Sunday 31 July 2011

£200k of lottery money spent on Reiki like therapy in West Midlands Hospital a waste of time and money

Back in February I reported on a BBC story claiming that ‘a third of NHS trusts still offer homeopathy despite there being no scientific evidence for its effectiveness’. I laid out a checklist for Christians for assessing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies.

Today, Archbishop Cranmer (aka ‘His Grace’), has drawn my attention to a story in the Mail on Sunday, '"Voodoo" row as the Lottery gives £200k to spiritual healers available on NHS', reporting on a research project into a controversial form of ‘alternative medicine’ being carried out in a West Midlands Hospital.

Three healers at Good Hope are apparently recruiting 200 patients suffering from bowel conditions. These healers then pass their hands over the patients' bodies to channel 'healing energy' to affected areas in 20-minute sessions designed to see whether the treatment relieves discomfort.

A Big Lottery Fund grant for the two-year study was awarded to healing charity ‘Fresh Winds’, which is working with Birmingham University and the NHS Good Hope Hospital in Sutton Coldfield.

Advocates say the energy works 'like a gentle set of jump leads' and can alleviate pain. But critics say the healing has no scientific basis and money raised through the Lottery should not be used to promote alternative medicine when the NHS is squeezed for cash.

One patient at Good Hope is reported as refusing to join the trial. 'How a person running their hands over you can make a difference, I really don't know,' she said. 'I think there is a certain amount of pandering to people's desperation. The healing appears to be based on the Buddhist spiritual practice of Reiki, which is ironic when Christian doctors and nurses are warned about praying for their patients.'

She is referring to the case of Caroline Petrie, a Christian nurse who was suspended from her job for offering to pray for an elderly patient's recovery from illness.

Simon Singh, the author of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, has said: 'The £200,000 should have been spent on much better causes. There is no worthwhile evidence at all that spiritual healing works in any way, shape or form other than the placebo effect – when the patient feels better just because they are getting some attention. To use Lottery money on this is to introduce voodoo into our health service. It is genuinely tragic to spend money this way when there are so many real medical questions that need answering.'

Simon Singh's co-author Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, added: 'It makes a mockery of evidence-based medicine to put public money into this.'

Reiki is an increasingly popular ‘therapy’ recommended for a variety of acute and chronic conditions. Developed in the late 19th century, it is characterised by the laying on of hands, and based on an ancient Buddhist healing technique. Like other alternative therapies with New Age associations, it involves belief in an invisible life force that generates self-healing.

Reiki has no credible scientific basis and there is no evidence for its efficacy in controlled trials. Although posing little medical danger, apart from causing delay in orthodox diagnosis and treatment, its spiritual roots and lack of evidence-base should ring loud alarm bells.

Two major reviews have recently been published looking at Reiki’s effectiveness.

The first, ‘Effects of reiki in clinical practice: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials’, was published in 2008 and concluded that ‘the evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition’.

The second, 'A systematic review of the therapeutic effects of Reiki', in 2009, drew the conclusion that ‘the serious methodological and reporting limitations of limited existing Reiki studies preclude a definitive conclusion on its effectiveness’.

But as well as having no proven benefit, Reiki’s spiritual roots should also ring alarm bells for Christians. A review in the CMF Journal Triple Helix concluded:

‘Reiki claims to be a spiritual path leading to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual attunement, harmony, good health and happiness. As a holistic therapy with Buddhist roots, it clearly has serious spiritual implications but does not and cannot supply answers for the basic spiritual sicknesses of mankind such as sin, guilt, fear and the need for forgiveness and salvation.’

In other words there is not only no evidence that it actually works. It is also spiritually unsound. Two good reasons to stay away from it!

For both reasons Reiki is what medics call a ‘WOTAM’ therapy – a ‘waste of time and money’.

Saturday 30 July 2011

Three exciting news stories about ethical stem cell treatments this month

Three exciting news stories about stem cell therapies – none of which involves the destruction of human embryos – have been announced this month.

Stem cells have great promise in providing treatments for degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes and various forms of cancer.

However, the British press, and especially the BBC, have an obsession with embryonic stem cells which means that they have a tendency to over report and overhype any development, however small, involving these entities, and to ignore or not notice the much greater advances already being made with research and treatments using stem cells which have been derived by ethical means (adult stem cells, umbilical cord stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells)

This means that the British public is repeatedly hoodwinked into thinking that embryonic stem cells derived from the destruction of human embryos are the most promising source of new treatments and that Christians and prolifers are standing in the way of such advances and thereby threatening the lives of tens of thousands of sick people.

This narrative has been played over and over in Britain like a stuck record by science journalists spurred on by scientists concerned about their research grants, biotechnology companies looking for a quick profit, duped government ministers seeking votes and desperate but ill-informed patient interest groups grasping at straws in the hope of miracle cures.

I have always maintained that the truth will eventually out and this month three new developments, two of which you can even read about in the British media (because they involve British researchers), have been reported.

In the first, researchers in Glasgow and Southampton have found a better way of growing adult stem cells in the laboratory.

