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For a Civic and Constitutional Republic 


Issue No 106 02 September 2012

This Week

  • Paralympics Joy While Eugenics Rears Its Ugly Head

  • New Blogging Facility

  • Comment on Newsletter 105

News Stories

Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.

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Paralympics Joy While Eugenics Rears Its Ugly Head

There was a BBC Newsnight report on Tuesday of this last week on the current state of eugenics, an idea that has hardly dared speak its name since Hitler embraced it and used it to justify the mass killing of all hundreds of thousands of disabled people. They were said to have “lives not worth living”.

The reporter asked “Could a new eugenics … be about to fulfill its promise. Should science try to shape evolution itself and seek the noble aim to rid the world of mental and physical disability, taking control of evolution to improve the evolution condition?

Professor John Harris, Bioethics (more on “bioethics” in a moment) Professor at Manchester University, who was heavily featured on the report, argued the case for revisiting eugenics saying that, just because a bad person does something, that does not make that something automatically bad. Yes, evil people can sometimes do good things even for bad reasons

The occasion of the report was that it is 100 years since the first International Eugenics Conference in Hotel Cecil, London. Distinguished people included Winston Churchill attended and from this the British Eugenics Society went on to be founded with none other than John Maynard Keynes as its president.


The broadcast also coincided with the start of the 2012 Paralympics Games and this was constantly referred to although the connection between the Paralympics and eugenics was not spelt out - unless Newsnight is implying that the moment when we are celebrating the sporting achievements of disabled people is the right moment to ask whether they should have been born in the first place? Unethical, impolite, degrading, insulting, revolting, dehumanizing are a few of the words that come to mind to describe the timing of the broadcast. Or was it a hideously overdeveloped sense of irony?

The bioethics professor, John Harris, faced two people with opposite views.   Tv presenter, Kerry Burnell, who was born without a lower right arm and jounalist, Ian Birrell, who has a disabled child. Professor Harris proved a slippery debater and mixed up discussion of people born with disability with the fight against cancer and the desire for higher intelligence. He was thus rather difficult to pin down but the other two were up to the task and towards the end he had to admit in direct terms what he really believed, saying:

“It would be morally wrong to choose to have a child with disability”

In other words we should censure those parents who have done just that. If they had followed the bioethicist’s advice they would have deprived the Paralympics of quite a few competitors, but Professor Harris would argue that in doing so they would have contributed to the betterment of the human race

During the course of the debate Professor Harris made an extraordinary statement. He said

“We don’t want nature to take its course. Nature is a killer. We could not practice medicine if we let nature take its course. One of the best definitions of medicine is the comprehensive attempt to frustrate nature from taking its course”

You could not find a more arrogant assertion of the superiority of humankind over nature. The idea that we are part of nature and that we must learn to respect it and cohabit with nature is clearly no part of his “bioethical” thinking. And he is dead wrong. Medicine is about nudging natural processes in the direction beneficial to the patient. Practically all medical treatments work in conjunction with natural healing processes. Without nature’s helping hand little medicine could exist.

At one point Harris modestly drew attention to his own level of intelligence (which may be more profound lacking than he is capable of imagining) saying he would like to have superior intelligence and  draws parallel between that and Ian Birrell’s daughter who is severely handicapped. This kind of argument trivializes the problems of disabled people. And it leads us straight into the whole question of choosing the kind of children we want – “designer babies”. And this month another distinguished academic weighed in on this subject

Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics (more on“practical ethics” in a moment) at the University of Oxford, said this month that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a "moral obligation" as it makes them grow up into "ethically better children". He said that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children as it meant they were then less likely to "harm themselves and others". He said that science is increasingly discovering that genes have a significant influence on personality – with certain genetic markers in embryo suggesting future characteristics.

By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out.

In the end, he said that "rational design" would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future.

"Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting? So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice.To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality."

But by thus seeking to oblige parents to having superior babies we are very close to advocating culling inferior ones.

Harris and Savalescu are far from isolated figures. The well know philosopher, Roger Scruton, said recently in an article in The American Spectator “The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that "don't enter" is now written across its door. The distinguished biologist James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, was recently run out of the academy for having publicly suggested that sub-Saharan Africans are genetically disposed to have lower IQs than Westerners”. Scruton’s statement implies he is open to eugenics as an idea

All these distinguished academics seem to have no problem with what is an essential aspect of eugenics. It is by its nature a state programme. It inevitably runs counter to individual liberty and the right of parents to choose. Professor Harris did say on Newsnight that he had always said that parental choice is vital but he followed this immediately by saying as quoted above: “It would be morally wrong to choose to have a child with disability”.

