First published 2001 in Quadrant magazine: Quadrant 376 (May 2001): 45-52. This article is a response to Margaret Somerville's book The Ethical Canary.

Professor Somerville published a detailed reply in the July-August 2001 issue of Quadrant, and I then responded further in the September issue. Those interested in our different approaches to bioethics should, of course, consult the original publications for the entire debate.

Margaret Somerville and the Perils of Bioethics


Russell Blackford

In an obvious sense, deep thinking is required to tackle ethical issues related to the use of biomedical technology. This is clear enough whether the issues are familiar, such as the rights and wrongs of abortion and euthanasia, or those of more recent notoriety, related to new or merely postulated technologies that require the manipulation of genetic material. Of course, the newer issues are complex in additional ways: technologies such as cloning for reproductive or therapeutic purposes are often poorly understood; they are difficult and strange in their underlying theory, in their actual or imagined operation and effects, and in their possible consequences.

All of these issues, old and new, demand careful, open-minded thought. They need to be considered patiently, analytically—"in-depth".

Moreover, arguments in the field of bioethics may ultimately compel us to identify and examine our own deeply-held intuitions, as commonly happens in other areas of philosophy. Philosophers typically ask questions that cannot be answered by deduction from self-evident premises, or from premises that are open to practical verification or experimental tests. When dealing with normative ethical issues, philosophers frequently dig down through the strata of argument and counter-argument to uncover premises that are not susceptible of any further support but simply appear plausible as moral intuitions, reflecting individuals' fundamental principles or commitments. Then the question is whether these intuitions remain so attractive after their meanings and implications are scrutinised in detail and an attempt is made to fit them into the general matrix of human experience.

In these senses, it is the job of philosophers, particularly ethical philosophers and certainly including bioethicists, to think deeply about the issues they confront, and to look for intuitions that are deeply, strongly, and perhaps widely, held. Philosophical analysis is a form of rational inquiry, but it deals with questions that are not open to precise mathematical and empirical investigation, either not yet or not ever. Because of their subject matter, there is a sense in which philosophical arguments cannot be demonstratively compelling all the way down. With questions of ethics or metaphysics, there is always the prospect that equally rational opponents may end up identifying disagreement at a very deep, essentially intuitive level.

While this may be an unpalatable recognition, it is very different from the claim that philosophical questions can be settled by drawing upon a well-spring of "deep", non-rational knowledge that is available when the processes of rational analysis and argument run to their end. Philosophers who speak of "deep" or "profound" truths in this latter sense may sound wise or noble, but they deserve our suspicion, not our open-mouthed admiration.

Bioethical issues provoke more than their share of faux "deep" thinking, and Margaret Somerville's recent treatise, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit (2000), is a case in point. At least when the author is writing about philosophical issues, rather than more narrowly legal ones, she gives the impression that an incessant repetition of the words "deep", "profound" and their cognates is intended to lend her own analysis an air of profundity.

For example, she wants us to "pass on to future generations a value of profound respect for the transmission of human life". She has qualms about abortion because it conflicts with her view that "the passing of human life to the next generation deserves the deepest respect". When she considers the mandatory destruction of embryos stored in liquid nitrogen, she declares: "There is something grossly wrong with our moral intuitions if a law that mandates mass extermination of any form of human life does not raise the most profound ethical concerns." She refers elsewhere to "the profound sense of respect and responsibility that we should feel for the immense powers the new science and technologies have placed in our hands."

Despite her self-presentation as a rigorous "ethicist", able to put the heedless, amoral Frankenscientists in their place, Somerville relies on the pervasive use of loaded words that are insufficient to support her quasi-religious world view. She does not emerge as a good philosopher, more the priestess of a new kind of superstition.


Margaret Somerville is an Australian medico-legal academic, now living and teaching in Canada, where she is a professor at McGill University in Montreal. The Ethical Canary is meant to shed light on the whole field of contemporary bioethics, but sometimes reads like a distillation of everything that is wrong with it, particularly since Dolly was cloned in 1997 and bioethical writing became a new province for moral panic.

Along with Somerville's appeal to supposedly deep spiritual insight goes a plea for the advancement of biomedical science to slow down, so that ethicists can catch up. Given this express wish to put a brake on scientific progress, Somerville may quite accurately be referred to as a "neo-Luddite", a tag that has been applied to her by the Canadian press and which she seems to wear with a mix of resentment, pride and defiance. She puts a poor case that bioethical thinkers must take longer to apply their theories to some postulated technological marvel than biomedical scientists take to do the work of actually delivering it. The real problem is that she wishes to create a social consensus on the rights and wrongs of bioethical issues. That, however, is impossible and undesirable, since a healthy democracy thrives on philosophical disagreement.

