Somerville, Margaret
135 Articles at

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law Emerita at McGill University, Montreal. She has an extensive national and international publishing and speaking record and frequently comments in all forms of media. Her books include The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit (Penguin 2000); The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit (Anansi 2006; CBC 2006 Massey Lectures) and Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about values in the culture wars (MQUP 2015). Among her many honours and awards are the Order of Australia, Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, eight honorary doctorates, and the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science.



New! Why shouldn't 'examined emotions' have a role to play in bioethics?

With the enactment of Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), euthanasia has now been legalised across Australia, except for the Northern Territory, where it is pending. If we believe that euthanasia is unethical and a very unwise idea, what might we be able to do to reduce its use to the minimum possible?

Date posted: 2024-07-04

The ethics of uterus transplants to 'transwomen'

Currently, an alternative possibility for gestating human babies is on the horizon. Exogenesis, the use of artificial uteruses, so no human would be involved in gestating the child. This has already been achieved in the laboratory with lambs. When asked whether they would transplant a uterus to a transwoman (a biological man) to allow her to carry a child, they did not rule it out. Uterine transplants to biological men are another complex ethical issue raised in the context of reproductive technologies.

Date posted: 2023-08-12

Plan for whole genome screening of babies in the UK is ethically complex

Newborn babies in Western democracies are routinely tested for certain diseases or conditions at birth. These tests allow treatment of some conditions, which left untreated would cause serious irreversible harm to the baby.

Date posted: 2022-06-22

Death rapidly becomes just another thing when euthanasia is legal

Just as we have 'casual sex', now we have 'casual death'. Two Canadians relayed to me their experience of witnessing a doctor delivering a lethal injection to a person they loved. They described it as making death seem "so casual". They said this perception concerned, even traumatised, them. The person euthanised was very old, not terminally ill, mentally competent, and had long been depressed.

Date posted: 2022-02-23

We need to offer alternatives to legalising euthanasia

History will judge the legalization of euthanasia as one of the two most momentous values decisions of the first half of the 21st Century.

Date posted: 2021-11-02

Good ethics depends on good facts - but euthanasia debates are full of distortions and omissions

We mustn't sugar-coat the reality of doctors killing their patients. Good facts are essential for good ethics and good ethics for good law. This means we must ask, what are the correct facts about euthanasia?

Date posted: 2021-11-02

Can we find a vaccine for the euthanasia virus pandemic?

A leading bioethicist questions the wisdom of legalising assisted dying.

Date posted: 2021-06-13

What do they mean when they say 'pregnant persons'?

Words matter, especially when they are used as labels to describe, characterise or classify a group of people. A change in the words used for these purposes merits asking what caused that change, who advocated for it, and why was it made. What do they mean when they say 'pregnant persons'?

Date posted: 2021-06-08

The deficiencies and dangers of 'radical individualism'

Anyone concerned about the current values conflicts in our societies should read this book. Although it focuses on conflicts in public bioethics, the insights of the author, O. Carter Snead, have application to a much broader range of values conflicts in what are sometimes called the "culture wars". Snead starts with a history of American Public Bioethics. He then asks, "What does it means to be human"?

Date posted: 2021-03-27

The lethal collision of two pandemics: Covid-19 and ageism

Elderly people are 'ethical canaries' in the coalmine during the Covid-19 pandemic. The "ethical tone" of a society is not determined by how it treats its most powerful, strongest, most affluent members, but by how it treats its weakest, most in need, most vulnerable members. The latter are the litmus test of the society's "ethical tone" and include elderly persons in some aged care institutions.

Date posted: 2020-09-13

Withdrawing artificial hydration and nutrition can be ethically complex

It can be unethical to withdraw artificial hydration and nutrition and doing so can constitute a form of euthanasia - that is, when it's withdrawn with a primary intention to cause death.

Date posted: 2020-03-30

A baby is not a handbag

The intentions of scientists designing babies with three genetic parents may be good but the procedure is still unethical.

Date posted: 2019-11-26

Canada's euthanasia philosophy: 'control, choice and change'

It may take many generations to realise the damage that 'Medical Aid in Dying" will do.

Date posted: 2019-11-04

Genetic disruption of human beings: creating "three parent IVF" babies

Now we are faced with unprecedented 21st century reproductive technologies which can be used to change the genetic essence of ourselves (our DNA) when we are embryos and in such a way that the changes will be passed on to our future descendants. Should we do this?

Date posted: 2018-07-23

The age of amazement

No matter how far science and technology progress, we cannot lose our sense of awe and wonder at the universe.

Date posted: 2018-03-13

Are we losing our reverence for death today?

