There have been a few moments in my life when I wished that I could speak Czech, which may be the most difficult of the Slavic languages. Today was one of them, as I tried to investigate a storm in a teacup in a Czech bioethics journal.
A senior university lecturer and Czech government adviser, 78-year-old Miroslav Mitloehner, has been sacked from his positions over the views he expressed in Časopis zdravotnického práva a bioetiky (Journal of Medical Law and Bioethics).
Mr Mitloehner’s argument was a familiar one: that children born with a severe disability should be left to die. He explains in the abstract: “It should be possible to abandon the effort to save lives (even when there is a chance of survival) when the malformations of the neonates are so severe that they exclude the future possibility for meaningful and conscious human existence.”
This is not just a common argument; it is effectively legal in the Netherlands and it is a common practice in many other countries.
Unfortunately tact must not be among Mr Mitloehner’s finer qualities for he used a word to describe these children which has been translated as “freaks”. Disability activists exploded and Mr Mitloehner became an unemployed bioethicist. (Here is where fluency in Czech would come in handy: I believe the offending word was “podivín”.)
By some stroke of good fortune, the editors of Časopis zdravotnického práva a bioetiky were able to dissociate themselves from Mr Mitloehner without repudiating his widely accepted ideas. They discovered that he had published the same article in another journal in 1986, sothey have banned him from the journal. They did not apologize for the crude views.
I have learned an important lesson from this imbroglio: language matters in discussing infanticide. If babies are called “freaks”, you will lose your job. If you speak respectfully about killing them, you will (like Peter Singer) get awards from your government.
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