Bioethical thinking is not more difficult than actual science, though both are intellectually difficult endeavours, nor inherently more time-consuming. However, at least when they are dealing with well-defined, non-politicised problems, working scientists can often deliver an expert consensus that has undeniable practical applications. By contrast, the outcomes of philosophical thinking, in bioethics and elsewhere, are typically inconclusive. That is the very nature of philosophy. This is not a reason to slow down the advance of science, for, in current circumstances, biomedical science could never move slowly enough for an ethical consensus to form in its immediate wake. It is a reason for bioethicists to display greater modesty when they draw conclusions as to what is or is not ethically permissible. In cases of doubt, and in the absence of serious fears about safety or damage to the environment, freedom of choice and intellectual inquiry should prevail.

I do not entirely rule out social prescriptions with a neo-Luddite element. Some technologies may indeed be too risky, in one sense or another, to develop or apply. Perhaps the burden of proof is not entirely upon those such as Somerville or, in another context, Bill Joy who wish to relinquish certain technological possibilities. If the negative consequences are highly probable and very great, we might do best to close off certain lines of inquiry and innovation. Be that as it may, I require the danger to be something tangible before I'll be convinced in any particular case, something that is obviously a safety concern for human societies or the human species, not some subtle threat to the good of our souls. I'll look after my own soul, thank you very much.

Somerville's brand of neo-Luddism is most impressive when she expresses doubts about xenotransplantation: the medical transplantation of organs from genetically modified animals. She develops a plausible case for hesitation and care in developing and using this technology. However, along with the dense texture and plausibility of the argument at this point, goes a potential vulnerability to technical rebuttal. I am not confident one way or the other whether the safety concerns that she raises about xenotransplantation are legitimate, but I do not expect her to prove them beyond any rational possibility of doubt before I take them seriously. There is room for some precautionary thinking here, however much the merits of the so-called "precautionary principle" have been distorted and exaggerated by pop environmentalists.

However, Somerville's arguments more typically depend upon "profound", metaphysical assertions about our obligation to revere life, and even death. These are not open to empirical confirmation or rebuttal. I now turn to those arguments.


Somerville's starting point is that we are ethically obliged to accept and act upon two absolute values, which she suggests are "probably two sides of the same coin". These are (1) "we must always act to ensure profound respect for life, in particular human life" and (2) "we must protect and promote the human spirit".

She defines the "human spirit", somewhat confusingly, as "the intangible, invisible, immeasurable reality that we need to find meaning in life and to make life worth living" and as "that deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to the world and the universe in which we live". Later, she refers to "the essential, intangible, invisible, immeasurable reality we need to live fully human lives, that 'non-physical entity' through which we find a sense of meaning in our lives". It is not obvious to me that these are entirely interchangeable formulations, but that may not matter, since the cloudy idea of the "human spirit" has little independent role to play in her thinking. Her arguments are structured around the imperative of "profound respect for life", which she elaborates in various ways to reach such conclusions as that euthanasia is inherently wrong, as is human cloning for any purpose—though not abortion, at least not in all cases. Despite the book's sub-title, Science, Society and the Human Spirit, the human spirit enters into the picture only when the author wishes to assert that the human reproductive cycle is what gives life meaning.

At certain points, Somerville attempts to modify, or colour, our understanding of a word or idea by references to etymology. For example, she informs us that "religion" "comes from re-ligare—to bind together". More importantly, she provides an etymological discussion of "respect", a word which is pivotal to the book's argument. She tells us that it "comes from the Latin word to look back on" and that "Respect is the mechanism through which we remember, and it requires us to see ourselves in a larger context than just ourselves."

This understanding of respect is worth reflection. Although Somerville does not put it in quite this way, it is arguable that to respect X, taken at its broadest, is to perceive X as a providing a constraint on our own spontaneity and self-interest. We must take it into account before we act unthinkingly, or as we think best for ourselves. This idea coincides with one definition of "respect" in The Macquarie Dictionary: "consideration or regard, as to something that might influence a choice". The idea is present if I state that I respect the power of the storm—I will not go driving in it, much less put out to sea, but will stay at home in relative safety.