So, OK, go ahead have you disabled baby, but we will be ready to heap moral opprobrium on you if you do. That is a sham version of respect for the liberty of others. It is a fraudulent posture

But this is surely the crux of the matter. Ultimately it is the parents that must have the choice as to whether to have a handicapped baby or not. And this fortunately is exactly where we are with the wise current abortion laws in Britain which I quote as follows:

As well as a woman deciding to have an abortion due to her personal circumstances, there are also a number of medical reasons why an abortion may be necessary. The Abortion Act 1967 states that provided a pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week, an abortion may be carried out if:

  • continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the woman's life than ending the pregnancy
  • continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the woman's physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy
  • continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the physical or mental health of any of the woman's existing children
  • there is a significant risk that if the child is born s/he would have a serious physical or mental disability

The Act also makes it clear that two registered medical practitioners must both agree about the above points. In practice, this gives doctors a great degree of flexibility in referring women for abortions and supporting their request to proceed.

The Act was amended in 1990 by the Human Fertillisation and Embryology Act 1990. The effect was that the Infant Life Preservation Act was decoupled from the Abortion Act thus allowing abortion to full term for disability.

What bioethicists like Professor Harris are attempting to do is to subvert the rights contained in the present law into a programme of racial “improvement”. They presumably know that this programme could never in Britain be adopted in Parliament but nevertheless they are seeking to infiltrate their views into public policy. And Professor Harris is well placed to do so. The Guardian tells us he is director of The Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation and of the Wellcome Strategic Programme in The Human Body, its Scope Limits and Future, in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, where he is Lord Alliance professor of bioethics. He was joint editor-in-chief of The Journal of Medical Ethics 2004-11 and was a member of the United Kingdom Human Genetics Commission from its foundation in 1999 until August 2010.

Ian Birrel on Newsnight emphasised that we must not conflate health with disablement. He said the main problems his disabled daughter faced were not medical but social. It is the fact of lack of acceptance that presents the biggest nightmare. The eugenicist programmes advocated by Harris make this problem much greater for they carry with them the assumption that the disabled represent inferior lives.

Disablement is something that society must be accept and embrace if individual parents choose to bring them into the world in order to give them a loving family life, and having accepted this society must do everything in its power to help the disabled persons and their guardians.

Although the coalition government would never openly back Harris, his arguments certainly help them while they slash aid to disabled people for Harris provides the lurking presense of the idea that it would really be better if such individuals have never been born so that they would not be a burden to society. We do not need to acknowledge their human rights to full and adequate support.

I would like to finish with consideration of a broader philosophical and academic point. Harris styles himself as a “bioethicist”. But what on earth is that? Similarly Savalescu is a “practical ethicist”. These are highly spurious terms and of very recent invention. Bioethics has existed only since the 1960’s.

I know what ethics is. Here is a dictionary definition : Ethics is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. But ethics must be a single complete subject. You cannot divide it up like different sorts of cooking. Any ethical viewpoint or discovery has to be referred to the whole of the human experience and related to that whole. The idea that a viable discipline called “bioethics” should exist suggests that ethics can be compartmentalised with different results pertaining to different fields. But ethics has one subject: the human condition and its conduct. To mean anything its must exist as a unified discipline

With this in mind it is easy to see how someone calling themself a “bioethicist’ could embrace all sorts of dangerous ideas for they would lack the ability to relate narrow concerns about reproduction to the whole human person. Professor Harris demonstrated this exactly. By not dealing with his material with a unified ethical approach then he is not using ethical principles at all. Practically every one of his pronouncements confirmed this omission.

We should be suspicious of “bioethics” and “practical ethics” which may just be cloaks for eugenics to hide under.

If you would like to listen to the whole Newsnight item go here

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New Blogging Facility

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Is Prince Harry Who He Says He Is?

Reply by Richard Middle with comments by Peter Kellow

Your dispatch was very interesting, as usual. You have a great writing style. It's often said that architects make good writers because they find it easy to plan the structure of their pieces.

I wasn't really aware of the Harry story, until I heard "Any Questions?", last Friday. There are a few aspects of the Republican response, with which I'm uncomfortable. I'm sending it to you, in the interests of balance. I am playing Devil's advocate, to some extent. You can blame my Freethought/Humanist/sceptic background!