The law is intended to reduce pressure on next-of-kin, who are often required to make decisions about organ donation on behalf of the deceased.

Date posted: 2018-02-26

Navigating the 'post-truth' world

Can this idea help us to understand debates over same-sex marriage and euthanasia?

Date posted: 2017-12-24

Complexity, uncertainty and potentiality in the euthanasia debate

Such an important issue requires a high level of ethical sensitivity.

Date posted: 2017-11-04

Euthanasia: a failure of memory and imagination

Dying and death are not new phenomena: we have always become ill, suffered, were going to die and someone else could have killed us. So why now, at the beginning of the 21st century, after prohibiting euthanasia for thousands of years and when we can do so much more to relieve suffering than in the past, do we suddenly think that legalising it is a good idea?

Date posted: 2017-10-01

The euthanasia slippery slope: a failure of memory and imagination

Very recently, two senior physicians who have championed the legalization of euthanasia in their jurisdictions, Dr Boudewijn Chabot in the Netherlands and Dr Guy Robert in Quebec, have rejected current "appalling" developments in euthanasia in their countries. Yet, these developments should have been anticipated. So, why weren't they?

Date posted: 2017-08-03

Do suicides increase where euthanasia is legal?

The euthanasia debate is on the front-burner in Australia, especially in the states of Victoria and Tasmania. In one of the latest salvos, ethicist Professor Margaret Somerville claimed that suicide rates rise in jurisdictions where euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal.

Date posted: 2017-06-02

The importance of stories in the euthanasia debate

The pro-euthanasia case is compact and quick and easy to make: It focuses on a terminally ill, seriously suffering, competent adult who gives informed consent to euthanasia and bases its claims to prevail on the obligation to respect that person's right to autonomy and self-determination and dignity.

Date posted: 2017-03-18

A flight from mystery

Euthanasia strips death of its meaning at the time we need it most

Date posted: 2017-02-03

Euthanasia: it's a long, long, long way down

One way to get rid of slippery slopes is to deny that they exist.

Date posted: 2017-01-20

Why supporters of same-sex marriage call it 'marriage equality'

Cloudy and ambiguous language can be ethically perilous.

Date posted: 2016-11-04

Is it ethical to pay ransoms?

Two Canadian men have been beheaded after the government refused to pay ransoms to Filipino terrorists.

Date posted: 2016-06-25

It didn't happen overnight

The cultural and social changes of the past 50 years laid the groundwork for transgenderism.

Date posted: 2016-06-23

Looking ahead for new transplant techniques

Italian transplant surgeon Dr Sergio Canavero wants to perform head transplants. He was recently interviewed by Barry Morgan on CJAD 800 Montreal Radio and said he was hoping to carry out the surgery in China, before the end of 2017.

Date posted: 2016-05-30

What's behind the demolition of conscience rights in Canada?

Autonomy, choice, and tolerance are being used to justify euthanasia but these grand principles don't apply to opponents.

Date posted: 2016-04-13

Is Canada moving toward "totalitarian utopianism"?

Members of Parliament should be allowed to vote according to their consciences on euthanasia.

Date posted: 2016-03-04

Designing our descendants

Assisted human reproduction technology is growing ever more controversial. "Editing" the human germline - the genes passed on from generation to generation that have evolved naturally over millions of years to create each unique one of us - has gone from science fiction to science fact. We can now design our descendants.

Date posted: 2016-01-17

'Good for me', but what about society?

A major post-election issue is what to do about the Supreme Court of Canada's judgment in the Carter case last February, which struck down the Criminal Code's prohibition of assisted suicide to allow physician-assisted suicide for certain people in certain circumstances.

Date posted: 2015-11-04

May we tinker with the genetic heritage of humanity?

The human germline is the genetic essence of human life. It's the genes passed on from generation to generation that have evolved over billions of years since the advent of life on Earth which have resulted in each of us. We can now alter an embryo's germline genes and all descendants of that embryo will inherit those alterations. Is that ethical?

Date posted: 2015-07-06

Should We Edit the Genetic Essence of Life?

The human germline is the genetic essence of human life. It's the genes passed on from generation to generation that have evolved over billions of years since the advent of life on Earth which have resulted in each of us. We can now alter an embryo's germline genes and all descendants of that embryo will inherit those alterations. Is that ethical?

Date posted: 2015-07-01

Protecting doctors' freedom of conscience

The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons is consulting on whether patients' right of access to certain procedures, such as abortion, should trump the rights of those physicians who refuse, for reasons of conscience, to provide them.

Date posted: 2015-02-02

The complexities of consent to sexual intimacy

In Canada and the US high profile media stars have been pilloried over allegations of sexual assault.

