This entry describes prudential and epistemic frameworks for the justification of censorship and explores their utility in light of prominent controversies in global bioethics.
Censorship limits the freedom to communicate ideas, information, or opinions, typically on the grounds that, in so doing, some harm will be prevented. In this entry, the justification for censorship is discussed with reference to four case studies of global significance in Bioethics: the redaction of potentially harmful information in scientific publications; the questioning of health claims made by proponents of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM); the veto of direct to consumer advertising of prescription medicines (DTCA); and the withholding of medical information by doctors to their patients under the doctrine of “therapeutic privilege.”
In each instance, censorship has either been proposed or enacted somewhere on the globe and generated great controversy. Competing claims are evaluated with a theoretical framework that advances both prudential and epistemic benchmarks for limiting communication. It is concluded that wide debate and deliberation guided by both standards is key to achieving justified decisions about the utility and warrant for censorship.
Examples of Censorship in Global Bioethics
In 2011, Dutch researchers developed a strain of the A/H5N1 “Avian Flu” virus that could undergo airborne transmission between ferrets (Herfst et al. 2012). Their finding was significant in that airborne transmission of the modified virus was also likely to be possible between humans. The virus, which kills up to 60 % of people who contract it, had previously only infected people in contact with the saliva, blood, or faeces of infected birds, usually chickens. Until the Dutch research, it was thought that human-to-human transmission of the A/H5N1 virus posed little threat.
The researchers submitted their findings to the prestigious journal Science. But the journal’s editors were concerned that, should the methods for producing the virus fall into the hands of terrorists or other malevolent individuals, any benefits of publication might be negated by the risks to public health. So the editors forwarded the manuscript to the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). The NSABB promptly requested that the researchers redact the methods section from their paper.
In response, and amid global controversy, the researchers imposed a voluntary moratorium on their work so the issue could be debated. In June 2012, more than a year later, and after a debate that generated intense media interest, the researchers lifted their moratorium and the paper was published in its entirety.
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