Friday, 22 July 2016

New parliamentary report on conscientious objection to abortion calls for widespread changes

A new parliamentary report has found that there is ‘widespread and increasing pressure’ on healthcare professionals to participate in abortions which is ‘in large part due to inadequate observance of the current legislation’.

‘Freedom of Conscience in Abortion Provision’, which was published on 21 July, is the culmination of a four-week consultation and makes nine key recommendations. In total 150 witnesses contributed to the inquiry, of whom nearly a third were current or former healthcare professionals or healthcare bodies.

Notable amongst these was the British Medical Association (BMA), the doctors’ trade union, which spoke of doctors ‘being harassed and discriminated against because of their conscientious objection to abortion’.

The inquiry, carried out by the All Party Parliamentary Prolife Group (APPG), sought to assess the extent to which the Conscience Clause provides adequate protection for doctors and other health professionals who do not wish to participate in abortion, directly or indirectly, and to examine how freedom of conscience in the law and professional guidance can be developed. It is the first parliamentary inquiry into this subject and is long overdue.

The 37 page report, calls on both Government and NHS governing bodies to ensure that the legal right of healthcare professionals to conscientious objection is properly protected and makes specific practical suggestions about how this can be achieved.

AGGP chair Fiona Bruce MP (pictured with five other MPs from the APPG)  concluded, ‘Freedom of conscience is a key part of living in a diverse and democratic society. It is vital that conscientious health professionals who do not wish to participate in abortion can be confident in their right to opt-out of doing so without fear of censure, discrimination or abuse. It is essential that our hardworking doctors, nurses and midwives are given the protection the law requires if they do not want to participate in abortions.’

She said that while the Inquiry received some examples of good practice, it also received accounts from nurses, midwives and doctors who had been pressured and discriminated against despite their right to conscientious objection, often seeing their career or training options limited.

The report makes clear that, whilst there is legal protection for healthcare professionals who have a conscientious objection to participating in abortion, this is not being properly observed in practise.

Section 4 of the Abortion Act (1967) requires that ‘no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection’.

Commonly known as the ‘Conscience Clause’, the purpose of this section of the 1967 legislation was to enable men and women with conscientious objections to abortion to remain fully engaged in providing healthcare without being compelled to participate in the provision of abortion.

The report, which is well worth reading in its entirety, expresses deep concern about the way the conscience clause has been both interpreted and applied and reserves specific criticism for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which refused to give evidence to the inquiry, and the Vice President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, who in a recent judgement, narrowed the scope of the conscience clause so that it applied only to staff directly involved in abortion provision.

It also recommends that the Government conduct a review into the training of medical students, and calls for the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ to be introduced into legislation in this country. The report calls specifically on the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists to publish a statement clarifying its position on this issue.

‘Freedom of Conscience in Abortion Provision’ makes nine practical recommendations to strengthen provision of the protection which Parliament intended for healthcare professionals with a conscientious objection to abortion:

1.      A cross-party Parliamentary Commission should be established to examine the role of conscience in the context of ‘British Values’ and any new ‘British Bill of Rights’.

2.      The Government should commission a full review into the training given to healthcare students to ensure that they are given full information about their right to conscientiously object.

3.      The General Medical Council should maintain their current guidelines ensuring that no doctor who has a conscientious objection to abortion should be required to refer a patient to another practitioner.

4.      All professional healthcare bodies should adopt the wording of the current GMC guidelines ensuring that no healthcare professional who has a conscientious objection to abortion is required to refer a patient to another practitioner (Recent Royal College of Midwives (RCM) guidance makes referral mandatory).

5.      The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is requested to publish a statement in response to this Inquiry to clarify their view on career progression for healthcare professionals who conscientiously object to abortion.

6.      Government and NHS governing bodies should ensure that an appropriate appeal system for those who believe they have been discriminated against because of their conscientious objection is set up.

7.      New guidelines for managers must state how those with a conscientious objection to a procedure should be fairly and respectfully treated and also propose solutions for how employers can accommodate practitioners with a conscientious objection.