They have used a new plastic surface, covered with tiny pits, using a manufacturing process similar to that used to make Blu-ray discs. This, they claim, will help them to grow large amounts of adult stem cells and maintain them at the stem cell stage making them more adaptable for future therapies. In the picture above, you can see a stem cell making adhesions (shown in green) to the new ‘nano-patterned’ plastic surface.

The second study, reported by the BBC and Telegraph this week, is aimed at investigating whether stem cells can be safely used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS).

Researchers will collect stem cells from the bone marrow of patients, grow them in the laboratory and then re-inject them into their blood. The stem cells will make their way to the brain where it is hoped that they will repair the damage caused by MS. The trial, involving up to 150 patients across Europe, is due to start later this year.

Three million people are thought to be affected with MS worldwide and up to 100,000 in the UK. The condition is caused by the body's own immune system attacking and damaging a substance called myelin, which provides a protective covering to nerve cells in the brain and elsewhere. The therapy is aimed at regenerating damaged myelin.

The third, and potentially most exciting development, reported in the Hindu and in the American outlet Top News, has amazingly not yet apparently been noticed by the British press (perhaps because it did not happen in Britain).

German researchers have cured serious liver disease in mice using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in an important first that shows promise for use in people with liver metabolism ailments.

The researchers from Muenster and Hanover took skin cells from the mice, returned them to an embryonic state and subsequently corrected a gene defect in the cells. The cells were then used to create healthy mice.

‘For the first time, a living organism has been cured of an illness using iPS cells repaired using genetic methods,’ researcher Tobias Cantz told the German Press Agency dpa. ‘We have de-programmed the skin cells of mice with liver disease into iPS cells and subsequently corrected the gene defect that caused the liver disease.’

Cantz’s team from the Max Planck Institute for molecular biomedicine in Muenster and their colleagues at the Hanover—based Institute for Cell and Molecular Pathology published their results in the scientific magazine PLoS Biology.

Both the abstract and full text of the article are available on line.

They noted that research using iPS cells is broadly seen as ethically unproblematic, as embryos are not needed to provide a source for them.

I have reported previously about the wonderful developments that have been made using induced pluripotent stem cells (IPs), cells that have all the properties of embryonic stem cells, but which can be produced in an ethical way without destroying embryos.

It is hoped that clinical trials will soon be able to begin using these cells in humans.

Good research is ethical research. The end of saving life must never be used to justify unethical means. These new developments show that with patience and ingenuity promising treatments using stem cells can be derived that do not involve the destruction of early human life.

Animal-human hybrid embryos – already a farcical footnote in history and now the government doesn’t even know how many there are

A fascinating article by Philippa Taylor on the official CMF Blog highlights an apparently straightforward question to government last week (20 July) which has exposed ‘a murky mix of confusion and secrecy from which the true facts and figures are difficult to extract’.

Lord Alton asked how many ‘cybrid’ embryos (cytoplasmic animal-human hybrid) have been generated with eggs from non-human species in total.

The reply was: ‘The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has advised that the most recent information it holds shows that 155 embryos, defined as human admixed embryos by Section 4A(6)(a) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, as amended, have been created.’

And yet the Independent ran several articles in 2009 stating that many more cybrid embryos were created – 278. That large number is naturally of concern, but also of concern is that the numbers don’t match the figure of 155 released last week.

The Government has avoided answering that question.

This incident is the latest in a saga surrounding a line of research that I once predicted would become a ‘farcical footnote in history’.

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'.

Britain pays £129million a day interest on its national debt

As we limp towards the possible US default on their national debt next Tuesday I see that Nadine Dorries MPs’ monthly Bedford News column this week is titled, ‘Time to act, before we become another Greece’

She is not talking about the US but about Britain.

‘When I tell people that we are paying £129million per day interest on the country’s debt, they are amazed. That’s not the debt capital we are paying back, it’s just the interest on the capital.

No country can continue with that level of debt or continue to increase it, because if we do, in a very short space of time, we will be the next Greece. Not paying off our debt and getting it down to at least manage levels would eventually put the state in the position of not being able to pay its own bills.

Being in such a severe amount of debt means that the world bank, investors, the IMF and others begin to lose confidence in our ability to pay back and so they only then lend us money at a very high interest rate, which makes the situation far worse.’

There is a fascinating website called UK Debt Bombshell which starts as follows:

‘Britain owes over £900 billion. It's real, it's ours… and we've got to pay it back. It's a truly frightening figure. Why is the world's sixth richest country so deeply in debt?

Every year the UK runs a large budget deficit. The Government spends more money than it can tax, so we plug the gap by selling bonds to investors at home and abroad. These bonds - known as gilts - have to be repaid in full, with interest. Added together, our unpaid loans make up the UK's national debt.

Right now, that debt is growing violently. The Government forecasts it will soar to an eye-watering £1.1 trillion by 2011.'

The figures on the site are a little out of date but it tackles the following questions in a very straightforward way. Well worth a look.

