Thursday 28 April 2011

More fiction and hype about embryonic stem cells as scientists fear withdrawal of funding in patent scrap

Stem cell scientists are kicking up an enormous fuss over a ruling expected very soon from the European Court of Justice about patents for embryonic stem cells.

They are up to their usual tricks hyping up the therapeutic potential of these cells for a variety of degenerative diseases and the BBC is obliging in its usual manner by transcribing their press releases for distribution around the world without any critical analysis of the underlying issues.

In a letter to Nature, about 30 scientists have expressed 'profound concern' about moves at the Court of Justice to make it unlawful to allow patents where research involves destroying embryos. The judges are not bound to follow the advice but frequently do so.

In their letter the scientists argue that the biotechnology industry would have no incentive to invest in this area unless their innovations could be protected with patents.

One of the co-signatories is Professor Austin Smith from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge has said, 'It would be devastating if the court was to follow this advice. It would put at threat the future of biomedical research in Europe and some projects here could collapse.'

This story is primarily not about science. It's about money. If the judgement goes the way it looks headed the biotechnology companies who provide these scientists' research grants may well look to invest their money elsewhere.

Smith goes on, 'It would also send the message that scientists are engaged in immoral activity so this is very negative for our community and it would erode public confidence in what we do.'

Quite! If the news got out that thousands of human embryos are being cannibalised for no good purpose other than funding scientific curiosity and raising biotechnology company share values it might indeed influence public opinion.

Would that be a bad thing given the way that UK scientists have overhyped embryonic stem cells to a gullible public and parliament for over ten years with very little to show for it in terms of any promise of therapeutic advance?

I have blogged about this issue many times before and won't repeat the arguments here but refer readers to my past blogs on spinal cord injury, cord blood, three parent embryos and adult stem cells where the arguments are outlined in some detail.

If you follow the links in these you will be able to access information about the science in this whole arena which you may never learn from the BBC or the press releases of scientists whose salaries are paid by the biotechnology industry.

The case before the court was originally begun by Greenpeace in Germany.

An adviser to Greenpeace, Dr Christoph Then, said the organisation was not opposed to all stem cell research: 'We do not think the opinion of the Advocate General is so clear. Our original purpose was to clarify the patent law, especially around the industrial use of embryos.'

It is the commercial exploitation of human life that bothers them. It bothers me too. And I think it would bother thousands more people too if they were able to learn the truth.

A ruling from the European Court of Justice is expected within a couple of months. It will not stop embryo research but it could potentially take the wind out of the European biotechnology industry's sails by making it no longer economically viable to fund embryonic stem cell research.

That would mean less money wasted on blind alley research by people with financial and ideological vested interests and more being invested where it is really needed for the good of all - in adult stem cell technology.

There is some helpful background on the ruling on the CORE website, including a description of how advocates for embryonic stem cell research are attempting to redefine the human embryo in an attempt to push this through.

Here, from CORE, is a summary of the legal precedent that has led to the case:

'It should be noted that this prohibition is not a novelty. It is clearly stated in Article 6 of Biotech Patents Directive (98/44) which binds all EU members since 1998. The first paragraph of this directive describes inventions as unpatentable where their commercial exploitation would be contrary to ordre public or morality. It goes on to specify in the next paragraph that the prohibitions include particular processes for cloning human beings or for modifying the germline genetic identity of human beings, as well as the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes. None of these practices are patentable.'

We await the final ruling with interest. Expect much more shroud-waving, squealing, empty promises, half-truths and strident propaganda from scientists until then.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Why is an offshoot of a euthanasia pressure group launching a ‘how-to-die’ helpline?

I see that staff of Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, are planning to set up the UK's first helpline aimed at speeding the terminally ill towards 'a good death'.

The free phone line, is to be set up under the auspices of DID’s sister organisation Compassion in Dying, a registered charity.

The two groups are intimately entwined. Compassion in Dying’s chief executive is Sarah Wootton, a former abortion rights campaigner, who is also heads up Dignity in Dying.

The organisation is run from Dignity in Dying’s Office and is manned by DID staff. DID patrons serve on its board.

Compassion in Dying (CID) says it exists to exploit 'existing end-of-life rights' and will pass on information to callers.

The helpline will be staffed by a psychologist working part-time on a salary of £24,000 pro rata. Interviews were held in the week of 14 March and the helpline will be launched ‘this summer’.

Judging by Compassion in Dying’s downloadable information guide, the helpline will mainly be providing advice on end of life treatment options made legal under the Mental Capacity Act.

These will include helping people to set up advance directives to refuse various treatments should they lose mental competency.

The charity also offers help to people seeking to bring prosecutions against doctors or health authorities who will not comply with advance decisions such as those demanding the withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration from people who have lost mental capacity as a result of stroke or dementia.

The guidance states: ‘If you find yourself in a situation where your wishes are not respected, we are here to help you. Contact Compassion in Dying… and we will assist you further and provide you with useful legal contacts should you find yourself in these situations.’

It goes on to offer advice to relatives who wish to take cases to the Court of Protection, which has come under criticism for its lack of transparency over a recent case involving a gagging order: ‘If you strongly disagree with the treatment decisions doctors are making regarding a loved one who is no longer mentally competent, you may need to apply to the Court of Protection. The Court was set up under the Mental Capacity Act to resolve such disputes quickly.’

Will the CID helpline be providing help to people who want advice about how to commit assisted suicide or euthanasia? That is not currently clear.

Its booklet refers people to Dignity in Dying for this sort of advice: ‘This booklet does not discuss the option of assisted dying because this is currently illegal under UK law and is therefore not a right. Our partner organisation Dignity in Dying campaigns for terminally ill, mentally competent adults who are suffering unbearably to be given the option of an assisted death, subject to a range of legal safeguards. For information on the law on assisted dying, or to join the campaign contact Dignity in Dying…’

As the two organizations are essentially one and the same, sharing staff and operating from the same address, one wonders how calls seeking advice on committing assisted suicide will actually be handled practically.

Will they simply divert the call to another phone line (perhaps even manned by the same person at the same desk), or will the person answering the phone just put on a different 'hat' and carry on with the call?

Dignity in Dying’s sister organization 'Compassion and Choices', based in Oregon, already acts as a 'one-stop shop' providing a portal for people who want help to kill themselves under Oregon's controversial Death with Dignity Act.

I wonder if Dignity in Dying is gearing up to go in the same direction? It is currently actively campaigning to change the law and has financed a private commission, now discredited, to provide ‘evidence’ to support the legalization of assisted suicide.

Either way Dignity in Dying is sailing very close to the wind. Encouraging or assisting suicide is a crime carrying a prison sentence of up to fourteen years in the event of a successful prosecution.

All of the information Compassion in Dying provides is currently freely available from other sources, which leaves us with the question, ‘Why is an offshoot of a euthanasia pressure group providing these services at the end of a phone line, for free?’

Surely what people need is independent advice and information, not the help of a campaign group with a very clear agenda.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

There are more sensitive ways of encouraging discussion about dying than filming someone’s moment of death for national television

The BBC is today facing a new controversy over the way it handles death after it was revealed in both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph that the corporation is to screen a dying man’s last breath in a programme about the human body.

This news comes a little over a week after I accused the BBC of being a ‘cheer leader for assisted suicide’ for filming a man killing himself at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland for a separate programme.