8.      The Government should consider the feasibility of extending conscientious objection to indirect participation in abortion by authorising trials in several hospital departments and clinics across the country.

9.      Consideration be given to the introduction of the principle of ‘Reasonable Accommodation’ into legislation in this country, in the form of an amendment to the Equality Act 2010.

This inquiry has done a great service to the healthcare professions and NHS, not simply in its detailed and helpful analysis of current practice, but also in making specific achievable suggestions about how the problems with the conscience clause can be addressed. Doctors and other health professionals must now press the relevant authorities, not least parliament itself, to implement its recommendations.

It is particularly striking that all the witnesses who submitted evidence to the inquiry stressed the importance of conscience, regardless of their beliefs on the substantive issue of abortion. 

As the report concludes, ‘Conscience plays a crucial part in the dignity and morality of each individual. Any downplaying of conscience in public life is to the great detriment of society and individuals.’

Further Reading

Sunday, 3 July 2016

When the foundations are being destroyed – Christian reflections on Broken Britain

'When the foundations are being destroyed what can the righteous do?’[i]

We live in times when the very foundations of our civilisation are being destroyed: the NHS with its burgeoning needs and shrinking budgets, mounting national debt, political and economic uncertainty following ‘Brexit’, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, creeping atheism and secular humanism.

The mountains of our culture, those institutions which shape its trajectory: our parliaments, courts, universities, medical institutions and the worlds of art, media and entertainment, seem increasingly to be run by people who do not share our Christian beliefs and values.

Daily in our GP surgeries and hospitals we see the fruit of a society which has turned its back on God: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness and drug and alcohol addiction. Marriage and the family are threatened by same-sex unions, ‘gender fluidity’, internet pornography, gene editing, abortion and euthanasia.

Broken families, broken communities, broken institutions, a broken country. 

The Psalmist, seeing the foundations being destroyed, is taunted by his accusers: ‘Flee like a bird to your mountain. For look, the wicked bend their bows; they set their arrows against the strings to shoot from the shadows at the upright in heart.’[ii]

But instead of succumbing to the very real threats about him and withdrawing to safety he declares: ‘In the Lord I take refuge…. The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne.’[iii]

He takes himself in hand and remembers that he serves the ruler of the universe, the judge before whom every knee shall one day bow, who ’is righteous’, ‘loves justice’ and ‘observes everyone on earth’. He reminds himself that ‘the upright’, those who he has justified by faith, will one day ‘see his face’.[iv]

Jesus who announced the coming of his Kingdom in the Nazareth synagogue as coming with preaching, healing, deliverance and justice[v] later commissioned his disciples with the words, ‘as the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’[vi] But he also promised them his power, presence and the gift of prayer. ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest….  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’.[vii] ‘Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’[viii] ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses’.[ix]  ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’.[x]

We are not called to escapism, retreating to our Christian ghettos. Nor are we called to assimilation, merely blending in with the world around us.

Instead we are called, like Babylon’s exiles, both to moral distinctiveness – ‘shining like stars’[xi] - and to courageous and compassionate engagement with society – ‘seeking the peace and prosperity of the city’.[xii] We are to be ‘in the world’ but ‘not of the world’.[xiii]

The social reformer William Wilberforce, whom God used to end the British slave trade in the early 19th century, spoke of his Christian calling in this way: ‘God almighty set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of morals and manners.’

But in reforming ‘moral and manners’ he was not advocating a mere fleshly legalism. He understood that it was the ‘peculiar doctrines’ of Christianity (salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection) which led to ‘true affections’ (a changed heart), then to personal transformation’ (an obedient life) and ultimately ‘political reformation’ (a renewed society).[xiv]  

UK Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote on 24 June without ever fulfilling his dream of a ‘big society’. And yet, since he first came to power in 2010, we have ironically seen an explosion of Christian social initiatives in Britain – food banks, debt counselling, street pastors, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, parenting classes, crisis pregnancy counselling. Churches are touching the heart of our broken society’s need.

But what if churches were to think even bigger like Wilberforce and his fellow Christian professionals from the ‘Clapham Sect’: Christian GP surgeries and hospitals, socially responsible businesses, legal advice and advocacy, schools and universities, serving in the political corridors of power? 

