Jacqueline Laing

Jacqueline Laing is a legal philosopher and academic, specializing in jurisprudence, or the philosophy of law, criminal law and applied ethics. She has taught at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, King's College, London and at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and Melbourne University. She is a barrister of the High Court of Australia and a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales.


Born in Scotland and educated in Calcutta, India, and Canberra, Australia, she took degrees in philosophy and law at the Australian National University, clerked to a judge in Canberra and won a Commonwealth scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, where she undertook a doctorate on the concept of intention in the law of homicide under the direction of John Finnis.


Laing’s interests lie in the field of jurisprudence and applied ethics. Commenting on contemporary moral conundrums she applies natural law thinking[1] to questions about the family, life and death,[2] and the limits of legal regulation. On the subject of voluntary euthanasia she argues that institutionalizing medically assisted death erodes respect for human life,[3] endangers the vulnerable and disabled, underestimates human capacity for error and vice and is intrinsically discriminatory. She argues that it plays into the hands of illicit interests and trades on an improper understanding of human autonomy.[4] She warns against dismissing "the army of corporate, financial, medical and political interests that there are in controlling death, euthanasia’s corrosive effects on public and professional attitudes, and the discrimination implicit in its implementation."[5] Of the vested interests that there are in controlling death she says:

"Organs for transplant are an ongoing incentive for active euthanasia. So too is cost-saving, litigation and payout minimisation, bed clearing, medical research, improper individual concerns about inheritance and even political Malthusianism. In this environment, failures of transparency, i.e. lies and deception, are both pragmatic and inevitable."[6]

She regards the practice a threat to the elderly, disabled and terminally ill:[7]

"Whenever euthanasia comes up for debate, disquiet is expressed by disability groups. These fears are far from irrational. Efforts to institutionalise the practice are predicated on the idea that certain subjects are appropriate for elimination, while others are of sufficient value to be worth preserving. Discrimination against the vulnerable, and thus Art 14 incompatibility, bedevils this ethical terrain. The sick, the terminally ill and the disabled are invariably the first to be regarded as proper subjects for medically assisted suicide. The logic of active euthanasia endangers the vulnerable by inviting one of the gravest of crimes in law. The practice undermines the dignity of those who may indeed be a burden."[8]

She asserts that voluntary euthanasia logically collapses into involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, and that this reality, widely dismissed as a fallacious slippery slope argument, is borne out by Dutch and Belgian statistics demonstrating widespread non-consensual euthanasia, false reporting and under-reporting.

A critic of the Bland Case,[9] she has highlighted the problem of passive euthanasia by incentivised and managerialised sedation-and-dehydration in hospitals (Royal Society of Medicine, London W1 18 June 2012), a position that provoked revealing Freedom of Information Act requests which in turn led to the 2012-13 inquiry into the problem in the UK. In "Food and Fluids: Human Law, Human Rights and Human Interests"[10] she argues that financial, medical, and political interests are bound to incentivise and invite homicide of the vulnerable. An early critic of what she terms the sedation-dehydration regimes, she writes of the Liverpool Care Pathway:

"However useful the Pathway may be in individual cases properly applied, incentivised and managerialised death targets become problematic in the context of uncertain diagnosis, a steadily ageing population, spiralling healthcare costs, and the philosophical dehumanisation of the vulnerable pervasive in contemporary bioethics. The targets themselves constitute improper pressure on healthcare professionals’ employment and livelihood. As such, they are likely to invite and rationalise grave human rights abuse with tragic consequences for the defenceless incapacitated in hospitals and care homes."


A critic of utilitarianism, in Innocence and Consequentialism she argued in 1996 that utilitarianism has insufficient conceptual apparatus to comprehend the very idea of innocence, a feature central to any comprehensive ethical theory.[11] In particular, Peter Singer on her view, cannot without contradicting himself reject baby farming (a thought experiment that involves mass-producing deliberately brain damaged children for live birth for the greater good of organ harvesting) and at the same time hold on to his "personism" a term coined by Jenny Teichman to describe his fluctuating (and Laing says, irrational and discriminatory) theory of human moral value. His explanation that baby farming undermines attitudes of care and concern for the very young, can be applied to babies and the unborn (both ‘non-persons’ who may be killed, on his view) and contradicts positions that he adopts elsewhere in his work.