Yesterday it emerged that the second episode of the BBC1 Science series called ’Inside the human body’ to be broadcast on 12 May will show the moment an 84 year old man called Gerald dies at home of cancer surrounded by his family.

As expected the BBC have strongly defended their actions.

BBC presenter Michael Mosley has denied that the screening of the death is voyeuristic and exploits an intensely personal moment. He claims the support of ‘many who work closely with the dying’ for filming and showing on national television ‘a peaceful and natural death’.

Another BBC spokesman has said, commenting on the programme, that ‘death is an important part of the human experience and showing Gerald’s death is integral to understanding what happens to the body when it no longer is able to function properly. The BBC does not shy away from difficult subjects like this, but presents them in a sensitive and appropriate manner’.

I’m not sure on past record that the BBC itself is the best judge of sensitivity and appropriateness.

While on the one hand it makes a welcome change for the BBC to be discussing natural death rather than promoting assisted suicide there is a huge difference between depicting death in a fictional drama and showing the actual moment of death of a real person.

Personally I welcome the fact that the BBC is showing a film on natural death. This is certainly a subject that it should not be shying away from but the issue could easily be opened up for discussion without a real moment of death having to be shown on television. It is very hard to understand why exposing such a private and personal moment to the gaze of all and sundry is really necessary.

Some decades ago when most deaths took place at home, the majority of people would have witnessed the dying process in the context of normal family life. Similarly, most people at some stage would have seen the dead body of a family member.

It perhaps says something powerful about the way we have shut death and dying away in hospital wards that it has now become the subject of this sort of intrusive voyeurism.

There is a huge amount of work to be done in alleviating the anxiety that many people now have about the dying process largely as a result of unbalanced scaremongering publicity about bad deaths propagated by the pro-euthanasia movement with media support.

The reality, especially with good palliative care, is that the majority of people die relatively comfortably today with distressing symptoms like pain and nausea well controlled. I hope that the BBC programme conveys something of this reality. There is certainly opportunity to do so.

As I have previously documented, by the time the summer arrives the BBC will have in the last three years shown a total of six programmes presented or produced by people who are advocates for changing the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia or who are strongly sympathetic to that position.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a BBC documentary or docudrama which focused on the testimony of a dying or disabled person who was opposed to a change in the law or which sensitively and factually conveyed the truth about what palliative care can achieve for dying patients?

But would it make good television? Judging by its track record thus far the BBC appears not to think so.

Leading article in Independent shows 'tolerant liberals' at their intolerant illiberal worst

Delegates at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Harrogate have warned that ‘homophobic bullying in schools is “endemic" and likely to rise with the impending growth in the number of faith schools’ and, in a motion overwhelmingly backed by delegates, have called on their union ‘to conduct an investigation into discrimination in faith schools’.

Bullying is to be denounced and should not be tolerated in any school in any circumstances for any reason but today’s accompanying 'leading article' in the Independent, titled ‘Faith schools must confront homophobia’, has a much more pernicious tone and insidious agenda.

Its main failings are its failure to define the term 'homophobia' (it conflates 'believing that homosexual acts are morally wrong' with 'hating gay people') and its assumption that there is such a thing in our multi-faith and multicultural society as a 'an agreed set of British values'.

In this way, rather than providing a basis for discussing an important issue (bullying directed against gay people), it risks doing little more than stirring up prejudice against people who subscribe to religious faith. Maybe that is its intention.

Surely the whole problem is that as a society we do not actually have 'an agreed set of values'. Britain is not a monoculture and it is certainly not a monocultural 'modern, liberal society' however much the author might wish that it was.

Part of respecting diversity is to understand that intelligent and well-meaning people come to different views on morality, ethics and on which of the broad range of world views held by British people they think most closely reflects reality.

This high-handed and patronising editorial paints a rather perverse (and largely untrue) picture of faith schools as emphasising 'differences between people rather than uniting them', sourcing 'their core values in historically intolerant creeds' and allowing 'bigotry' to 'shelter behind the mantle of religious conviction'.

It is precisely this sort of intolerance expressed by the (conveniently anonymous) author that stirs up prejudice towards, and even demonises, people of faith

I suspect the writer's real intention is to promote the secular fundamentalist agenda with the aim of undermining public funding for schools which espouse any 'faith' other than secular humanism.

But a free, liberal and tolerant society is actually one where diverse views on such issues as morality, God, sex, origins and the afterlife are both recognised and allowed to be taught and expressed.

Let's stamp out bullying by all means - but let's not allow it to be used as a platform for promoting the secular fundamentalist agenda and demonisng everyone who thinks differently.

(For an alternative perspective on 'homophobia' see my previous blog on homophobia and homoscepticism)

Saturday 23 April 2011

Disabled people's charity suicide warning builds on launch last year of the Resistance Campaign

The News of the World reports today that that a leading disabled people's charity has hit out against the 'headlong rush' to allow assisted suicide in Britain.

Scope boss Richard Hawkes (pictured) claims that Lord Falconer's discredited Commission on Assisted Dying, which was set up to examine whether a change in the law is needed, has already made up its mind. And he fears disabled people could feel under pressure to take their own lives.

'We are deeply concerned that the commission is a foregone conclusion, with the debate loaded in favour of assisted dying,' he said.

'Disabled people are worried about people assuming their life isn't worth living or seeing them as a burden.'

Scope's announcement today follows the launch of the Resistance Campaign in June last when disabled people from across the UK came together in Westminster in order to ensure that legislation prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia remained in place.

The Not Dead Yet UK ‘Resistance’ campaign included the launch of a charter that was subsequently sent to all MPs, asking them to support the campaign’s aims and commit to fighting for disabled and terminally ill constituents.

The charter’s key points include:

· A recognition that disabled and terminally ill people should have the same legal protection as everyone else
· A commitment to support disabled and terminally ill constituents to access the health, social and other services that they need
· A commitment to oppose any change to the current law, which makes assisted suicide illegal.

Campaigners pointed out that some people view disabled people’s lives as not worth living, contrary to the view of many disabled people themselves. High profile cases of disabled people who want the law changed to make assisted suicide easier are the exception rather than the rule, they argued.

Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton, convenor for Not Dead Yet UK, pointed out at the time that the likelihood of cuts in services across the country would create additional challenges for disabled people. She said:

'There have been two attempts to weaken assisted dying legislation in the past four years, with further discussions taking place in the Scottish parliament now. We face a bleak situation if calls for assisted suicide to be lawful are renewed whilst vital services are being withdrawn or denied.'

'Disabled and terminally ill people need help and support to live, not to die. We cannot allow others to speak for us; especially those who seek to offer us the choice of a premature death. It is not a choice – it is to abandon us.'

Legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide: the illusion of safeguards – New Review

I’m grateful to Wesley Smith for drawing my attention to this article just published in the Canadian Journal ‘Current Oncology’.

Palliative Medicine Specialist Dr José Pereira, in a detailed paper, ‘Legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide: the illusion of safeguards and controls, outlines just how poor guidelines are at protecting the vulnerable.

We often hear from the pro-euthanasia lobby that they are only interested in legalising assisted suicide or euthanasia with so-called ‘strict safeguards’ – usually only for people who are ‘mentally competent, terminally ill adults’.

And yet the two major arguments they employ (autonomy - 'it's my right' - and compassion - 'my suffering is unbearable') can be equally applied to people who are neither mentally competent nor terminally ill.