Date posted: 2014-12-22

Rejecting euthanasia, respecting the human spirit

Recently, Jonathan Kay, John Moore and I participated in a panel on CBC's The National, discussing assisted suicide and euthanasia. Kay supported extreme individual autonomy: Whatever their reason, competent adults should have the right to euthanasia. Moore proposed some conditions, such as terminal illness, on exercising that right. I argued that we should reject euthanasia, in part, because it's dangerous for vulnerable people and society.

Date posted: 2014-11-18

There's no "mushy middle" on euthanasia

Many know the saying "You have to fish or cut bait". Many fewer know the law's equivalent, "You can't approbate and reprobate". But the Canadian Medical Association's recent dealing with their 2007 Policy on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide makes it seem they are unaware of the warning and wisdom these axioms communicate.

Date posted: 2014-10-07

Unpacking the labels in the abortion debate

An email made me ponder what the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" really mean, in particular regarding people's stance on using law to govern abortion. This is very much a live debate in Canada because, in contrast to all other Western democracies and all but three other countries in the world (China, Somalia and North Korea) we have no law at all governing abortion. If a physician is willing to perform an abortion just before birth, he would not be legally prohibited from doing so, although most physicians refuse to carry out most abortions when the unborn child is post-viability.

Date posted: 2014-07-09

"Yes" to euthanasia brings a seismic shift in values

Why, after millenniums of prohibiting the intentional killing of another human being, in particular by physicians, did Quebec politicians think euthanasia is a “progressive” idea that must be implemented without delay? Bill 52, originally introduced by the Parti Québécois government, was rapidly reintroduced by the Liberals and passed Thursday.

Date posted: 2014-06-29

The walls close in on Canada's abortion foes

The leader of a major opposition party has announced that they will be excluded from membership.

Date posted: 2014-05-20

Surrogate motherhood creates an ethical minefield

A gay couple's government-funded IVF twins have created a storm of controversy in Canada.

Date posted: 2014-05-19

Assisted suicide: the issue we can't afford to get wrong

Good facts are absolutely essential for good ethics.

Date posted: 2014-05-17

Quebec gears up for a momentous election

We form a society by buying in to shared values; they are the glue that binds us together and informs our identity as individuals and a community.

Date posted: 2014-04-06

Why euthanasia slippery slopes can't be prevented

I have been receiving emails from people, including some with disabilities, who are angry about my opposition to legalizing euthanasia. The people with disabilities are not dying; they just do not want to continue living in the state in which they find themselves. It's clear they believe they would be able to have access to euthanasia were it to be legalized.

Date posted: 2014-03-20

Fact-checking claims of "well regulated euthanasia"

Recently, the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, published an editorial, "Quebec gets it right on the right to die", which articulated the strongest case that can be made for supporting legalizing euthanasia and Quebec's Bill 52 which seeks to do just that.

Date posted: 2014-03-04

For academics, religion is a conflict of interests

A campaign against a bioethics professor turns very nasty.

Date posted: 2013-12-15

Australia: advice for the new management

A few ethical voices crying in the wilderness can make a major difference.

Date posted: 2013-12-15

Belgium, where death becomes the norm, living the exception

A documentary about ten years of legal euthanasia is a touchstone for radically different approaches to suffering.

Date posted: 2013-11-10

Putting a price on human organs

Canadian broadcasting reports that University of Calgary researchers suggest paying kidney donors could be "less costly, more effective" and payments could boost donations. Is this a good idea and if not, why?

Date posted: 2013-11-04

Keep it at home and hidden in a closet

So, the Quebec government is throwing down the gauntlet, yet again, on freedom of religion, by proposing to ban religious symbols in public spaces and to prevent people working in the public sector wearing them. It's sometimes said that love and hate are not opposites; they are the same emotion, but with negative or positive content, respectively; indifference is the opposite of both.

Date posted: 2013-09-09

Is Quebec creating a secular utopia?

Recently, Jared Bland, the books editor of the Globe and Mail, interviewed Margaret Atwood. The interview focused on MaddAddam, the third book in Atwood's trilogy about dystopias, societies "gone terribly wrong", which will be released this week.

Date posted: 2013-09-09

Gotten, not begotten

The argumentation in this article is a powerful example of the "logical slippery slope", that is, the phenomenon that once a certain practice is allowed, for instance, the sale of gametes, it can be extended to allow other logically related practices, namely, the sale of embryos.

Date posted: 2013-08-13

The dubious ethics of creating children with three genetic parents

Violating an international consensus, the British government has authorized scientists to tinker with the human genome.

Date posted: 2013-08-01

Is there really only one rational side in the marriage debate?

