Academic Freedom in German-speaking Countries

- Alex Mauron, Ph.D.

Fondation Louis-Jeantet de Medecine, P.O. Box 277, CH-1211 Geneva 17, Switzerland

Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 1 (1991), 56, 57.

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, Director of the Center for Human bioethics at Monash University, who had been invited to give a seminar at the University of Zurich on May 24th, was prevented from speaking by demonstrators. He was shouted down because of his views on euthanasia of severely handicapped neonates. Singer had also been invited to a closed session with invited participants, which did take place uneventfully and allowed a serious scholarly discussion about his views.

This incident comes after a series of similar ones in Germany and Austria, where lectures by Singer and Helga Kuhse were cancelled after political interference and threats of disruption. It also comes in the wake of the cancellation in 1990 of the annual congress of the European Society for Philosophy of Medicine and Health Care, planned to take place in Bochum (Germany). This meeting had to be held instead in Maastricht (Netherlands), after threats from radical groups who expressed the view that bioethics was basically a conspiracy to develop an "acceptance strategy" towards genetic manipulation and eugenics. This string of incidents raises concerns about the status of academic freedom in the German-speaking lands when it comes to bioethical topics.

A translation of the press statement made by the Swiss Society of Biomedical Ethics in response to the cancellation of a talk by Prof. Peter Singer is:

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, Director of the Center for Human bioethics at Monash University, was invited to give a lecture at the University of Zurich on May 24th. The event was made impossible by violent demonstrators, who expressed opposition not only to his theses, but to the fact that they were discussed publicly (see Tagesanzeiger, May 29, 1991). On the next day, a closed colloquium organised by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Zurich took place uneventfully and allowed about twenty persons to start a discussion with Professor Singer. This dialogue was deemed useful and constructive by all participants.

The Committee of the Swiss Society for Biomedical Ethics expresses dismay at the grave breach of freedom of speech and academic freedom suffered by Professor Singer. His views on "animal liberation" and euthanasia of severely handicapped neonates are controversial and rightly so. A majority of Swiss ethicists do not accept them. Nevertheless, to deal with a rationally argued position with censorship and the prevention of free speech can never be acceptable. For contentious philosophical opinions too, the possibility of rational dialogue must be upheld.

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