Q: Why is Britain in so much debt?
Q: Who do we borrow all this money from?
Q: How is national debt measured?
Q: What are we spending the money on?
Q: Does it matter how government spends the money?
Q: How will national debt affect our future?
Q: Is the problem getting better or worse?
Q: What can we do to prevent a debt crisis?
Q: Has Britain always been in so much debt?
Q: Is it right for us to borrow and spend like this?
Q: Are we really printing money?
Q: What are your sources of information?

The Good Book says, ‘The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.’ (Proverbs 22:7)

It also says , ‘The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously’ (Psalm 37:20-22)

Two women in their 50s with serious brain damage whose relatives want them dead. One judge has said ‘yes’ but the other is still thinking. Why?

Two cases of women in their 50s with serious brain damage went before the courts this week.

Neither patient is dying, but both require 24 hour nursing care and are fed via by a tube. In both cases applications have been made to have hydration and nutrition withdrawn in order than they might die from dehydration and/or starvation.

In the first case the judge has already given the go-ahead to end the patient’s life. But in the second case, that involving a woman in the North of England referred to as ‘M’, which finishes its hearing on Monday, we will have to wait until 23 September for the judgement.

Why the difference? Well, it all relates to a subtle difference in diagnosis and the state of the law in Britain.

The first patient is in ‘permanent vegetative state’ (PVS), which means that she has been judged to have no awareness for over a year. Since the Bland ruling in 1993, it has been possible to apply to the High Court to have nutrition and hydration withdrawn from people with this condition. This woman will be the 44th such patient to die in this way after a court ruling.

The second woman, M, is in a ‘minimally conscious state’ (MCS), the next step up from PVS. In other words, she has some very limited awareness. Thus far, no court has ruled that such a patient can be starved and dehydrated to death. But the woman’s partner and sister nevertheless wish to go down this route.

The legal principles established in the Tony Bland case (pictured), who developed PVS following the Hillsborough disaster, were given statutory force in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and apply in subsequent PVS cases. And they have not been overturned by the Human Rights Act.

Each case, however, is still required to go to court.

The Nursing Times this week ran the Press Association’s account of the first case referred to above (the PVS case), which I reproduce here:

The High Court has given a health trust permission to lawfully withdraw life-sustaining treatment from a woman in a permanent vegetative state.

Mr Justice Charles, sitting at the Court of Protection in London, ruled that stopping artificial nutrition and hydration would be in the best interests of the 54-year-old mother of four.

Members of her family, who the court heard were ‘entirely supportive’ of the application made by the trust responsible for her care, were present in court for the decision.

Following a ‘collapse’ in 2009, the woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, suffered ‘extensive hypoxic brain damage’.

The judge said the application by a NHS trust, which also cannot be named, was for a declaration ‘to render lawful’ the withdrawal of hydration, nutrition and medication for a heart condition.

He said: ‘The consequence of that is that very sadly the patient will die.’

The judge said he was ‘satisfied that appropriate testing and observations have been carried out by the appropriate qualified professionals’ over a significant period of time.

There was ‘convincing evidence from those who are nearest and dearest to her that there is nothing in her approach to life which would indicate that, if she were able to say something about it, she would not completely support what the family are asking me to do’.

He concluded: ‘In my judgment this patient has permanent extensive brain damage and is in a permanent vegetative state. Further treatment would be futile.’ The declaration sought was ‘in her best interests’.

At the time of the Bland case Christian Medical Fellowship expressed serious misgivings about that judgment which we felt crossed a legal rubicon. Three of the reasons for our concern feature in the above account; three concepts embodied in the terms ‘in her best interests’ and ‘further treatment would be futile’.

These terms embrace three important legal precedents established by Bland.

The first precedent is that nutrition and hydration constitute treatment. Our argument was that they constitute rather basic human needs that all of us share. Treatments are aimed at reducing or reversing the effects of an illness. But hydration and nutrition, like air, are simply essential requirements for life. Withdrawing all nutrition and hydration from any human being will result in death. But withdrawing a treatment will only result in the deaths of those who rely on that treatment to stay alive.

The second precedent is that having one’s life actively ended, when one is not actually dying, can be in a person’s best interests. But that is a philosophical position based on a particular world view. We can only make a judgment that death is in a person’s best interests by starting with a set of presuppositions about the nature of life, suffering, morality and death that lead to that conclusion. Our argument was that we have no right to decide what another person’s best interests are. Or alternatively that if we are in any doubt, then the benefit of the doubt should be in the direction of preserving life. Deciding for another person that it is in their best interests to have their life ended is a very dangerous precedent indeed. Especially if that person is unable to express an opinion on the matter.

The third precedent is that providing basic care to a person with PVS would be futile. But nutrition and hydration has a real and measurable effect in that it stops a patient dying from dehydration and/or starvation. So how is it futile? It can only be so if a patient’s continued existence itself is judged to be futile. Our argument was that whilst doctors are justified in deciding whether or not a treatment was futile – in that it had no measurable effect or imposed burdens disproportionate to any benefit – they have no right to make judgments about whether a patient’s life is futile.