Opponents of redefining marriage are being called discriminatory, bigots, homophobes and worse. Is this fair?

Date posted: 2013-07-13

A mad way to die in Quebec

The province is using extraordinary legal legerdemain to authorize euthanasia without violating the Canadian Criminal Code.

Date posted: 2013-06-22

The man who changed Canada

I was asked to comment on Dr Henry Morgentaler's death on both radio and television and to write a comment article by the Ottawa Citizen. I refused all of these requests on the grounds that I believe in the adage "One should not speak ill of the dead." But many others, whose views of Morgentaler ranged from seeing him as a Canadian hero to labelling him as evil personified, were not so reticent. So, what might their reactions tell us about current Canadian culture and values?

Date posted: 2013-06-22

Who or what is a "child"?

Canada's Parliament lacks the courage to take a stand on defining when an unborn child will be protected by the law.

Date posted: 2013-05-26

Why is Canada's parliament tip-toeing around sex-selective abortion?

Debate is being stifled because the government is afraid to touch the third rail.

Date posted: 2013-04-20

Let human bodies stay priceless

It's been reported that two Canadian companies are willing to pay blood donors to get their plasma. Plasma is used to produce immunoglobulin, a high-cost treatment for diseases that include cancer. Is there something inherently wrong in commodifying and commercializing the human body, selling our organs or tissues?

Date posted: 2013-03-23

Amour: does old age have any honour left?

We must consider the effect of legalizing euthanasia on other people, especially the possibility of elder abuse; on the medical profession and medicine's millennia-old guiding principle, "curing where possible, caring always, never killing"; on the law as a primary institution upholding the societal value of respect for life; on other healthcare professionals and healthcare institutions; and on society's most important values, especially that of respect for life.

Date posted: 2013-01-31

The dead-end values driving euthanasia advocacy

I suggest that the push for legalizing euthanasia results from a failure of our ethical imagination both as to what euthanasia involves in practice - killing another human being - and as to where that would lead in the future.

Date posted: 2013-01-31

Pizza, prison and punishment

Creating settings in which prisoners can experience love and joy with their families or companionship, friendship, and laughter with their fellow inmates are more likely than not to assist in their rehabilitation and it's very difficult to imagine how this would do harm in this regard.

Date posted: 2013-01-31

Finding common ground on Canadian abortion law

After years of debate, Canada has no law on abortion. Is is possible to find an acceptable compromise to rein it in?

Date posted: 2012-12-22

Who sets the ethical tone of society?

A massive corruption scandal in Quebec raises the question of how to screen out rogues before they reach the trough.

Date posted: 2012-11-23

Will "choice" trump even gendercide?

A new page in Canada's abortion debate will force pro-choice politicians to decide just how non-negotiable their position is.

Date posted: 2012-10-15

The right to life and Canada's democracy

Today's vote in Ottawa about re-opening the abortion debate is also a test of political ethics.

Date posted: 2012-10-02

A life unworthy to be discussed?

In Canada, a legal question mark hangs over the humanity of the unborn child. Pro-abortion advocates have passionately opposed MP Stephen Woodworth's private member's motion to set up a parliamentary committee to examine the definition of "human being" in the Canadian Criminal Code, arguing "there is nothing to discuss". This definition provides that "a child becomes a human being" only at birth. They fear a discussion could result in some legal recognition of unborn children and the enactment of some law governing abortion.

Date posted: 2012-09-07

How do we want our great-great-grandchildren to die?

Striking down, as unconstitutional, the Criminal Code provision prohibiting assisted suicide, as the Gloria Taylor case does, in effect legalizing physician-assisted suicide, is a very bad idea for many reasons and a step backwards for Canada and Canadians and Canadian values, ethics and law. Not least because it will, inevitably, lead to legalizing euthanasia.

Date posted: 2012-08-11

Chaos on the streets of Montreal

This summer's puzzling and sometimes violent protests may foreshadow what could happen in democratic societies without a consensus on values.

Date posted: 2012-08-11

The right to know those who gave us life

Children's rights are in danger of being overlooked in the increasingly bizarre permutations of reproductive technology.

Date posted: 2012-08-11

What is there to hide?

Canadian democracy is the loser after Ontario amended its freedom of information act to exempt abortion statistics.

Date posted: 2012-08-11

Sensing the sacred

Is there a sense of the sacred that even the non-religious can share? ...we should all ponder the question novelist Carol Shields puts into the mouth of one of her famous characters, Larry, a middle-aged Canadian: "What will happen to a world that's lost its connection with the sacred? We long for ecstasy, to stand outside of the self in order to transcend that self, but how do we get there?"

Date posted: 2012-07-11

The debate Canada needs to have

Why are Canadians reluctant to have a debate about the ethics of destroying the most vulnerable human life?