In other contexts, X's influence on my choice might be moral rather than prudential, and it is this idea of respect as the perception of a moral constraint that I have in mind in the following paragraphs. There are other senses of the word "respect" in which we do not respect every human being whom we encounter, or read or hear about. Some individuals do not seem to deserve our esteem or deference, certainly not our reverence. But we do treat our fellows—all of them—as morally constraining our ability to act without thought, or wholly in our own interests. We must give their separate interests at least some regard.

When asked how other humans can impose this kind of constraint upon us, we may say that it arises from the fact that they possess certain attributes which we cannot ignore. In the case of other adults, these include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, the ability to formulate life plans, deep inner experience, and the burden of mortality that they share with us (I owe this composite list to thinkers as various as Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita).

Babies and children, it is true, do not possess all of these attributes, but they possess others that may compel us to have regard to their interests, making them seem uniquely compelling subjects for our care and kindness. Not least important are their developing human minds and personalities, and their social dependence if they are to grow and flourish. We are not absolute slaves to the interests of any child in our vicinity, but the welfare of a child is always something we must take into account when our actions, or inactions, touch upon it.

Non-human animals possess few of the attributes I have mentioned, but they do possess sentience, to varying degrees, and some appear capable of suffering in ways that include, yet go beyond, physical pain. These attributes of animals may be enough to create moral limits on how we can treat them. If we think about this seriously, we may feel compelled to become a vegetarians, though it is not clear that this is morally required of an historically omnivorous species such as ours. Perhaps an appropriate response is to kill with the minimum of cruelty, use as much of the animal's carcass as possible to minimise waste and slaughter, perhaps enjoy our meat with a sense of thankfulness tinged with regret. At the least, we may owe it to some animals to ensure that they are not subjected to extreme pain or to lives of suffering.

What about non-sentient things? Even these may constrain our actions morally, either because they have intrinsic value or because they have derivative value—harming them may harm other human beings or other sentient animals. Some forests and gardens may have sentimental, aesthetic or utilitarian value which requires that we treat them in particular ways. Certain individual trees that are famous throughout the world, such as the General Grant redwood in the US and the magnificent Tule Tree in Mexico, seem to possess extraordinary value, though there is room for argument as to whether this is intrinsic or derivative. To destroy or harm them would seem acts of reprehensible vandalism. The same can apply to works of art, as evidenced by the widespread sadness and condemnation provoked by the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues which it characterised as idols, or to certain landscapes and seascapes. It is meaningful to say that all these should be treated with respect: they cannot, morally, be treated however you or I like.

At the same time as I was pondering The Ethical Canary, I also read Rosaleen Love's delightful Reefscape: reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, which also expresses a sense of the connectedness of biological nature, including humankind. However, despite sharing with Somerville a penchant for that clichéd and irritating phrase "other ways of knowing", Love resists the attractions of worshipful "spirituality" and puts a level-headed, convincing plea for the Reef's remarkable beauty and unexpected fragility. Her words must surely resonate with anyone who has ever lived in or visited north Queensland. If I needed convincing, I am entirely convinced that the Reef's "intricacy and beauty" impose a moral constraint on our actions. We cannot just treat the Reef however we like, but must have regard for it, respect it. It is not exactly a matter of respecting its "interests" but, at one extreme, it would be morally wrong to destroy such a thing spitefully or on a whim.

What is interesting about this spread of cases is that the kinds of respect we show to a human adult (whom we may or may not hold in high esteem), a child, a baby, a non-human life form, some other natural phenomenon, or a cultural artifact involve quite varying moral obligations. It is not sufficient to state that "X should be treated with respect" for somebody to read off precisely how we should conduct ourselves in regard to X.

In the case of another human adult, I may sometimes feel constrained to accept decisions that strike me as foolish and self-destructive; that, of course, is the problem about paternalism. While I have an obligation to pay regard to the welfare of another adult with whom I interact, I must also respect her wishes, even if these clash with my perception of her welfare. She may want to take a course of action that I perceive to be harmful, such as using dangerous drugs, lightly abandoning a valuable friendship or a career with good prospects, or frittering away her time and money gambling. While I may take some actions, such as attempts at persuasion, in the hope that she will not do these things, there are many situations where my respect for her autonomy outweighs not only my perceptions about my own interests but even my perceptions about where her best interests lie.