Might we, by God’s grace, take Britain back? That is our challenge.  

‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’[xv]



[i] Psalm 11:3
[ii] Psalm 11:2
[iii] Psalm 11:1,4
[iv] Psalm 11:4-7
[v] Luke 4:18,19
[vi] John 20:21
[vii] Matthew 11:28-30
[viii] Matthew 9:38
[ix] Acts 1:8
[x] Matthew 28:20
[xi] Philippians 2:15
[xii] Jeremiah 29:7
[xiii] John 17:14,15
[xv] 2 Chronicles 7:14

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

BMA rejects attempt to push it neutral on assisted suicide by 2 to 1 majority

Today the Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Belfast voted against going neutral on assisted suicide by a two to one majority (see detail here).

Delegates rejected motion 80, ‘that this meeting believes that the BMA should adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying’, by 198 to 115 (63% to 37%).

The debate took place after a previous motion affirming that ‘it is not appropriate at this time to debate whether or not to change existing BMA policy’ was defeated by 164 to 160.

The BMA, the UK doctors’ trade union, has been opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia for every year of its history with the exception of 2005-6 when it was neutral for just twelve months.

Fifteen doctors spoke during an impassioned debate on the two motions but the final vote was decisive, and reflected the 65% opposition to legalising assisted suicide shown in most opinion polls.

Dr Mark Porter, the Chair of BMA Council, noted that the debate marked the eighth time in 13 years that the BMA had considered the matter, and stated that ‘nobody can credibly say this issue has been suppressed or obfuscated’. Dr Andrew Mowat, who moved Motion 79, went further, describing the constant returns to the issue as a ‘neverendum’; Dr Gary Wannan simply mused, ‘we’ve been here before...’

The Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of General Practitioners and British Geriatrics Society are all officially opposed to a change in the law along with 82% of Association for Palliative Medicine members.  Amongst all doctors, this latter group carries the greatest weight in this debate due to their understanding of the vulnerability of dying patients and their knowledge of treatments to alleviate their symptoms.

British parliaments have consistently resisted any move to legalise any form of assisted suicide or euthanasia. There have been a dozen unsuccessful attempts in the last twelve years. Last year the Marris Bill in the House of Commons and the Harvie Bill in the Scottish Parliament were defeated by 330-118 and 82-36 respectively.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia are contrary to all historic codes of medical ethics, including the Hippocratic Oath, the Declaration of Geneva, the International Code of Medical Ethics and the Statement of Marbella.

Neutrality on this particular issue would have given assisted suicide a status that no other issue enjoys. Doctors, quite understandably, are strongly opinionated and also have a responsibility to lead. The BMA is a democratic body which takes clear positions on a whole variety of health and health-related issues.

Furthermore, to drop medical opposition to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia at a time of economic austerity would have been highly dangerous. Many families and the NHS itself are under huge financial strain and the pressure vulnerable people might face to end their lives so as not to be a financial (or emotional) burden on others is potentially immense.

In rejecting an attempt to move it neutral at its ARM in 2012 the BMA said that neutrality was the worst of all positions. This was based on bitter experience. When the BMA took a neutral position for a year in 2005/2006 we saw huge pressure to change the law by way of the Joffe Bill. Throughout that crucial debate, which had the potential of changing the shape of medicine in this country, the BMA was forced to remain silent and took no part in the debate. Were it to go neutral again it would be similarly gagged and doctors would have no collective voice.

Going neutral would also have played into the hands of 
a longstanding campaign led by a small pressure group with a strong political agenda. 

Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD), which is affiliated to the pressure group ‘Dignity in Dying’ (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), at last count had just over 500 supporters, representing fewer than 0.25% of Britain’s 240,000 doctors.

Instead the BMA ARM wisely gave short shrift to this latest neutrality proposal and signalled by the margin of defeat that this matter should now be settled for the foreseeable future. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

New parliamentary inquiry launched to review freedom of conscience in abortion

A new parliamentary inquiry into freedom of conscience over abortion has just been launched.