Date posted: 2012-05-15

"Open yourself to the ineffable"

Holding our metaphysical ecosystem on trust will require wisdom, wise ethical restraint (the old virtue of prudence) and courage on all our parts, but especially young people, who will be the decision makers of the future and must be the "keepers of our values". I urge you to become involved in exercising that enormous privilege and obligation, whatever your path in life and wherever it takes you. There is no more worthwhile, important or exciting challenge.

Date posted: 2012-04-21

Will Quebec legalize euthanasia?

A report from a legislative committee in Quebec reads like a pro-euthanasia manifesto, not an unbiased study.

Date posted: 2012-04-11

Europe battles hate crimes against Christians

Vilification, violence and discrimination are still a reality in the 21st century.

Date posted: 2012-04-11

"Open yourself to the ineffable"

A professor offers important advice to students starting out in life.

Date posted: 2012-04-03

Infanticide Controversy: Why the outrage?

Definitions and concepts are very important in the abortion debate and we must think very deeply about the consequences of those we adopt or reject. I suggest that because personhood is an attributed characteristic and, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of when we believe personhood should be attributed, recognition of another as a person is discretionary, we should not use this concept to decide what respect for unborn or, for that matter, born children requires. Rather, the fact that they are living human beings should be the informing principle that guides us ethically in this regard.

Date posted: 2012-03-11

Gendercide: when choice becomes an issue

Indignation over sex-selection shows that abortion is not just a private matter.

Date posted: 2012-03-02

Tipping the scales towards euthanasia

A widely publicized report published by the Royal Society of Canada presents a thoroughly one-sided view. The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on End-of-Life Decision Making recently released its Report to much media attention. The parts of that report we can all agree on, for instance, the need for much better access to palliative care and pain management for terminally ill patients, was not the media's focus. The panel's recommendation that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) should be legalized was.

Date posted: 2011-12-24

Are babies prizes or gifts?

A Canadian radio station created world-wide controversy recently when it ran a "win a baby" competition.

Date posted: 2011-12-22

Assisted-suicide panel failed to present balanced arguments

In deciding where we stand on this issue, it's important for Canadians to understand the weaknesses of the report. It is not "a careful, balanced review of various pros and cons of decriminalization of physician-assisted death from well-reasoned ethical and legal standpoints" - which is what was required in the panel's mandate. It's an unabashed pro-euthanasia manifesto.

Date posted: 2011-12-20

Deselecting and selecting our children

Down syndrome children are being aborted so fast that funding bodies think that there is little point in looking for a cure. "The geneticists expect Down syndrome to disappear," Costa says, "so why fund treatments?" He fears that new quick non-invasive diagnostic tests will lead almost all women to abort Down syndrome children.

Date posted: 2011-09-22

Too much information?

The PR department of a hospital thought so, but patients are entitled to consider all sides of an issue such as euthanasia.

Date posted: 2011-09-21

The Case Against

Same-sex marriage creates a clash between upholding the human rights of children with respect to their coming-into being and the family structure in which they will be reared, and the claims of homosexual adults who wish to marry a same-sex partner. It forces us, as a society, to choose whether to give priority to children's rights or to homosexual adults' claims. This problem does not arise with opposite-sex marriage, because children's rights and adults claims with respect to marriage are consistent with each other.

Date posted: 2011-08-08

The search for shared ethics

Two topics in the news last week were the U.S. presidential inauguration and the atheists' advertising campaign, "There's probably no God." Looking at these stories together can provide some important insights.

Date posted: 2011-07-23

Transhumanism: the dangers of creating Humanity 2.0

Could you become immortal by downloading your brain onto a computer? Some tech enthusiasts are working on it.

Date posted: 2011-07-23

Storm over baby's gender

With same-sex marriage, we saw the advent of arguments for "genderless parenting" - the idea that all a child needs is love and it's irrelevant whether the loving persons are male or female. Now we have "genderless kids". Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the parents of Jazz (5), Kio (2) and three-month-old Baby Storm want to rear and love each of their children, not as their daughter or son, not as a girl or a boy, but as just their child.

Date posted: 2011-06-10

The tangled web of surrogacy

Should a grandmother agree to bear her daughter-in-law's son? Is the child her son or her grandson?

Date posted: 2011-03-05

Wikileaks, wikileakers, and wiki-ethics

Enough of kneejerk reactions. We need to take a long, hard look at the ethics of releasing government secrets.

Date posted: 2010-12-25

Scholars turn their minds to marriage

A collection of in-depth essays on a beleaguered institution turns out to be a fascinating read.

Date posted: 2010-12-15

Is pain relief a human right?