The assumptions that nutrition and hydration constitute treatment rater than care, that being starved and dehydrated to death can be in a person’s best interests and that the lives of some people are futile are all false assumptions. They should never have been given legal force. But sadly they have.

The Bland judgment was seriously flawed. Bland and the 43 others who have died after him, including the case this week, should not have died in this way. They should have been given basic care, including nutrition and hydration, until they died naturally.

But if the judge presiding over the case of M, the second woman (with MCS), were to decide on 23 September to ‘pull the plug’ an even greater wrong would be done which would place the lives of many disabled people in danger by the legal precedents it created. What we should be doing instead is trying to overturn the Bland decision and amend the Mental Capacity Act.

Whilst the Mental Capacity Act was being drawn up in 2004-5 the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (renamed ‘Dignity in Dying’ in January 2006) took a huge interest and made a significant contribution to its wording. The concepts of ‘futile life’, ‘best interests’ being served by having one’s life ended and nutrition and hydration constituting treatment were all ideas they supported.

They wanted to pave the way to enable people whose lives were judged to be ‘futile’ to be starved and dehydrated to death. Why?

Well we have to go back a little in history to look at the agenda the international ‘pro-euthanasia movement have been pursuing for decades.

At the Fifth Biennial Conference of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies held in Nice, France on 20-23 September 1984, Helga Kuhse, PhD, lecturer in philosophy at Monash University and Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Bio-Ethics in Melbourne, Australia, made the following statement:

‘If we can get people to accept the removal of all treatment and care – especially the removal of food and fluids – they will see what a painful way this is to die, and then, in the patient’s best interests, they will accept the lethal injection.’

There’s that term ‘best interests’ again.

Kuhse is not proposing a policy of coercive ‘voluntary euthanasia’. Her view is that a public policy, which allows the withholding of food and fluids, is a cruel one and not in the patient’s best interest. She believes the public recognition that such a policy grossly disregards the interests of patients must eventually lead to the acceptance of active euthanasia.

You don’t often hear this worded as bluntly these days by advocates of legalising euthanasia. They also deny supporting euthanasia for people who are not mentally competent. But the agenda is still there. Allowing death by dehydration and starvation is a step aimed at softening up the public for the introduction eventually of involuntary euthanasia – in their ‘best interests’.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

One baby adoption in the UK for every 2,235 abortions – seven times worse than the US

Bill Reichart is a pastor and area director with CMDA, CMF’s US sister organization. He writes a blog called Provocative Church which today carries a brief article on adoption and abortion figures.

He writes:

Planned Parenthood (ie. the equivalent of BPAS and MSI in the UK) may want to spin their purpose as merely providing reproductive health and maternal and child health services but they are unmistakably in the business of abortions.’

‘Taking a look at Planned Parenthood’s latest fact sheet which pulls data from 2009 (it is July, 2011 and they haven’t released any 2010 numbers) and guess what?

Abortions are up and adoption referrals are down.

•332,278 abortions of human embryos and fetuses
•997 adoption referrals

That makes the latest ratio of 333 terminations performed for every adoption referral.'

All of which made me wonder what the comparative figures are like in the UK.

Well in 2009 there were 203,444 abortions on UK residents and just 91 adoptions involving babies under one year.

That’s a ratio of 2,235 abortions performed for every baby adopted.

Or in other words, a ratio almost seven times worse than even the US - which is perhaps why Britain’s new adoption czar says it might be a good idea for women with unwanted pregnancies to consider giving their babies up for adoption.

Stories of triumph over adversity should get more column inches and air time

Today Nikki Kenward, who was left disabled after a partial recovery from paralysis caused by Gullain Barre syndrome, will stage a protest outside parliament about the dangers that a changing the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia would pose to those with serious disability.

Her own inspiring personal story is told in the Daily Mail today and well worth a read.

Kenward (pictured) wants particularly to draw attention to Ms M, a woman in her early 50s in minimally conscious state, whose case is currently being heard in the Court of Protection. M’s sister and partner wish to have her nutrition and hydration withdrawn so that she can be starved and dehydrated to death.

It has long been a ploy of the pro-euthanasia movement that allowing the death by dehydration of people who are not imminently dying will make lethal injections for euthanasia much easier for society to accept. It is in other words part of a softening up exercise. So there is understandingly a lot of public interest in this landmark case which has the potential of setting very dangerous legal precedents. The judge visited M on Monday this week and expert witnesses will be giving evidence today.

It is a popular misconception that most people with serious disability or terminal disease wish to have their lives prematurely ended. But in fact this is true only of a very small vocal minority to whom the BBC in particular, that 'cheerleader for euthanasia', has given an international platform. This has had the effect of swaying public opinion and fuelling suicide contagion.

But more recently there has been a steady trickle of ‘good news’ stories in the print media of people overcoming adversity, of which Nikki Kenward’s is the latest. I have also recently blogged about other examples – amongst them are:

1.Martin Pistorius, a South African man who was imprisoned by locked in syndrome for ten years but is now married and running a successful computer company.

