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Janet Radcliffe Richards

Foetal pain and the abortion debate: believing what you want to believe

By Janet Radcliffe-Richards

Last Friday’s BBC morning news headlines included a report of two reviews by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of evidence about foetal pain. The reviews concluded that foetuses under 24 weeks could not feel pain, because “nerve connections in the cortex, the area which processes responses to pain in the brain, does not form properly before 24 weeks”, and that even after that stage “a foetus is naturally sedated and unconscious in the womb”.

The corresponding article on the BBC website added the comment that “anti-abortion campaigners challenged the reports”. There were no details about the form these challenges took or who they came from, but as the reports were reviews of scientific evidence, it sounds as though a challenge to the reports must have been a challenge to the scientific claims. Of course scientific claims are always potentially open to challenge, so if the article had reported that scientists had come forward to challenge the methodology of key studies, for instance, or the way the reviews represented the data, we would just have known there was an ongoing scientific debate on the subject. But the implication of the BBC article was that people who were against abortion were challenging the scientific claims about foetal pain. And if this is true, it is interesting. Why should people with particular moral views (about the wrongness of abortion) or political ambitions (to prevent it) issue challenges to scientific claims? Most of these people are not scientists, and there is no reason to think they have special knowledge of nerve connections in the foetal cortex. So why are the challenging what the scientists say?

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A wonderful, unspecific day

Tuesday was a wonderful, exciting, day.   But the job of the philosophical blogger is to look beyond the general euphoria, and seek out discussion points.  

A commentator in the ChicagoTribune remarked that President Obama’s inaugural speech was ‘heavy on allusion, short on specifics’.   That was probably not intended as a criticism, however, and it would have been unreasonable if it had been.  If you are trying to engage everybody in a nation which has, as the President said, a ‘patchwork heritage’ of ‘Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers’ the only possible way to do it is to avoid specifics.  Everyone can unite round ‘mutual interest and respect’, having things in their ‘rightful place’ and  ‘a future of peace and dignity’, because these are terms that, as philosophers would say, have strong connotations but no particular denotation.  We know they imply approval of whatever is being alluded to, but we may not know much about what that is.

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The root cause

On April 16 2007  a solitary gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, killed 32 of his fellow students at Virginia Tech, and injured many more .  This came to mind again as I was listening to Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday, when a questioner referring to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai asked whether we could ever put a stop to extremist violence.  In the subsequent debate difference of opinion began to appear between the panellists who spoke about the need for security and intelligence gathering and military operation, and Caroline Lucas of the Green Party who insisted that terrorism could never be ended by these means, and said several times that we needed to get to the root cause of the problem.  In starting to identify these root causes she mentioned the Palestinian situation, and the widespread feeling among Muslims that the so-called war on terror was really a war of the West against Islam.  (You can check the detail by going to the BBC i-player: .)

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The point of death

The Guardian yesterday reported the death of the man who had been so tragically shot in Antigua, with his wife, three weeks after their wedding. It began like this:

"Ben Mullany, the newlywed who was shot on honeymoon in Antigua in an attack that killed his wife, Catherine, died in hospital in Wales yesterday after his life support machine was switched off.  The 31-year-old trainee physiotherapist, who had suffered a fractured skull and had a bullet lodged in the back of his head, was flown back to Britain while in a coma on Saturday. Tests carried out when his condition stabilised after the 24-hour journey established he was brain dead." 

This is a familiar way of describing such happenings, even among clinical professionals.   Brain death is pronounced, so the life support machine is switched off, and the patient dies.   The clear implication is that brain death is not death.  The machine is still keeping the patient alive, and it is switching off the machine that causes real death. 

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Two approaches to climate control

The Guardian leader today drew what it called a crude distinction between “two sets of people who both want to fight climate change”.   Some think we can carry on more or less as we are while pursuing technological means to counterbalance the accelerating impact of our species on the natural environment, while their opponents think we should be getting that species to make radical changes in its way of life before its home becomes uninhabitable.   The article was mainly about plans for carbon capture, but there had been another piece a few days before about much further reaching ideas of geoengineering or ‘ecohacking’ – “using science to change the environment on a vast scale” by such means as screening the whole planet from the sun – which, it seems, might become feasible sooner than we realize.

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Sleeping policemen and garden sheds

Big Brother, it seems, has been asleep on the job.  Even though it is said that we in the UK are more subject to surveillance than any other society, peered at by cameras wherever we go about our innocent business, today’s headlines tell us that this intrusion is not even fulfilling its purpose of catching the people whose business is not so innocent.   The police apparently don’t like watching miles of boring video (and who can blame them?), so they don’t do it much,  and the massive investment in equipment has brought street crime in London down by only 3%.  Perhaps that is some consolation to people whose objections to surveillance are not just those of cost.  Even if the cameras are there, at least nobody is bothering to watch us.

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Do we own our bodies? Should we?

There was a sad story last week about a young woman who died unexpectedly at the age of 19.   She was on the organ donor register, and her own mother was on the waiting list for a kidney donation, but the mother was refused one of the kidneys.  Even the transplant coordinator was ‘crying her eyes out’, but there was apparently no escape.  Rules were rules.  Cadaveric donations must go impartially and anonymously to the most compatible people at the top of the waiting list, and the authorities decreed that these organs must go to three strangers – whose identity the mother will never even know.

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Expert advice

Last Friday, on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions?, one of the questioners picked up a theme that had appeared many times in the media during the week.  ‘What is the point’, he asked, ‘of asking for advice from an expert independent panel of advisers and then disregarding it?’. 

He was referring to leaked information that the government’s  Advisory Commission on the Misuse of Drugs was going to recommend that cannabis should retain its current status as a class C drug, but that the Prime Minister was nevertheless ‘minded’ to restore its former B classification.  Class B drugs are regarded as more serious than those of class C, carrying a five year maximum prison sentence for possession, as opposed to the current two years. 

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