The march of “dignity” – an anti-libertarian force?

The recognition of a right to life, liberty, and the autonomy of the individual and the mandate of government to secure these rights is being threatened by an increasingly illiberal notion of “human dignity”, says evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker.

His 2008 broadside in The New Republic took to task a now defunct body, the US President’s Council on Bioethics whose publication Human Dignity and Bioethics is shot through with disquiet about advances in biotechnology. It could not be more different from the enlightened report issued earlier this year by  the Council’s successor calling on the current administration not to stifle biomedical research with over-restrictive regulation (see my post). Does the contrast between the  present advisory body’s recommendations and the report put before the previous President signal a fundamental change in the way we approach progress in this field? Probably not. Only two weeks ago, Sir John Gurdon (the Nobel physiologist whom schoolteachers had written off as a scientist) bemoaned the regulatory restrictions that make important therapies too costly to pursue. Pinker’s dismay at the “scientific illiteracy” of society rings true today:

Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy. Brave New World, a work of fiction, is treated as inerrant prophesy. Cloning is confused with resurrecting the dead or mass-producing babies. Longevity becomes “immortality,” improvement becomes “perfection,” the screening for disease genes becomes “designer babies” or even “reshaping the species.” The reality is that biomedical research is a Sisyphean struggle to eke small increments in health from a staggeringly complex, entropy-beset human body. It is not, and probably never will be, a runaway train.  Continue reading

BC Supreme Court grasps the nettle in right to die case

Lee Carter, Hollis Johnson, Dr. William Shoichet, The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Gloria Taylor v Attorney General of Canada (2012 BCSC 886) 15 June 2012 – read judgment

Interest in the “locked-in syndrome” cases currently before the High Court runs high.  We posted here on the permission granted to locked-in sufferer Tony Nicklinson  to seek an advance order from the court that would allow doctors to assist him to die under the common law defence of necessity.

He is also arguing that the current law criminalising assisted suicide is incompatible with his Article 8 rights of autonomy and dignity. The other case before the three judge court involves another stroke victim who is unable to move, is able to communicate only by moving his eyes, requires constant care and is entirely dependent on others for every aspect of his life. (Philip Havers QC of 1 Crown Office Row is acting for him)

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