2.Alistair Banks, the incurable optimist, – an inspiring story of courage in the face of motor neurone disease.

3.Pauline Thiele, who learnt to love her unborn baby son Liam, who had Edwards syndrome, even though she knew he could not survive .

4.Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French editor of Elle magazine, who suffered a severe stroke, from which he never recovered, and yet wrote, the autobiographical ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ which was ‘dictated’ letter by letter and has been made into a major feature film.

5.Little Charley-Marie Skinner, a baby born with a heart tumour, whose parents were advised to have an abortion. She is now thriving at 19 months.

6.Graham Miles, the pensioner who told how he beat ‘locked in syndrome’ after suffering a massive stroke.

7.Matt Hampson, the Leicester rugby player who suffered tetraplegia in a collapsed scrum and now is an inspirational speaker running a charity to help those ‘less fortunate than himself’.

8. Gary Parkinson, who has locked-in syndrome, and his now acting as a scout for his old football club Middlesborough.

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 the BBC, to tell their stories in great detail and without adequate cross-examination, creating the false impression that the small minority they constitute are somehow representative of all people facing suffering or death.

Cases are often highlighted in painstaking detail featuring long personal interviews and often with substantial extraneous information about the individual’s personal life. Contrary views are either not expressed, or are at best relegated to single sentence reactionary soundbites. Many of the cases involved have become household names in the UK.

It is therefore gratifying to see news outlets, other than the BBC, giving column inches to cases like those I have outlined above. It is essential that people here this alternative perspective on suffering and assisted suicide.

I recently noted how the soap Emmerdale, had more realistically depicted the devastating effect on those left behind following the assisted suicide of one of its key characters, even though it had previously been much less accurate in depicting what life with paralysis involves for most people.

These recent trends are encouraging. Stories of courage in the face of profound disability or chronic or terminal disease and accounts of how people found strength to overcome adversity, or even to cope with a life situation which they would never have chosen but have no power to change, need to be heard.

Is it too much to ask that some of them might be given an international platform by the BBC? We will have to wait and see.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Leading neonatologist challenges resuscitation policies for premature babies as Britain’s most premature surviving twin goes home with parents

An article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, ‘Premature baby survives after doctors advised abortion’, tells the story of Jacob McMahon, who became Britain's most premature surviving twin after he was born on February 22, just 23 weeks into pregnancy, at a weight of 1lb 4oz.

Doctors had advised Miss Fisher to abort Jacob after his twin sister, Emie, died when she was born at 21 weeks and six days due to an infection.

But Jacob followed eight days later, twelve hours before doctors would have demanded a final decision from the family on whether to terminate the pregnancy.

The legal upper limit for abortion is 24 weeks, but Jacob is one of a growing list of babies who survived despite being born before the threshold.

Five months later he has now been deemed healthy enough to leave hospital with his parents.

The story once again raises questions about resuscitation policies for premature babies.

The cover story in the summer edition of the CMF journal Triple Helix, written by Professor John Wyatt, reviews the recent BBC documentary ‘23 week babies - the price of life’, which represented six months of filming on the neonatal intensive care unit at Birmingham Women’s Hospital. The underlying theme was expressed in stark form by Adam Wishart, the presenter, ‘Is it worth trying to keep these babies alive?’ The opinion of many of the professionals interviewed was clearly ‘No’.

However, Wyatt raises a number of technical and clinical issues, which were not raised in the programme, in arguing that every extremely pre-term baby deserves the chance to be considered for treatment.

First he argues that gestational age cannot be measured with accuracy other than in IVF pregnancies when fertilisation occurs in the laboratory. In addition other clinical variables besides gestational age are crucially important in determining the likelihood of survival and the risks of disability. These include birth weight (the higher the better), gender (girls do better than boys), multiple pregnancies (singletons do better than twins and triplets), and whether antenatal steroids were given prior to delivery (antenatal steroids improve survival and reduce brain injury). It is a basic principle of medicine that we should individualise treatment to the specific patient we are caring for;.so making blanket resuscitation rules based on gestational age alone is scientifically and medically indefensible.

Second, Outcome figures vary between different neonatal units. A statistic repeated in the programme was that nine out of 100 babies born at 23 weeks will survive and
only one will reach adulthood without disability. It is not at all clear where this figure came from but it is highly contestable. A study based at University College London Hospitals, found an overall survival rate of 46% as a proportion of all live births at 23 weeks for the period 1996 to 2000 3 and other published studies have reported survival rates of 66% from the USA and 41% in Australia.

Third, most extremely preterm survivors rate their own quality of life highly. The BBC programme gave the strong implication that the majority of extremely preterm survivors were significantly handicapped. It is in fact very unusual for ex-preterm survivors to be so severely disabled that they are unable to interact with others and engage actively in life. Studies of health related quality of life in adolescents and adults have shown that ex-preterm survivors give similar self-ratings to those who were born at term without medical problems.

