Sunday 31 October 2010

Are British Christians too fat? Almost certainly! But what should we be doing about it?

New research this week has shown that two-thirds of Britons are overweight or obese – making us the fattest country in Europe.

We are also the fourth fattest nation in the world behind only Australia (71.1 per cent), the US (69.9 per cent) and the United Arab Emirates (68.4 per cent).

According to research company Datamonitor, a quarter of Britons are obese (15 million), with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, while four in ten of us (25 million) are overweight (BMI>25),

This means more than 40 million British people are deemed to be at an unhealthy weight.

The figures were published this week as a separate study showed that the number of people admitted to hospital for obesity-related illnesses has shot up by more than ten times in the past decade.

The health risks of being overweight are significant. Obesity isn't just an issue of personal health. The cost to the NHS and to the wider economy - because of increasing time off work - is estimated at about £7 billion per year, of which £1 billion is direct health service costs.

The risks are higher as BMI increases for type 2 diabetes (20 times greater for those who are very obese), cancer (10 per cent of all cancer deaths among non-smokers are related to obesity), coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure (85 per cent of hypertension associated with a BMI greater than 25) and fatty liver (affects 90% of obese people and may lead to cirrhosis).

How fat are you? If your BMI is over 25 then maybe it is time to take action.(You can calculate your own BMI easily online)

Weight loss in principle is fairly simple. If you are overweight (>25) or obese (>30) you can lose weight either by eating less or by exercising more. Recommended daily calorie intake varies from person to person, but there are guidelines for calorie requirements you can use as a starting point.

UK Department of Health Estimated Average Requirements (EAR) are a daily calorie intake of about 2,000 calories per day for women and 2,500 for men. The key is to make your input (in food) match your output (in activity). If input is greater that output you will gain weight. If input is less than output you will lose weight.

But which is easier – to eat less or exercise more?

About 500 fewer calories per day (that’s one McDonald’s quarter pounder or one large chocolate milkshake!) over the course of a week (ie. 3,500 calories) will result in a one pound loss for an average person.

But to lose a pound through exercise the same person would have to run almost 30 miles at 8 minute mile pace! (Calorie burn calculator here)

So you can see that it’s far easier to eat less than exercise more.

The Bible tells us that physical training is of some value – and of course it is – but the key thing if you want to avoid obesity and all its attendant health risks is to eat less.

Are British Christians too fat? If US data is any thing to go by (and remember we are almost as fat as the Americans!) then the answer is a big ‘yes’. Because in the US, the more Christians per state, the higher the level of obesity. (see diagram above)

Christians do seem to be at least as prone to obesity as those in the general population.

But when did you actually last hear a sermon on overeating or exercise?

Maybe that’s part of the problem.

A much fuller treatment of the issue of obesity from a Christian perspective can be found on the CMF website. See Facing the Obesity Epidemic

Friday 29 October 2010

‘The law says you are not to eat a porcupine!’ A salutary warning from the Lausanne Conference

Kenyan pastor Calisto Odede preached on Ephesians 4:17-6:9 at Cape Town 2010:the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation on 16-25 October.

In this second part of his message (listen here) he explained the Apostle Paul’s instructions to walk in the love of God, to walk in the light of God and to walk diligently.

His final illustration was an amusing but salutary cautionary tale from Africa. If you would like to hear the original in Calisto’s inimitable tones scroll through to just before 18 minutes on the video.

The full text reads as follows:

In a certain country the law says you should not eat porcupines.

An individual was found hunting a porcupine
He was asked ‘Do you know what the law says?’
And he said ‘The law says “you are not to eat a porcupine”.
It does not say “don’t hunt a porcupine”.’

He was found carrying a porcupine.
He was asked ‘Do you know what the law says?’
And he said ‘The law says “you are not to eat a porcupine”.
It does not say “don’t carry a porcupine”.’

He was found skinning a porcupine.
He was asked ‘Do you know what the law says?’
And he said ‘The law says “you are not to eat a porcupine”.
It does not say “don’t skin a porcupine”.’

He was found roasting a porcupine.
And he was asked ‘Do you know what the law says?’
And he said ‘The law says “you are not to eat a porcupine”.
It does not say “don’t roast a porcupine”.’

He was found tasting a porcupine.
And he was asked ‘Do you know what the law says?’
And he said ‘The law says “you are not to eat a porcupine”.
It does not say “don’t taste a porcupine”.’

Unfortunately he tasted the whole porcupine.

There are some of you who have tasted the whole porcupine.

It started out as something small you thought you could control but it has now taken over your whole life and you need to bring it before the Lord.

Thursday 28 October 2010

The real answer to reducing maternal mortality is not 'safe' abortion but better education, obstetric and midwifery care, CMF tells DFID

The Christian Medical Fellowship has now published its submission to the Department for International Development (DFID) Consultation on Maternal Health Strategy: 'Choice for women: wanted pregnancies, safe births'

The Government proposals have been criticised for appearing to link the provision of abortion services with international development aid as DFID says one of its key proposals is ensuring access to contraception and ‘safe’ abortions.

By contrast the CMF submission tackles the problem in an evidence-based way reviewing the real causes of maternal mortality and the interventions that have been shown in practice to reduce it.

It concludes that the real solution to maternal mortality is multi-level: addressing social attitudes, education and empowerment and good quality obstetric and midwifery care and better birth spacing.

Furthermore this is best achieved through positive engagement with religious leaders, communities and faith based organisations (FBOs).

The whole submission is available on the CMF website but its main points are as follows:

1. In the last two decades we have seen a marked reduction globally in maternal mortality from 500,000 deaths per annum to 350,000 per annum. The vast majority of these are still in the developing world.

2. The interventions that have reduced this mortality rate have been multi-level: addressing social attitudes towards women, pregnancy and child birth; providing education for girls and the empowerment of women; increasing access to good quality obstetric and midwifery care (in the local community and in accessible secondary care institutions); and providing family planning services to allow better birth spacing, etc. We hold that the evidence suggests that only such multi-level interventions will have significant or lasting success in tackling maternal mortality; and further, that strengthening health systems for maternal health will have collateral benefits for other areas of health need.

3. Positive engagement with religious leaders, communities and faith based organisations (FBOs) is vital, as they are not only significant providers of services, but also hold the key to challenging and changing social attitudes and values that can devalue women and their health needs.

4. Empowering women, and changing socio-cultural and religious values that disenfranchise women and girls and deny them access to healthcare and education, are priorities. This requires engagement with community leaders in general, and religious leaders and communities in particular, in their own terms and context, rather than imposing Western worldviews and values.

5. Single issue interventions are damaging to wider health needs in the long term. We advocate strengthening the broad range of health infrastructure and provision (both primary and secondary) in developing nations. This includes appropriate training (undergraduate and postgraduate), professional support for healthcare staff, and adequate provision of properly maintained equipment with appropriate supply chains.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

New survey reveals widespread ignorance about the level of abortion in Britain

Today, on the 43rd anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act, Christian Concern has launched a new campaign urging politicians and members of the public to ‘stop and think’ about abortion.

The event was marked with a silent vigil outside the Houses of Parliament followed by a national service of lament in Westminster addressed by the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali.

Since the 1967 Act was passed, over 7 million babies have been aborted in Britain, with more than 200,000 taking place in 2009 alone.

