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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.