Commissioned by Fiona Bruce MP, it seeks to examine whether the Conscience Clause in the 1967 Abortion Act provides adequate protection for doctors and other healthcare professionals who do not wish to be involved, directly or indirectly, in termination of pregnancy.

The closing date for written submissions (online, by email or by letter) is 5pm on Monday 11 July

There are seven questions and a maximum limit of 500 words per question.

They include: Why is freedom of conscience important? Do doctors and other health professionals have enough protection? Can you give examples of good or bad practice? Do you know of good precedents from elsewhere in the UK or abroad? What legal or regulatory changes would you suggest?

Section 4 of the Abortion Act (1967), the ‘conscience clause’, requires that ‘no person shall be under any duty, whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement, to participate in any treatment authorised by this Act to which he has a conscientious objection’.

Its purpose is to ensure that people with a conscientious objection to abortion are not put under coercive pressure to take part.

The application of the clause has been the subject of much legal and ethical debate and has also been tested in the courts. Most of the debate centres around the meaning and scope of the two words ‘participate’ and ‘treatment’.

There is general agreement that the clause protects doctors or nurses from being forced against their consciences to be directly involved in carrying out abortions – for example by performing or assisting an operative procedure or administering abortifacient drugs.

But what about preparing a patient for surgery, attending them afterwards, supervising others doing abortions, typing a referral letter or being part of the referral process? Here the application is less clear.

The problem is that legal precedent and professional guidelines vary in how they interpret and apply the conscience clause.

The recent Glasgow Midwives case (Doogan and Wood) narrowed its scope. The Scottish Court of Appeal (Lady Dorrian) had ruled that the two nurses involved could refuse to delegate, supervise or support staff involved in abortions:

‘In our view the right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose.’

But this was later overturned by the Supreme Court. Lady Hale ruled that:

‘The conscience clause does not cover making bookings or aftercare for patients who have undergone a termination. Nor does it cover fetching the drug before it is administered. “Participating” is limited to direct participation in the treatment involved. It does not cover administrative and managerial tasks.’

Furthermore Hale added that any medical professional who refuses to provide an abortion ‘must arrange for a referral to someone else who will do so’.

This legal ruling conflicted with 2013 General Medical Council (GMC) guidance that doctors are not obliged to refer patients seeking abortion to other doctors who will do it but must ‘make sure that the patient has enough information to arrange to see another doctor who does not hold the same objection’.

What about nurses?

Clause 4.4 of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) Code allows for conscientious objection in only limited circumstances. But a new position statement on abortion from the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) narrows this protection even further and states that midwives should be involved in all care of a woman undergoing a termination.

They have the right to opt out on the basis of conscience only from those clinical procedures directly involved in the abortion. Furthermore, both the NMC and RCM make referral to another competent practitioner mandatory. 

Many would consider that a referral for abortion is actually participating in abortion. If I do not physically take part in an immoral act but knowingly provide others with the means to do so, am I not equally culpable?

In fact doctors in New Zealand felt so strongly about this that they took their regulatory body, the NZMC, to court for suggesting referral was an obligation, and won! The NZMC subsequently dropped its appeal of the ruling.

The European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Equality Act 2010 are also relevant here. The Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief and Article 9 of the ECHR guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion. There is a duty under the Equality Act to make 'reasonable accommodation' for those who have a disability and the argument is that there should be similar provision for religious beliefs.

As Professor John Wyatt has argued in a useful CMF File, the right of conscientious objection is not a minor or peripheral issue. It goes to the heart of medical practice as a moral activity.

The right of conscience helps to preserve the moral integrity of the individual clinician, preserves the distinctive characteristics and reputation of medicine as a profession, acts as a safeguard against coercive state power, and provides protection from discrimination for those with minority ethical beliefs.

Current UK law and professional guidelines respect the right of doctors to refuse to engage in certain procedures to which they have a conscientious objection. This applies not just to abortion but to other activities as diverse as artificial reproduction and gender reassignment.

Christians are called to show respect for governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), but this is not a call for unquestioning obedience. Ultimately we obey God and not men (Acts 5:29).When the King of Egypt ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew children they refused to do so and God commended and rewarded them (Exodus 1:15-22).