There is thus a logical slippery slope operating, in that if you accept assisted suicide or euthanasia is applicable for some under strict criteria, then it must follow logically that it will also be applicable for others outside these bounds.

Activists pushing for legalisation are obviously aware of this.

Any law allowing assisted suicide or euthanasia on any grounds at all would be ripe for challenge under equality and diversity legislation – hence the charge that activists are knowingly using the excuse of ‘robust safeguards’ to disguise the fact that they are actually working to an agenda of incremental extension: progressive legalisation by a series of imperceptibly small steps.

Pereira looks at the slippery slope in practice in those jurisdictions that have legalised assited suicide and euthanasia and shows that the safeguards are illusory.

I’d recommend reading his whole article – but I have reproduced the abstract and summary below to give you a flavour of the content.


‘Euthanasia or assisted suicide—and sometimes both—have been legalized in a small number of countries and states. In all jurisdictions, laws and safeguards were put in place to prevent abuse and misuse of these practices. Prevention measures have included, among others, explicit consent by the person requesting euthanasia, mandatory reporting of all cases, administration only by physicians (with the exception of Switzerland), and consultation by a second physician.

The present paper provides evidence that these laws and safeguards are regularly ignored and transgressed in all the jurisdictions and that transgressions are not prosecuted. For example, about 900 people annually are administered lethal substances without having given explicit consent, and in one jurisdiction, almost 50% of cases of euthanasia are not reported. Increased tolerance of transgressions in societies with such laws represents a social “slippery slope,” as do changes to the laws and criteria that followed legalization.

Although the initial intent was to limit euthanasia and assisted suicide to a last resort option for a very small number of terminally ill people, some jurisdictions now extend the practice to newborns, children, and people with dementia. A terminal illness is no longer a prerequisite. In the Netherlands, euthanasia for anyone over the age of 70 who is “tired of living” is now being considered. Legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide therefore places many people at risk, affects the values of society over time, and does not provide controls and safeguards.'


'In 30 years, the Netherlands has moved from euthanasia of people who are terminally ill, to euthanasia of those who are chronically ill; from euthanasia for physical illness, to euthanasia for mental illness; from euthanasia for mental illness, to euthanasia for psychological distress or mental suffering—and now to euthanasia simply if a person is over the age of 70 and “tired of living.” Dutch euthanasia protocols have also moved from conscious patients providing explicit consent, to unconscious patients unable to provide consent.

Denying euthanasia or pas in the Netherlands is now considered a form of discrimination against people with chronic illness, whether the illness be physical or psychological, because those people will be forced to “suffer” longer than those who are terminally ill.

Non-voluntary euthanasia is now being justified by appealing to the social duty of citizens and the ethical pillar of beneficence. In the Netherlands, euthanasia has moved from being a measure of last resort to being one of early intervention. Belgium has followed suit 37, and troubling evidence is emerging from Oregon specifically with respect to the protection of people with depression and the objectivity of the process.

The United Nations has found that the euthanasia law in the Netherlands is in violation of its Universal Declaration of Human Rights because of the risk it poses to the rights of safety and integrity for every person’s life. The UN has also expressed concern that the system may fail to detect and to prevent situations in which people could be subjected to undue pressure to access or to provide euthanasia and could circumvent the safeguards that are in place.

Autonomy and choice are important values in any society, but they are not without limits. Our democratic societies have many laws that limit individual autonomy and choice so as to protect the larger community.

These include, among many others, limits on excessive driving speeds and the obligation to contribute by way of personal and corporate income taxes. Why then should different standards on autonomy and choice apply in the case of euthanasia and pas?

Legislators in several countries and jurisdictions have, in just the last year, voted against legalizing euthanasia and pas in part because of the concerns and evidence described in this paper. Those jurisdictions include France, Scotland, England, South Australia, and New Hampshire. They have opted to improve palliative care services and to educate health professionals and the public.'

Friday 22 April 2011

‘Doing God’ is good for your health

Practising Christian faith is good for your health. That’s the verdict of a new report which shows that the faithful live longer and remain healthier. At a time when the health service is facing financial cuts and government is seeking ways to enhance happiness, the report shows that politicians who say ‘We don’t do God’ should think again!

The report, published by the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF), issues a challenge to those who want to stop Christian medics and health professionals from talking to patients about faith. ‘Patients do not simply present biological problems to be solved. Rather, effective medical interventions should address all the dimensions of our humanity. It is clear that most patients value and seek this form of holistic care,’ the report says.

Drawing on evidence from over 1,200 studies and 400 reviews, the report titled ‘Health Benefits of Christian Faith’ by Dr Alex Bunn and Dr David Randall, points out that the overwhelming majority of scientific studies highlight the positive health benefits of faith, including protection from illness, coping with illness, and faster recovery from it.

Christian faith is shown to increase life expectancy: in one study of 21,204 adults, those who attended church regularly had a life expectancy up to 14 years longer than those who did not.

Other benefits of faith include:

·increased well-being, happiness and life satisfaction;
·hope and optimism;
·purpose and meaning in life;
·higher self-esteem;
·better adaptation to bereavement;
·less loneliness;
·lower rates of depression;
·lower rates of suicide;
·less anxiety;
·lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse;
·less delinquency and criminal activity;
·greater marital stability and satisfaction.

Quoting Andrew Sims, a former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Bunn and Randall lament the lack of attention given to the strong evidence: ‘for anything other than religion and spirituality, governments and health providers would be doing their utmost to promote it’.

So should doctors prescribe faith?

CMF emphasises that Christians want to follow the example of Jesus, who was strikingly gentle and caring in his interactions with suffering human beings. The report stresses, ‘The founders of the church advised that Christians should respond to spiritual enquiries “with gentleness and respect”. The General Medical Council came to the same conclusion 2,000 years later.’

But doctors do also need to consider their patients’ spiritual care in diagnosis and treatment, the report says.

‘The people we most need to listen to are patients, who typically are more religious than their carers. In one survey, patients and families stated that faith was the second most important factor in their decisions about cancer treatment, whereas the oncologists treating them imagined it would be last on the list. Even if we consider those patients who are not involved in organised religion, 76% admit to spiritual experiences and beliefs.

‘Modern doctors need to become more patient centred by supporting spiritual care, as secular training has tended to exclude some of patients’ deepest concerns. At a time of illness spiritual issues often rise to the surface – questions of worth, mortality, and place in the world. The sensitive doctor will explore these by taking a spiritual history and considering how a patient’s existing spiritual views may impact on their current illness and hopes for recovery.’

Bunn and Randall conclude: ‘In contrast to the popular myth that Christian faith is bad for health, on balance, and despite its limitations, the published research suggests that faith is associated with longer life and a wide range of health benefits. In particular faith is associated with improved mental health. At the very least, the burden of proof is on those who claim that faith is bad for health and that all forms of spiritual care should be excluded from modern medicine.’

