Whose Academic Freedom? (Feminist) Bioethics, MAiD, and the Professionalization of Ableist Exceptionism

Since the last months of 2020, I have written numerous posts about MAiD and Bill C-7 at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY in order to inform its international readership about these events in Canada and to explain the links between the events, the disproportionate influence of bioethics in Canadian philosophy, and the eugenic culture in Canadian philosophy that this sway has produced. Early in 2021, furthermore, I conjoined this public philosophy with the resistance of other disabled academics, activists, and policy researchers across Canada. We have been loud and persistent, determined to demonstrate how neoliberal arguments about informed consent, personal autonomy, and quality of life with respect to medically assisted suicide for disabled people, and only disabled people, obscure and reinforce the apparatuses of disability, ableism, racism, colonialism, and classism that produced these arguments in the first place.

My blogposts about Bill C-7, in particular, and MAiD, more generally, have met with condescension and derision from bioethicists such as Udo Schüklenk and the editors of The International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (IJFAB, for short), the latter of whom evidently think that bioethics journals should enjoy liberties that are not afforded to philosophy blogs. In a set of hostile interventions, that is, the IJFAB editors variously accused me of violating their academic freedom because, in one blogpost in early 2021, I wrote that the journal had implicitly promoted medically assisted suicide by publishing an invited article on the topic authored by Jocelyn Downie, the most prominent proponent of MAiD in Canada.

First, three of the IJFAB editors (one of whom identifies as a disability bioethicist) badgered me on a Facebook post that I shared and persistently demanded that I remove the blogpost or retract the remarks that I had made about the journal. In the course of doing so, the editors inadvertently revealed the rudimentary nature of their familiarity with arguments advanced to oppose MAiD legislation in the Canadian context in particular and the extent to which their views about academic freedom were misconstrued; relied on (neo)liberal and juridical assumptions about power, discourse, and language; and evinced an example of “ableist exceptionism” (Tremain 2017, 28). Ableist exceptionism is the term that I have coined to refer to the phenomenon whereby disability is uniquely excluded from the production and application of certain values, beliefs, principles, and actions that circulate in political consciousness (33).

In the comments on my Facebook post, that is, the editors jointly and separately invoked the “use-mention distinction” to justify their claims that the publication of Downie’s invited article in a special issue of IJFAB did not signal endorsement of Downie’s position on MAiD. When, in response to their invocation of this distinction, I repeatedly asked–jointly and separately–these journal editors if they would publish an article by Kathleen Stock on trans women, they collectively and individually evaded the question. In other words, the ableist exceptionism and value-laden character of their appeals to the use-mention distinction seemed to be wholly unrecognizable to these journal editors or at least went entirely unacknowledged.

Thus, I pointed out to them that (following Foucault and Derrida) any description was a prescription for the formulation of a given object, subject, and state of affairs to which it is claimed to innocently refer. As the social and political implications and ramifications of a white person’s “mention” of the N-word demonstrate, appeals to the allegedly value-neutral use-mention distinction should not be regarded as uncontestably illuminating, compelling, or disinterested insofar as the distinction can reinforce the status quo and constitute justification for harmful discursive practices, reproducing asymmetrical relations of power and extending them in additional ways.

Indeed, when it became evident that I tacitly refused to comply with the demands of the IJFAB editors to delete the blogpost in question, one of the editors (Scully 2021) wrote a post on IJFAB’s own blog entitled, “MAiD and IJFAB: Why Bioethical Discourse is Not Endorsement.” The blogpost invoked the fiction of neutrality that the journal allegedly upholds, pointing out as evidence of this supposedly neutral stance that more than a decade earlier the journal had published an article that contested medically assisted suicide. In addition, the IJFAB blogpost accused me of failing to respect both the journal’s publishing policy and academic freedom insofar as I refused to retract my indisputably publishable remarks.

Subsequently, the IJFAB editors circulated a Call for Expressions of Interest (CEI) that solicited submissions to an IJFAB special issue on academic freedom which linked to the BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY post in question, explicitly reprimanded me, charged that I had attacked the journal, and referred to my blogpost as the motivation for the special issue. Rather tellingly, furthermore, IJFAB, in issuing this CEI, followed the example of the right-wing libertarian Journal of Controversial Ideas by advising prospective authors that, for the purposes of the special issue on academic freedom, they would be permitted to publish their putatively transgressive ideas anonymously to avoid the sort of recrimination that I had displayed.

In short, the IJFAB editors seem both confused about the position on academic freedom that they have endorsed and notably uninformed about the politically perspicacious arguments that disabled Canadians (and other disabled people) advance in opposition to MAiD. That these (non-Canadian) feminist bioethicists would harass a Canadian disabled feminist philosopher of disability for her work on the increasing expansion and normalization of medically assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada and, in addition, charge that her claims in this regard infringe upon their academic freedom may seem surprising, especially given the grievous underrepresentation of disabled philosophers and disabled philosophers of disability in particular in Canadian philosophy and the profession of philosophy more generally; yet, the charge is unsurprising given the strategic purpose that the execution of this exclusion plays in the growing influence of bioethics (including feminist bioethics).

Recall that the professional norms of bioethics induce bioethicists to give a certain pride of place both to each other as members of the bioethics profession and to the institutional, political, and social status and prestige of the profession itself. Thus, the unwillingness of feminist and disability bioethicists to criticize the role of Downie and Schüklenk (among others) in the expansion of medically assisted suicide and euthanasia and, indeed, their implicit endorsement and promotion of Downie’s and Schüklenk’s respective claims in this regard, are surely due in part to the weight of these professional norms and the complicity amongst bioethicists that these norms induce.

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