With a young child, paternalism and autonomy are not such issues: my overriding obligation is to avoid harming the child and to protect and nurture her if she falls into my care, even when this means thwarting her own desires and plans. However, there are moral problems about the lengths I may go to in an endeavour to mould her personality to suit my own convenience, or my idiosyncratic beliefs and values. The case of non-human animals is different again.

In a case such as the Great Barrier Reef, what is called for is surely some kind of individual and collective care in preserving the seascape and the wider environment that sustains it. While that much is not controversial, it leaves room for detailed debate about development, climatology, marine science and similar matters. Nonetheless, if we agree that the Reef must be respected in a particular way, that it constrains specific aspects of what we can do unthinkingly or selfishly, we might reach consensus on these more detailed and technical problems. In any event, our goal is surely not to avoid hurt to the Reef's feelings, for example, or to offer it our reverence by never vacationing elsewhere.

It is salutary to be reminded from time to time that a fellow human being, a suffering animal, a beautiful, fragile seascape should be treated with respect. But this does not tell us just what we are obliged to do or refrain from doing, exactly how the person, animal or thing provides moral constraints on our actions. To the extent that we can know what these constraints are in a particular case, the knowledge comes from an appreciation of the person or thing concerned and an understanding, or intuitive sense, of its relevant attributes. The word "respect", then, can sum up the existence of moral constraints. It can also give a useful reminder to stop and look beyond ourselves, but it does not, in itself, contain any detailed normative content. We respect many and various things, and behave towards them in equally various ways.

Somerville's etymological discussion suggests this understanding of "respect", but it is noteworthy that she usually speaks of "deep" or "profound" respect, or else uses the word "reverence". Her claim, once more, is that we must "ensure profound respect for life, in particular human life", but what does this actually mean? One wrong interpretation is that she intends to suggest that life as a whole, or human life as a whole, provides a moral constraint on our actions. This proposition is plausible, if not especially illuminating. After all, without indulging in the New Age excesses of Gaia worship, we can conceive of life on Earth as a total ecological system with limits to its resilience. In theory, some destructive acts could annihilate all life on our planet. More plausibly, they could leave the cockroaches and bacteria in charge, but render the Earth uninhabitable for human beings. No doubt Somerville would obtain widespread agreement if she merely reminded us of this and proposed that such disasters be avoided at almost any cost.

This, however, is not what she means, showing that we must pay attention to the intellectual content of ethical maxims rather than succumbing to their cadences. The repetition of words such as "profound" and "deep" is not merely the symptom of a wish to sound wise and impressive. When these adjectives are attached to the word "respect", as they often are, they signal that Somerville is arguing from extremely dubious premises. As The Ethical Canary proceeds, it becomes clear that her logical starting point is that we should regard human genetic material and the cycle of human reproduction with respect in a different sense: a reverence that borders on awe and worship. That imperative, however, is not entailed by such a vague, innocuous proposition as "we should pay due regard to the value of human life as a whole".

Somerville, then, does not deduce, but assumes, that we should venerate every particle of human life, such as an individual zygote or embryo, as well as the process of sexual reproduction itself. These things are to be more or less worshipped in a new quasi-religion, a "science-spirit" world view, as she calls it, of Somerville's own construction, though her expression of her intuitions is obviously that of a woman who was profoundly affected by a Catholic religious upbringing, as she makes clear in the book's "Epilogue" and "Acknowledgments" sections.

To sum up at this point, good sense can be given to the idea that we must respect other people, some other animals, and even some non-sentient things, which means recognising that they constitute moral limits upon our behaviour. Some vague sense can even be made of the idea that we should respect life, or human life, as a whole. Somerville, however, wants to argue from premises far stronger than this, so strong as to be almost question-begging. Her conclusions depend on a quasi-religious attitude of reverence for human genetic material and the cycle of human reproduction. Yet, this is highly dubious as a starting point in controversy about bioethical issues. Many people will reject such an underlying view once it is stated clearly.

Somerville is entitled to hold and express her science-spirit view if it reflects her deepest intuitions about these matters. However, it provides an unacceptable basis for public policy decisions.


