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On Being Silenced in Germany

Some scenes from academic life in Germany and Austria today:

—For the 1989/1990 winter semester, Dr. Hartmut Kliemt, a professor of philosophy at the University of Duisburg, a small town in the north of Germany, offered a course in which my book Practical Ethics was the principal text assigned to the class. First published in English in 1979, this book has been widely used in philosophy courses in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.1 Until Kliemt announced his course, it had never evoked anything more than lively discussion. Kliemt’s course, however, was subjected to organized and repeated disruption by protesters objecting to the use of the book on the grounds that in one of its ten chapters it advocates active euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants. When after several weeks the disruptions showed no sign of abating, Kliemt was compelled to abandon the course.

—The European society for the Philosophy of Medicine and Health Care is a learned society that does just what one would expect an organization with that name to do: it promotes the study of the philosophy of medicine and health care. In 1990 it planned its fourth annual conference, to be held in Bochum, Germany, in June. The intended theme of the conference was “Consensus Formation and Moral Judgment in Health Care.” During the days leading up to the conference, literature was distributed in Bochum and elsewhere in Germany by the “Anti-Euthanasia Forum,” stating that “under the cover of tolerance and the cry of democracy and liberalism, extermination strategies will be discussed. On these grounds we will attempt to prevent the Bochum Congress taking place.” On June 5, scholars who were about to attend the conference received a letter from the secretary of the society notifying them that it was being moved to Maastricht, in the Netherlands, because the German organizers (two professors from the Center for Medical Ethics at the Ruhr University in Bochum) had been confronted with “anti-bioethics agitation, threats and intimidation,” and could not guarantee the safety of the participants.”

—In October 1990, Dr. Helga Kuhse, senior research fellow at the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Australia and author of The Sanctity-of-Life Doctrine in Medicine: A Critique, 2 was invited to give a lecture at the Institute for Anatomy of the University of Vienna. A group calling itself the “Forum of Groups for the Crippled and Disabled” announced that it would protest against the lecture, stating that “academic freedom has ethical limits, and we expect the medical faculty to declare that human life is inviolable.” The lecture was then canceled by the faculty of medicine. The dean of the faculty, referring to Dr. Kuhse, told the press, “We didn’t know at all who that was.”3

—The Institute for Philosophy at the University of Hamburg decided, with the agreement of faculty members and a student representative, to appoint a professor in the field of applied ethics. The list of candidates was narrowed down to six. At this point in selecting a professor in Germany, the standard procedure is to invite each of the candidates to give a lecture. The lectures were announced but did not take place. Students and protesters from outside the university objected to the advertising of a chair in applied ethics on the grounds that this field raised questions about whether some human lives were worth living. The protesters blocked the entrances to the lecture theaters and blew whistles to drown out any attempts by the speakers to lecture. The university canceled the lectures. A few weeks later, a new list of candidates was announced. Two philosophers active in the field of applied ethics were no longer in consideration; they were replaced by philosophers who have done relatively little work in applied ethics; one, for example, is best known for his work in aesthetics. One of those dropped from the short list was Dr. Anton Leist, author of a book that offers ethical arguments in defense of the right to abortion,4 and also a coeditor of Analyse & Kritik; one of the few German journals publishing philosophy in the mode practiced in English-speaking countries. Ironically, a recent special issue of the journal was devoted to Practical Ethics and the issue of academic freedom in Germany.5

—In February 1991 a round-table discussion was to be held in Frankfurt, organized jointly by the adult education sections of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. The theme was “Aid in Dying,” and among the participants was Norbert Hoerster, a highly respected German professor of jurisprudence, who has written in support of the principle of euthanasia. As the meeting was about to get underway, a group of people challenged the organizers, accusing them of giving a platform to a “fascist” and an “advocate of modern mass extermination.” They distributed leaflets headed “No Discussion about Life and Death.” The meeting had to be abandoned.

—The International Wittgenstein Symposium, held annually at Kirchberg, in Austria, has established itself as one of the principal philosophical conferences on the continent of Europe. The fifteenth International Wittgenstein Conference was to have been held in August 1991, on the theme “Applied Ethics.” Arrangements for the program were made by philosophers from the Institute for Philosophy at the University of Salzburg. Among those invited to speak were Professor Georg Meggle, of the University of Saarbrücken, Professor R.M. Hare, former White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and now a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and myself. When the names of those invited became known, threats were made to the president of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, Dr. Adolf Hübner, that the symposium would be disrupted unless the invitations to Professor Meggle and me were withdrawn. In other public discussions with opponents of the program, the boycott threat was extended to include several other invited professors: Hare, Kliemt, Hoerster, and Professor Dietrich Birnbacher of the department of philosophy at the Gesamthochschule in Essen.6

Dr. Hübner is not a philosopher; he is a retired agricultural veterinarian, so he read Practical Ethics only after the protest arose. On reading it, however, he formed the opinion that—as he wrote in an Austrian newspaper—the protests were “entirely justified.”7 In a long letter to the board of directors of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society he wrote that “as a result of the invitations to philosophers who hold the view that ethics can be grounded and carried out in the manner of an objective critical science, an existential crisis has arisen for the Austrian Wittgenstein Symposium and the Wittgenstein Society.”8 The reference to the “objective critical science” is striking, since Hare, in particular, has devoted much of his life to insisting on the differences between ethical judgments and statements to which notions of objective truth or falsity are standardly applied.

