. However, I also think it's pathetic that student activists think they ought to prevent such debates from occurring by declaring that people who were born 'male' could now define 'woman' in such a way that it includes some of them and that this should be binding on the rest of society. I understand the desire of trans women that society should see them in the same way as other women, as much as I understand that some feminists as well as other people will find that idea offensive. It's a great debate to have - we should teach classes on this subject.

Alas, trigger warnings will be considered necessary in many universities, student activists queer and otherwise will need to be placated and what not else. None of this is acceptable. If we cannot interrogate (there's that dreaded term) these sorts of concepts and categories in universities, where else should or could we do so? How would we even be able to determine whether our culturally evolved categories about ourselves are fit for purpose? And for what purpose?

What's troubling about this defense of free speech on college campuses is that there is a price to be paid for such open debate, and it is mostly to be paid by trans people, that is people who are subjected already to unacceptable forms of societal discrimination and disapprobation. They will find their claims analysed and critiqued, courtesy of the internets, in ways that will be vicious at the best of times. That is deeply troubling seeing that suicide rates among trans people are as sky-high as they are. And yet, while pleading for civility, I am convinced that a public airing of these issues is what is in the best interest of trans people themselves. It helped liberate gays and lesbians, we had to subject ourselves to debates about normality, and naturalness, whether we suffer from a mental illness, perversion, and what not else. Being able to debunk these falsehoods one by one worked for gays and lesbians. I'm afraid trans people and their allies will have to face these issues head-on, make their case with the best arguments and evidence available and win the argument in the public domain as well as in the academy.

No platforming speakers we disagree with is counter productive. The idea that these issues will go away by suppressing debate about them is naive at best.