However, a poll undertaken last weekend by ComRes (commissioned by Christian Concern) has revealed widespread ignorance of these simple facts.

It has shown that nearly one-third of all people (30%) think fewer than 20,000 abortions take place in Britain each year, and that one in ten (10%) think the figure is 20,000-50,000. A further 41% said they did not know and only 3% got within 50,000 of the actual number by estimating a figure between 150,000 and 250,000.

7 million abortions. The numbers are staggering: 450,000 Dunblanes, 300,000 classrooms, 70 Wembleys. More than the 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi holocaust. Over 10 million British citizens lost – as many of the dead would now be parents!

Britain now has amongst the most liberal abortion practice in the western world. One in three women has an abortion. One in four pregnancies ends in abortion: on average one abortion every 2 minutes and 40 seconds, 572 per day.

Abortion has of course been practised at some level by most societies for millennia but legalized abortion on a massive scale is a relatively recent phenomenon only made possible by permissive abortion laws and new technology.

The worldwide figure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, is 46 million. This is a staggering figure given that the total number of deaths worldwide from all other causes is not much higher at 56 million.

Moreover it is having devastating effects demographically. In India and China, selective abortion of female babies has contributed to a severe imbalance in the male female ratio with 50 million girls estimated missing in India alone.

In the Western and former communist worlds where birthrates are low abortion has contributed to a huge increase in the number of elderly people relative to those in the workforce leading some to suggest that the generation which killed its children (by abortion) will in turn be killed by its children (through euthanasia).

There is no one more vulnerable, more innocent, or killed in greater numbers than the child in the womb but there is clearly still a huge amount of work to be done in making British people aware of the level of the problem.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Richard Stearns’ huge Lausanne challenge to the church of America about its attitude to wealth, poverty and power applies equally to us in the UK

The churches in the more prosperous northern hemisphere, in particular, need to return to the gospel of Christ. That gospel is not just about individual salvation, but a life transformation that results in compassion, service and a striving for justice.

This was the message that Richard Stearns, President of World Vision United States, brought in what I thought was one of the defining events of the Cape Town 2010 Lausanne Congress on 24 October. He argues that there is ‘a hole’ in our Gospel.

The video is only 15 minutes long but worth every second. Share it with your friends, show it in your house groups and churches and help spread this message right from the heart of God.

You can watch the whole address on line but I have excerpted some of the highlights below to whet your appetite.

For a much fuller treatment of the underlying issues you can read Richard’s new book (2010 Christian book of the year!), ‘The Hole in our Gospel’.

The full title says it all, ‘The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God expect of Us? The Answer that Changed my Life and Might Just Change the World’.

Wealth, Poverty and Power - The Hole in our Gospel (transcript)

‘When Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth he proclaimed the stunning truth that he was the Messiah and that he had come to preach the good news to the poor, the good news that man could be reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of his Son. But Jesus did not stop there at proclamation. He also spoke of restoring sight for the blind, freeing the captives and oppressed, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. It was a reference to the year of Jubilee instituted by God to promote economic justice and to prevent economic exploitation and disparity.

Jesus described a big Gospel, a Gospel that began with proclamation and evangelism, yes, but also embraced compassion toward our fellow man and biblical justice – proclamation, compassion and justice – you see these three defined the good news of Jesus Gospel. These three were the coming signs of Jesus coming on earth. These three were the revolutionary truths that would change the world as we know it and help us claim it for Christ.

The whole Gospel makes demands upon the rich and the poor that go beyond belief. This whole Gospel means a total surrender to God’s kingdom, not just believing the right things but doing the right things as well.

We are called to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien and the stranger. We’re called to lift up justice and fight economic disparity; to speak up for the voiceless and to hold our governments accountable; to challenge racism and bigotry; to be generous with our money and to live lives of integrity before a watching world.

The most powerful evangelism of all involves not just speaking the good news but being the good news. Not just preaching the Gospel but demonstrating the Gospel because love for our neighbours that is only spoken is not love at all. You see love must be demonstrated.

This radical gospel of love, word and deed was intended by Jesus to launch a social and spiritual revolution on earth, one that had the power to change the world. And we were to be on the front lines of that revolution, we the church. That was the plan. Jesus called that the coming of the Kingdom of God and it was meant to be good news for the entire world.

But sadly the church over the centuries has often failed to be that good news…

What about our generosity? In the wealthiest of all nations in Christian history we give just 2.5% of our incomes to God’s work, 75% less than the biblical tithe. And 98% of what we give is spent in the United States – 98% for us and 2% for the rest of the world.

“I was hungry while you had all you needed. I was thirsty but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes but you needed more clothes. I was sick but you pointed out the behaviours that led to my sickness. I was in prison and you said I was getting what I deserved.”

This is the version of Matthew 25 that many Americans and even churches have embraced.

I believe that the American church stands at a crossroads. The world we live in under siege. Three billion are desperately poor, one billion hungry, millions are trafficked in human slavery. Ten million children die needlessly every year. Wars and conflicts are wreaking havoc. Pandemic diseases are spreading and ethnic conflict is flaming. Terrorism is growing. Most of our brothers and sisters in the developing world live in grinding poverty. And in the midst of this stands the church in America with resources, knowledge and tools unequalled in the history of our faith.

I believe we stand on the brink of a defining moment and have a choice to make.

When historians look back in 100 years what will they write about this nation of 340,000 churches? What will they say of the churches response to the great challenges of our time; AIDS, poverty, hunger, terrorism and war?

Will they say that these authentic Christians rose up courageously and responded to the tide of human suffering to comfort the afflicted and douse the flames of hatred? Will they speak of an unprecedented outpouring of generosity to meet the needs of the world’s poor? Will they speak of the moral leadership and compelling vision of our leaders? Will they write that this, the beginning of the 21st century, was the churches’ finest hour?

Or will they look back and see a church too comfortable and insulated from the pain of the rest of the world, empty of compassion and devoid of deeds? Will they write about a people who stood by and watched while a hundred million died of AIDS, and 50 million children were orphaned, of Christians who lived in luxury and self indulgence while millions died from a lack food and water?

Will school children write and discuss about a church who had the wealth to build great sanctuaries but lacked the will to build hospitals, schools and clinics? In short will we be remembered as the church that had 'a hole in its Gospel'?

I want you to imagine just for a moment what would happen if we in the Christian community really stepped up to God’s call to take the good news to the ends of the earth. What if our wealthy churches turned their faces outward away from their big sanctuaries, PowerPoint screens and praise music and turned their faces toward the pain and brokenness in our world? What if we brought the whole tithe into the storehouse and embraced the whole Gospel?

Sometimes I dream and I ask "What if?" What if we actually took this Gospel seriously? Could we, might we, actually be able to change the world? As I close let me read you an imaginary press release from the United Nations dated 2025…’

(for the rest of this address watch the full fifteen minutes of Richard Stearns Cape Town 2010 address ‘Wealth, Poverty and Power - The Hole in our Gospel’ )

Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto as a basis for healthcare mission

Jesus Christ’s dynamic entry into first century Palestine was marked by miraculous healing of many illnesses for which even today there are no known treatments. But along with his compassion to restore health he brought the gospel message of healing of broken relationships - between human beings, between human beings and the planet and most crucially between human beings and God.