It is an outrage that patients in developing countries often cannot get relief for extreme pain.

Date posted: 2010-09-24

If we lose our grip on our conviction that humans are special, there will be far-reaching changes in society.

It's true that we need to have greater respect for all life, not just human life. But implementing that respect should not be by way of denigrating respect for humans and human life, which equating humans to animals and to robots does. We are not just another animal in the forest or another robot in the laboratory and promoting the idea that we are is, indeed, a very dangerous one.

Date posted: 2010-09-20

Is existence enough? Don't donor-conceived kids have rights?

For whose benefit are these children created? Their own? Or their parents?

Date posted: 2010-09-17

A question of respect

Wrestling with difficult questions is routine work for ethicists. But some are much more difficult than others. Recently, an editor asked me one that falls in the former category: What did I believe was now the world's most dangerous idea? I replied, "The idea that there is nothing special about being human and, therefore, humans do not deserve 'special respect,' as compared with other animals or even robots."

Date posted: 2010-09-11

The unstoppable expansion of justifications of euthanasia

Will euthanasia and assisted suicide need any moral justification at all if they are ever legalised?

Date posted: 2010-06-01

The Dilemmas of Pre-Natal Testing

Ethical issues arise when not all values can be respected. The values in conflict must then be prioritized and the essence of "doing ethics" is to justify breaching the values that are not respected. So what values are in play in pre-natal genetic screening?

Date posted: 2010-03-29

Are animals persons?

My reasons for rejecting personhood for animals include that it would undermine the idea that humans are "special" relative to other animals and, therefore, deserve "special respect." ...Whether humans are "special" -- sometimes referred to as human exceptionalism or uniqueness -- is a controversial and central question in bioethics, and how we answer it will have a major impact on what we view as ethical or unethical with regard to our treatment of humans and of animals.

Date posted: 2010-03-01

The perils of dishonest science

A controversial article linking autism with vaccinations continues to do immense damage.

Date posted: 2010-02-25

Suffering with dignity

We need to understand what seriously ill or dying people require to feel respected. Harvey Chochinov, a Manitoba psychiatrist who specializes in the care of terminally ill people, and his colleagues have developed a treatment they call "dignity therapy." They identified the elements that contribute to dying people's suffering and designed interventions to counteract these elements. Hope, for instance, is very important in reducing suffering. It requires having a sense of connection to the future. We can give people "mini-hopes" - things to look forward to - even when a long-term future is not possible.

Date posted: 2010-02-06

The Puzzle of Human Dignity

Both sides of the euthanasia debate claim to be advancing the cause of human dignity. Whom should we believe?

Date posted: 2009-11-29

The euthanasia debate resurfaces

There are deeply-rooted cultural reasons why the Western world returns again and again to euthanasia as a solution to the problems of suffering and death.

Date posted: 2009-10-31

Do genetic ties matter?

Should adopted children have the right to be connected in some way to their biological parents?

Date posted: 2009-10-31

Doctors should kill the pain, not the patient

Euthanasia is back in the news with the Quebec College of Physicians "tentatively proposing" legalized euthanasia. The college says that it could be seen "as part of appropriate care in certain particular circumstances." An Ottawa Citizen editorial interprets this to say: "Terminally ill patients sometimes require increased dosages of painkillers to alleviate their pain although that can prove fatal. It certainly happens across the country that terminally ill patients are sometimes quietly given more painkillers despite the risk that they could die as a result. Many people would conclude that is the most humane course of action." We can all endorse the last sentence: People in pain have a right to fully adequate pain- relief treatment. But that does not entail endorsing euthanasia, as pro-euthanasia advocates propose.

Date posted: 2009-09-16

Brave New Babies

Knowing who our close biological relatives are and relating to them is central to how we form our human identity, relate to others and the world, and find meaning in life. Children - and their descendants - who don't know their genetic origins cannot sense themselves as embedded in a web of people, past, present and future, through whom they can trace the thread of life's passage down the generations to them. As far as we know, humans are the only animals who experience genetic relationships as integral to their sense of themselves.

Date posted: 2009-07-18

Respect for Conscience Must Be a Social Value

Michael Cook reports that new legislation in Victoria, Australia, "decriminalises abortion and forces doctors with a conscientious objection to refer a woman to a doctor who will do an abortion. In the event of an 'emergency' abortion . . . regardless of their moral qualms, doctors must do [an abortion] themselves. Victorian nurses will be in an even worse predicament. They must participate in an abortion if ordered by their boss." The same scenario, in a somewhat softer version, is being played out in the United States and Canada. Here, codes of professional conduct or regulations, rather than legislation, are being proposed to limit freedom of conscience rights with respect to abortion.

