The deficiencies and dangers of ‘radical individualism’

Book Review: What it means to be human: The case for the body in Public Bioethics


Margaret Somerville*

The deficiencies and dangers of ‘radical individualism’

O. Carter Snead, What it means to be human: The case for the body in Public Bioethics, Harvard University Press, 2020, pp.321

Anyone concerned about the current values conflicts in our societies should read this book. Although it focuses on conflicts in public bioethics, the insights of the author, O. Carter Snead, have application to a much broader range of values conflicts in what are sometimes called the “culture wars”.

Snead starts with a history of American Public Bioethics. He then asks, “What does it means to be human” and addresses two competing responses – “expressive individualism” and “embodiment” – and articulates the anthropology (the study of human beings and societies) that informs each of these views. He argues the former is inadequate on at least two fronts. First, it “forgets the body” and sees the person as only a mind, a self-actualizing will. Second, it does not contemplate or accommodate human relationships and the reality that we are social beings.

Snead then takes an innovative approach to legal scholarship. He proceeds to an in-depth analysis of six judgments handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in relation to abortion. He undertakes this analysis in order to determine the law’s view, as manifested in these cases, of what it means to be human, that is, the anthropology that undergirds and informs the judgments he considers. . . continue reading

How should a liberal democracy react to conscientious objection claims?

Panel 1: Concepts of Conscience

Royal Irish Academy Symposium

Chair: Professor Bert Gordijn, Dublin City University


  • Professor Kimberley Brownlee, The University of British Columbia
  • Dr Katherine Furman, University of Liverpool

Discussion of concepts of conscience, freedom of conscience, conscientious objection, civil disobedience, individual and corporate conscience

When Physicians Engage in Practices That Threaten the Nation’s Health

Philip A. Pizzo,David Spiegel, Michelle M. Mello

When Physicians Engage in Practices That Threaten the Nation’s Health

In December 2020, less than a year after severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 was identified as the cause of the coronavirus pandemic, an extraordinary collaboration between scientists, the pharmaceutical industry, and government led to 2 highly efficacious, safe vaccines being approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection.1,2 Had the US been in its expected role as a global leader in medicine and public health, this would have been a fitting capstone of US commitment to science and how that can change the course of morbidity and mortality related to a frightening new disease.

However, a less flattering story emerged about the inadequate US response to COVID-19. A number of leaders in federal, state, and local government, guided by political exigency and recommendations from a small number of physicians and scientists who ignored or dismissed science, refused to promote sensible, effective policies such as mask wearing and social distancing. This contributed to the US having more infections and deaths than other developed nations in proportion to population size . . .

Among the ways in which science-based public health evidence has been dismissed in the US is the replacement of highly experienced experts advising national leaders with persons who appear to have been chosen because of their willingness to support government officials’ desire to discount the significance of the pandemic. . .

. . . History is a potent reminder of tragic circumstances when physicians damaged the public health, from promoting eugenics to participating in the human experiments that took place in Tuskegee to asserting erroneously that vaccines cause autism. It can be difficult to hold physicians accountable, especially when they are acting in policy roles in which malpractice lawsuits will not succeed. Professional self-regulation serves as the primary vehicle for accountability and is critical if trust in science and medicine is to be maintained.

To that end, action from within the medical profession is an important but underused strategy. . .

Pizzo PA, Spiegel D, Mello MM. When Physicians Engage in Practices That Threaten the Nation’s Health. JAMA; 2021 Feb 04. Published online February 04, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.0122

Why human germline genome editing is incompatible with equality in an inclusive society

Calum MacKellar

The New Bioethics


Human germline genome editing is increasingly being seen as acceptable provided certain conditions are satisfied. Accordingly, genetic modifications would take place on eggs or sperm (or their precursor cells) as well as very early embryos for the purpose of bringing children into existence with or without particular genetic traits. In this context, a number of already discussed and separate arguments, such as the (1) synecdoche, (2) non-identity (3) inherent equality and (4) expressivist arguments, can be brought together in the new context of examining, from an ethical perspective, some of the possible consequences of such germline genome editing. In so doing, it becomes clear that these novel procedures are incompatible with the concept of equality in value and in worth of all human beings in a genuinely inclusive society. Such equality is expressed in Article 1 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: ‘All human beings are born … equal in dignity and rights.’

