Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 22, 2024

It’s been a turbulent few weeks at Hopkins. Parties being shut down, sexual assaults and even the death of a student. These problems present challenging questions. I’m here to offer my (hopefully solicited) opinions on these issues, and whatever else the readers of The News-Letter choose to ask me about.

In this column I will attempt to answer ethical questions that you, the readers, email me. You can direct your questions to jhuethics@gmail.com. I am in no way an expert on ethics, but I enjoy thinking and talking about it, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions in a reasonable and straightforward manner.

One of the favorite tactics of anti-abortion protesters is to use shock posters with disgusting photos of aborted fetuses. I have a friend who feels physically sick whenever she sees them — It ruins the rest of her day. Does she have a right to not be confronted by these images, or is she denying them their free speech?

To start off, the organization is within its legal rights to show these pictures. The Supreme Court has ruled on very similar situations in favor of the protesters, and in general, free speech of all forms has been strictly supported by the current supreme court. The more interesting question here is whether or not these protesters are acting in an ethical manner.

The issue boils down to a conflict of two rights (not necessarily legal). On one hand, the protesters have the right to raise awareness about an issue that they view as important. On the other hand, your friend has the “right” to go about her day without being forced to view images that she finds disgusting. Both of these are important rights in a functioning society, but I think that the right to bring attention to important issues trumps your friend’s right not to be offended.

The protesters are behaving ethically, and this is clear if you look at it from their perspective. Imagine that these protesters are not protesting abortion but rather the Rwandan Genocide. As part of their protest of the genocide, these protesters show pictures of Tutsis who have been beheaded, raped or otherwise brutalized. Would this be unethical? Most people would agree that it is not, since the need to bring attention to this issue trumps the desire to not be offended on a day-to-day basis. While pro-choice advocates would obviously not draw analogies between abortion and the Rwandan Genocide, whether or not you consider them similar is irrelevant to the ethics of the abortion protesters.

The right to bring attention to issues trumps the desire to go through our day without being confronted by difficult and explicit pictures of these issues. The protesters are acting ethically when they attempt to draw attention to this debate. Your friend could also look away from the pictures. These protesters are simply trying to persuade people to their side of the issue, in an ethical and legal manner.


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