Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Simo Vehmas Part 3

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north.  Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson.  This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog.  Roughly four videos will be featured each week.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

With this video we begin the third part of the presentation by Simo Vehmas (The first part may be found here and the second here).  Simo’s presentation is titled “Preventing Disability: Nordic Perspectives” and it focuses on summarizing past and present attitudes towards eugenic practices in Nordic countries, principally Finland, with special attention paid to attitudes and ideas around eugenic practices of preventing disability.

Part 3

Highlights: the consequences of the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy for doing ethics in Europe, embarrassing statistical analysis of money saved from selective abortion, directed and coercive nature of prenatal genetic testing, strength of ideas of reproductive freedom and autonomy, critical assessment of Finns on “useless” philosophy, secret recipe for arousing passion in Finns.

A transcript follows the cut.


Now, as for bioethics and philosophical bioethics in Finland, first of all, there are gaps in philosophy. The philosophical community, I think it’s safe to say, in all Nordic countries, is very much divided into either you do continental philosophy or you do analytic philosophy. And moral philosophy, which bioethics is seen as part of, is based… is very much done on analytic grounds. And bioethics and applied ethics has a very poor reputation in the philosophical community. It’s considered as bad philosophy usually. It’s not proper philosophy, it’s seen as like people are just saying what they think about it and it’s not… like proper philosophy is a kind of exegetical work where we try to find out what the hell Hegel was saying. (laughter) And part of the reason is that the most well-known bioethicists have started their work on utilitarian grounds or utilitarian premises, or at least utilitarianism has provided the framework for doing applied philosophy, so Peter Singer and John Hares have been kind of the most discussed philosophers and their arguments. I don’t know if you know Mate Hayry and Tolbe Tannsjo, is a Swedish philosopher, quite well-known in Europe. And all these guys are considered as utilitarians and utilitarianism is often seen as an intellectually kind of cheap theory. And Peter Singer especially has a very poor reputation as a philosopher in Finland, he’s not considered as a good philosopher, which I think is partly true and partly it’s just unfair. He’s not as bad as people say he is (laughter).

So, I don’t know whether I should go into these… how much time do I have left? Ok, I’ll just skip this… but in general, the arguments used for preventing impairments and especially preventing the existence of people with impairments is justified on two grounds: either on the grounds of impairment is seen to compromise people’s well-being. So, selective abortion is in the best interest of the future child. So that’s one way to think about it. And the other reason is to avoid burden to the family or to the parents or to society. Now burden to society, no politician in their right mind would say publicly and openly that let’s abort these fetuses to avoid financial burden. A few years ago, ten years ago, it leaked in public that in one hospital or two hospitals, some doctors had collected, made statistical analysis, how much we have saved money with the help of these selective abortions. And of course, it was very embarrassing, because that kind of… it’s not seen as a politically very correct thing to do and of course nobody wanted to have anything to do with that kind of a thing.

As for the disability movement, the disability movement in Finland is politically quite moderate, especially if you compare to England, for instance, where it’s quite aggressive. Disability movement does usually regard selective abortion as expressing a hurtful message, so they appeal to the expressive argument. But, also they really don’t… what is seen as problematic is that these practices and pre-natal genetic testing is that it’s seen as directive and even coercive. As Dick said, that the information provided is one-sided or even biased. But people don’t really want to prohibit the chance for tests or selective abortion. So the ideas of reproductive freedom and autonomy are seen as invaluable principles. And the disability movement in Finland has kind of an attitude toward the scientific community that they respect the scientific community and what they have told me is that “it’s quite ok for you to do whatever you want to do and write incomprehensible philosophical analysis of the meaning of the concept of disability, for instance, we don’t care, that’s fine, but occasionally, you might want to consider doing something that is actually of use.” And I think that’s a fair attitude (laughter) and I can accept that. So, in general we are, Fins are not very passionate people, we are quite even-tempered as it was stated in… unless when we get drunk and that’s quite often (laughter). So, there’s not a lot of hassle about this. So I suppose that’s pretty much all that’s going on there. (laughter)


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