Luke, probably the first ever Christian doctor, tells us that Jesus sent his followers out ‘to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick’(Luke 9:2). Right from the beginning ministry to the spirit and ministry to the body have gone hand in hand.

For the last 2,000 years, Christian doctors and nurses, inspired by the example and teaching of Jesus, have been at the forefront of efforts to alleviate human suffering, cure disease, and advance knowledge and understanding.

Many of medicine’s pioneers were men and women who had deep Christian faith: Pare, Pasteur, Lister, Paget, Barnado, Jenner, Simpson, Sydenham, Osler, Scudder, Livingstone and many more.

In the 21st century, whiles some avenues for missionary work are closing, others are opening wide. Christian health professionals, and particularly doctors, have a passport to limited access and creative access countries that those of many other professions do not. But what is their mandate and what should be their priorities in playing the part in fulfilling Jesus’ great commission?

Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto in Luke 4 provides a biblical basis for healthcare mission.

We are told that when standing to read in the synagogue on the Sabbath in his home town, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and ‘found the place where it is written’:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18,19)

The Jews listening would have recognised this quote from Isaiah 61, which actually ends, ’And the day of vengeance of our God’ (Isaiah 61:1,2). Jesus didn’t read these words but stopped mid-verse presumably to illustrate that redemption and judgment were going to be separated in history. Judgment would be delayed in order to allow people to repent. The Jews didn’t understand God’s mercy in delaying judgment, his love or the scope of his redemptive plan.

The manifesto starts, ’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me’. Elsewhere Jesus says, ’As the Father has sent me, I am sending you... Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:21,22)

It goes on to reveal Jesus’ four-fold ministry, which is to be our own model: preaching, healing, deliverance and justice.

(Excerpted from paper delivered at a dialogue session at the Third Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010. The full text is available on the Lausanne Conversation Website)

Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization closes in Cape Town with a ringing call to the Church

The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization closed in 25 October in Cape Town with a ringing call to the Church. This Congress, perhaps the widest and most diverse gathering of Christians ever held in the history of the Church, drew 4,000 selected participants from 198 nations. Organizers extended its reach into over 650 GlobaLink sites in 91 countries and drew 100,000 unique visits to its web site from 185 countries during the week of the Congress.

‘Our vision and hope was firstly for a ringing affirmation of the uniqueness of Christ and the truth of the biblical gospel; and a clear statement on evangelism and the mission of the church - all rooted in Scripture,’ said Lindsay Brown, Lausanne Movement International Director, in his closing address. ‘The evangelical church has rightly put an emphasis on bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to every people group, but we have perhaps been a little weaker in our attempts to apply biblical principles to every area of society, and to public policy: to the media, to business, to government. We need to engage deeply with all human endeavour - and with the ideas which shape it.’ The Congress included an Executive Leadership Forum and a Think Tank for leaders in Government, Business and Academia. ‘There is a groundswell of conviction,' said Mr Brown, ‘that greater concerted effort is needed to apply biblical truth in these arenas.’

The Cape Town Commitment, a declaration of belief and a call to action, will stand in the historic tradition of The Lausanne Covenant, which issued from the 1974 Congress, held in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Lausanne Covenant became widely-regarded as one of the most significant documents in recent church history. The Lausanne Movement, since its founding by the US evangelist Billy Graham, has worked to strengthen evangelical belief, and to reawaken the evangelical church’s responsibility in God’s world. The Cape Town Commitment is therefore in two parts. The first part, a Trinitarian statement, fashioned in the language of love, is the fruit of discussion by senior evangelical theologians drawn from all continents. This is available now on the Lausanne website, The consequent call to action, shaped from discussion at the Congress around critical issues facing the Church over the next ten years, will be completed by December. It is expected to engage in principle with such issues from all parts of the world. Chris Wright, International Director of Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries / USA) is chief architect.

‘We would like The Cape Town Commitment to be seen as “a gift to the local church from representatives of the global church,”' said the Revd Doug Birdsall, Chairman of The Lausanne Movement. He then outlined the Board’s plans for the movement’s future: ‘First: to stay light on its feet, remaining agile in its ability to respond to new challenges and opportunities. Second, to be strong theologically, firmly rooted in Scripture and nourished by the best reflection on how we take the Word to the world. Third, to provide a reliable and credible contribution to Christian discussion and mission. Fourth, to keep a focus on identifying and developing younger leaders. And fifth, to be strategic in gathering the right people at the right times in the right places.

‘Lausanne gatherings will breathe oxygen into the fire that sparks more fires, and track progress made on the priorities established in Cape Town,’ he said. Mr Birdsall sketched out plans for a series of Davos-like gatherings, drawing thought leaders from the Church and from mission agencies, from government, business and academia. The first is planned for June 2012.

The Lausanne Movement is rooted globally under regional leadership around the world. The funding for the Congress had been raised from all regions, and from a ‘healthy combination’ of significant major gifts and many smaller gifts, often sacrificially-given.

The Congress extended to an estimated audience around the world of a further 100,000 people through its GlobaLink sites. It was also possible to participate virtually. Prior to the Congress, The Lausanne Movement launched a multi-lingual online Lausanne Global Conversation to begin the discussion process. This was complemented by a series of radio programmes in countries in the Global South. The Global Conversation, the first of its kind, has gained significant momentum and will continue. A round-the-clock team mined the data of all responses throughout the Congress. Malicious hacking of the Congress website brought the site down for the first two days.

‘The local church is God’s chosen locus of service and evangelism,’ said Doug Birdsall. The Congress closed with a celebration of Holy Communion, led by Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi of Uganda. For this, 100 communion sets had been borrowed, each from a local church. ‘These represent the remembering of Christ’s death across many nations,’ Mr Birdsall continued. ‘We are a global movement, committed to the local church.’

Cape Town 2010 was held in collaboration with The World Evangelical Alliance.

Friday 15 October 2010

Chilean Miner’s T-Shirt gives testimony to Jesus Christ: ‘To him is the honor and the glory’

Just received another fascinating update on the Chilean miner’s story to follow up the Alfredo Cooper interview I blogged about two days ago.

Apparently someone passed an audio version of the Jesus Film to the miners during their imprisonment. And this guy (pictured) jumping for joy at his release is wearing a Campus Crusade T-shirt!

The CCC logo of Campus Crusade for Christ is on the right shoulder and the Jesus Film ‘Jesus’ on the left hand shoulder. The front of the shirt carries the Chilean Flag with the words ‘Gracias Senor’ (Thank you Lord!)

On the back are the words of Psalm 95:4: ‘Porque en su mano est├ín las profundidades de la tierra, y las alturas de los montes son suyas’ (In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also). The text at the bottom reads ‘To him is the honor and the glory’.

Thursday 14 October 2010

The new healthcare professionals’ group seeking to legalise assisted suicide includes a number of well known campaigners

A new group of ‘health professionals' has this week joined the growing number of ‘societies’ and ‘forums’ seeking legal permission for doctors to assist with suicide.

‘Healthcare Professionals for Change’ follows on the heels of Libby Wilson’s FATE (Friends at the End), Michael Iriwin’s SOARS (Society for Old Age Rational Suicide), Philip Nitschke’s EXIT International and the Secular Medical Forum (also founded by Michael Irwin) in pushing for a change in the law which would allow doctors to end the lives of patients in their care.