News outlets covering the story

Faith 'good for your health'
(Telegraph, 28 April 2011)

Religion 'can add 14 years to lifespan'
(The Scotsman, 24 April 2011)

How to live long and die happier
(Baptist Times, 28 April 2011)

God is good for your health, says new report
(Woman Alive, 28 April 2011)

Religion helps you live 14 years longer
(The Times of India, 25 April 2011)

Being Religious Can Extend Your Lifespan By 14 Years!
(Med India, 27 April 2011)

Do Christians Really Live Healthier & For Longer???
(Mex Magazine, 27 April 2011)

Report: Christians Live Healthier, Longer
(The Christian Post, 25 April 2011)

Get saved, It's good for you!
(Keith's Journal, 26 April 2011)

Believing in God is good for your health
(Christianity Today, 27 April 2011)

Religion ‘can add 14 years to lifespan’
(Online Investing, 24 April 2011)

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Government fails in bid to keep statistics on late abortions secret

The Government has failed in a High Court bid to keep secret information on late abortions which it claimed might lead to the identification of individual women involved.

A judge today upheld the Information Tribunal's earlier decision to disclose 'sensitive' data from national statistics to the ProLife Alliance. The judge also put a stay on any of the data being released to give the DoH time to appeal to the Court of Appeal.

One result of the decision, if not overturned, will be that the Department of Health will be required to make public details about the number of late abortions carried out for various congenital abonormalities. Up until now it has refused to publish the number of abortions in any category where there were less than ten performed.

Abortion can currently only be carried out on able-bodied babies up to 24 weeks gestation, the generally accepted lowest age at which babies can now survive with good neonatal care.

However disabled babies can be aborted right up until the time of birth (40 weeks) on grounds that there is a 'substantial risk' that the baby would be 'seriously handicapped'. But the words 'substantial' and 'serious' are interpreted liberally.

Each year about 120 babies are aborted above 24 weeks on these grounds including some over 35 weeks.

The DoH initially began withholding abortion statistics in 2002 after it was revealed that a baby of 26 weeks had been aborted for cleft palate, a surgically correctible condition.

But this ruling will mean that information about the conditions for which late abortions are carried out, and the gestation at which they are performed, will be have to be made available to the public, whilst still making it virtually impossible to identify individual women.

The result should be more transparency about late abortion, with better scrutiny and accountability surrounding the whole process.

Outside the High Court on Wednesday, Josephine Quintavalle of the ProLife Alliance said:

'The resistance of the Department of Health is extraordinary. This is a great victory for freedom of information and accountability and most importantly for the rights of the disabled unborn child.'

'There is no proper mechanism for the scrutiny of abortion provision other than the meagre information provided by statistics, and these were far more detailed in 2001 than they are today, particularly in relationship to late abortions.'

If the Department of Health has nothing to hide it should have nothing to fear from this judgement.

But I suspect that the reason they have fought against this so avidly for so many years is that they know only too well that if this information were to come into the public domain serious questions would be asked about current abortion practice.

Questions are already being asked about why so much taxpayers' money has been spent fighting court battles aimed at keeping this information secret when it could have been used to provide better care and treatment for babies born with disabilities.

This judgement is a victory for truth and justice and the ProLife Alliance are to be congratulated for their patience and perseverance in pursuing the case against such powerful opposition.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Pro-euthanasia campaigners use of celebrities to boost support may well fuel more suicides

Columnist Melanie Philips this week, in an article titled ‘Why are the Left (and the BBC) so keen to promote this ghoulish culture of death?’ highlights the growing use of celebrity endorsement for a change in the law. In her own words:

'First, we learned that the BBC plans to screen a documentary this summer in which novelist and Alzheimer’s sufferer Terry Pratchett advocates assisted suicide.The programme features footage of a man with motor neurone disease travelling to the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas and being shown dying on screen.

Hard on the heels of this snuff movie came the sickening news that a video featuring notorious assisted suicide campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke, in which he demonstrates how to help people kill themselves, is being shown to schoolchildren in British classrooms.

And now the Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who apart from being diagnosed with coronary heart disease five years ago is a healthy 70-year-old, suddenly announces his wish to be allowed an assisted death.

This is all part of the recent move by Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) to fuel support for its campaign by involving celebrities. Pratchett and Stewart are both DID patrons and Philip Nitschke, like the others, is an enthusiast for new legislation.

In a recent letter to supporters (21 February) titled ‘Sir Patrick Stewart, Ian McEwan and Chris Broad join campaign as Patrons’ DID trumpeted its success in gaining fresh celebrity support.

'New supporters continue to join our campaign for a change in the law on assisted dying. Today we are pleased to announce that actor Sir Patrick Stewart, author Ian McEwan and former England cricketer Chris Broad have all pledged their support by joining as Dignity in Dying's newest Patrons.

Further new arrivals include Simon Weston and fashion designer Jasper Conran, adding to an ever growing list of high profile support for change.

You can view the entire list of Patrons on our website and read why they feel a change in the law needs to happen.

The spate of new celebrity stories last weekend appears to be part of the same campaign to boost popular support for assisted suicide through bombarding the public with personal testimonies from those who they admire for their achievements in sport, media or literature.

We are being subjected to these stories because Lord Falconer’s discredited commission is about to hear new ‘evidence’ today (20 April). DID set up this private commission, funded by their patron Terry Pratchett, to put pressure on parliament, but because so many people have been refusing to give evidence to it (as it is unnecessary, unbalanced and lacking in transparency) they have been encouraging their own supporters to visit the website to register their approval for a change in the law.

DID’s most recent letter to supporters this week (18 April) builds on the celebrity theme and is aimed at encouraging recruitment to their cause:

'We were delighted to read stories this weekend of Sir Terry Pratchett fronting a BBC2 documentary on assisted dying, Sir Patrick Stewart on his reasons for supporting a change in the law, and England cricketer Chris Broad on why he will give evidence to the Commission on Assisted Dying this Wednesday.

All are Patrons of Dignity in Dying and stories like these really help build momentum for our campaign. Please help us reach new supporters while assisted dying is so high on the media agenda by forwarding this email to a friend, liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter.

And remember, there are only two weeks until the Commission on Assisted Dying deadline for evidence, please have your say by completing their online questionnaire.

I was interested to see Alex Schadenberg’s comments on this new celebrity phenomenon in a blog earlier this week. Alex heads up the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition in Canada:

'It is interesting that the media considers an actor commenting on assisted suicide to be newsworthy. I guess selling newspapers is more important than finding an objective and educated response.

The reports fail to present the issue accurately. Legalizing euthanasia and/or assisted suicide create a right to be killed or allow a physician to actually cause or be involved with causing your death, it is not about a right to die.

There is another issue with the complicity of the media in promoting euthanasia and assisted suicide cases in their reporting. The reality of the copy cat suicide effect is well known and that is why the World Health Organization established a set of guidelines for the media to help prevent suicide.

People, like Patrick Stewart, do raise legitimate concerns about the care of people who are dying. These concerns are properly dealt with by a society that improves the care of the dying, improves the care and attitude towards people with disabilities, maintains an effective suicide prevention strategy and understands the scourge and the need to prevent elder abuse.

The WHO report Alex refers to (World Health Organization’s Preventing Suicide: A Resource for Media Professionals) makes the point that ‘the degree of publicity given to a suicide story is directly correlated with the number of subsequent suicides. Cases of suicide involving celebrities have had a particularly strong impact’.

This is backed up by a major review of 42 studies on the impact of publicized suicide stories in the media on the incidence of suicide in the real world published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2003. This found that ‘studies measuring the effect of either an entertainment or political celebrity suicide story were 14.3 times more likely to find a copycat effect than studies that did not. Studies based on a real as opposed to fictional story were 4.03 times more likely to uncover a copycat effect.’

Suicide contagion is real, and it does not occur only in young people.