MacKellar C. Why human germline genome editing is incompatible with equality in an inclusive society. New Bioeth. 2021 Mar;27(1):19-29. doi: 10.1080/20502877.2020.1869467. Epub 2021 Jan 17. PMID: 33459206.

Twin pregnancy, fetal reduction and the ‘all or nothing problem’

Joona Räsänen

Journal of Medical Ethics


Fetal reduction is the practice of reducing the number of fetuses in a multiple pregnancy, such as quadruplets, to a twin or singleton pregnancy. Use of assisted reproductive technologies increases the likelihood of multiple pregnancies, and many fetal reductions are done after in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer, either because of social or health-related reasons. In this paper, I apply Joe Horton’s all or nothing problem to the ethics of fetal reduction in the case of a twin pregnancy. I argue that in the case of a twin pregnancy, there are two intuitively plausible claims: (1) abortion is morally permissible, and (2) it is morally wrong to abort just one of the fetuses. But since we should choose morally permissible acts rather than impermissible ones, the two claims lead to another highly implausible claim: the woman ought to abort both fetuses rather than only one. Yet, this does not seem right. A plausible moral theory cannot advocate such a pro-death view. Or can it? I suggest ways to solve this problem and draw implications for each solution.

Räsänen J. Twin pregnancy, fetal reduction and the ‘all or nothing problem’. J Med Ethics. 2020 Dec 21:medethics-2020-106938. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-106938. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33443129.

The Declaration of Geneva: Conscience, Dignity and Good Medical Practice

Sean Murphy, Ramona Coelho, Philippe D. Violette, Ewan C. Goligher, Timothy Lau, Sheila Rutledge Harding, Rene Leiva

World Medical Journal

Since 1948 the Declaration of Geneva (the Declaration) has insisted that physicians must practise medicine “with conscience and dignity.” In 2017 this provision was modified by adding, “and in accordance with good medical practice” [1].

Good medical practice in Canada is said to include providing euthanasia and assisted suicide or arranging for someone else to do so. From this perspective, physicians who cannot in conscience kill their patients or collaborate in killing are not acting “in accordance with good medical practice,” and – some might say – the revised Declaration.

However, this merely literal application of the text cannot be correct, since the WMA later reaffirmed its support for physicians who refuse to provide or refer for euthanasia and assisted suicide even where they are considered good medical practice [2]. A reading informed by the history of the document is necessary and consistent with the care taken in its revision [1]. This yields a rational and coherent account of the relationship of conscience and dignity to medical practice.

Murphy S, Coelho R, Violette PD, Goligher EC, Lau T, Harding SR, Leiva R. The Declaration of Geneva: Conscience, Dignity and Good Medical Practice . WMJ [Internet]. 2020 Aug; 66(4): 43-47.

Beyond Money: Conscientious Objection in Medicine as a Conflict of Interests

Alberto Giubilini, Julian Savulescu

Beyond Money: Conscientious Objection in Medicine as a Conflict of Interests


Conflict of interests (COIs) in medicine are typically taken to be financial in nature: it is often assumed that a COI occurs when a healthcare practitioner’s financial interest conflicts with patients’ interests, public health interests, or professional obligations more generally. Even when non-financial COIs are acknowledged, ethical concerns are almost exclusively reserved for financial COIs. However, the notion of “interests” cannot be reduced to its financial component. Individuals in general, and medical professionals in particular, have different types of interests, many of which are non-financial in nature but can still conflict with professional obligations. The debate about healthcare delivery has largely overlooked this broader notion of interests. Here, we will focus on health practitioners’ moral or religious values as particular types of personal interests involved in healthcare delivery that can generate COIs and on conscientious objection in healthcare as the expression of a particular type of COI. We argue that, in the healthcare context, the COIs generated by interests of conscience can be as ethically problematic, and therefore should be treated in the same way, as financial COIs.

