Row over politician meddling in university positions

A secretary of state has demanded that a PhD student give up his grant because of views he gave to a magazine questioning the value to society of people with Down’s Syndrome.

Secretary of State of the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation Bjørnar Laabak, in a statement on his blog page, demanded that Aksel Braanen Sterri, who is also a well-known journalist, give up his position at the University of Oslo, for which he has a three-year PhD fellowship grant, due to “sympathies with Nazi ideologies” and for being a “promoter of the ‘selective society’”, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK reported.

In an essay article in the Oslo newspaper, Morgenbladet, to which Laabak in his lengthy blog referred, Braanen Sterri explained his views on prenatal screening for Down’s Syndrome under the headline: “A defence of the selective society. Does it matter if we get a society without Down’s Syndrome?”

“It is by no way clear that if Down’s Syndrome should disappear, that our society would have been poorer. If so, why?”, Braanen Sterri asked.

To the news magazine Minerva he gave an interview stating that people having Down’s Syndrome “never could live a full life”.

Laabak said in his blog that this was the starting point of the Nazi programme of euthanasia of physically and mentally challenged people, known as Action T4. “They killed 70,272 people they considered to have no full life… Was Germany a better society after this project?” he asked.

Laabak argued that because of these attitudes Braanen Sterri should give up his position in which he is supported by a grant to write his PhD, investigating “What can or cannot be bought or sold”, at the department of philosophy at the University of Oslo or UiO.

“I am raising the question if UiO should offer people with these attitudes a fellowship position. Maybe a candidate having studied political science can become a professor in the area investigating ’What can or cannot be bought or sold’, but the UiO has the responsibility for those attitudes and values that are the bottom line of those they offer a professorship,” Laabak wrote.

However, the project leader of the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas, Ole Martin Moen, and the rector of the University of Oslo, Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, both said it is unheard of that a politician should interfere with who is going to be recruited for a scientific position, and that the university does not act as a “filter for opinions”.

Against all moral codes

Later, both the Secretary of State Bjørn Haugstad and the minister in the Ministry of Education and Research said the opinions expressed by Braanen Sterri were against all moral codes.

Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen wrote an article in Minerva with the title: “Down’s Syndrome is not an illness”, where he stated that each life has a value in itself.

“It is an extreme and dangerous line of thought if one sees oneself capable of judging what is a full life or not,” Røe Isaksen wrote. “Braanen Sterri is choosing, with his wording in starker terms, a view that is dominant in the societal debate,” Isaksen added.

Braanen Sterri later wrote another article defending his argument, saying: “To the degree that we can chose, any parent has good reason to select away fetuses that have proven positive on Down’s Syndrome. And we as a society have good reasons to give the woman the information as early as possible.”

Down’s Syndrome is a genetic condition that usually causes various levels of intellectual and physical disability. But according to Down Syndrome International, there is a common myth that people with Down’s Syndrome cannot achieve normal life goals.

“With the right support, they can,” Down Syndrome International says. “Most people with Down’s Syndrome learn to walk and talk, and many are now attending mainstream schools, passing exams and living full, semi-independent adult lives.”

Despite this, in some countries where prenatal screening is provided, the termination rates are extremely high. In the United Kingdom, after screening, around 90% of couples choose to terminate, which Down’s Syndrome campaigners believe is because too few members of the public understand that although they have increased risks of certain health conditions, people with Down’s Syndrome can lead full and happy lives.

In recent years there have been examples of young people with Down’s Syndrome succeeding as actors, business owners, fashion models, dancers and others who have set up non-profits, climbed to Everest base camp, or obtained a university or college degree.