This new consultation is timely. It provides a great opportunity for anyone with strong feelings on this issue, and especially those with experience of how the conscience clause works in practice, to provide input which may help to shape future law and regulations.

It’s an opportunity well worth taking – especially for doctors and nurses.

Please visit the Inquiry website www.conscienceinquiry.uk where you will find more information. 

The BMA should reject this latest attempt to push it neutral on assisted suicide and euthanasia

Tomorrow, 21 June, the Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) of the British Medical Association (BMA) will consider two motions on assisted suicide.

The BMA is the UK’s professional association and registered trade union for doctors and currently has 170,000 members.

It has been opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia for every year of its history with the exception of 2005-6 when it was neutral for just twelve months.

The first motion (79 on the agenda) affirms that ‘it is not appropriate at this time to debate whether or not to change existing BMA policy’.

Only if this is not passed will debate take place on the second motion (80): ‘that this meeting believes that the BMA should adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying’.

A total of 29 motions were put forward on this issue – of which 21 upheld current BMA policy and only 8 opposed it; 27 motions did not make the cut of the agenda committee.

The use of the term ‘assisted dying’ is especially interesting as it is a form of words developed by the pro-euthanasia lobby that is vaguely defined and has no meaning in law. So it raises the question as to what the BMA would actually be going neutral on?

British parliaments have consistently resisted any move to legalise any form of assisted suicide or euthanasia. There have been a dozen unsuccessful attempts in the last twelve years. Last year the Marris Bill in the House of Commons and the Harvie Bill in the Scottish Parliament were defeated by 330-118 and 82-36 respectively.

The majority of doctors are opposed to a change in the law. Opinion polls show an average of 65% doctors opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide and/or euthanasia with the remainder undecided or in favour. The Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of General Practitioners and British Geriatrics Society are officially opposed.

82% of Association for Palliative Medicine members oppose a change in the law, with 72% saying a bill allowing assisted suicide even for imminently dying people would have an adverse effect on the delivery of palliative care. Amongst all doctors, these voices carry the greatest weight in this debate due to their understanding of the vulnerability of dying patients and their knowledge of treatments to alleviate their symptoms.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia are contrary to all historic codes of medical ethics, including the Hippocratic Oath, the Declaration of Geneva, the International Code of Medical Ethics and the Statement of Marbella. Neutrality would be a quantum change for the profession and against the international tide.

Furthermore, neutrality on this particular issue would give assisted suicide a status that no other issue enjoys. Doctors, quite understandably, are strongly opinionated and also have a responsibility to lead. The BMA is a democratic body which takes clear positions on a whole variety of health and health-related issues. Why should assisted suicide and euthanasia enjoy a position which no other issue shares, especially when doctors will actually be the ones carrying it out?

Furthermore, to drop medical opposition to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia at a time of economic austerity could be highly dangerous. Many families and the NHS itself are under huge financial strain and the pressure vulnerable people might face to end their lives so as not to be a financial (or emotional) burden on others is potentially immense.

Were the BMA to drop its opposition, and as a consequence a law were to be passed, it would also leave the medical profession hugely divided at a time when, perhaps, more than any other time in British history, we need to be united as advocates for our patients and for the highest priorities in a struggling health service.

The British Medical Association (BMA) rejected an attempt to move it neutral at its ARM in 2012 saying that neutrality was the worst of all positions. This was based on bitter experience. When the BMA took a neutral position for a year in 2005/2006 we saw huge pressure to change the law by way of the Joffe Bill. Throughout that crucial debate, which had the potential of changing the shape of medicine in this country, the BMA was forced to remain silent and took no part in the debate. Were it to go neutral again it would be similarly gagged and doctors would have no collective voice.

Going neutral would instead play into the hands of 
a longstanding campaign led by a small pressure group with a strong political agenda. Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying (HPAD), which is affiliated to the pressure group ‘Dignity in Dying’ (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), at last count had just over 500 supporters, representing fewer than 0.25% of Britain’s 240,000 doctors.