Giubilini A, Savulescu J. Beyond Money: Conscientious Objection in Medicine as a Conflict of Interests. Bioethical Inquiry 17, 229–243 (2020).

Professionalism eliminates religion as a proper tool for doctors rendering advice to patients

Udo Schuklenk

Professionalism eliminates religion as a proper tool for doctors rendering advice to patients

Abstract:Religious considerations and language do not typically belong in the professional advice rendered by a doctor to a patient. Among the rationales mounted by Greenblum and Hubbard in support of that conclusion is that religious considerations and language are incompatible with the role of doctors as public officials.1 Much as I agree with their conclusion, I take issue with this particular aspect of their analysis. It seems based on a mischaracterisation of what societal role doctors fulfil, qua doctors. What obliges doctors to communicate by means of content that is expressed in public reason-based language is not that they are public officials. Doctors as doctors are not necessarily public officials. Rather, doctors have such obligations, because they are professionals. Unlike public officials doctors are part of a profession that is to a significant extent self-governing. This holds true for all professions. The …

Responding to religious patients: why physicians have no business doing theology. Jake Greenblum Ryan K Hubbard Journal of Medical Ethics 2019; – Published Online First: 20 Jun 2019. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105452

Schuklenk U. Professionalism eliminates religion as a proper tool for doctors rendering advice to patients. J Medical Ethics. 2019 Sep 12. pii: medethics-2019-105703. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105703. [Epub ahead of print]

Why not common morality?

Rosamond Rhodes

Why not common morality?

Abstract: This paper challenges the leading common morality accounts of medical ethics which hold that medical ethics is nothing but the ethics of everyday life applied to today’s high-tech medicine. Using illustrative examples, the paper shows that neither the Beauchamp and Childress four-principle account of medical ethics nor the Gert et al 10-rule version is an adequate and appropriate guide for physicians’ actions. By demonstrating that medical ethics is distinctly different from the ethics of everyday life and cannot be derived from it, the paper argues that medical professionals need a touchstone other than common morality for guiding their professional decisions. That conclusion implies that a new theory of medical ethics is needed to replace common morality as the standard for understanding how medical professionals should behave and what medical professionalism entails. En route to making this argument, the paper addresses fundamental issues that require clarification: what is a profession? how is a profession different from a role? how is medical ethics related to medical professionalism? The paper concludes with a preliminary sketch for a theory of medical ethics.

Rhodes R. Why not common morality? J Med Ethics 2019;0:1–8. Published Online First: 11 September 2019. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105621

Book Review: Opting Out. Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society

Morten Magelssen

Book Review: Opting Out. Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society

By David Oderberg. Pp. 136. London: The Institute of Economic Affairs. 2018. Paperback, £12.50; free e-book, at ISBN:978-0-255-36761-5.

Abstract: In this brief monograph, the philosopher David Oderberg argues that freedom of conscience and religion, as fundamental rights in a liberal democracy, need increased protection in legislation and from the courts. Conscientious objection – in which a professional refuses to perform specific tasks for moral or religious reasons – is especially relevant in healthcare. Oderberg draws most of his examples from this field (e.g. abortion, contraception, treatment-limiting decisions and euthanasia), but also discusses cases from other sectors, such as the bakers and florists who refused to sell goods in connection with gay weddings. . . [Full text]

Magelssen M.  Book Review: Opting Out. Conscience and Cooperation in a Pluralistic Society.  New Bioethics 2019 Sep; 25(3): 283-286, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2019.1647038.