Wyatt concludes that each baby deserves the best possible care. If there is a realistic chance that a particular baby can survive without overwhelming and catastrophic injury, then surely as a rich country we owe it to each child to give them a chance of life. In this situation it is best to start ‘provisional intensive care’, giving the baby the initial benefit of the doubt, and taking each day as it comes.

Hospitalised patients more satisfied when given chance to discuss faith and religion, new study shows

Hospitalised patients who are able to talk about their religious and spiritual concerns are more satisfied with their care, but one-fifth are not given the chance to have these discussions, researchers in Chicago have found.

The authors of the new study, published online on 1 July in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, compiled information on the spiritual concerns of more than 3,000 patients hospitalized over a three-year period, and had the patients rate their sense of satisfaction with their overall hospital care.

The study found that 41 percent of patients had religious or spiritual concerns they wanted to talk about while in the hospital. These discussions took place among 32 percent of all patients.

The study also pointed out that the patients did not care who spoke with them about their religious concerns. What mattered most was just having the discussion. Most of the patients, 61 percent, spoke with a chaplain, 12 percent with a member of their own religious community, 8 percent with a doctor and 12 percent spoke with other people.

Half of the patients who wanted a discussion, however, did not get to have one (20 percent of patients, overall), the researchers pointed out. Meanwhile, one in four who said they did not want a conversation about spiritual issues had one anyway.

Regardless of whether they wanted the religious discussion or not, those that did reported being more satisfied with their overall level of care while in the hospital, the researchers noted.

The study’s authors concluded, ‘These data suggest that many more inpatients desire conversations about R/S than have them. Health care professionals might improve patients' overall experience with being hospitalized and patient satisfaction by addressing this unmet patient need.’

This new research follows several recent endorsements of various aspects of spiritual care by doctors’ leaders in the UK.

The General Medical Council and Medical Defence Union have recently endorsed 'tactful' offers of prayer by GPs and the GMC has also confirmed the appropriateness of sensitive faith discussions with patients.

Professor Mike Richards, national clinical director for cancer and end-of-life care, said at the recent launch of the new RCGP end of life charter that it was important that patients at the end of their lives should be offered spiritual support from GPs if they wanted it.

And RCGP clinical champion for end-of-life care Professor Keri Thomas said that spiritual care was 'essential' for end-of-life care.

These developments suggest that those who are not providing spiritual care are practising sub-optimal medicine and also that doctors who have no faith are not exempt from this responsibility.

Alistair Banks: the incurable optimist – an inspiring story of courage in the face of motor neurone disease

Recently I blogged about Martin Pistorius – an inspiring story of faith, hope and love in the face of locked-in syndrome.

It was equally refreshing to read today in the Daily Telegraph the story of a man with motor neurone disease, ‘Alistair Banks: the incurable optimist’.

This is just the kind of inspiring testimony of which we should be hearing much more.

Just a few paragraphs to whet your appetite:

On the face of it, Alistair Banks does not have much to be optimistic about. Last year he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND), and he is likely to die before very long. Aged only 40, the thought of leaving his wife and two small children brings tears to his eyes. He can no longer walk, let alone continue to work as a teacher. Yet his perky face is currently smiling out from billboards all over the country under the description: ‘Alistair, the Incurable Optimist’.

Where others in his position may be thinking of heading off to Dignitas in Switzerland to put an end to it all, or railing against the laws that prevent assisted suicide in this country, he is making the most of every minute left to him.

His optimism is not unusual, he maintains. 'Everyone I know with MND is trying to do positive things, otherwise they would sink into despair. It’s a coping mechanism. Doing things means that you can pull in friends and family to share something both fun and rewarding.'

The overwhelming vast majority of people with diseases like motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease – or even locked in syndrome for that matter - do not wish to end their lives.

They want help and support from others to make the very most of the lives that they have. Not ‘assisted dying’ but ‘assisted living’.

Matt Hampson, the Leicester prop who lost the use of all four limbs after a rugby scrum collapsed once told me the secret of his battle with disability. ‘I don’t think about what I can’t do, but what can still do’, he said.

Monday 25 July 2011

Disability Campaigners to Stage Mock Execution Outside Parliament in Protest Against Drift Toward Involuntary Euthanasia

Disability rights campaigners dressed in white will stage a mock execution of a wheelchair user outside Parliament on Wednesday 27 July in protest against the dangerous drift toward all-out euthanasia.

The event, from 1pm in Old Palace Yard, will be led by Nikki Kenward of the campaign group Distant Voices, a woman who knows what it is like to be ‘locked in’ after contracting Guillian Barre Syndrome, a condition which left her totally paralysed for five months but the for ability to wink an eye. She has never regained the use of her legs.

The campaigners will wear surgical masks to signify the inability of many disabled or seriously-ill people to speak out for themselves and will process by drumbeat to a set of gallows where one wheelchair user will be doused in ‘blood’.

Mrs Kenward of Aston on Clun, Shropshire, is among those who fear that pressure is mounting on Parliament and in the courts to allow the killings of seriously sick, disabled or minimally conscious, but incapacitated patients.