Date posted: 2009-06-19

The Role of Death

Euthanasia and assisted suicide involve extinguishing human life. Research shows that humans have a basic instinct against killing other humans, which might be a source of the widely shared moral intuition that it's wrong to do so. People who oppose euthanasia and assisted-suicide believe these interventions are inherently wrong - they can't be morally justified, and that even compassionate motives do not make them ethically acceptable - the ends do not justify the means.

Date posted: 2009-06-03

Do apes have ethics?

Some deep thinkers say that orangutan has ethics, but that they are less developed than ours. Some argue that human ethics are simply a product of evolution, but this ethicist disagrees.

Date posted: 2008-11-30

Respect for conscience must be a social value

Michael Cook reports that new legislation in Victoria, Australia, "decriminalises abortion and forces doctors with a conscientious objection to refer a woman to a doctor who will do an abortion. In the event of an 'emergency' abortion … regardless of their moral qualms, doctors must do [an abortion] themselves. Victorian nurses will be in an even worse predicament. They must participate in an abortion if ordered by their boss."

Date posted: 2008-10-17

Denying doctors free conscience unconscionable

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has issued a draft policy entitled "Physicians and the Ontario Human Rights Code." It deals with physicians' obligations with respect to engaging in medical acts to which they may have a conscientious objection and referring patients for such procedures.

Date posted: 2008-09-18

No one to vote for

Values always matter in politics. In representative democracies such as Canada, we vote for people who we believe share our values. But what if, when the rubber hits the road, our MPs act contrary to our -- and what we thought were their -- values on an issue we think is of primary importance? And what if they do that in order to get an "embarrassing issue" off the political agenda and placate a vocal minority prior to an election call?

Date posted: 2008-09-12

Truth and spectacle

We are right to be angry about the Chinese deception during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games because it represented a breach of trust.

Date posted: 2008-08-24

Speaking to a secular age

The Power of Language: Speaking to a Secular Age. It's possible to argue that the greatest advance in civilization is the change from fighting with weapons to fighting with words, and the most important of those word battles is in formulating our collective values, our "shared ethics". We are currently engaged in a major reassessment - which sometimes manifests as powerful cultural conflict - of what those values and ethics should be.

Date posted: 2008-08-02

Correctly squelched

In 2006 I accepted an invitation to receive an honorary doctor of science degree from Ryerson University in Toronto. When that was announced a powerful storm of protest erupted from the activist gay community and their supporters across Canada, demanding that, because of my views on same-sex marriage the University withdraw its offer of the degree. That, in turn, generated an even bigger media storm across Canada, in defence of freedom of speech.

Date posted: 2008-08-01

Ways of knowing

The search for meaning and the desire to belong to something larger than ourselves -- the longing for transcendence -- is of the essence of being human. And humans have also always searched for morality.

Date posted: 2007-08-23

Why are they throwing brickbats at God?

A campaign by eminent atheist Richard Dawkins to discredit religion makes little sense, says a Canadian ethicist. Richard Dawkins has done more than all religious people together to put God on the current public agenda. He is on a highly publicised, international campaign to convince the world that "religion is the root of all evil". I think he's seriously misguided, at best, and that his campaign is dangerous. Here are just a few of the reasons I think that.

Date posted: 2007-06-01

Pain and suffering: marital malpractice?

One approach in ethics that can be helpful is to look for analogous examples which may not, at first, be obvious analogies. Comparing divorce cases to medical malpractice ones provides insights that can assist us in better understanding the former.

Date posted: 2006-07-01

Feat first isn't the ideal attitude for climbers

Helping out fellow mountaineers must take precedence over any determination to reach the top. In ethics we sometimes speak of "the ethical yuk factor". We hear about a situation that raises ethical issues and our instantaneous reaction is to say "Yuk!" That is our moral intuition speaking. Usually it takes us some time to work out, through using our reason, why we said "Yuk!"

Date posted: 2006-05-30

The Role of Trust and Truth in the Marketplace

A month ago, I received a call from a telemarketer selling the Primus residential telephone package. He persuaded me to change from Bell to Primus. I know, one should stick with the devil one knows, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" and so on.

Date posted: 2005-09-12

Jillian's choice

It was a harrowing account. An Australian woman couldn't hang on to both her small boys in the tsunami, so she let go of one. They all survived, but the story didn't end there. Her decision was criticized and condemned. What ethics should guide the media in deciding which stories they report and how they report them? Should they report a mother's agonizing decision to let her child go when that could have resulted in his death?