First of all, I've always believed that republicans shouldn't comment on the personal morality of the Royals, unless the actions of those Royals have clear constitutional significance or there is evidence of a criminal act. If we had our way, they would be citizens like any other. Is the tendency of some republicans to drag things down to a personal level not a mild form of the "off with their heads" sentiment, which existed during the French "Terror" of 1793- 94?

The monarchy should go because it gives some politicians and officials the powers of a dictator, not because Prince X, The Duchess of Y or the Earl of Z [the Earl of Zzz, if you ask me] is considered (probably by an increasingly small minority of the population) to be "decadent" or "perverted".

One of the purposes of a republic is the creation of a free society. There seems little point in replacing the narrow-minded rules of one establishment with the those of another. That was where Cromwell (who was an aristocratic anti-Royalist rather than a true, democratic, republican "Commonwealthman" like James Harrington or "Freeborn" John Lilburne) went wrong. 

PK I was commenting on people’s reaction to the Vegas episode rather than his morality. I think that is clear. I entirely agree that the reasons for wanting a republic have nothing to do with the character of the incumbent monarch or any in line 

Second, the state of the British media fills me with despair. There are plenty of scandals in central and local government, the police, Parliament, the NHS and so on, which have wrecked (or even ended) people's lives and deserve extensive coverage but all newspaper readers and TV viewers get is the modern equivalent of the "What the Butler saw" machines, which "graced" seaside piers, one hundred years ago.
The only organ, which holds the pompous and privileged to account is "Private Eye" (and there's only so much it can do). There is occasionally a good documentary on Radio 4. "File on 4" and the irregular "Face the Facts" lunchtime slot, which I never hear, are just about the only broadcast outlets for serious investigative journalism. [Regional TV "investigative" programmes are not generally of the same calibre and don't often cover topics of Earth-shattering importance.]

PK. Agreed. Especially about Radio 4. Luckily no one in the government listens to it otherwise it would never be able to do the type of investigations that it uniquely does. I would add Analysis, Documentaries and Forum to your list

Third, Harry did nothing illegal, to the best of my knowledge. His "crime" was stupidity. He will have been hurt more than anyone else. Of course, his father may have been upset and his brother may have been angry. However, the conduct of some other members of the family has been much worse (and it seemed that no one was concerned).

Fourth, some of us may not approve of his behaviour but the sale of the photographs was, in my opinion, worse than anything he did. Invasion of privacy is definitely an issue. He is not "fair game" because he has a certain surname.

PK. Harry is in line for a government top job. This is also true of Ed Milliband, so if he had been filmed in similar circumstances would you still say “invasion of privacy”.

Fifth, I am not absolutely convinced that he was involved in an orgy or that he behaved as he did because he was a Royal. I can easily imagine a German or Austrian "prince" doing the same thing and neither Germany nor Austria has had a monarchy since 1918. The vast majority of the people, who are involved in this sort of thing could not possibly be aristocrats, let alone Royals. Harry engages in "laddish" (or possibly "loutish") activities because he is rich and went to a certain type of school. There could be other reasons. His mother died when he was young and, so, the constraints, which are imposed on most people, may not have been imposed on him. He may also be reacting against a very stuffy establishment, which expects him to behave like a cardboard cut-out on wheels, most of the time.

It could have been an alcohol-fuelled public-school-style "jape" (a term, which public schoolboys might have used, not one, which I would use except in an ironic sense). I thought it was something like strip poker. I am not particularly bothered, if it was more than that. It's really none of my business. I don't believe that we have a "right" to know. I cannot see a public-interest defence for publication. Harry didn't chose the family, into which he was born. It's not as if he had been elected Archbishop of Wales and had preached a sermon on the dangers of naturism, immediately before flying to Las Vegas.

If he had taken some young women for a joyride in an Army helicopter, that would have been much more serious but I suspect that it would have been laughed off by the press. The English are unhealthily repressed and that's one of the reasons why they have, in recent years, become obsessed with sex. If sex were something normal and if it were discussed in a sensible, adult fashion, would the casual variety (with the various risks, which you rightly highlight) be quite as popular as it seems to be? The attitudes of young people on the Continent suggest that it wouldn't. It's a similar story with "booze". How many French teenagers drink nine pints of lager on a Friday night and then go on the rampage in a pedestrian precinct?