Eugenics and biometric databases

Laing contends that the practice of eugenics has not disappeared.[12] Conceptually related to the utilitarian and Social Darwinist worldview and historically evolving out of the practice of slavery, it led to some of the most spectacular human rights abuses in history.[13] The compulsory sterilization of and experimentation on those deemed "undesirable" and "unfit" in many technologically developed states like the US, Scandinavia, and Japan, led inexorably and most systematically to Nazi Germany with the elimination of countless millions of people for their race, class, political views, sexuality, religion or disability. She argues that the new eugenics adopted by John Harris, Julian Savulescu and others, collapses into the old variety because of its fixation on producing "the better" or even more implausibly, "the best". It was this very idea that drove much of the injustice of the twentieth century. Ethically questionable strategies were at the time viewed as progressive and socially evolutionary. The new eugenics, she thinks, fares no better and spells disaster for people regarded as deficient in some way. She rejects the idea that autonomous efforts to choose "better" or the "best" children are less problematic for being freely chosen. The fact that one freely chooses to give one’s children away into slavery or lethal medical experimentation or to create a hundred clones of oneself, is no bar to the action’s being independently at odds with intergenerational justice and the common good. She suggests that mistake, ignorance, misinformation, propaganda and behaviour modification techniques, subliminal or otherwise, are celebrated ways of getting people to act freely in ways that undermine intergenerational justice and the common good. Laing suggests that biometric databases and identity cards exposing one’s medical data, DNA defects, IQ, and political views, while in many ways proving socially useful, demonstrate how vulnerable humans are, not just at the hands of political misfeasors and tyrants but insurance companies, government and corporate snoopers, and determined social and bioethical engineers.[14]


  1. Jacqueline Laing and Russell Wilcox, A Natural Law Reader, Blackwell, 2013
  2. David S Oderberg and Jacqueline A Laing Human Lives: Critical Essays on Consequentialist Bioethics, London, Macmillan, 1996
  3. J.A. Laing (1990), "Assisting Suicide" Journal of Criminal Law, 54, 106-116.
  4. On the limits of personal autonomy see Laing, Jacqueline A. (2004), "Law, Liberalism and the Common Good" Human Values: New Essays on Ethics and Natural Law Edited by David S. Oderberg and T.D.J. Chappell, London, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 184-216.
  5. Laing, Jacqueline A. (2012) "Not In My Name" New Law Journal, 162, 81
  6. Laing, Jacqueline A. (2012) "Not In My Name" New Law Journal, 162, 81
  7. Laing, Jacqueline A. (2010) "On the Wrong Track" Solicitors Journal, 154, 2
  8. Laing, Jacqueline A. (2012) "Not In My Name" New Law Journal, 162, 81
  9. Laing, Jacqueline (2002), "Vegetative" State – The Untold Story" New Law Journal 152, 1272.
  10. Laing, Jacqueline "Food and Fluids: Human Law, Human Rights and Human Interests" in Artificial Nutrition and Hydration C. Tollefsen, ed., Springer Press 2008, pp. 77-100
  11. Laing, Jacqueline A. (1997), "Innocence and Consequentialism" in Human Lives: Critical Essays on Consequentialist Bioethics, eds. J. A. Laing with D. S. Oderberg. London, Macmillan, pp. 196-224
  12. Laing, Jacqueline (2006), "The Prohibition on Eugenics and Reproductive Liberty" University of New South Wales Law Journal 29, 261-266.
  13. Laing, Jacqueline (2009), "Los derechos humanos y la nueva eugenesia" 4, SCIO 65-81.
  14. Laing, Jacqueline (2008), "Information Technology and Biometric Databases: Eugenics and Other Threats to Disability Rights" Journal of Legal Technology Risk Management 3, 9-35.
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