DID, their celebrity patrons and the media outlets who are giving them a platform need to be aware that, on the basis of the available evidence, their activities are likely to lead to more vulnerable people being pushed over the edge into taking their own lives.

I wonder if they have considered that?

Sunday 17 April 2011

The economic challenge of a greying population? An alternative to the Sunday Times chilling 'final solution'.

Last week I blogged on the recently published ‘Third Demography Report’, which demonstrates that that low fertility rates and an ageing population will present Europe with a big economic challenge.

I argued that unless we reverse demographic trends in Europe the generation that killed its children may well be killed by its children.

In the West we have a growing elderly population supported by a smaller and smaller working population – fuelled by elderly people living longer and an epidemic of abortion, infertility and small families.

These demographic changes, together with economic pressure from growing public and personal debt, and increasing pressure for a change in the law to allow euthanasia, produce a toxic cocktail indeed.

Unless something is done to reverse the demographic trends, economic necessity, together with the ‘culture of death’ ideology which is becoming more openly accepted, may well mean that the generation that killed its children will in turn be killed by its own children.

I quoted the retired European financier Jacques Attali, who claimed that as a result of this demographic shift, euthanasia would ‘become one of the essential instruments of our future societies’.

If I had waited a few days to read Minette Marin’s column in the Sunday Times, ‘The life or death decision facing the grey cuckoos in our midst’, (you will need a subscription to read it), I would have found an even more grotesquely pessimistic portrait of the future.

Marin has grasped the reality of the demographic time-bomb, which she calls ‘an enormous grey elephant in the room’.

But her proposed solutions for the economic challenges ahead are breathtakingly chilling.

‘The unmentionable fact is that the generous welfare systems of the rich world are doomed in their entirety. This is simply a matter of demographics…. We are seeing the greying of the rich world, as the baby boom generation retires. Everyone knows that, but not everyone is prepared to admit the consequences.’

What are these consequences? She spells them out for us:

'In 1950 there were 7.2 people of working age (20-64) in the OECD member states for every person more than 64 years old. By 1980 the ratio had fallen to 5.1; now it is about 4.1 and by 2050 it will be 2.1…. On top of all the other requirements of the welfare state, old people’s needs are huge. Quite apart from the costs of pensions and social security, an enormous part of National Health Service annual expenditure goes on the elderly. Department of Health statistics for 2002-3 show that nearly half the entire NHS budget, 46.7%, was spent on people over 64 and nearly a third of NHS spending, 30.3%, was spent on people of 75 or older.'

'NHS spending in England by age group in 2003 was equally startling. The average cost of healthcare per capita rises drastically once people are over 65 (for 65 to 74-year-olds the annual spending is £948; for 75 to 84-year-olds it is £1,684). That means the cost per capita of those aged 65 to 74 is almost three times the average cost of those aged 16 to 44; even the 45 to 64-year-olds cost only £459 a year each.'

Where does she think this is all leading?

‘All those who don’t (have a generous pension or financial assets) will become outsize grey cuckoos, crowding out the nests of the overworked young….I am not remotely recommending that anyone in a good society should be expected to take a walk up the snowy mountain’

So what is she suggesting?

‘old people who, entirely of their own free will, decide to take their lives without pressure from anyone else are, I think, to be admired and thanked. They are sparing themselves and their families a great deal of suffering and are relieving those around them and the welfare state of a burden. Surely that is an honourable act.’

Marin sees this as the escape from what she believes is an inevitable living hell for ‘many old people’.

‘a time of maltreatment in geriatric wards, lying on their bedsores in urine and excrement, of dependence on indifferent foreign minders in expensive care homes, a period of painful confusion, feeling ignored, unwanted and lonely. In a less rich society, such things will become more common.’

This leads her on to an impassioned plug for the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide, not just for the ‘mentally competent terminally ill’ (Dignity in Dying’s mantra) but for anyone who has reasons to want it:

‘Nor can I see any reason for restricting the right to die to people with terminal illnesses. Degenerative illnesses, constant pain and the nightmarish dwindling we all dread are excellent reasons for wanting, very rationally, to die. So I feel great admiration for all those brave people who decide to end their lives at a time of their choosing.’

Her final gambit is that to embrace this ‘final solution’ to the demographic problem is some kind of economic necessity.

‘We will need that if we are to be able to choose a good death in an impoverished society.’

So the bottom line is that Britain is becoming an impoverished society. We are too poor to look after our children and old people so we need smaller families and a smaller older generation in order to survive. And euthanasia will help us achieve it.

I don’t think so.

Britain’s problem is debt. And we are in debt because as a nation and as individuals we have lived beyond our means. Our personal debt is £1,500 billion and our public debt will reach that figure by 2014 (yes its getting bigger in spite of the Coalition’s plan to ‘cut the deficit’. All we are doing is borrowing less each year than we did in the previous one)

So our total debt will be £3,000 billion (£3 trillion) in just three years time.

Let’s put that figure in a global context.

The world’s poorest billion people earn less than £1 per day (£360 per year) and the next poorest two billion earn less than £2 (£720) so the total income for the poorest half of the world’s population is £1,800 billion per year – just over half our nation’s debt.

And yet ironically, it is rich people in the affluent West, rather than the poor in the Global South, who say they can’t afford to look after their dependents and are clamouring for euthanasia.

The answer to Marin’s ‘elephant in the room’ is not euthanasia. The real answer is in our grasp, but it requires a completely different mindset to that which has led us, in our reckless pursuit of affluence and personal peace to mortgage our present, bankrupt our futures, and see those who rely on us as a burden rather than a privileged responsibility.

We need instead, as a society, to stop killing our children, build up our families, live more simply, give more generously and focus our priorities on providing for our dependents, especially the older generation which fought for our freedom in two world wars, provided for our health, education and welfare, and left us the legacy of wealth, comfort, peace and security which we have squandered and taken for granted.

Marin graphically describes a world based on what one might call a Darwinian ethic, where the weak elderly lay down their lives for a younger stronger generation who view them as an encumbrance – a world where ‘non-survival of the weakest’ has become some kind of public duty.

This is the ethic of the African savannah, where humankind is reduced to the level of brute beast in a struggle to the death for survival, where all interests of the individual are subjugated for the good of the tribe.

In stark contrast, there is an alternative way of living that turns this Darwinian thinking completely upside-down.

‘Bear one another’s burdens,’ says the Apostle Paul, ‘and so fulfil the law of Christ’; Jesus Christ, he tells us in another place, incarnated this ethic:

‘In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!’

We are at a crossroads surveying two possible future societies.

In the first, the independence and autonomy of the individual rule absolute and the weak elderly take an ‘honorable exit’ so as not to burden the young and virile?

The other, by contrast, is an inter-dependent world, where each person, regardless of their level of infirmity or disability is loved, cherished, valued and given the very best level of care that money can buy; one where the strong make sacrifices for the weak, where resources are spent on those who most need them, where what I have is yours if you need it, and vice versa.

Which society would you prefer to live in?

The demographic time-bomb is a challenge but it does not lead me to despair.

Rather it makes me want to live more simply, give more, save more, serve more, love more, value those who are dependent, both old and young, more deeply and work harder to provide good care for all.

The solution is easily within our grasp, but we must have the will to embrace it.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Why I told the Daily Mail that the BBC was acting as the ‘cheerleader’ for assisted suicide

Last Friday I was quoted on the front page of the Daily Mail as saying that the BBC was acting as ‘cheerleader’ in the campaign to legalise assisted suicide.

