Off the narrow path

Res Publica
February 20, 1998

Potential Res Publica readers may wonder whether a journal that describes itself as an "interdisciplinary journal for the philosophical analysis of moral, political, social and legal issues" can deliver high-quality articles across such a wide spectrum. But it does: a single issue provides pieces on subjects as varied as women's right to consume pornography, animal rights, ethics of the human genome project and insurance and the case for a Bill of Rights.

Although the subjects are diverse, many essays share topicality. Emilos A. Christodoulidis and William Finnie's article, which highlights the problems of not having a Bill of Rights to protect civil liberties, makes a forceful case for the legislation that has been proposed to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. Similarly, Bradley Miller's critique of Ronald Dworkin's position on euthanasia is timely reading in the wake of the recent spate of doctors' admissions that they have helped patients to die.

Clare McDiarmid, in her essay "A feminist perspective on children who kill", describes the "double vilification" of women and children who are charged with serious offences, eerily presaging the media's fascination with the conviction and subsequent release of British au pair Louise Woodward. It demolishes the myth that "everyone is treated alike by neutral laws". Indeed, the transatlantic protests over the conviction of Woodward and the backlash against her release showed society's binary approach, with Woodward alternately presented by the media as an innocent, exploited child victim and a calculating child murderer.

Res Publica promotes a broader analysis of subjects that are more commonly approached within a discrete academic discipline. In "What's blood got to do with it?", David Archard provides a refreshing analysis examining rights of access to reproductive technologies. He approaches this well-trodden subject from a historical and political standpoint, deconstructing the significance of the family norm to argue that the right to found a family might amount to more than a right of non-interference and demands positive duties of assistance to those unable to procreate "naturally".

Philosopher David Lamb, in "Autonomy and the refusal of life-prolonging therapy", highlights some of the devastating results when idealised models of autonomy borrowed from political discourse are applied to health care decisions. In era when rationing is still largely implicit and quality-of-life decisions mask inherent value judgements about resources, Lamb's suggestion that "the eminence of autonomy has less to do with genuine concern for the liberty of the patient than with the need to restrain costs" is pertinent. He argues that a real understanding of autonomy embraces not just the right to refuse treatment, but the opportunity to receive assistance and consider alternatives. A hollow concept of autonomy could all too easily disadvantage impoverished groups, with a right to death a politically attractive solution to an under-funded health service.

If there is a criticism of this journal, it is that it is too broad in scope. It may have a hard job identifying an appropriate audience. Many of the articles are of general interest to lawyers or social philosophers, but one suspects that most readers would find only one or two articles of relevance. Nonetheless, the journal is modestly priced, and it would seem a worthy addition to institutions, if less attractive to individual subscribers.

Julie Stone is a lecturer in health care ethics and law, Medical School, University of Birmingham.

Res Publica: A Journal of Legal and Social Philosophy

Author - Bob Brecher
Editor - Bob Brecher
ISBN - ISSN 1356 4765
Publisher - Deborah Charles Publications
Price - £20.00

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