Somerville is opposed to the use of human cloning techniques, whether as a method of reproduction or for the creation of cells or organs for therapeutic purposes. She discusses safety concerns about the nuclear somatic transfer technique used to create Dolly, and other concerns about the possible psychological and social consequences if reproductive cloning were attempted successfully. All these matters require careful consideration, but Somerville inevitably considers both reproductive and therapeutic cloning to be "inherently wrong" in any event. Her essential argument, as far as I can identify and reconstruct this, is that any form of human cloning is inconsistent with reverence for the natural cycle of human sexual reproduction, which she sees as intricately tied to the meaning of life. The following passage is representative of her tone and ideas, while summing up her position on human cloning:

  • There must be a reverence for the creative forces of nature in the passing on of human life and we need to inquire what limits this requirement would place on us using our genetic science. Human reproductive cloning—and human therapeutic cloning—contravene the most fundamental requirements of reverence in the passing on of human life.
  • As for the meaning of life, and with it the human spirit, Somerville makes the connection in these terms:

  • The sexual transmission of human life is integral to our sense, as both individuals and a society, of ourselves and of the meaning of human life. Can we afford asexual transmission, no matter what benefits it promises? Human life is not a commodity. Can we ever afford to make it such?
  • There may be legitimate arguments that it ethically impermissible to commodify our reproductive capacities or human genetic material, in the sense of selling them for profit. In Somerville's treatment, however, any such concerns are merely derivative of her main idea, which is that we are morally obliged to respond to these things with quasi-religious awe and worship. It is significant that she sees the argument as applying to therapeutic cloning, where no fully-formed human being ever comes into existence, as much as to reproductive cloning—and this is cause for special concern. Though human reproductive cloning should be discouraged while safety problems remain, the use of cloned embryos for the development of biomedical science's therapeutic capabilities is an altogether different issue. It is alarming to realise that the development of powerful new therapeutic techniques may be retarded by policies based upon a highly dubious, quasi-religious world view.

    When it is reconstructed and explained like this, Somerville's account clearly cannot resolve bioethical disagreements about issues such as human cloning because her premises are as intellectually unpersuasive as her conclusions. To put the problem another way, Somerville's approach to solving bioethical problems is surprisingly shallow. She reasons from premises that are too close to the surface of the argument, too much like the conclusions that she wishes to draw. Her intuitive stopping point is one where she is already embroiled in metaphysical and moral controversy with almost any conceivable opponent.

    Her basic analysis is no better when she approaches well-worn issues of controversy such as euthanasia. Admittedly, her subsidiary arguments, grounded in a well-informed understanding of medical practice, are sometimes quite persuasive. For example, she convincingly describes how modern pain-management is more effective than is generally known or acknowledged by advocates of voluntary euthanasia—this might, indeed, be a practical reason to discourage euthanasia and encourage palliative care. However, the main line of her argument is about reverence for life and death. If this succeeds at all, it proves that no one can ever be given a lethal injection—or any other quick, merciful death—no matter how terrible and unavoidable their suffering, and whatever their own wishes, without the commission of a serious moral wrong. That conclusion is both unjustified and cruel.

    She argues that, if human beings have dignity simply from existing, then euthanasia contravenes our inherent dignity. That, however, is moving far too quickly to be plausible. Abstract statements about human dignity are vague, and it is not clear that any detailed moral content can be deduced from them alone. A better approach is to reflect lucidly on the actual attributes of human beings, including our autonomy, inner experience and capacity for pain and suffering, then ask how we are to treat a fellow human being who is in terrible pain that cannot be alleviated and who wishes to die as soon as possible. We may well respect her in an appropriate way, and at the same time treat her with dignity, if we take the regretful step of giving her the quick death that she wants. How can we be denying her dignity if we pay attention to her particular situation, honour her wishes, and respond with compassion to her terrible inner experience? Words such as "dignity" and "respect" are hollow unless they remind us to regard the particular other whose plight confronts us.

    When writing about euthanasia, Somerville appears unable to treat her opponents fairly. In particular, she cites a science fiction novel by P.D. James, about killing old people who do not want to die: "One old woman tries to escape but is beaten by a guard." Yet this is not euthanasia as commonly understood, painlessly killing someone who is in terminal agony and wants to die. It is unequivocal murder. Somerville writes, "Although this is an extreme example and those who support the legalization of euthanasia are likely to criticize my use of it, it does carry an important message." Yes, I do criticize her: the use of such a passage to appeal to our emotions by-passes the real issues in a way that appears intellectually dishonest.

