The difference that difference makes: bioethics and the challenge of "disability"

J Med Philos. 2004 Dec;29(6):697-716. doi: 10.1080/03605310490882975.


Two rival paradigms permeate bioethics. One generally favors eugenics, euthanasia, assisted suicide and other methods for those with severely restricting physical and cognitive attributes. The other typically opposes these and favors instead ample support for "persons of difference" and their caring families or loved ones. In an attempt to understand the relation between these two paradigms, this article analyzes a publicly reported debate between proponents of both paradigms, bioethicist Peter Singer and lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson. At issue, the article concludes, are two distinct axiomatic sets of values resulting in not simply different styles of rhetoric but different vocabularies, in effect two different languages of ethics.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Disabled Persons*
  • Eugenics
  • Euthanasia / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Futility / ethics
  • Medical Futility / psychology*
  • Personhood*