Charles Foster

Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. Tutor in medical law and ethics, University of Oxford

Pre-marital cohabitation endangers your marriage

weepingwomanBy Charles Foster

Marriage is not well served by its defenders. The loudest and best reported of them are often fundamentalist bigots. It’s a shame, for marriage has a lot going for it.

Even if you think that marriage is an anachronistic/bourgeois/theologically contaminated institution, you’ll probably agree that the breakdown of marriages is best avoided. Of course incurably dysfunctional marriages should be ended, but most people aspire to enduring relationships, and the wrench of marital dislocation is emotionally and financially traumatic. If there are children, marriage breakup is painful for the parents and can be enduringly damaging for the children. There are, in short and quite uncontroversially, some significant harms associated with the breakdown of marriages.

How can marriage breakdown – and hence those harms – be avoided? Continue reading

The reproducibility problem and the status of bioethics

There is a long overdue crisis of confidence in the biological and medical sciences. It would be nice – though perhaps rather ambitious – to think that it could transmute into a culture of humility.

A recent comment in Nature observes that: ‘An unpublished 2015 survey by the American Society for Cell Biology found that more than two-thirds of respondents had on at least one occasion been unable to reproduce published results. Biomedical researchers from drug companies have reported that one-quarter or fewer of high-profile papers are reproducible.’

Reproducibility of results is one of the girders underpinning conventional science. The Nature article acknowledges this: it is accompanied by a cartoon showing the crumbling edifice of ‘Robust Science.’

As the unwarranted confidence of scientists teeters and falls, what will – and what should – happen to bioethics?

Continue reading

Mandatory submission of patient information about FGM: a pointless, damaging, discriminatory mess

Brenda Kelly and Charles Foster

Female Genital Mutilation (‘FGM’) is a term covering various procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons (WHO, 2012). It can be associated with immediate and long-term physical and psychological health problems. FGM is prevalent in Africa, Middle East and South East Asia as well as within diaspora communities from these countries

The Government, keenly aware of the political capital in FGM, has come down hard. The Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it mandatory to report to the police cases of FGM in girls under the age of 18. While we have some issues with that requirement, it is at least concordant with the general law of child protection.

What is of more concern is the requirement, introduced by the cowardly device of a Ministerial Direction and after the most cursory consultation (in which the GMC and the RCOG hardly covered themselves in glory), by which healthcare professionals, from October 2015, are legally obliged to submit patient-identifiable information to the Department of Health (‘DOH’) on every female patient with FGM who presents for whatever reason, through the Enhanced Dataset Collection (EDC). The majority of these women will have undergone FGM in their country of origin prior to coming to the UK. Continue reading

Drinking at Schiphol with the fount of bioethics

A couple of weeks ago, in an airport bar, I met the foundation of modern bioethics.

I was crawling back to London: he was heading to JFK.

‘I usually fly First’, was his opening, as we sat on those vertiginous stools. ‘So I’m usually in the Lounge. But it’s good to be reminded how the other half live.’ I was glad, for about a minute, to be part of his democratic education.

He’d had quite a start on me, and was several G & Ts down when I arrived. That might have loosened his tongue. Or perhaps, and probably, he was as keen when sober to talk obsessively, self-referentially and self-reverentially about himself.  Continue reading

Why ethicists should read Middlemarch and despise Simon Cowell

There are a few ethicists who are interested in encouraging right behaviour, rather than simply discussing it.

Here is something for them from A.L. Kennedy:

As Vonnegut mentioned, Nazi Germany trained a population to be blind to the dignity and humanity of some others. A diet of soft porn, cheap sentimentality and hate proved effective. Radio Mille Collines pedaled fear, poisonous pop music and a sense of unhinged communal power – it helped to push Rwanda into the abyss.’ 1 Continue reading

A Code of Conduct for Peer Reviewers in the Humanities and Social Sciences

1. The fact that you disagree with the author’s conclusion is not a reason for advising against publication. Quite the contrary, in fact. You have been selected as a peer reviewer because of your eminence, which means (let’s face it), your conservatism. Accordingly if you think the conclusion is wrong, it is far more likely to generate interest and debate than if you agree with it.

2. A very long review will simply indicate to the editors that you’ve got too much time on your hands. And if you have, that probably indicates that you’re not publishing enough yourself. Accordingly excessive length indicates that you’re not appropriately qualified. Continue reading

There is a duty not to be boring

Someone has just said to me: ‘You’re really boring today’. It is, of course, something I commonly hear. And it was undoubtedly true. But it made me wonder if there was any moral significance to my personal boringness. Should I repent of it, or is it morally neutral?

I’ve concluded, I’m afraid, that it’s culpable. There is a duty both to myself and to others to use reasonable – no, extraordinary – endeavours – not to be dull.

There are two reasons why I might be boring in the eyes of another.

Continue reading

Lord Janner: Sex, dementia and the public interest

In deciding whether or not to prosecute, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) applies a two-stage test. The first stage is the evidential stage: is there a realistic prospect of conviction? The second stage is the public interest stage: is it in the public interest to prosecute?

In the well-publicised case of the Labour Peer Lord Greville Janner the CPS has decided, in relation to a number of very serious sexual offences, that the evidential test has been passed. However, four expert clinicians, two instructed by the CPS and two instructed on behalf of Lord Janner, are in unanimous agreement that Lord Janner suffers from a degenerative dementia that is rapidly becoming more severe. He could not engage meaningfully with any trial process. There is no prospect of recovery, and no risk of future offending.

The CPS has decided that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. It has published detailed reasons. Continue reading

There are things that even lawyers won’t do

Despite all the jokes there are, in fact, a lot of things that lawyers won’t do. Or at least shouldn’t do. In many jurisdictions qualified lawyers are subject to strict ethical codes which are self-policed, usually effectively, and policed too by alert and draconian regulatory bodies.

Is there any point, then, in law firms having their own ethics committees which would decide:

(a)        how the firm should deal with ethical questions arising in the course of work?; and/or

(b)       whether the firm should accept particular types of work, particular clients or particular cases? Continue reading

Humans are un-made by social media

‘Technology has made life different, but not necessarily more stressful’, says a recent article in the New York Times, summarising the findings of a study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. It is often thought that frequent internet and social media use increases stress. Digital unplugging, along with losing weight and quitting smoking, is seen as a healthy thing to do. But, said the article, we needn’t worry so much. Frequent internet and social media users don’t have higher stress levels than less frequent users, and indeed women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps (and who use these media for life-event sharing more than men – who tend to be less self-disclosing online) scored 21% lower on the stress scale than women who did not.

I suggest that, far from being reassuring, these results are very sinister indeed. They indicate that internet technology (or at least something that has happened to humans at the same time as internet technology has been happening to them) has effected a tectonic transformation in the human constitution. The outsourcing, digitalization and trivializing of our relationships should make us stressed. If it doesn’t, something seriously bad has happened. The stress response enables us to react appropriately to threats. Switch it off, and we’re in danger. Only a damaged immune response fails to kick off when there are bacteria around. A tiger confined in a tiny concrete pen has lost a lot of its tigerishness if it doesn’t pace frustratedly up and down, its cortisol levels through the roof. Continue reading