The BMA has been historically opposed to a change in the law on assisted suicide and euthanasia for good reasons. These reasons have not changed.

Going neutral would be inappropriate, undemocratic and potentially highly dangerous. It would also be playing into the hands of a small unrepresentative pressure group and giving an advantage to only one side of the debate. Furthermore it would communicate confused messages to the public at a critical time and divide the profession at a time when a united doctors’ voice is needed more than ever.

The BMA ARM would be wise to give short shrift to this latest neutrality proposal. The issue has been debated to death in recent years and the views of parliament and the medical profession in this country are settled.

There are many more pressing and crucial matters on the ARM agenda. It is time to give this one a well-deserved rest. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

New three-parent embryo research leaves many questions unanswered

A new IVF-based technique ‘is likely to lead to normal pregnancies and reduce the risk that babies born will have mitochondrial disease’, according to researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Disease at Newcastle University.

Published today (Wednesday 8 June 2016) in the journal Nature, scientists report the first in-depth analysis of human embryos created using a new ‘three-parent’ technique devised to reduce the risk of mothers passing on mitochondrial disease to their children.

Mitochondrial diseases are inherited maternally and cause a variety of severe conditions that currently have no cure. The UK government has recently legalised the controversial use of embryos carrying DNA from three genetic parents to prevent their transmission, but the proposed techniques have been criticised on both ethical and safety grounds (see my previous review).

One of these techniques, called ‘early pronuclear transfer’ (see picture), involves transplanting the nucleus from a fertilised egg into a donated egg, which contains healthy mitochondria, shortly after fertilisation.

Today researchers, in a study involving over 500 eggs from 64 donor women, published results which they say show that the new procedure does not adversely affect human development and will greatly reduce the level of faulty mitochondria in the embryo. They further claim their results suggest that the technique will lead to normal pregnancies whilst also reducing the risk of babies having mitochondrial disease.

The results of the new study will be considered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority‘s (HFEA) Expert Scientific Panel. The HFEA will ultimately decide whether to issue the first licence to a clinic. A licensed clinic would allow couples affected by mitochondrial disease to have the choice of whether to use pronuclear transfer to try and have healthy children.

What should we make of it all?

This new research might have calmed the nerves of already committed enthusiasts for this controversial technique but it leaves many questions still unanswered.

The Newcastle researchers admit in their press release that one of five stem cell lines derived from embryos they created showed an increase, rather than a decrease, in the percentage of mitochondrial DNA carryover (this important fact is left out in Fergus Walsh's misleading BBC report). 

Rather than bringing reassurance this actually confirms concerns highlighted just one month ago by another researcher in the same journal Nature that three-person embryos ‘may fail to vanquish mutant mitochondria’.

Scientists in New York showed that ‘even if a small number of mutant mitochondria are retained after the transfer’ – an admittedly common occurrence — they can ‘outcompete healthy mitochondria in a child’s cells and potentially cause the disease the therapy was designed to avoid’.

Early embryos that ‘look’ normal (they were only grown to six days) do not necessarily translate into older embryos, fetuses, babies and children that are normal. The deep concerns that this technique will not work, or will work partially producing a whole host of new problems, have not yet been addressed.

It is noteworthy that this other US research has not been given attention by the Newcastle team and the BBC. Not as convenient perhaps?

Serious ethical and safety concerns remain, including the risky and invasive harvesting of large numbers of human eggs from donor women and the identity confusion of genealogically confused progeny, if we ever get that far.  

Adoption of children, babies or embryos still remains a viable and safe alternative for these families and DNA editing, which has already been successfully used to prevent transmission of mitochondrial disease in mice, is a far more precise, specific, clever, natural and ethical solution to this problem than stripping nuclei out of embryos and transplanting them into donor eggs.

The end does not justify the means and the greatest scientific advances are always ethical. The human embryo must always be treated with the utmost respect. 

It is noteworthy that Shimya Yamanaka, the 2012 Nobel prize winner,  through patient and meticulous research, discovered an ethical alternative to embryo research that revolutionised scientific thinking and won him a Nobel prize.