She is particularly concerned about the plight of some 6,000 mentally-incapacitated patients in the British health care system.

A working party funded by the Royal College of Physicians is undertaking a review of their care which, according to the media, is likely to ‘lead to fundamental changes in medical practice’.

Professor Lynne Turner-Stokes, a brain injury expert at King’s College, London, and a member of the working party, has called for a ‘centrally-funded register of the large number of half-forgotten vegetative patients’. Prof Turner-Stokes told The Sunday Times: ‘We need to take a deep breath and consider whether doctors are striving to keep people alive in inappropriate circumstances.’

The demonstration outside Parliament also comes as the Court of Protection prepares to deliver its verdict on Case M, which involves an unprecedented application to starve and dehydrate a ‘minimally conscious’ brain-damaged woman to death even though she shows signs of awareness and can move her arm and put her tongue in and out.

Mrs Kenward said: ‘Everybody is going to get old, everybody is going to be disabled. If we don’t want to value difference what differences will be acceptable in the end? Very few.’

(Source: ALERT)

My reply to the recent British Medical Journal article on Christian Medical Fellowship

Whilst we are grateful to the BMJ for its attention, the 650 word article about the Christian Medical Fellowship in this week’s ’Lobby Watch’ devotes 412 words to one of our 5,000 members, 127 words to one course we run and only 111 words to CMF itself. Readers will learn much more about us from our website but let me give a brief overview.

Ever since ‘Luke the Physician’, the first century historian and church leader who wrote two books in the New Testament, Christian doctors motivated by Jesus Christ’s teaching and example have been profoundly influential in shaping healthcare’s history, prominent amongst them Pare, Pasteur, Lister, Paget, Barnardo, Jenner, Simpson, Sydenham, Osler, Skudder and Livingstone.

CMF UK was founded in 1949 following a notice placed in the BMJ. With over 4,000 doctors and 1,000 medical students as members we are affiliated with about 70 other national bodies of Christian doctors worldwide through the International Christian Medical and Dental Association (ICMDA). We are interdenominational and mainstream.

Our charitable objects include the promotion of the Christian faith, the promotion of education and the alleviation of poverty, suffering and distress worldwide and membership is open to all who sympathise with our aims, have personal faith in Jesus Christ and accept the authority of the Bible.

CMF’s principal work is to unite and equip Christian doctors and to this end we run conferences, publish books and periodicals and coordinate local, speciality and special interest groups.

We also have an interest in medical work abroad and in public policy. Currently 200 members work abroad full time with a variety of mission and secular agencies in 45 different countries whilst many others, based in the UK, are regularly involved in short-term overseas visits.

CMF seeks to be a voice for Christian values in healthcare and our ten point ethical code includes, a commitment to sex within marriage and upholding the sanctity of human life. These two emphases, along with our desire to be witnesses to our faith and our belief in Christ’s exclusive teaching and claims, do understandably bring us into some conflict with those pursuing a more secular agenda.

However it is noteworthy that the involvement of doctors in abortion, for example, also runs contrary to the Hippocratic Oath and Declaration of Geneva and that the BMA was also itself once strongly opposed to it. It is not CMF which has moved!

With respect to the integration of faith and practice we welcome the GMC’s recognition that ‘all doctors have personal beliefs which affect their day-to-day practice’. We also welcome the recent endorsement by the General Medical Council and Medical Defence Union of 'tactful' offers of prayer by GPs and the GMC’s confirmation of the appropriateness of sensitive faith discussions with patients.

BMJ readers may be interested in my recent Triple Helix editorial ‘Faith matters in healthcare encounters’ and also in our new book 'At a Given Moment' available via our website.

We welcome all doctors and others who share our aims and convictions to join us.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Merkel and Sarkozy ‘extend and pretend’ policies will fail because the real problem is not liquidity but solvency. Read the signs.

This blog is about 1,000 words long – but a picture is worth a thousand words and the key message is told by simply looking at the two pictures on this page (from the BBC and Sunday Times) It is not difficult to see what they are saying.

Whilst newspaper headlines have been dominated by the Murdoch hacking scandal, the Norwegian massacre and Amy Winehouse’s death economic issues have been pushed off the front pages and out of the public eye.

But the Sunday Times business section today carries the headlines of ‘Recovery stalls amid euro crisis’, ‘Greek bailout only postpones inevitable tragedy’, ‘Euro patched up… for now’ and ‘Osborne battles to conquer debt mountain’.

And the top story on the BBC is about the American’s failure to reach agreement on a new ceiling for the nation’s debt. Just over a week ago we read that ‘US trade deficit widens to more than $50bn in May’, the highest level in 31 months.

We read that the ‘the latest Greek bailout has solved its immediate problems, but doubts linger over how long the sticking plaster will hold’.

Robert Watts and Iain Dey review recent events as follows:

Last Thursday night, Europe’s leaders unveiled a deal that was designed to assure the markets that it had filled in that big, black hole in the Greek national finances — and contained the fears that were spreading across the eurozone.