The group’s leader, Oxford GP Ann McPherson, initially claimed a membership of twelve (which although a small number would have made it larger than most of the aforementioned) but this seems now to have grown, judging by the ‘supporters’ page on its website, to around 100 (a figure still only representing about 0.05% of the country’s estimated 200,000 doctors).

Prominent amongst HPFC’s supporters are several well known campaigners for the liberalisation of the law on assisted suicide and abortion. These include former MP Evan Harris, Simon Kenwright, Wendy Savage (who leads a similar doctors’ pressure group on abortion), David Paintin and Ray Tallis.

Evan Harris (pictured) has campaigned for some years for the legalisation of assisted suicide through both the British Medical Association and also as a back-bencher in Parliament, but with little success. Interestingly he lost his West Oxford and Abingdon seat in the general election earlier this year on a large swing to a candidate who opposed his views on a number of ethical issues.

Ray Tallis held the influential position of chairman of the Ethics Committee of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) when that organisation went briefly neutral on the issues in 2005. After he had vacated the chair, and just before the debate on Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in May 2006, the RCP reverted to opposing any change in the law after seeking the opinions of its members, a position it has held ever since.

Sir Richard Thompson, currently President of the Royal College of Physicians, responding to the launch, has just this week eloquently outlined the reasons why a clear majority of the College’s members still do not support a change in the law.

They are in good company. Other official doctors’ bodies opposing any change in the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia are the British Medical Association (BMA), the Association for Palliative Medicine (APM), the British Geriatric Society (BGS), the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and every other Royal Medical College that has expressed an opinion on the matter.

The British Geriatric Society earlier this year issued a strong statement on assisted suicide which outlines its concerns about how a change to the law would remove protection from vulnerable elderly people. The full statement is most worthy of study by all who take an interest in this debate, especially given that the media seem to give far more column inches and broadcast time to groups such as Dr McPherson’s than they do to the official bodies which represent the majority of doctors.

HPFC is, perhaps not surprisingly, being sponsored by the pressure group Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) whose Chief Executive, Sarah Wootton, has said: ‘It’s a real move forward. It’s important for doctors to be able to challenge the views of the BMA and other medical bodies. They need to be able to represent a wider viewpoint.’

This is a rather curious statement given that the minority of doctors who support assisted suicide and euthanasia have been trying to change BMA policy for years, and have been consistently unsuccessful precisely because they do not represent the more widely held viewpoint that doctors should not be involved in assisted suicide and euthanasia and that any law legalising either practice would pose grave dangers for vulnerable elderly and disabled people.

Dr Christopher Hufeland, Goethe's doctor, warned in 1806, ‘The physician should and may do nothing else but preserve life. Whether it is valuable or not, that is none of his business. If he once permits such considerations to influence his actions, the doctor will become the most dangerous man in the state.’

The words of the Hippocratic Oath on the matter, ‘I will give no deadly medicine to anyone, nor suggest such counsel’ are thankfully still supported by a majority of doctors today.

As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, we need to remember that there have always been a minority of doctors who support euthanasia, but they are only a minority.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Fantastic interview! Rev Cooper, chaplain to Chile’s president, gives glory to God on Radio Five Live about God’s hand in rescue of Chilean miners

Reverend Alfredo Cooper, chaplain to Chile’s president, was interviewed this afternoon about the rescue of the Chilean miners on Radio Five Live’s Drive programme by presenter Peter Allen.

Cooper took the opportunity with both hands to give the full glory to God, delivering a wonderfully clear and gracious testimony about the power of prayer. You are very unlikely to read the following transcript in any newspaper, so enjoy!

The discussion took place just after 5pm and you can now hear it on you tube or on the Christian Institute website.

Peter Allen: ‘Actually there was one gentleman I got a chance to talk to a little bit earlier. He’s the Reverend Alfredo Cooper. I’ll be absolutely honest with you. We heard an English voice down the line and in fact this gentleman apparently had turned up to thank the British press for what they’d done with this whole event and when they heard his English voice we got him in front of the microphone. He’s called the Reverend Alfredo Cooper. He’s actually chaplain to the country’s president and he told me when he first got involved in the aftermath of the mine’s collapse.’

Rev Cooper: ‘I am a chaplain in the presidential palace and so we had to quickly put together an emergency prayer meeting and it was with all our hearts because to imagine these 33 men a kilometre under the earth not knowing whether they were alive or what was going through their minds.17 days we prayed and then the miracle came when the boring machine glanced off a rock and hit them – hit the cavern they were in - and of course we just erupted in praise. The second service the president called for was a praise meeting so we had a thanksgiving service and since then we’ve had constant prayer. And this has been one of the interesting factors for folk like us to notice. Many of the miners went down as atheists, unbelievers or semi-believers and they have come up to a man testifying that they were not 33 but that there were 34 down there - that Jesus was there with them and that they had a constant sense of his guidance and presence.’

Peter Allen: ‘If you truly believe that it was divine intervention that rescued then presumably you believe that it was divine intervention that left them down there in the first place. I mean it doesn’t always make sense this kind of (chuckles) argument does it?’

Rev Cooper: ‘Well the thing is that in this fallen world this is exactly what does occur. Man is subject to accidents and all sorts of problems thanks often to his wilful negligence as was the case in this mine. There are consequences when you don’t care enough for people. And of course in those situations we might compare Jonah in the whale - you know people tend to cry out to God and this is what’s happened. And God has answered.’

Peter Allen: ‘So you believe God listened to your prayers? God listened to your prayers - God listened to their prayers. You believe they were rescued by divine intervention really?’

Rev Cooper: ‘Well of course we see the hands of all these magnificent experts all around, the good will of so many people internationally and the brilliant coverage of the press and we would suggest that all this works together for good, that certainly as we prayed God has guided in remarkable ways – even the scientists. I was with the NASA people who came the other day. And to my surprise - to a man they were believing scientists in their case - and they all said “This was a miracle. There is no other word for what happened here”.’

Peter Allen: (mumbling and sounding a bit uncomfortable)

Rev Cooper: (really getting into it now!) ‘So you know - Scientists, politicians, presidents - we’ve all come together in one happy moment saying, “Goodness! God is there and he answers prayer.” That’s how we feel. And certainly the miners are also testifying to the world of this - not just about that but certainly it seems to be a central factor.’

Peter Allen: ‘That’s the religious perspective from the Reverend Alfredo Cooper. It’s 5.15pm.’

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.
Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust.
(Psalm 40:1-4)

Tuesday 12 October 2010

If you want to know about advances in the treatment of spinal cord injury don’t read any British newspaper or ask the BBC

Reading the reports about the new embryonic stem cell trial for spinal cord injury that have been all over the BBC and the British papers today I am struggling to know what all the fuss is about and why in fact it is even news at all.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is causing such excitement for five main reasons:

1.Our media are obsessed with any story involving embryonic stem cells despite the fact that these entities have not yet provided any treatments for any human disease after more than ten years of hype (By contrast adult and umbilical stem cells have already provided treatments for over 80 diseases – see my Triple Helix review)

2.Because there is ethical controversy in their use (as harvesting them involves the destruction of human embryos) it provides an opportunity for the media to revive the myth that religious zealots are trying to hold back scientific advance and stop millions of people being cured from terrible diseases.

3.The science correspondents writing for our national newspapers seem not to read medical journals any more but simply regurgitate press releases produced by commercial companies (like Geron) who wish to promote their products and improve their public image.

