Disability, ethics, philosophy, race

Dick Sobsey and Heidi Janz, based at the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre at the University of Alberta, have undertaken an initiative in disability ethics that aims to explore foundational questions at the intersection of disability and ethics. At their new and still developing (and what is alive that isn’t?) website, they say that

although disability has been a frequent topic of discussion in health ethics, medical ethics, and bioethics, these fields of ethical enquiry have been frequently criticized for failing to adequately incorporate perspectives of people with disabilities, and sometimes for a more fundamental failure to understand disability.

You may be able to think of your favourite examples: mine concern the ways in which many very of the most (otherwise) sophisticated approaches concerned with bioethics and technology simply haven’t thought very deeply about disability at all. Disability just hasn’t been on the bioethics map, much in the way in which race hasn’t been on the map in philosophy as a whole until very recently–such as in the work of Charles Mills and Anthony Appiah. Why is this, do ya’ reckon?

Ron Amundson and Shari Tresky have recently written on this aspect of the relationship between bioethics and disability in a Journal of Medicine and Philosophy article discussing an argument contained in the influential From Chance to Choice (the discussion is summarized here), building on Adrienne Asch’s critique of views of prenatal testing and disability in a number of places. These kinds of issues have been explored in more detail in a special issue of the prestigious philosophy journal Ethics (October 2005, vol. 116), with contributions from Jeff McMahan, Eva Kittay, and Anita Silvers and Leslie Francis, amongst others. On a personal note, the high quality of the articles in this issue of Ethics was instrumental in getting me to think (and read) more thoroughly about topics at the interface of disability and philosophy.

One of the questions Sobsey and Janz are interested in is just what disability ethics would be as a field or subfield within applied ethics. Partly a question of academic haggling, perhaps, but also, taking seriously the kinds of critique that Amundson and Asch have offered, partly something deeper.

Some related works by Adrienne Asch, “Why I Haven’t Changed my Mind about Prenatal Diagnosis: Reflections and Refinements”, in Erik Parens and Adrienne Asch (editors), Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights (Georgetown, 2000); “Disability Equality and Prenatal Testing: Contradictory of Compatible?”, Florida State University Law Review 315 (2003): 318-346.

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