This article amplifies those comments and gives some of the wider background.

The BBC have recently filmed a man killing himself at the notorious Dignitas suicide facility for a controversial ‘documentary’ to be fronted by celebrity author Terry Pratchett, a prominent supporter of euthanasia.

The programme, entitled ‘Choosing To Die’, due to be screened this summer, follows a 71 year old man (known only as Peter) in the late stages of motor neurone disease as he travels from Britain to the Swiss centre to end his life in the fantasy novelist’s company.

Screening the moment of a suicide victim’s death will be a first for the BBC although a Sky Real Lives programme first crossed the rubicon in doing so back in 2008.

My full newspaper statement was as follows:

‘The BBC is acting like a cheerleader for legalising assisted suicide. It is regrettable that a man’s death will be shown on screen but we are also concerned that this documentary will not be balanced. Given Sir Terry Pratchett’s position, the fear is that it will show all the supposed benefits of assisted death with very little redress.’

Terry Pratchett is already well known as a campaigner for the legalisation of assisted suicide, and provided funding for Lord Falconer’s discredited Commission on Assisted Dying.

Whilst being a patron of Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), he has, like Michael Irwin and Philip Nitschke, much broader aims than those claimed by DID, who passionately protest (methinks too much) that they want a change in the law only for ‘terminally ill, mentally competent adults’

According to the BBC website, Pratchett has a larger agenda. He believes that ‘everybody possessed of a debilitating and incurable disease should be allowed to pick the hour of their death’. He is quoted in Australia as supporting it for the broader category of ‘seriously ill people’.

The DID website reports his aims as even more far-reaching: ‘I believe passionately that any individual should have the right to choose, as far as it is possible, the time and the conditions of their death.’

This programme will be the fifth produced by the BBC in just three years, presented by a pro-euthanasia campaigner or sympathiser, which has been specifically designed to portray taking one’s own life in a positive light.

‘I'll Die When I Choose’ (8 December 2008) was a BBC Panorama documentary fronted by Margo Macdonald MSP in the lead up to tabling her ‘End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill’ in the Scottish Parliament. The programme screened a total of four times between 8 and 14 December 2008. The bill also received massive coverage by the BBC but was overwhelmingly defeated by 85 to 16 in November 2010.

‘A Short Stay in Switzerland’ (January 2009) was a 90 minute docudrama starring Julie Walters (and written by award-winning writer Frank McGuinness) which told the story of the death of Bath GP Anne Turner at the Dignitas facility in January 2006. It screened seven times between 25 January 2009 and 27 January 2010. BBC health correspondent Fergus Walsh, who accompanied Dr Turner on her final journey, actually played himself in the film.

The 34th Richard Dimbleby Lecture, ‘Shaking hands with death’ (1 February 2010) also featured Terry Pratchett making the case for assisted suicide for patients, like himself, with Alzheimer’s disease. A hand-picked audience in the Royal College of Physicians in London signalled their approval as he described himself ending his life, by nonchalantly sipping poisoned champagne, in his back garden.

BBC East Midlands ‘Inside Out Programme’ (15 February 2010) featured a confession by producer Ray Gosling to smothering a gay lover with AIDS some years before. The story, after an exhaustive police investigation, turned out to be pure fantasy, but not until after the BBC machinery had blown it up into a massive international news story just prior to the Director of Public Prosecutions reporting on his assisted suicide prosecution criteria.

I am also aware of a sixth ‘documentary’ currently being put together, again presented by a keen advocate of legalising assisted suicide, news of which has not yet entered the public domain.

During this three year period there has not been one BBC programme presenting the opposite point of view. This is in spite of the fact that all three parliamentary bills attempting to legalise the practice in the last five years have been heavily defeated and despite the continuing robust opposition to legalisation from disability rights groups, medical professionals and faith groups.

And yet not one representative of any of these groups has been given the opportunity to put their views as prime presenter of a BBC documentary. Other than in news bulletins no specialist in palliative medicine has had access to a BBC documentary to explain the benefits of good care, no disabled person has been able to convey their anxieties about a change in the law and no faith leader has been permitted to present an alternative perspective on suffering and dying.

Specifically, no opponent of legalisation has been given the opportunity by our national (taxpayer funded) broadcaster to put to the British public, in a documentary, the arguments that have three times persuaded parliament about the dangers to vulnerable people of a change in the law.

By contrast, many proponents of assisted suicide, who have expressed a strong persistent wish to be ‘helped to die’ by their own hands, have been granted an international platform by our national broadcaster, to tell their stories in lurid detail and without cross-examination, creating the false impression that the small minority they constitute are somehow representative of all people facing suffering or death.

Each from Reginald Crew to Tony Nicklinson has his or her case highlighted in painstaking detail by the BBC usually featuring long personal interviews and often with substantial extraneous information about their lives emotively conveyed. Contrary views are either not expressed, or are at best relegated to single sentence reactionary soundbites:

Readers will recognise many of the personalities involved as household names: Anne Turner, John Close, Debbie Purdy, Raymond Cutkelvin, Diane Pretty, Daniel James, Sir Edward and Lady Downes, Nan Maitland, and so it goes on and on and on.

In each case, the power of the personal narrative is presented skillfully to shape public opinion, courtesy of the BBC with all of its publicly funded resources being brought to bear.

What is somewhat ironic about this whole process is the fact that there are strict codes about media coverage of suicide, not only from bodies like the World Health Organisation, but also from the BBC itself (on covering both suicide and also criminal acts), which are constantly and repeatedly flouted.

The WHO guidance on the media coverage of suicide is very clear:

‘Don’t publish photographs or suicide notes. Don’t report specific details of the method used. Don’t give simplistic reasons. Don’t glorify or sensationalize suicide. Don’t use religious or cultural stereotypes. Don’t apportion blame.’

The BBC it seems is going full speed in the opposite direction.

By contrast the WHO advice about appropriate media practice is largely ignored by the BBC:

‘Refer to suicide as a completed suicide, not a successful one. Present only relevant data, on the inside pages. Highlight alternatives to suicide. Provide information on help lines and community resources. Publicize risk indicators and warning signs.’

Concerns about the well-documented phenomenon of suicide contagion, especially following suicides carried out by celebrities (more on this later), and the effects of suicide on other individuals and society at large, are simply not part of the narrative when the BBC covers these issues. Instead it has adopted almost a campaigning stance.

No one is denying that the debate about assisted suicide is crucially important. This is a free democratic society and those who wish to see a change in the law are fully entitled to express their views in the public square. Furthermore it is to be expected that private media outlets will want to pursue a specific editorial line.

But with an issue as important as this one, campaigners should not have the added advantage of being able to spread their propaganda by using the publicly funded national broadcasting corporation effectively as a private public relations company and press office.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Unless we reverse demographic trends the generation that killed its children may well be killed by its children

I am very grateful to Father John Flynn at Zenit for an excellent article titled 'Fertility Decline Continues' drawing our attention to a new report on Europe's changing demography.

I quote excerpts from it here at length before offering my own commentary on the trends.

Over to Father Flynn:

'Low fertility rates and an aging population will present Europe with a big economic challenge. This was one of the points made in a study published by the European Commission at the start of the month.

The ‘Third Demography Report’ found that the number of children per woman has increased from 1.45 children, at the time of the last report in 2008, to 1.6. Nonetheless, this is still substantially below the level of 2.1 children that is required to maintain a stable population.