4.Geron have lots of money (they have already spent $170m developing this ‘treatment’) and a very good PR machine.

5.British scientists are worried about research funding in the current economic climate and so are trying to attract public and media attention in the hope of attracting grants so they are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible politicians and members of the public with exaggerated claims.

If you go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website which logs current clinical trials you will find there are 3,124 listings of trials involving adult stem cells and 141 involving umbilical stem cells. These therapies are increasingly well established and pose no ethical problems (and so are of little interest to the British media).

By contrast today’s story is of the first clinical trial involving embryonic stem cells after over a decade of breath-holding.

There are no results yet and no scientific papers yet published in any peer-reviewed journals.

Nor will you learn from any UK media outlet today that there have been clinical trials involving (adult) stem cell treatments for spinal cord injury going on for some years now.

This story seems to be in the news simply because Geron have decided to announce to the world that they have started a clinical trial involving a possible future treatment that has not yet (and may well never) actually deliver.

Just over a week ago I blogged about a new advance in stem cell technology - involving a new improved method of producing induced pluri-potent stem cells (iPs) from ethically harvested adult cells - that led to over 1,400 headlines worldwide.

The British press has to my knowledge still not noticed it – presumably because it did not come packaged in easy cut and paste format from a biotechnology company with a financial vested interest.

For those who are interested in reading a more balanced overview of the research currently going on into stem cell treatments for spinal cord injury in different centres around the world - and about the relative merits of the several different kinds of adult and umbilical stem cells that have been used in animal experiments, or are currently being used in human trials - I would recommend, for starters, the following review articles freely available on the internet.

1.Challenges of Stem Cell Therapy for Spinal Cord Injury: Human Embryonic Stem Cells, Endogenous Neural Stem Cells, or Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells?

2.Stem cell-based therapies for spinal cord injury.

3.Stem and progenitor cell therapies: recent progress for spinal cord injury repair

And if you would to know more about all the varied avenues of work in which researchers are involved in trying to develop treatments for spinal cord injury then try typing the words ‘spinal cord injury’ into the search box here.

When I checked there were 304 clinical trials listed – with only one (today’s story) involving embryonic stem cells!

Saturday 9 October 2010

Christine MCafferty hoist on her own petard – full text of amended resolution on right to conscientious objection in lawful medical care

I recently blogged on the Council of Europe’s 7 October decision to throw out a resolution (see original wording) seeking to force health professionals across Europe to be involved in abortion.

As a result of the humiliating defeat of pro-abortion activists the resolution actually passed was ironically one of strongest defences of conscientious objection in European history.

Whilst Council of Europe resolutions are not legally binding, they nonetheless can be used to exert strong influence on national laws and have a bearing on rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Had the original resolution been passed it would have led to pressure being placed on the 47 member European countries to change their laws in this area.

Instead, former Labour MP Christine McCafferty (pictured) and those who supported her were ‘hoist on (their) own petard’

The full text of the amended resolution reads as follows:

The right to conscientious objection in lawful medical care

Resolution 1763 (2010) [1]

1.No person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion, the performance of a human miscarriage, or euthanasia or any act which could cause the death of a human foetus or embryo, for any reason.

2.The Parliamentary Assembly emphasises the need to affirm the right of conscientious objection together with the responsibility of the state to ensure that patients are able to access lawful medical care in a timely manner. The Assembly is concerned that the unregulated use of conscientious objection may disproportionately affect women, notably those having low incomes or living in rural areas.

3.In the vast majority of Council of Europe member states, the practice of conscientious objection is adequately regulated. There is a comprehensive and clear legal and policy framework governing the practice of conscientious objection by healthcare providers ensuring that the interests and rights of individuals seeking legal medical services are respected, protected and fulfilled.

4.In view of member states' obligation to ensure access to lawful medical care and to protect the right to health, as well as the obligation to ensure respect for the right of freedom of thought, conscience and religion of healthcare providers, the Assembly invites Council of Europe member states to develop comprehensive and clear regulations that define and regulate conscientious objection with regard to health and medical services, which:

4.1.guarantee the right to conscientious objection in relation to participation in the procedure in question;

4.2.ensure that patients are informed of any objection in a timely manner and referred to another healthcare provider;
4.3.ensure that patients receive appropriate treatment, in particular in cases of emergency.

[1] Assembly debate on 7 October 2010 (35th Sitting) (see Doc. 12347, report of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee, rapporteur: Mrs McCafferty, and Doc. 12389, opinion of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, rapporteur: Mrs Circene). Text adopted by the Assembly on 7 October 2010 (35th Sitting).

Sir Michael Caine’s report of his father’s death is an opportunity to educate the public about what good palliative care can achieve

Sir Michael Caine (pictured) has revealed how he asked a doctor to help his terminally ill father to die. Maurice Micklewhite, a Billingsgate fish market porter, apparently died in hospital at the age of 56 in 1955 after suffering from liver cancer.

Sir Michael told Classic FM: ‘My father had cancer of the liver and I was in such anguish over the pain he was in, that I said to this doctor, I said “Isn't there anything else you could, just give him an overdose and end this”, because I wanted him to go and he said “Oh no, no, no, we couldn't do that”. Then, as I was leaving, he said “Come back at midnight.” I came back at midnight and my father died at five past 12. So he'd done it...’

He said his father had been given just three to four days to live when he asked the doctor to perform the mercy killing. Asked if he agreed with voluntary euthanasia, Sir Michael, 77, said: ‘Oh I think so, yeah. I think if you're in a state to where life is no longer bearable, if you want to go. I'm not saying that anyone else should make the decision, but I made the request, but my father was semi-conscious.’

We know nothing about this sad case apart from what Sir Michael Caine has told us and should therefore be very wary in drawing conclusions about what actually happened, especially in the light of the recent controversy around Ray Gosling’s discredited confessions about smothering a gay lover. Elderly celebrities have their own vulnerabilities which should not be exploited by media people hungry for a good international news story or campaigners looking for another friendly face to drive their campaign to soften up public opinion on euthanasia.

We are told that Caine’s father had only days to live but cannot know whether he died from a lethal injection or from the disease itself and have no objective medical evidence to draw on that might help us to know for sure. Witnesses apart from Sir Michael may be long dead.

We also need to take note that this case occurred 55 years ago in 1955 when palliative care was not as it is today and when many dying patients were not managed well. It is simply not necessary to kill the patient in order to kill the pain and any doctor who uses pain as a defence for ending a patient’s life is either incompetent, inadequately trained or just being disingenuous.

Earlier in July this year an international survey by the Economist Intelligence unit ranked Britain first in ‘Quality of End-of-Life Care’ which includes indicators such as public awareness, training availability, access to pain killers and doctor-patient transparency.

The British Medical Association, at its annual general meeting in July this year passed a motion affirming that requests for assisted suicide and euthanasia are very rare when patients are being properly cared for and called for better training of doctors and education of the public about palliative care.

That this Meeting, recognising that persistent requests for assisted suicide and euthanasia are very rare when patients' physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs are being appropriately met, calls on the BMA to campaign for:
(ii) better training in palliative medicine for all GPs and hospital doctors involved in managing dying patients;
(iii) better education of the public about what good palliative care can achieve.

We should also be wary of any media reports linking this case with the recent DPP guidelines on prosecution criteria for assisted suicide.