By contrast, this new research is unnecessary, unethical and still unproven to work in non-human primates, let alone human beings. We should put a halt to it and instead pursue scientific solutions that are more safe, natural, ethical and scientifically precise – more Michelangelo than Picasso.

This is a boundary that should not have been crossed. There are other options (see my blogpost on ‘thirteen solutions to mitochondrial disease assessed’) which offer better solutions. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Serbian vets advocate free for all pet euthanasia

A decision by the Serbian Veterinary Association (SVA) to support the decriminalisation of pet euthanasia in any and all circumstances has generated huge controversy.

Pet advocate groups have expressed concern about how such a change in the law might be abused by those who feel that having a pet is no longer convenient for them, or who have simply grown tired of their pets or can’t be bothered looking after them.  

Critics say that vets should be concerned about the rights of pets and not just go with pet owners’ personal preferences. Pets, they argue, are vulnerable animals and deserve stronger legal protection from those who may have a financial or emotional interest in their deaths.

Ilena Berovic, CEO of the animal charity ‘Pet Protection’ said, ‘Vets should protect the rights of pets as well as proving services to pet owners. There should be strong protection in law to safeguard against the exploitation, neglect or abuse of pets. Pets cannot speak for themselves or defend themselves so vets need to be their voice and defence.’

The SVA does not agree and has today defended its new policy. I reproduce here a statement (translated from Serbian) from the SVA president justifying the move.

‘Let me put the record straight about what the SVA is actually supporting. It is in favour of decriminalising pet euthanasia. In keeping with this position, the SVA does not believe it is right that in the 21st century those pet owners who choose to have their pets euthanized can be criminalised. 

Put simply, this means they can be sent to jail for pet euthanasia, unless it is within the parameters of the Pet Euthanasia Act, which effectively gives other people control over pet owners’ decision-making.

The Pet Euthanasia Act requires that two vets approve every case of pet euthanasia, which can cause delays in and prolong this very difficult time for pet owners. Provisions in the Act are also used to prevent pet owners using the ‘pet euthanasia pill’ at home in their own time, requiring instead that they attend multiple appointments at a clinic, denying them choice over when the euthanasia is carried out.

If we are to be advocates for pet owners, then we must advocate for choice on all aspects of their care.

Accordingly, the SVA believes that pet euthanasia should be removed from the criminal law. That is why we took the decision to back the campaign calling for the decriminalisation of pet euthanasia across Serbia. The campaign calls for every pet owner to be given the necessary information to make their own informed choice as to whether or not to continue with a pet. The SVA is not advocating for or against pet euthanasia.

Nor is the SVA arguing for a complete free-for-all, with no controls. Rather, we are recommending that pet euthanasia procedures be regulated in the same way as all other procedures relating to pet healthcare. This would mean that decisions on pet euthanasia would occur in the same way that any other treatment decisions are reached, through discussion between the owner, their vets and other veterinary staff.

The SVA believes that if we are to be advocates for pet owners then we must advocate for choice on all aspects of pet care. Being a vet involves being for pet owners and about respecting their choices regarding their pets. It is about supporting them through the good times and the bad.

Decriminalisation is not the outrageous idea that some sections of the press suggest. It is already a reality in other countries and the pet euthanasia rate has not gone up as a result.

This is not about what we personally believe. This is about the pet owners we care for; it is about their lives and the choices they make. We will not have to live their lives once their decision is made.

I would urge people to read and consider the arguments that we set out in our position statement, and those set out by the ‘We trust pet owners’ campaign. It is in favour of people having a choice over their pet’s care, including whether to continue having a pet or not. We are not coming out either for or against pet euthanasia; we are for pet owners.’

As I’m sure you will have realised this article and statement is a spoof. The Serbian Veterinary Association (SVA) does not actually exist. There is in fact a Serbian Association of Small Animal Practitioners (SASAP) but it has made no such statement.

The statement above was instead produced by taking the statement by the CEO of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) in the Guardian today on the decriminalisation of abortion and making the following changes throughout: RCM becomes SVA, abortion becomes pet euthanasia, doctor becomes vet, woman becomes person or pet owner.