As well, life expectancy is increasing, which will push the trend to an ageing population. Already in four countries - Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania - the population is decreasing due to a combination of more people dying than are born and emigration.

The report also found that the mean age of women at childbirth has been postponed significantly over the course of the last three decades.

The highest age at childbirth in 2009 was in Ireland, at 31.2 years. Italy was close behind, 31.1, while the lowest was in Bulgaria, 26.6, and Romania, 26.9. In 13 of the 27 EU countries women tended to have their children when they were aged 30 or over.

The number of people aged 60 and above in the EU is rising by more than two million every year, which is roughly twice the rate observed until about three years ago.

Currently half the EU-27 population is aged 40.9 years or over.

The share of the population aged 65 and over is projected to increase from 17.4% in 2010 to 30.0% in 2060

The result of this will be an increased burden on those of working age to provide for social spending expenditure needed for an aging population.

This is even more obvious when looking at the projections regarding the number of people of working age, between 19 and 65, compared to those who are dependent, due to their youth or having retired.

At the moment the EU has about three people of working age for every two dependent people. By the year 2060 it is forecast that will be almost one person of working age for every dependent person aged under 19 or over 65 years in the EU-27.

Europe is hardly alone in experiencing low fertility. In the United States the birth rate has dropped in the period 2007-09, according to statistics published in the March data brief by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Another feature they remarked on was that for the first time in many years the rate of births to unmarried women declined. Nevertheless, births to married women declined even more, which meant that 41% of all births in the US were to unmarried mothers, an all-time high.

In spite of the serious problems caused by low fertility and aging the United Nations is remaining still set on its objective of reducing fertility at all costs. The 44th session of the Commission on Population and Development will convene from April 11-15 in New York.

The press release announcing this stressed the need to extend family planning and to rapidly reduce fertility in Africa and Asia.'

So what do we make of all this?

The situation in developing countries is quite different as the comparative population pyramids above of the US and Nigeria dramatically show. Lower life expectancy and high birthrates mean that there is always a large number of workers available to support the elderly.

In the West we have a growing elderly population supported by a smaller and smaller working population – fuelled by elderly people living longer and an epidemic of abortion, infertility and small families.

These demographic changes, together with economic pressure from growing public and personal debt, and increasing pressure for a change in the law to allow euthanasia, produce a toxic cocktail indeed.

Some European politicians and economists have been chillingly open about the economic incentives for euthanasia. Jacques Attali, the former president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said in 1981 in an article in L’Avenir de la vie: ‘As soon as he gets beyond 60-65 years of age, man lives beyond his capacity to produce, and he costs society a lot of money... euthanasia will be one of the essential instruments of our future societies.’

Unless something is done to reverse the demographic trends, economic necessity, together with the ‘culture of death’ ideology which is becoming more openly accepted, may well mean that the generation that killed its children will in turn be killed by its own children.

New genetic screening plans raise serious questions about our attitudes to disability

The Human Genetics Commission (HGC), a government advisory committee, has given the green light to preconception genetic tests saying that there are no specific ‘social, ethical or legal’ reasons that stand in the way. The UK National Screening Committee will now consider this advice as it decides whether widespread screening should be introduced in GP surgeries, family planning centres, IVF clinics or pharmacies.

Screening of embryos and babies in the womb for genetic tests is now increasingly commonplace in Britain. If abnormalities are found the affected embryos are generally discarded and affected babies are aborted.

The HGC is recommending that these tests be available to both children and adults before they have children in order to increase their ‘reproductive options’.

The move has already attracted a lot of criticism.

Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch UK, has said: ‘The idea that young people should be choosing partners or deciding to use IVF based on their DNA is both dangerous and misleading. Even if everyone were screened, some children would still have genetic disorder because many mutations occur spontaneously and are not inherited.’

Dr David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, has warned that the report ‘will inevitably lead to young people being stigmatised and becoming unmarriageable’ and that ‘disabled people will feel even more threatened.’

Dr Calum Mackellar, Director of Research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, has raised the question of whether the HGC's decision is an example of negative eugenics.

And Josephine Quintavalle, from the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, has warned that the recommendations were ‘far too deferential to genetic determinism’.

There are literally hundreds of identifiable genetic disorders that can be passed on from adults to children. These vary in severity (from fatal to minimal functional disturbance), clinical effects, age of onset and frequency.

The vast majority are vanishingly rare and most doctors have not even heard of them. There are some diseases which are much more household names such as sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis and PKU, all of which are tested for using the Guthrie test heel prick routinely carried out five days after birth.

However even these ‘common’ conditions are very rare having frequencies of 1 in 650 (only among African Americans), 1 in 2,000 and 1 in 12,000 respectively.

The pattern of inheritance also varies. People will generally know that they carry ‘autosomal dominant’ disorders such as Marfan’s syndrome because they will be physically affected themselves. However recessive diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease can be carried by people without them knowing. Only if both parents are carriers can the children be affected, and then only then 1 in 4 children will display the disorder.

So what are these ‘reproductive options’ that the government is wanting to promote?

One ‘option’, if you find yourself to be a carrier, would be simply not to marry another affected person. But who is going to ‘choose’ that if they are truly in love?

The next option would be for affected couples to choose not to have children but rather to adopt. But then there are very few babies available for adoption nowadays with the rise of abortion and with many solo parents choosing to keep their children.

The next option would be to make use of IVF technology employing either donated egg or sperm but that raises all sorts of ethical issues.

Failing that the only remaining reproductive options are embryo screening, chorionic villus biopsy or amniocentesis followed by embryo disposal or abortion. However these last options do not involve treatment or prevention of genetic diseases, but rather destruction of those individuals who carry affected genes.

So the overall effect of this new technology will be more IVF and more embryo disposal and abortion.

What is really driving all this? My concern is that it is our society’s increasing obsession with celebrity status, physical perfection and high intelligence leading to the view that the lives of people with disabilities or genetic diseases are somehow less worth living.

By contrast the Christian view is that the life of every human individual, regardless of its intelligence, beauty, state of health or degree of disability is infinitely precious. A just and caring society is one where the strong make sacrifices for the weak, or in the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).

Increasingly now, we hear, particularly at a time of economic recession and financial constraint, about the cost of caring for those with disabilities or disease. However because of the very low frequency of genetic disease, the actual cost of prevention, treatment or cure as a percentage of the total health budget is very small indeed.

Furthermore, new preventions, treatments and supportive measures are being developed all the time. In the past PKU universally led to serious brain damage but can now be successfully managed with the right diet after detection. People with cystic fibrosis are living much longer and have a better quality of life as a result of advances in medical technology and palliative care.

If we are really concerned about health spending then we should be investing much more in the prevention of the growing burden of disease occurring as a result of what is euphemistically called ‘life style choices’.

People who drink too much, smoke too much, eat too much, fail to exercise, drive recklessly or have sex outside marriage contribute far more to society’s disease burden then those who, who through no fault of their own, carry genetic diseases with genetic disabilities.

And the health costs of caring for the growing number of elderly people in our society, would not be a problem if our birth rate, largely as a result of ‘life style choices’, had not fallen beyond replacement levels.

There are far more important priorities for government spending than rolling out genetic screening for rare diseases and fuelling the growing eugenic mindset which is leading to more and more highly questionable ‘reproductive choices’.

