lunes, 23 de abril de 2018

BioEdge: ‘Asperger syndrome’ now has a different meaning

BioEdge: ‘Asperger syndrome’ now has a different meaning
‘Asperger syndrome’ now has a different meaning
Experience shows that the practice of naming diseases and syndromes after physicians may carry an ethical burden. In recent years a number of eminent Germans have been uncovered as Nazis or Nazi sympathisers. Reiter's syndrome, for example, is named after Hans Reiter (1881- 1969) who was tried at Nuremberg and found guilty of conducting typhoid experiments that killed hundreds of prisoners in concentration camps. Friedrich Wegener (1907-1990), whose name persists in Wegener's granulomatosis, was involved in selecting Jews from the Lodz ghetto for extermination at Auschwitz.
And now the finger has pointed at Hans Asperger, the Austrian paediatrician who first described a form of autism. For many years, Asperger was regarded as a doctor who defended “misfits” from the Nazis at great personal risk.
However, an historical essay in the journal BMC Molecular Autism accuses Asperger of collaborating with Nazi doctors in some of their worst excesses. Asperger never joined the Nazi party and as an active Catholic his loyalty to the regime was initially suspect. However, after the 1938 Anschluss, he gradually became more involved in some of the Nazi programs and was eventually viewed as “politically irreproachable”. He appears to have helped select victims for a child-euthanasia program as a member of a commission which screened youngsters with mental disabilities. He embraced Hitler’s ideas on race hygiene and eugenics. One of his speeches given shortly after the Anschluss, for example, is a clear endorsement of Nazi ideology:
The central idea of the new Reich—that the whole is more than its parts, and that the Volk is more important than the individual—had to bring about fundamental changes in our whole attitude, since this regards the nation’s most precious asset, its health.
There is no smoking gun in the evidence marshalled against Asperger to convict him of crimes like the atrocities of Auschwitz, but he was comfortable with Nazi policies. The essay is a portrait of a talented doctor, like many of his contemporaries, who “managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities.” Perhaps this gives a radically new meaning to "Asperger syndrome".
Should the condition be renamed? Some say Yes. “We should stop saying ‘Asperger’,” says historian Edith Sheffer. “It’s one way to honour the children killed in his name as well as those still labeled with it.”
“Personhood” is a concept that is of great relevance to a range of bioethics debates. These include embryo research, abortion, the withdrawal and withholding of treatment, and euthanasia. Ironically, conservative bioethicists argue for a liberal definition of personhood, while liberal bioethicists tend to defend a more restrictive account of who classifies as a person. The former suggest that personhood pertains to a radical capacity for conscious activity, and all human beings, regardless of whether they have actualised this capacity or not, are persons.
The latter argue that the unborn and the radically incapacitated do not have a capacity for conscious self-awareness, and do not count as persons.
Yet the way in which we define personhood has a relevance that goes beyond debates about human beings. It also has significant bearing on debates about animal rights.
Some bioethicists argue that certain non-human animals, such as chimpanzees, should be recognised as “persons”. NYU animal studies professor Jeff Sebo, for example, says that chimps have many of the traits – self-recognition, use of language, friendships and the pursuit of goals – that we take to be constitutive of personhood. As such, we should include them in our definition of personhood. Sebo has championed a protracted legal campaign in New York State to have two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, recognised as persons.
Here’s what Sebo had to say in a recent New York Times op-ed:
Sometimes when we are overwhelmed by the complexity of an issue, it can help to start by stating a simple truth and going from there. In this case, the simple truth is that Kiko and Tommy are not mere things. Whatever else we say about the nature and limits of moral and legal personhood, we should be willing to say at least that. The only alternative is to continue to accept an arbitrary and exclusionary view about what it takes to merit moral and legal recognition. Kiko and Tommy deserve better than that, and so do the rest of us.
I wonder if these two different debates – the limits of human personhood and the scope of animal personhood – have implications for each other. Perhaps those who defend the rights of the unborn and severely incapacitated humans must also acknowledge the need to afford greater legal recognition to intelligent non-human animals. And perhaps those who advocate for a definition of personhood that includes intelligent animals should also include those at the margins of human life.
Deputy Editor

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