If Michael Caine’s father was indeed killed intentionally by his doctor with an overdose of painkiller without actually requesting it (being semi-conscious at the time) then this would not be a case of assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia but rather non-voluntary euthanasia. And the DPP has recently refused to excuse any kind of euthanasia on compassionate grounds.

Is was somewhat inevitable that pressure groups such as Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society would seize on this case involving a high profile celebrity as an opportunity to further their agenda of legalising so-called ‘assisted dying’ for the ‘terminally ill’ (two terms they are not willing to define precisely).

However if they are asking for the law to be changed for cases such as this then they are extending their agenda beyond assisted suicide for the mentally competent terminally ill to include non-voluntary euthanasia for the mentally incompetent.

Are we seeing more evidence of incremental extension here? I wonder.

The House of Lords has twice in the last five years (in 2006 and 2009) rejected any change in the law to allow ‘assisted suicide’ for so-called compassionate reasons on grounds of the danger such a move would pose to public safety – especially for disabled and elderly people who might feel their lives to be a burden to others. All medical institutions including the BMA, RCGP, RCP and Association for Palliative Medicine remain opposed to any change in the law for similar reasons.

Friday 8 October 2010

Some brief Christian reflections on infertility treatments to mark Robert Edward’s receiving the Nobel Peace prize in medicine

The decision to award the Nobel prize in medicine to Robert Edwards(pictured), the British scientist who developed IVF, has met with a mixed reaction. On the one hand there have been 4 million babies born to couples who would not otherwise have been able to conceive. On the other IVF has opened what many regard as a Pandora ’s Box of genetic engineering, cloning, pre-implantation diagnosis, embryonic stem cell harvest and animal-human hybrids.

I’m not intending to comment on the appropriateness of Dr Edward’s award or weigh the perceived benefits of his research against its downside but rather to use the occasion for some brief Christian reflections on infertility treatments.

There are over two million infertile couples in the UK (one in eight). Infertility can result from defects in the production, release or transport of egg or sperm and successful treatment depends on accurate diagnosis. The range of treatments and their speed of development is bewildering, and not all couples need IVF: other common treatments include artificial insemination (AI), intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and gamete intra-fallopian transfer (GIFT).

In IVF (in vitro fertilisation), sperm and eggs are brought together in a petri dish, and resulting embryos are then transferred into the womb. There is a high failure rate (75-85% per cycle) and the treatment costs of £2,500 per cycle will exhaust the resources of many of the couples who are unable to get NHS treatment. The emotional roller coaster of raised hope and dashed expectation is another important cost to be counted; but I believe the most important decisions Christians need to make involve honouring embryonic life and upholding the marriage bond. We should not seek a child at any cost (Romans 3:8).

Some IVF programmes involve the production of spare embryos, which are then used for research, disposed of, or frozen for future use. Freezing compromises embryo survival and there is a high chance that frozen embryos will never be used. Other programmes involve screening out embryos or fetuses with congenital disease either before implantation or later in pregnancy. Our society thinks that because human embryos are small, weak and physically insignificant they are expendable. But this is at odds with the God’s loving grace, which sees even the weakest of human beings as precious, and worthy of wonder, love, respect and protection.

The other key question to consider is whether the use of donated eggs or sperm somehow violates the marriage relationship. Clearly using donor gametes does not involve sex outside marriage nor the cheating nor lust aspects of an adulterous relationship. But marriage is a spiritual, emotional and physical union in which two become one and donor eggs or sperm inevitably introduce a third person that will be genetically related to the child, but play no part in their upbringing. And the child will be biologically related only to one, or perhaps neither of his or her parents.

So my own guidance is that prospective parents considering IVF should carefully count the economic and emotional cost and seek treatments that both respect the human embryo and also honour the marriage bond.

Some infertile Christian couples will go on to conceive, either naturally or with ethical infertility treatment, after a period of waiting. But this does not happen for all, and God in his wisdom has left some couples childless despite good treatment and patient prayer. Perhaps this is to ensure that there are couples with a strong desire to be parents, who can either adopt children, serve others’ children in some way or be freed up for some other special purpose which God has for them.

These comments are based on a longer article in Nucleus, which can be accessed here

Those wanting a more in depth review of the issues can’t do much better than Fertility and Faith by Brendan McCarthy (IVP, 1997, ISBN: 0851111807)

Thursday 7 October 2010

Humiliating defeat for Council of Europe pro-abortion activists who attempted to criminalise conscientious objection to abortion

You may not read about this in any British newspaper but, as reported on LifeSite News, an attempt to erase the conscience rights of EU health care workers with respect to abortion was soundly defeated at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) this evening. The report reads as follows:

'In a vote of 56 to 51, the PACE rejected the proposal of Christine McCafferty, a British politician and abortion activist, to ‘regulate’ conscientious objectors to abortion across Europe.

The McCafferty Report, titled ‘Women’s access to lawful medical care: the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection’ is the latest in a string of EU and PACE efforts to establish abortion as a universal human right.

As of tonight, Resolution 1763, re-titled ‘The right to conscientious objection in lawful medical care’ (see revised wording), instead of creating a requirement for doctors to participate in abortion, actually affirms their right to refuse.

The provisional edition published tonight reads, ‘No person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion, the performance of a human miscarriage, or euthanasia or any act which could cause the death of a human foetus or embryo, for any reason.’

Irish senator Ronan Mullen (pictured) and Luca Volonte of Italy, led the assembly in passing a series of amendments which totally reversed the thrust of the report. These changes forced McCafferty and other pro-abortion Assembly members to vote against their own proposal.

Had the measure been passed in its original form it would have placed pressure on European governments to pass legislation limiting the right to conscientious objection. This will now not happen. The vote is being called ‘a victory for common sense and for freedom’.

The move to defeat the proposal received support from unexpected quarters earlier today when Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, Britain’s largest abortion ‘provider’, outlined in her Independent blog the reasons she did not support McCafferty. ‘We think it is better that doctors with a moral objection to abortion do have the opportunity to opt out of services’, she said.

The principle of conscientious objection to abortion is upheld in the 1948 Declaration of Geneva, which was originally adopted by the World Medical Association in response to the atrocities performed by some doctors under the Nazi regime.

This declaration includes the phrase ‘I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception; even against threat I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity’.

The British Abortion Act 1967 enshrines in law the right for doctors to abstain from ‘participation’ in abortion. Although this clearly provides an exemption to those who object to physically performing the procedure, it is still not clear what protection it offers to those who refuse more peripheral involvement.

The application of the law has recently been reviewed in Triple Helix in the light of the General Medical Council’s 2008 guidance, ‘Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice’.

This review mentions a letter I received from the GMC at the time confirming that doctors who objected to involvement in abortion are not breaching the GMC guidance if they refuse to:

1. Sign abortion authorisation forms
2. Clerk patients for abortion (ie carry out pre-op examination and assessment)
3. Refer patients seeking abortion to other doctors who will authorise it

Were a law restricting conscientious objection to abortion ever to be passed in Britain, Christians would of course be obliged to obey the higher law of conscience and take whatever consequences came their way. But for now conscience remains legally protected.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

When you see a new pro-euthanasia doctors group given a media soapbox next week remember that they constitute a small vocal minority

A new pro-euthanasia group called Health Professionals for Change is due to be launched on 13 October at the Kings Fund.