Monday 11 April 2011

The Royal College of Psychiatrists consultation document on abortion and mental health is worthy of serious study and measured response

Some people have expressed concern about an article published in the Daily Telegraph yesterday which reported on a new consultation by the Royal College of Psychiatrists looking at the relationship between abortion and mental health.

The Telegraph headline ‘Abortion doesn't harm mothers' mental health’ is actually seriously misleading and the whole piece is somewhat simplistic, superficial and selective in its reporting of the facts.

The RCPsych draft document did conclude that ‘mental health outcomes are likely to be the same, whether women with unwanted pregnancies opt for an abortion or birth’.

However it also made the point that 'women with mental health problems prior to abortion or birth are associated with increased mental health problems after the abortion or birth'.

Furthermore it stressed that 'if women who have an abortion show a negative emotional reaction to the abortion, or are experiencing stressful life events, support and monitoring should be offered as they are more likely than others to develop a mental health problem.'

Just as puerperal psychosis following birth can be very serious, in like manner some women experience serious mental health problems following induced abortion.

This is a consultation that is going to run for twelve weeks (closing 29 June) and all we have so far is a draft report. The most controversial issue will be the debate about which of the over 5,000 studies on this issue in the scientific literature were included and which were not and why.

It is noteworthy that the Royal College of Psychiatrists have given two recent systematic reviews which play down the link between abortion and mental health (APA and Charles) a more critical analysis than that given by the RCOG and the pro-choice movement.

Their 118 page report is a comprehensive piece of work worthy of serious study and measured response.

Furthermore it is coming out at a time when parliament will be considering two important amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill aimed at ensuring better advice and counselling for women with unplanned pregnancies.

We should be grateful that, unlike the RCOG, the RCPsych have given us a twelve week consultation period to consider it.

Dorries and Field are not pro-life but their abortion amendments are a small step in the right direction

If you type ‘abortion’ into google news these days you will find that most of the reports thrown up are from the US; and most involve new legislation aimed at curbing abortion rates.

A whole host of bills are being introduced in different states aimed at whittling away the abortion law: bills requiring the offer of ultrasound; bills lowering upper gestational limits; bills aimed at protecting babies who might feel pain; bills providing an offer of counselling and bills attempting to cut federal funding to abortion providers.

And some of them are showing real signs of success.

Why should this be taking place under Democrat government with the most abortion-friendly president in US history? Has the US suddenly had a pro-life conversion? Not at all!

Most Americans do not hold a strong pro-life position, but at the same time they are not rabidly pro-choice either. They just feel that 1.5 million abortions a year is too many. The rate needs to come down.

Similar things are beginning to happen in the UK.

Most people are not asking for a repeal of the abortion law but there is a growing disquiet about the fact that we see 200,000 abortions a year and that the total since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed is now over 7 million.

And public opinion especially on late abortion has changed.

Babies on our front pages doing flips on high resolution ultrasound; new evidence that babies at a younger gestation than previously thought possible can feel pain; more babies at 24 weeks surviving in neonatal units; stories of babies surviving after botched abortions; babies with minor congenital abnormalities being aborted beyond 24 weeks – these things change hearts and minds.

Back in 2008 a serious attempt to lower the 24 week limit was defeated by a very slim margin and now we have a parliament where the vote may well go the other way.

It is no wonder that the pro-abortion lobby, which has had things its own way for so long, is getting the jitters.

The abortion amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill, proposed by MPs Nadine Dorries and Frank Field, have provoked an extraordinary reaction.

On one hand we have the pro-abortion lobby launching personal attacks on the MPs involved and trying to link them with what they see as radical elements of the pro-life lobby in an attempt to discredit them by association.

Then we hear them implying that the Dorries/Field amendments will force compulsory counselling on women when a simple examination of the wording reveals that they will do nothing of the sort.

I suspect these reactions are indicative of a feeling that they are losing their grip. If afraid revert to ad hominem attack and misrepresentation.

With their right to know campaign, these two MPs are attempting to ensure two things.

First they want women with unplanned pregnancies to have access to information and counselling that is not provided by the abortion industry. At present most women contemplating abortion go directly via abortion providers like Marie Stopes International (MSI) and BPAS. The MPs argue that these groups have a financial vested interest in providing abortion for which they receive over 60 million pounds of taxpayers’ money annually. This does not give women a fair deal.

Second they want the responsibility for producing abortion guidelines to be taken away from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and given to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). They claim that the RCOG guidelines misrepresent the scientific evidence on the health consequences of abortion and that some RCOG members have financial and ideological vested interests in abortion provision.

These are both reasonable moves that will make sense to most people. These amendments are essentially pro-women.

On the other had though the pro-life movement have real reservations. Field and Dorries are not pro-life.

Dorries ran foul of the pro-life movement some years ago when she proposed a ten minute rule bill that attempted to introduce better counselling for crisis pregnancies on the one hand whilst creating a fast-track to abortion, for those who wanted it, on the other. As a result she attracted the wrath of both sides and prominent pro-life members of parliament joined forces with pro-choice members against her.

Whilst having voted for a lowering of the upper limit to twelve weeks in 2008 (and being one of only 60 or so MPs who did so), she does not oppose very early abortion, and whilst backing a lowering of the upper limit for able-bodied babies, she does not back a similar lowering for babies who are disabled. These positions lose her considerable support from pro-life lobby groups.

Her recent support for abstinence-based sex education is refreshing. But her move, again with Frank Field, to back provision of the morning-after pill over the counter without prescription in England as well as Wales has, in my view quite rightly, generated a lot of criticism.

Unlike Dorries and Field, my own position is strongly pro-life – I am opposed to abortion per se at any gestation and for any reason because it takes an innocent human life. But there are some things Dorries and Field stand for which I support.

I would support a tightening of the law aimed at reducing abortion – provided that such a move does not loosen the law elsewhere. I’m not interested in trading off reductions in upper limits for more abortion at lower gestations. In my view the 1990 HFE Act, where a lowering of the upper limit from 28 to 24 weeks achieved at the cost of allowing abortion up to birth for disabled babies, was a tragic outcome

But I will support moves that will save some babies, as long as other babies, presently safe, are not sacrificed as a result.

Back in 2008 we carried out a study of abortion rates in European countries and discovered that those with ‘right to know’ legislation (offer of counselling, advice, information about alternatives) had, on average, abortion rates that were 30% lower than those (like Britain) which didn’t.

The clear message is that many women, given proper advice and support, choose not to abort, because for many women the choice to abort is not a choice at all.

It is rather the choice they make because they feel they have no choice. It is the un-choice; the choice made for fear that keeping the baby might leave them alone without support or help; deserted by partners; marginalised by friends; frowned upon those who see children not as a precious gift, but as an encumbrance. In other words many women choose abortion, not for themselves, but because they feel a sense of duty to others, or because they fear what might happen to them if they do not choose abortion.

I cannot see how anyone in their right mind could deny women an opportunity to consider alternatives to abortion.

And that is why the protests of the pro-abortion lobby sound so hollow in this debate. Their strident objections to a reasonable suggestion are undermining their credibility.

They have lost touch with the public mood on this matter. They are looking and sounding more and more like extremists and Dorries and Field are sounding more like the sensible middle ground.

So are Dorries and Field pro-life? Most definitely not! But they have sensed the public mood for change and they are, with these amendments, taking a small step in the right direction.