Date posted: 2005-01-08

Ethics and the art of Argument: A Response to Maurice Charland and Political Correctness

The way a debate is structured and limiting the questions that are allowed to be asked can have major impact on the outcome of the debate. There is a major difference between using emotion to influence how other people view the arguments in a debate and using emotion to shut down the debate and prevent the arguments from being examined. The former is an ethically valid strategy, the latter, in my opinion, is not.

Date posted: 2004-08-15

Stifling debate on gay marriage: Political correctness is used to eliminate dissent

Many people are surprised to find that in debating same-sex marriage the format is often not neutral and political correctness is used to shut down debate and eliminate dissent. That is not happening by chance; it is part of an intentional strategy to promote acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Date posted: 2004-08-01

The Ethical Dilemma of HIV Infected Surgeons

This case provides a good example, in practice, of the need for good facts in order to do good ethics. It also shows that we must ask very detailed and precise questions in trying to decide what is ethical and what is not and that can change depending on all the circumstances.

Date posted: 2004-02-15

Faith and politics: uneasy mix

Marriage is both a civil and religious institution and it cannot be changed in its civil aspects without affecting its religious elements. That means that religions have a valid voice in influencing the decision, especially when the change goes to the inherent nature of marriage. It is no answer simply to say, as the proposed federal legislation does, that no religion will be forced to conduct marriages that offend the tenets of its faith.

Date posted: 2003-08-08

War to the Rescue?

The impact, once again, of our choice of language on how we see the ethics of what we do and, as well, the impact of visual images on how we see the ethics of what we have done. In both cases we need to listen carefully to our moral intuition and heed its warnings.

Date posted: 2003-04-24

Sex, Death and Ethics

How do we go about deciding what is ethical and what is not? Does the context change the ethics? Is what is ethical different for adults and teenagers? What are the ethics of assisting someone to do something?

Date posted: 2002-01-15

What are the Ethics of Killing Bin Laden?

Once again we return to the importance of our choice of language in "doing ethics", here to dehumanize people in order to feel ethically justified in killing them. We need to be concerned about the impact of doing that on our society's ethics.

Date posted: 2001-11-23

Pink: The Reason Why Barbie Is Not Easy to Trash

In dealing with many of the difficult ethical issues that we are facing in our societies, we need to structure the tension between conflicting views, which we often describe as the black and white poles of a spectrum. In order to do this, we must establish a middle space where we can live comfortably and creatively. But the middle of such a spectrum, is grey, the colour of depression. Not many of us want to live in a grey, depressing middle.

Date posted: 1999-10-02

'Doing ethics in science time' or 'Doing science in ethics time'

A team of my science colleagues at McGill University announced to the world they had cloned three identical goats. The media were in frenzy about the ethics involved.To say the least, we need time to work out the ethical rules that should govern this technology, in particular, to decide whether or not it is inherently wrong to use it on humans and, if so, to pass legislation to ban such use.

Date posted: 1999-04-29

Basic Presumptions and Words Matter

Basic presumptions matter: they set the ethical and legal tone of a society. Canada works from a basic presumption of respect for human rights, including in the immigration context. Therefore, Canada gives people who claim refugee status the chance to prove that they are genuine refugees. This is a response to a tirade by well-known journalist Diane Francis against illegal immigrants, perpetrated through the use of very derogatory, dehumanizing language.

Date posted: 1999-01-30

Dilemmas of a new god

"Dilemmas of a new god". In the last year, the search for ethics seemed to be everywhere. We are used to considering ethics in medicine, but we are now exploring, for example, the ethics of politics, politicians and public policy, ethics in sport, the ethics of public accountability and the ethics of research and research funding.

Date posted: 1997-12-28

Is It Right? The Search For Ethics

In the last year, the search for ethics seems to be everywhere. We are used to considering ethics in medicine, but we are now exploring, for example, the ethics of politics, politicians and public policy; ethics in sport; the ethics of public accountability; and the ethics of research and research funding. The search for ethics can be seen as an end-of-the-20th-century revolution in conscience and consciousness, in the sense of awareness of the need to ask the question, "Is it right?", in a wide variety of contexts. Why has this occurred?

Date posted: 1997-01-15

Why are atheists so passionate about disbelief?

"Why are atheists so passionate about disbelief?". Ms. Kaminer warns that the "advocates of religiosity extol the virtues of moral habits that religion is supposed to instill in us. But we should be equally concerned with the intellectual habits it discourages." This statement seems to reflect the knee-jerk belief that religion and science are antithetical. Are they?

Date posted: 1996-11-16

"The Least Bad Social-Ethical Values Package" Dilemma

The difficulties of 21st century democracy and the democratic deficit. Who do we vote for when no politician or political party stands for all the values we think are important?

Date posted: 0205-05-15