January 5, 2012 § 13 Comments
Last October I wrote an essay about the decision of the European Court of Justice to deny a patent to the German neuroscientist Oliver Brüstle who had developed a method for turning human embryonic stem cells into neurons which could then be transplanted into patients with diseases such as Parkinson’s. The Court had decided that no patent could be valid on a process that involved the destruction of an embryo; such a patent was subversive of ‘human dignity’ and hence ’immoral’ and contrary to ‘public order’. I was critical of the Court’s decision, and equally so of Greenpeace, the organization that had brought the case before the Court:
If the court judgment is difficult to fathom, the attitude of Greenpeace is even more so. So hostile has the organization become to ‘big science’ that it is happy to line up with some of the most reactionary and obnoxious groups in Europe and jeopardize vital medical research… It is about time we stopped indulging theologians and Luddites in the absurd myth that they occupy the moral high ground. They don’t. They are using moral norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the practical alleviation of human suffering.
A version of that post was published in the Swedish newspaper Götesborg-Posten. Greenpeace took umbrage at my criticism of the organisation, and its Swedish campaign director Patrik Eriksson wrote a reply, to which I responded. I am publishing here Eriksson’s reply to my original essay (translated into English) together with my response. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 2, 2011 § 22 Comments
I gave a talk on Wednesday night to the Studienbibliothek in Hamburg. Entitled ‘Left, Right and Islamism’ the talk explored the ways in which the responses of both left and right to Islamism have betrayed of basic principles of freedom and liberty. One of the key themes in the discussion afterwards was about how the liberal fear of giving offence has helped created the space for Islamists to take offence. The more that we worry that people will be offended by a book or a play or a cartoon or an idea or a thought, the more we give licence for people to be so offended, and the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended.
It is not just Islamists who live by outrage. Returning to Britain, I discover in the three days I’ve been away three incidents that perfectly illustrate how everyone now wants to feel offended – or rather how the authorities, from the police to trade union bureaucrats, seem to want everyone to feel offended. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 22, 2011 § 5 Comments
Court rulings on scientific patents are usually arcane and boring and of interest only to specialists. Not so this week. On Monday, the European Court of Justice made a landmark ruling banning any patents on scientific techniques that involve embryonic stem cells. It is a ruling that could endanger research into new therapies for incurable and life-threatening diseases and one that defies basic tenets of logic, morality and justice.
The case began in the 1990s when German neurobiologist Oliver Brüstle developed a method for turning human embryonic stem cells into neurons. The cells of an adult human are highly specialised – under normal circumstances a liver cell will always stay a liver cell, and a skin cell can never become anything else. Stem cells, however, can develop into any kind of tissue – liver, skin, nerve, heart. The best source of such stem cells are tiny embryos, a few days old, called blastocysts. Researchers hope that by growing specific tissue from these cells, it may be possible to repair damaged organs in patients suffering from conditions such as dementia or blindness. Because such tissue can be grown using the patients’ own DNA, so problems of tissue rejection, so often the bane of transplants, can be sidestepped. Professor Brüstle himself was on the verge of transplanting lab-grown brain tissue into patients with Parkinson’s disease.
In 1997, Brüstle obtained a patent for his technique of creating neurons. The environmental group Greenpeace challenged that patent in court. Brüstle’s work, it claimed, was ‘contrary to public order’ because embryos had been destroyed to gather the stem cells. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 17, 2011 § 9 Comments
The sight of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man so rich that he wears $7000 dollar suits, a man so powerful that he could make or break countries with a single policy, being forced to sit in a New York courtroom, handcuffed, unshaven, disheveled and mute has inevitably unleashed a torrent of comment on both sides of the Atlantic.
There has, of course, been a large element of schadenfreude in the response, malicious glee at seeing a powerful figure cut down to size. Anglo-American commentators especially have relished the fall of a haughty, Gallic champagne socialist seemingly unable to keep his pants up. There has also been, in some circles, a rush to convict DSK before a shred of evidence has been laid before a court.
There has also, however, been genuine shock and, particularly in France, bewilderment, even outrage, at the treatment meted out to DSK. ‘Nothing’, the French philosopher, and leading public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Levy wrote, ‘permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
April 11, 2011 § 11 Comments
As the French ban on the burqa comes into force today, here is part of an essay I wrote last year, when the French debate first kicked off, for the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten.
THERE IS CERTAINLY SOMETHING MEDIEVAL ABOUT THE BURQA AND THE NIQAB. The idea that in the 21st century women should be hidden from view for reasons of modesty or religious belief is both troubling and astonishing. Yet, there is also something surreal about the way that this piece of cloth has been turned into a battleground for Western values and about the idea that the burqa poses some kind of existential threat to the West.
The campaign against the burqa is particularly puzzling when in reality so few women choose to wear it. The sight of a burqa in Paris or Brussels is almost as rare as a glimpse of a bikini in Riyadh or Karachi. France has a Muslim population of 5 million. Its government estimates that fewer than 2000 women wear a niqab or burqa. (The original survey, conducted by DCRI, the French secret service, came up with the oddly precise figure of 367; that was so low that the Interior Ministry told the DCRI to count again.) In Holland some 500 women in a Muslim population of one million do so, in Denmark the estimate is fewer than 200 out of 170,000 Muslims. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 3, 2011 Comments Off
‘Vengeance is simply justice with bad pr’. So claimed melanie Phillips on The Moral Maze last night, in a programme that began as a discussion of the possibilities of penal redemption and ended as a debate on the role of vengeance in the judicial system. It was a great line (Phillips was defending another panelist Anne McElvoy who had argued for the importance of vengeance to justice). And it was, of course, partly tongue in cheek. But it also summed up much of what is wrong with the contemporary debate about justice. « Read the rest of this entry »