    She concludes that we are obliged to "respect death", since "if death has no meaning, life has no meaning". Respect for death "requires each of us to undertake the profound journey of life to its natural end", which rules out euthanasia or suicide. Fundamentally, she considers euthanasia wrong because it is a "failure to respect death" and this supposedly contravenes her primary imperative of "profound respect" for life. But this is all psycho-babble.

    Why should we respect death? Leaving aside Somerville's frequent conflation of respect and reverence, there is an obvious sense in which death is to be respected, analogous to the power of a storm: the inevitability of death is something we must all pay regard to. Each of us will die. That, however, is more a prudential than a moral consideration. If it has any moral significance, it may be that it reminds us to be kind to loved ones who will not be with us forever, to avoid leaving our dependents destitute should death befall us prematurely, and so on. It has nothing to do with the ethical permissibility of euthanasia.

    However, is there any sense in which we are obliged to pay regard to something analogous to death's "interests"? It is not obvious how such an abstraction, death, could possess even the kind of quasi-interests that might be imputed to a seascape, an art work or a planet's biosphere. Accordingly, it is unclear how death could provide a moral constraint on our actions analogous to those provided by other human beings, other living things, and things of artfulness or beauty. Death, after all, is not the kind of thing that can be harmed, damaged or coerced. It can be revered or worshipped, perhaps, but not respected in the sense I have discussed in this article.

    A possible reply is that a universe in which death was abolished would become a hell of stagnation and tedium, and this is a reason to respect the abstraction, "Death". We should, it might then be argued, not seek true immortality (as opposed, say, to a long, healthy life). Even if this rather far-fetched argument were convincing, however, it would not provide a reason why we should respond to our understanding of death's benign aspect by never hastening anyone's death. Again, it is unclear that a failure to pay due regard to the claims of death entails that we have also failed to pay due regard to those of life.

    However, as I have discussed, Somerville does not attempt to identify relevant attributes of life that oblige a regard for it, much less identify what such a regard might consist in. Instead, her emphasis is upon reverence for the process of sex and reproduction and for human genetic material. If life is viewed, somewhat reductively, as a reproductive cycle, death can be treated as part of that cycle, in which case it might be asserted with some plausibility that the entire cycle should be regarded with quasi-religious awe and worship. If that is so, perhaps tampering with death, in the sense of hastening it, can be viewed as an irreverent act.

    Yet, once we set out on this moonlit road of superstition, almost anything goes. Might we not express our reverence for death by ritually killing those whom death has already claimed in the sense that they are terminally ill? Fortunately, there is no reason at all for us to be converted to Somerville's quasi-religion of life-and-death worship, and it should be given no serious credence in policy debates over issues such as euthanasia.


    The Ethical Canary is not a worthless piece of writing. It provokes thoughts about the nature of respect and dignity. Moreover, its second half is largely an orthodox discussion of medical law and policy, dealing with such issues as requisite standards of consent to medical treatment and the problems of allocating health resources efficiently and ethically. Somerville's exposition of legal and policy issues is scholarly, reasonable and genuinely impressive. The tone and language are clear and persuasive. These chapters display less insistence that the subject matter is "deep" or "profound", though the author does insist, when discussing the circumcision of male infants, that we must have a "deep respect for religious, cultural and traditional beliefs".

    The discussion of circumcision is well worth reading, as are many other areas of the book whenever its author relies primarily upon her detailed medico-legal knowledge, rather than acting as a missionary for her science-spirit world view. As in her discussions of xenotransplantation and palliative care, she appears well-informed about important matters of detail, enabling her to put a persuasive case that circumcision is more traumatic, and has less medical benefit, than is commonly realised. At the same time, she is surely correct that some regard must be had to religious beliefs associated with circumcision before we simply prohibit it. She makes specific suggestions as to how the harm that she says is done by the practice might be ameliorated. She is also quite clear that the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is in an altogether more serious category of harm.

    Somerville's legal and policy analyses, then, are most useful when she writes essentially as a lawyer and on subjects that do not seem to call for metaphysical solutions. In other areas, her policy prescriptions are based on a world view that is personal and metaphysical at best—at worst, bordering on superstition. As her numerous citations indicate, she is not the only bioethicist who is drawn to such an approach, but it is neither intellectually persuasive nor an acceptable basis for public policy in a liberal society.

    We should be pause and think for ourselves before we defer to the expertise claimed by professional bioethicists. This is a field of growing relevance and importance, but it attracts many people whose positions are fundamentally illiberal, if not irrational. Their pronouncements merit scrutiny, criticism and opposition.


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