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Science Media Centre: Bioethics Informs Debate – Gareth Jones


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Bioethicists challenge boundaries society takes for granted – but must “tread carefully”, writes a leading bioethics expert.

The University of Otago’s  Prof Gareth Jones found himself in embroiled in debate earlier this month when he published the New Zealand Medical Journal article, ‘Testing times: do new prenatal tests signal the end of Down syndrome?’ The interest group Saving Downs took exception to the content of the article, calling for Prof Jones’ resignation.

Now, in an op-ed in the Otago Daily Times, Prof Jones responds to the criticism.

An excerpt (read in full here):

Bioethics confronting but informs debates

Gareth Jones wonders how society can debate issues when strongly held views pull in mutually exclusive directions. It’s especially challenging on topics like abortion, reproductive technologies, eugenics and euthanasia, he says.

Recently, I have been publicly criticised because of a paper that appeared in the New Zealand Medical Journal of which I was a co-author.

Under the title ”Testing times: do new prenatal tests signal the end of Down syndrome?” it sought to assess the impact of the new blood tests for detecting Down syndrome in early pregnancy on the Down syndrome community and their families. In writing this piece, my co-author and I were very aware of the tentative ground we were treading, but writing from a bioethics perspective we concluded that public discussion of this very sensitive area was an important contribution to public debate within New Zealand. Neither of us saw it as our role to advocate for any particular position.

We consider society should discuss these issues widely and in an informed manner, at as many levels as possible. And we certainly think families who may be involved directly should be part of these discussions and should have a voice in whatever decisions are made by the appropriate decision-making bodies within society.

It is in this spirit that I have sympathy with organisations that have a stake in these decisions, since they and their families are directly affected by one or other genetic or chromosomal conditions. The one proviso is that any discussions must be held in as open a way as possible, allowing for a variety of perspectives, because that is the reality of a diverse society.

The world of bioethics can sometimes be challenging, especially for those who write on contentious issues where entrenched views are frequently encountered. This is not to criticise the entrenched views because they are usually held for very good reasons and their causes are worthy ones.

The difficulty for bioethicists or anyone in applied ethics is they write as academics, who are engaged in analysing and critiquing positions within society. A distinction always has to be made between the writer’s personal perspective and the contribution he or she is making to public debate. The writers’ own views generally do not feature.

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