The group will be chaired by Oxford GP Ann McPherson (pictured), who herself is dying of pancreatic cancer and the launch is expected to be attended by a small number of high profile doctors including former GMC chairman Sir Graeme Catto and Geriatrician Dr Ray Tallis.

The event will, unsurprisingly, be supported by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), which has in recent years undergone an image makeover including a refashioning of its stated aims, in order to achieve its aim of establishing legally sanctioned compassionate killing in Britain.

McPherson is quoted in the Observer using words that could have been (and most probably were) drafted for her by the DID press office: ‘Many of us believe dying patients should not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life. Alongside access to good quality end-of-life care, we believe that terminally ill, mentally competent patients should be able to choose an assisted death, subject to safeguards.’

In order to disguise their real intentions, DID have in recent years attempted to position themselves as champions of ‘good quality end-of-life care’ as a smokescreen for advancing their real agenda of legalised compassionate killing. But their malleable key terms ‘terminally ill’, ‘assisted death’ and ‘safeguards’ are, here as typically, left conveniently undefined.

The pro-euthanasia lobby have been repeatedly frustrated in Parliament, being twice defeated in the House of Lords since 2006, and have also been repeatedly blocked by the medical institutions; hence this new group.

Doctors have historically long been opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide. The Hippocratic Oath forbids both as do more recent codes of ethics such as the Declaration of Geneva and The International Code of Medical Ethics.

The majority of doctors in the UK also remain opposed to a change in the law and medical opposition has actually intensified in recent years. The largest recent surveys show only 22-38% of all doctors in favour of a change.

Opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide is strongest amongst doctors who work most closely with dying patients – neurologists, geriatricians and specialists in palliative medicine. In fact almost 95% of the membership of the Association for Palliative Medicine of Great Britain & Ireland, which represents over 800 UK specialists in palliative care, is opposed to any change in the law and the association has been a core member organization of the anti-euthanasia alliance Care Not Killing since the latter’s formation in 2005.

The British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), the Royal College of Anaesthetists, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the British Geriatric Society also remain strongly opposed to any legal change.

Why is it that doctors who have the most experience working with dying patients are most strongly opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide? Probably because they both understand how vulnerable dying patients are and also know how to manage pain and other distressing symptoms (physical, psychological and spiritual) at the end of life. If you know what to do in a crisis, you are much less likely to reach desperately for a syringe of injectable poison when confronted with someone who is begging for relief.

According to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit published in July this year the UK leads the way globally in terms of its hospice care network and statutory involvement in end-of-life care. Specifically it ranks first in the ‘Quality of End-of-Life Care’ category, which includes indicators such as public awareness, training availability, access to pain killers and doctor-patient transparency.

Of course there is always room for improvement, and we must strive to be even better and to make the best care more widely accessible, but given that requests for euthanasia and assisted suicide are extremely rare when patients are properly cared for (most palliative physicians report less than ten cases of patients with a persistent wish to die in a practising lifetime) the question has to be asked, ‘Why is it that euthanasia and assisted suicide in Britain are so seldom out of the media spotlight?’

The answer is very clear. We have an extremely well-funded and resourced pro-euthanasia movement in this country, with plenty of media and celebrity support and public relations machinery which ensures that it is only seldom neither seen nor heard.

So when you see a small group of doctors given a soapbox next week to parade 'hard cases' and mouth specious euphemisms in an attempt to soften up public and parliamentary opinion on legalising compassionate killing, remember that they constitute a minority of a profession that remains largely opposed to any change in the law.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Some of the public reaction to Virginia Ironside advocating smothering a suffering child was deeply disturbing

Many viewers watching BBC1’s religious programme Sunday Morning Live last weekend will have been shocked to hear agony aunt Virginia Ironside advocating smothering a suffering child as an act of motherly love.

Her actual words? 'If I were the mother of a suffering child - I mean a deeply suffering child - I would be the first to want to put a pillow over its face... If it was a child I really loved, who was in agony, I think any good mother would.' She added, 'If a baby's going to be born severely disabled or totally unwanted, surely an abortion is the act of a loving mother.'

Another guest on the programme, Rev Joanna Jepson (pictured), was left open-mouthed and presenter Susanna Reid looked visibly shocked during the live debate, responding: 'That's a pretty horrifying thing to say, that you would put a pillow over a suffering child.'

Ironside’s comments understandably sparked a storm of complaints from viewers and an outcry from disability rights spokespeople but personally I was left even more deeply disturbed by the amount of apparent public support for her views.

If the rapid responses on the Daily Mail website represent in any way the views of the general population (and are not simply those of a vocal minority drafted in for the occasion by eugenic activists) then it seems that many British people actually agree with Ironside. Furthermore, those comments supportive of Ironside’s position attracted the most ‘thumbs up’ from readers whilst those criticising her stance were uniformly given the ‘thumbs down’.

One respondent, calling herself, ‘Widget’ of ‘Broken Britain’, attracted over 1,400 stars from fellow readers for writing, ‘I can see what she is saying - or rather trying to say - and I completely agree. What loving, caring mother would make the conscious decision to bring a child into the world that would live in continual pain and agony and have zero quality of life for its whole existence?’

We are now in Britain well used to pro-euthanasia advocates Dignity in Dying’s calls for a change in the law to allow ‘mentally competent adults suffering unbearably with terminal illness’ to receive lethal injections to end their lives.

But it seems that many members of the public, undoubtedly affected by the protrayal of seemingly desperate cases on the media, now wish to go much further than this. And in fact to do so actually follows logically from what we are already doing. If we abort over 95% of all babies with Down Syndrome diagnosed before birth on the basis that their lives are judged not to worth living, then why not allow infanticide just a few months later, or equally, why not legalise euthanasia for mentally incompetent patients with brain injury or dementia at the other end of life? Wouldn't this be simply taking the principle to its logical conclusion?

Historic codes of medical ethics, like the Hippocratic Oath and Declaration of Geneva, however, forbid all compassionate killing for very good reason.

Some years ago I came across the words of a doctor given in defence at a euthanasia trial and was struck by how compassionate they seemed.

'My underlying motive was the desire to help individuals who could not help themselves... such considerations should not be regarded as inhuman. Nor did I feel it in any way to be unethical or immoral... I am convinced that if Hippocrates were alive today he would change the wording of his oath... in which a doctor is forbidden to administer poison to an invalid even on demand... I have a perfectly clear conscience about the part I played in the affair. I am perfectly conscious that when I said yes to euthanasia I did so with the greatest conviction, just as it is my conviction today that it is right'.

It was seeing the name attached to the testimony that brought me up short. The words were actually spoken at Nuremberg by Karl Brandt, the doctor responsible for co-ordinating the German euthanasia programme during the Second World War. Ironically, many of those involved were in doctors who seemed to be motivated initially by compassion for their victims. But their consciences, and that of the society which allowed them to do what they did, gradually became numbed.

The Nazi holocaust, contrary to popular opinion, did not begin with jack-booted Nazis in death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka in the mid 1940s. Rather it had far subtler beginnings with doctors in hospitals and psychiatric institutions in the 1930s. And the very first victims were 6,000 disabled children whose lives were judged not to be worth living and who were killed for reasons of ‘compassion’.