Sixth, Las Vegas is my idea of Hell on Earth, although the image I have is of a soulless, hot, dusty sprawl, containing dark, air-conditioned, neon-lit caverns, which are full of elderly gambling addicts. I did not think of it as a modern "Babylon". It may well be: I am no expert. However, I know several (very respectable) people, who have gone to Vegas for a couple of days to see what it's like (having travelled to the United States for another reason); or to attend weddings; or to hear their favourite singers. The majority have not been impressed and have not wanted to return.

Seventh, by condemning Harry, we might be falling into a tabloid-laid trap: we are becoming "viewers" in the Windsor "soap opera". We are being distracted from more important issues and giving the Royals more attention than they deserve.

PK I repeat my piece was about the reaction to the Vegas “jape”.

Eighth, I know that the late Princess of Wales had an affair with James Hewitt, a caddish, red-haired equerry to the Prince of Wales, but that is not sufficient grounds to suggest that Harry is illegitimate. The suggestion could be defamatory too!

Even if Harry were illegitimate (and the Prince of Wales was so concerned about what ignorant journalists and their readers would think that proof of paternity was obtained at a very early stage), it would not matter. No one can choose his parents! It doesn't even matter in legal terms because, in English law, a child born to a married woman is automatically assumed to have been fathered by her husband.

As it happens, I think that there is a resemblance between Harry and some of the Duke of Edinburgh's relatives (who were mostly German and Danish). Some of the Spencers had red hair and, down the ages, it has been common for red-haired babies, whose parents don't have red hair, to be labelled "bastards". This is because few people understand the principles of genetics that are involved.

PK You have no proof, Richard. I said the selection of head of state by bloodline should be subject to the same standard of transparent probity as selection by democratic election. Are you suggesting we should accept a lower standard giving the benefit of the doubt?

If they want to sue for defamation, bring it on!
Ninth, by saying that the Princess of Wales was a "woman of loose morals" [a very Victorian phrase, if you don't mind me saying so], we are placing what is basically our (often incorrect) interpretation of ancient Hebrew morality before everything else. We are also reinforcing the obsession that many English people have with a false, absolutist, tabloid morality and, indirectly, we are letting those, whose morals are non-existent rather than "loose" off the hook. [I am unashamedly a consequentialist, as you might have guessed.]

Did the Princess of Wales put several million people out of work in her relentless pursuit of profit? Did she destroy about 70% of Britain's manufacturing base? Did she fabricate evidence to propel Britain into a smash-and-grab raid in the Middle East on behalf of American oil companies, a raid which led to the deaths of around 600,000 civilians and hundreds of servicemen? Did she allow people to be kidnapped, smuggled through British airports and dumped in Third-World "torture sub-contract" centres? Did she knowingly develop a highly dangerous prescription drug, hire a charlatan in a white coat to say it was safe and cover up the deaths of participants in the clinical trial so that it could be licensed, destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of teenagers who took it, continue to lie and prevent the disclosure of information and pocket a couple of billion a year from sales of the drug, for two decades? Did she accept directorships in companies, in return for handing out government contracts? I could go on, all night. No, actually, I could go on for months.

She did none of those things: she merely had sexual relationships with a (fairly small number) of men. She was a female animal, who was lonely, isolated, lacking in self-confidence and unhappy; was manipulated and betrayed by officials and relatives; and had had little experience of life, before she was sucked into a virtual lunatic asylum. I don't think that any of us should judge her. Republicans hope to abolish the monarchy, not reform it or anyone associated with it.

PK You seem to have a soft spot for Diana which I don’t share. Whether she had one or several affairs, the bloodline is called into doubt.

Tenth, it is slightly illogical, from an advocate's point of view, to lay most of the blame at the door of the Princess of Wales. By doing so, we risk making "the Firm" seem normal. It is for similar reasons that barristers usually concentrate on one or two "killer" arguments: some of the minor points, which they could raise, might appear to be slightly contradictory (even if they are not, in reality). Perceptions are important, whether those, to whom arguments are being addressed, are judges or readers of downmarket newspapers.

PK I never laid the blame at Diana’s door for anything. I merely pointed out the obvious that if a woman has had more than one suitor at the time of conception the identity of the father of the child is in doubt. As a republican it makes little difference to me whether the Harry is a legitimate heir or not. I am simply pointing out that if you want to select the head of state by bloodline then to be consistent the bloodline should be proven without a shadow of a doubt.

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