The recent bill in Iceland that would make nonmedical infant circumcision for boys a crime reminds me once again how international human rights standards are still ambiguous with regard to balancing the right of the child with the right of the religious parent. The bill, already sponsored by at least a quarter of Iceland’s doctors and more than 1000 nurses and midwives, inevitably met with criticism from religious groups that practice male circumcision. The drafters of the bill denied the suspicion that the legislation is an attack on religious freedom, citing health reasons as its primary motivation. Unsurprisingly, the controversy is framed in terms of whether certain public health mandates for children should trump the religious freedom of parents not to conform to these mandates. In Iceland, the issue is magnified by the extremely small Jewish and Muslim populations in the country – adding charges of xenophobia to the controversy. In this blog post, I will not focus on recounting the history of the debate of male circumcision and international law, but to articulate my general frustration with a discourse like this that takes the right of religious parents to impose religious memberships and beliefs onto their biological children for granted. Why is it so rarely discussed, that the child born into a religious household may have a form of agency not yet recognized by our current legal and ethical discourse? Why should we grant parents the benefit of the doubt that they have “the best interest of their child” in mind when acting as proxies in medical and health matters?
By Aobo Dong
According to Vardit Ravitsky’s paper on “Shifting Landscape of Prenatal Testing,” there exist two competing rationales for prenatal screenings for severe disabling conditions like Down syndrome. The “reproductive-autonomy” rationale justifies screening by invoking a woman’s individual autonomy. In contrast, the “public health rationale” justifies pre-natal screening and termination due to a Down syndrome diagnosis by invoking the costly public health expenditures that must be spent on children born with these disabilities – resembling a utilitarian calculation that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure for society as a whole. According to Ravisky, the public health rationale creates social pressure that incentivizes women and their families to make the decision to terminate. Thus, the public health rationale is heavily pro-termination, while the individual autonomy rationale could lead women to make decisions in either way. What she proposes as a solution is to combat the public health rationale to allow women to make autonomous decisions free of social pressures, and establish a stronger “informed consent” procedure that better informs the implications of pre-natal screenings and Down syndrome so that women could make the best possible decision for themselves. This blog post will shed more light on this issue by invoking Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to human rights.
A central feature of the capabilities approach is “adaptive preference” that measures the relative success in achieving the 10 core capabilities cross nation-states and social classes. Nussbaum is aware of the fact that “individuals vary greatly in their need for resources and in their ability to convert resources into valuable functioning.” Therefore, it is not even adequate to provide an equal amount of educational resources for one student with Down syndrome and another without any learning disability. Nussbaum would argue that the child needs something even more than a formal education, a proposal that could be much more costly than a regular education alone. She would not assume that a student with the condition must have a low self-worth; instead, she would consider the factors in the child’s social environment that may have caused such low self-esteem, and direct resources to improve the child’s own sense of worth and maximize her future potentials in living a fully human life. This is consistent with capability 7B (respect), which stresses their ability to “be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.” Continue reading
The philosopher in me understands that there are universal principles in logic, mathematics, and in basic scientific tenets such as the law of gravity. Be that as it may, the historian in me recognizes that we inherit epistemologies and ways of thinking from those before us, and from our own historical and cultural contexts. Certain ideas dominate the world; and, while some are indeed universal, especially those based on science, the fact remains that a number of other concepts are only seemingly universal. The concepts of personhood, divinity, self, and even society as we tend to understand them today are largely inherited from a Western, Christian worldview. As these ideas have wrestled with philosophical inquiry throughout history, they have either been decoupled from their origins in religious thought, or they have been secularized and rationalized a la Kantian categorical imperatives or the like—and then disseminated in universities, institutions, cultures, and literatures.
On one level, to speak of the Western world as “secular” is, as the philosopher Charles Taylor notes, to say that “belief in God, or in the transcendent in any form, is contested; it is an option among many; it is therefore fragile; for some people in some milieus, it is very difficult, even ‘weird’” (Taylor: 2011, 49). But on another and much deeper level, this very possibility was only ever tenable on account of two major factors: “First, there had to develop a culture that marks a clear division between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural,’ and second, it had to come to seem possible to live entirely within the natural” (Taylor, 50). This was only possible because of a unique philosophical climate that actively sought to dislodge the old form of moral order and social “embeddedness” in an attempt to establish a “purely immanent order.” Taylor’s groundbreaking work, A Secular Age argues that secularism is part of a grand narrative in the West and shows that its historical and cultural foundations are in fact thoroughly Christian and European. He pushes back against Max Weber’s secularization thesis that religion diminishes in the modern world and in the wake of increasing developments in science and technology—and instead gives a different account of what secularism might mean: one that has deep implications for morality, politics, and philosophy.
In 2006, Nobleza Piccardo, a main tobacco company in Argentina, had filed a claimed against the government of the Province of Santa Fe because a law sanctioned by the Provintial Congress completely banned the advertising and promotion of tobacco products in the Province (Santa Fe is one of the main Provinces of Argentina). Nobleza Piccardo argued that those restrictions infringed upon free speech and upon commercial freedom. It also claimed that, under the Argentine National Constitution, the Province is not allowed to pass legislation of that kind because the National Congress had already passed law 23.344, which regulated tobacco advertising (but did not ban it); once National Congress did so, Provintial Congresses cannot further legislate on the issue.
In its October 27 ruling, the Supreme Court held that nothing in the National Constitution provides National Congress with an exclusive power to legislate on health matters. Furthermore, Provintial legislation may complement federal legislation on the matter.
On the free speech and commercial freedom argument, the Court held that there is a tendency in other jurisdictions to restrict or even completely ban tobacco advertising. According to the Court, the restrictions established by the law are justified because they are proportionate to the public health concerns it wants to address; in addition, they follow internationallly accepted standards on the matter.
In his vote, Judge Lorenzetti, President of the Supreme Court, wrote that restricting tobacco advertising does not infringe upon free speech because tobacco advertising is not related to the working of republican and democratic institutions. Thus, Lorenzetti says, it would be wrong to analyze the restrictions established by the provintial law with the strict scrutiny test used in free speech cases. This claim, of course, is very important and will deserve much more discussion by the Supreme Court in future decisions. But the main teaching of the case is that, for the first time, the Supreme Court clearly states that tobacco control measures are a matter of human rights. This is, no doubt, a very important step.