According to some reports, opposition groups threatened to stage a display on “Kirchberg under the Nazis” if the invitations were not withdrawn. This threat proved so potent that innkeepers in Kirchberg were said to have stated that they would refuse to serve philosophers during the symposium.9 To its considerable credit, the organizing committee resisted Dr. Hübner’s proposal to withdraw the invitations from those philosophers against whom the protests were directed. Instead, it recommended that the entire symposium be canceled, since Dr. Hübner’s public intervention in the debate had made it unlikely that it could be held without disruption. This recommendation was accepted by the committee of the Austrian Wittgenstein Society, against the will of Dr. Hübner himself. There will be no Wittgenstein Symposium in 1991.

For those who believe that there is a strong consensus throughout Western Europe supporting freedom of thought and discussion in general, and academic freedom in particular, these scenes come as a shock. How they have come about, however, is not so difficult to explain. The story has its beginnings in events in which I was directly involved. It stems from an invitation I received to speak, in June 1989, at a European Symposium on “Bioengineering, Ethics, and Mental Disability,” organized jointly by Lebenshilfe, the major German organization for parents of intellectually disabled infants, and the Bishop Bekkers Institute, a Dutch organization in the same field. The symposium was to be held in Marburg, a German university town, under the auspices of the International League of Societies for Persons with Mental Handicap, and the International Association for the Scientific Study of Mental Deficiency. The program looked impressive; after an opening speech from the German minister of family affairs, the conference was to be addressed by leading geneticists, bioethicists, theologians, and health-care lawyers from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, England, France, and, of course, Germany. I accepted the invitation; and since I was going to be in Germany anyway, I also accepted an invitation from Professor Christoph Anstötz, professor of special education at the University of Dortmund, to give a lecture a few days later on the subject “Do severely disabled newborn infants have a right to life?”

My intention in these lectures was to defend a view for which I have argued in several previously published works: that the parents of severely disabled newborn infants should be able to decide, together with their physician, whether their infant should live or die. If the parents and their medical adviser are in agreement that the infant’s life will be so miserable or so devoid of minimal satisfactions that it would be inhumane or futile to prolong life, then they should be allowed to ensure that death comes about speedily and without suffering. Such a decision might reasonably be reached, if, for instance, an infant was born with anencephaly (the term means “no brain” and infants with this condition have no prospect of ever gaining consciousness); or with a major chromosomal disorder such as trisomy 18, in which there are abnormalities of the nervous system, internal organs, and external features, and death always occurs within a few months, or at most two years; or in very severe forms of spina bifida where an exposed spinal cord leads to paralysis from the waist down, incontinence of bladder and bowel, a build-up of fluid on the brain, and, often, mental retardation. (Were these conditions to be detected in prenatal examinations, many mothers would choose to have abortions and their decisions would be widely seen as understandable.)

Parents may not always be able to make an unbiased decision concerning the future of their infant, and their decisions may not be defensible. In some cases—Down’s syndrome perhaps—the outlook for the child might be for a life without suffering, but the child would need much more care and attention, over a longer period, than a normal child would require. Some couples, feeling that they were not in a position to provide the care required, or that it would be harmful for their already existing family for them to try to do so, might oppose sustaining the infant’s life. There may, however, be other couples willing to give the child an adequate home; or the community may be in a position to take over the responsibility of providing medical care and for ensuring that the child has reasonably good conditions for living a satisfying life and developing his or her potential. In these circumstances, given that the child will not be living a life of unredeemed misery, and the parents will not be coerced into rearing that child, they can no longer insist upon having the major role in life or death decisions for their child.10

  1. 1

    Cambridge University Press, 1979; German translation, Praktische Ethik (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984); Spanish translation, Etica Practica (Barcelona: Ariel, 1984); Italian translation, Etica Pratica (Naples: Liguori, 1989); Swedish translation, Praktisk Ethik (Stockholm: Thales, 1990).

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1987.

  3. 3

    Der Standard (Vienna), October 10, 1990.

  4. 4

    Eine Frage des Lebens: Ethik der Abtreibung und Künstlichen Befruchtung (Frankfurt: Campus, 1990).

  5. 5

    Analyse & Kritik, December 12, 1990.

  6. 6

    During the period when opposition to the Wittgenstein Symposium was being stirred up, these philosophers were all described, in terms calculated to arouse a hostile response, in a special “euthanasia issue” of the Austrian journal erziehung heute (Education Today) (Innsbruck, 1991), p. 37.

  7. 7

    Adolf Hübner, “Euthanasie diskussion im Geiste Ludwig Wittgenstein?” Der Standard (Vienna), May 21, 1991.

  8. 8

    Die krisenhafte Situation der Österreichischen Ludwig Wittgenstein Gesellschaft, ausgelöst durch die Einladungspraxis zum Them ‘Angewandte Ethik’ ” (unpublished typescript).

  9. 9

    Martin Stürzinger, “Ein Tötungshelfer mit faschistischem Gedankengut?” Die Weltwoche (Zurich), May 23, 1991, p. 83.

  10. 10

    There is a brief account of my reasons for holding this position in Practical Ethics, chapter 7; and a much more detailed one in Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live? (Oxford University Press, 1985). See also Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, “The Future of Baby Doe,” The New York Review (March 1, 1984), pp. 17–22.

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