You see, once you start killing out of compassion, it can be very difficult to draw a line. And like a frog who makes no attempt to escape from water which is gradually brought to the boil, if the change in temperature is gradual enough, it can be very difficult to perceive what is happening until it is too late. Given some of the reaction to Ironside’s comments it might already be too late for Britain.

Saturday 2 October 2010

American scientists make new breakthrough in producing embryonic-like stem cells by ethical means but British media doesn’t notice

The NECN headline this week ‘Harvard scientists make huge stem cell discovery’, is one of over 1,400 in the last few days announcing the latest development in the race to produce patient specific stem cells (pictured) without using human embryos. Ethical treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis are now one tantalising step closer.

But interestingly you will not read about it (yet) in any British newspaper or on any British online news outlet.

The tendency of the British media to sensationalise ‘advances’ in embryo stem cell research whilst ignoring or underplaying more promising ethical research using adult and umbilical stem cells is long-lived.

Ten years ago, after the 1999 Donaldson Report recommended allowing scientists to clone human embryos for stem cell research using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), CMF branded the research 'unethical and unnecessary' in a Triple Helix editorial and sounded a strong note of caution. We argued that the enthusiasm for this new technology was 'based more on political expediency than wise reflection' and warned that 'the prospect of revolutionary new treatments (would) undoubtedly entice investors to move funds away from other less glamorous, but potentially more promising avenues of research'.

Since 2000 we have witnessed the glorious failure of scientists in Britain and elsewhere to produce patient-specific stem cells from cloned human embryos. Subsequently, the limited availability and dangers of harvesting human eggs for research fuelled the shift to using cytoplasmic animal-human hybrids ('cybrids'). This was supported by a massive propaganda campaign in 2007-8 involving scientists, patient groups, and politicians, and led by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris with the willing co-operation of Times Science Correspondent Mark Henderson.

As a result, in an impassioned Observer article in May 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed animal-human hybrids as 'a profound opportunity to save and transform millions of lives' and expressed his commitment to this research as 'an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and over time millions of people'. The measure was supported in a heavily whipped vote as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, now the HFE Act.

Ironically, before the new Act had even come into force, the news broke that stem cells from animal-human hybrids were seen as a poor investment and almost certainly wouldn't work. In January 2009, the two leading UK researchers granted licences for the work, Stephen Minger of Kings College London and Lyle Armstrong at Newcastle University Centre for Life, were denied funding by the Medical Research Council.

The British Medical Journal reported that the grant applications had been turned down because the reviewers considered that they were not competitive in the face of the lack of overall funding for medical research in the United Kingdom.

Minger himself admitted that he believed the distribution of research funding should be competitive, based on assessment of scientific value and cost, and noted that induced pluripotent stem cells are cheaper to set up than human-animal hybrid stem cell research. No one it seemed wanted to invest money in the new research, given the low likelihood of it ever yielding results and the emergence of cheaper ethical alternatives.

Less than three weeks later, in a landmark paper in Cloning and Stem Cells, Robert Lanza and colleagues from Advanced Cell Technology, Massachusetts, demonstrated that animal oocytes lack the capacity to fully reprogramme and activate adult human cells, and specifically the pluripotency-associated genes needed for stem cell production. The hybrid embryos from mouse, cow and rabbit eggs looked microscopically normal but were genetically flawed. Journal Editor Sir Ian Wilmut, the British cloning pioneer involved in the 1996 creation of Dolly the sheep, concluded that 'production of patient-specific stem cells by this means would (now) be impracticable'.

Wilmut had himself already abandoned embryonic stem cell research, in favour of iPS, induced pluripotent stem cells (produced ethically by dedifferentiating somatic cells to produce embryonic-like stem cells). Yamanaka and Thomson's seminal work in this area in late 2007 was later dubbed the scientific breakthrough of the year by the magazine Science.

Some scientists had expressed concern that Yamanaka had used virus vectors to transfer the genes which would reprogramme the somatic cells. But on 1 March 2009, in a later twist, a UK and Canadian team succeeded in turning somatic cells into embryonic-like stem cells, without using viruses.

But now, in a further major advance this week, American scientists have gone a step further. Derrick Rossi and colleagues of Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have reported in a paper published online by the journal Cell Stem Cell that they have produced induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from skin cells using modified forms of messenger RNA. The new technique appears to be one hundred times more efficient than that initially pioneered by Yamanaka.

Other experts have praised the work. Marius Wernig, an iPS researcher at Stanford University called the process ‘highly efficient’ and added that if the initial promise is borne out this ‘would be the first practical method for generating iPS cells that could be used for transplant therapies’. He added, ‘If it turns out to be a very efficient way of generating iPS cells without any genetic modification, then it would be a big advance’.

Kathrin Plath of the University of California, Los Angeles, called the work ‘very impressive’ and said it appears to show the best approach so far for making such cells for transplant tissue.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there are currently over 1,400 articles on the web about this new breakthrough but not one I can find in a British newspaper. Instead the British press has been highlighting the story of a doctor struck off by the GMC for the unethical use of bogus stem cell treatments.

I suspect that when this new advance is finally reported it will be underplayed and made without any reference to Britain’s ten years of blind alley investment in embryonic stem cell research.

Perhaps the last word belongs to leading US stem cell scientist James Sherley: 'For those trained in the science, this is not news, but instead a completed fate that was known from the beginning' – a timely reminder that in good science the end does not justify the means (Romans 3:8).

Friday 1 October 2010

Nottingham hospital officials shoot themselves in the foot by proposing Gideon Bible ban

I gather that hospital officials at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust want to ban Gideon Bibles from patients’ bedside lockers.

The ban, at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, is intended to help cut levels of infectious superbugs such as MRSA. Apparently they want all bedside areas in Queen’s Medical Centre and City Hospital kept tidy and ‘clutter-free’ to stop disease spreading.

A similar proposed ban in Leicester in 2005 was called off after being criticised as ‘political correctness gone mad’ and after an outcry from local Christians Nottingham hospital officials are now consulting staff, patients and chaplains before bringing in the ban.

A ban on Gideon Bibles makes little sense as an infection control measure. The MRSA risk is low and to be consistent hospitals would have to ban newspapers, library books and all paper from patients’ bedsides. One wonders about the real motivation here.

The move also betrays a profound ignorance of the link between spirituality and health. A major review of 1,200 studies in the British Medical Journal showed a 60-80% relation between better health and spirituality and summarised a growing body of medical research showing that religious faith has a positive impact on disease prevention, coping with illness, recovering from surgery and improving treatment outcomes. The majority of these studies specifically evaluated the Christian faith and the majority of them have now been gathered in Koenig’s magnum Handbook of Religion and Health,which is regarded by many as the key authoritative text on the subject.

This and other scientific evidence has convincingly demonstrated that a natural by-product of religious faith is longer life, less illness, better physical and mental health, more marital stability, less divorce, less suicide and less abuse of alcohol and other substances, all outcomes that we would expect a health authority might be keen to promote.

The Gideons is a respected organisation operating in 181 countries that for over 100 years has been distributing Bibles free of charge. It is deeply ironic that this latest ban is being considered on highly tenuous grounds in a country where 70% still claim to be Christian and where members of other faiths have not been offended.

It is also sad that by doing so hospital managers risk depriving vulnerable people of spiritual comfort and may well be shooting themselves in the foot with respect to promoting health.