A second bailout worth €109 billion (£96 billion) was agreed for the Greek economy, with private investors set to take a €37 billion ‘haircut’.

Wider reforms intended to address the market turmoil over the finances of Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland were also unveiled.

As details of the package started to leak out on Thursday, traders bought the political enthusiasm. By Friday morning, Europe’s main stock markets were rallying and the yields on Spanish and Italian bonds started to drop back from the levels of the past two weeks — which at times had peaked towards the 7% that economists flag as the danger point.

By Friday night, however, the rally had run out of steam. Once the markets picked apart the deal, they realised it was not the panacea the politicians had promised — it was a sticking plaster loosely covering a gaping wound in the side of the single currency.

Last weekend, Iain Dey, deputy business editor at the Sunday Times, in an article titled ‘Agenda: Let’s be clear — this is another financial crisis’ wrote:

Though many have missed it, the western world is balanced in the most precarious of positions once again. We should be terrified.

Unprecedented has become an overused word in the City in the past four years. The freeze in the global credit markets that began in the summer of 2007 was unprecedented, as was the subsequent collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the rescue of Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS.

Every leg of the crisis has seen a whole new set of assumptions rubbished, another rulebook ripped up and a new paradigm of problems emerge.

This weekend the western world is balanced in the most precarious of positions once again.

Anyone who has been watching the news rather than the markets over the past few days could be forgiven for missing this, but the situation is broadly as follows.

•America will run out of money to pay its bills on August 2 unless its feuding politicians can agree a new deal to make its national debt pile even bigger.
•Europe is staring down the barrel of a seemingly unsolvable debt crisis, with Greece’s problems starting to infect Italy, Belgium and possibly even France.
•Global credit markets have started to seize up again, as they did four years ago. At times last week, the fear factor saw inter-bank lending grind to a virtual halt.
•Gold is soaring to new highs as investors search for a safe port in the storm. Prices are so high that gold mines last worked by Roman slaves 2,000 years ago are being reopened to exploration.

Unprecedented may be one word to describe this baffling confluence of events. Terrifying is another. Were it not for the fact that we’re all so jaded by the idea of countries going bust and banks running out of money, we’d be rather more concerned by all of this.

But I thought the most sense this morning was spoken by business editor Dominic O’Connell in an article I cannot find on the Sunday Times website titled ‘Greek bailout only postpones the inevitable’.

O’Connell says Merkel and Sarkozy’s plan is that by taking the heat off with a massive bailout the Greek economy will start to grow, eventually reaching a happy state where it can deal with its borrowings. But he calls this policy ‘extend and pretend’.

The real problem, he argues, is not liquidity buy insolvency. This latest bailout ducks the real issue – Greece and Ireland – and maybe other members of the eurozone – are bust. I would suggest that on the basis of the graphs on this page Britain and the US are too.

I am not an economist but I have always lived by the rule that your expenditure should be less than your income and that you should stay out of debt. It saves a lot of worry.

This basic wisdom seems not to have been grasped by Western governments who seem set on postponing the evil day rather than addressing the real problem.

Rev John Wellesly’s famous aphorism was, ‘Earn as much as you can. Save as much you can. Invest as much as you can. Give as much as you can.’

But Western governments instead live by, ‘Borrow as much as you can. Save as little as you can. Spend as much as you can. Give as little as you can.’

As the Good Book says, ‘The prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.’ (Proverbs 22:3)

My advice? Live simply. Save wisely. Give generously. And get out of debt quickly cos the hard rain’s gonna fall!

BMJ archives demonstrate BMA’s 180 degree turn on abortion to embrace wholeheartedly what it once called ‘the greatest crime’

On 25 June in a blog titled ‘BMA still not listening to public or science on late abortion’ I reported on the vote at the British Medical Association annual representative meeting against a motion which sought to provide legal protection for babies at the threshold of viability.

Delegates objected to a lowering of the upper abortion limit for babies without disability to 20 weeks by a two to one majority.

The BMA produced a seven page briefing paper opposing the motion and delegates were encouraged by both BMA Council Chairman Hamish Meldrum (pictured) and Ethics Chairman Tony Calland to vote against it.

The BMA is deeply committed to abortion and has been in recent years an ardent exponent of abortion rights. This is not surprising given that doctors have carried out over 7 million abortions in Great Britain since 1967.

But it has not always been so.

A recent article in the British Medical Journal refers to Christian Medical Fellowship as a ‘lobby group’ and specifically criticises by implication its views on abortion.

But in fact CMF’s views on abortion are in accord with all historic codes on medical ethics such as the Hippocratic Oath, the Declaration of Geneva and the international Code of Medical Ethics. They are also in accord with the historic position of the BMA!

The British Medical Association itself was once strongly opposed to abortion as revealed in BMJ archives recently published on the journal’s website.

In June 1947 the BMA published a statement on ‘War Crimes and Medicine’ which it later submitted to the General Assembly of the World Medical Association in September1947.

The statement included the following:

‘The evidence given in the trials of medical war criminals has shocked the medical profession of the world. These trials have shown that the doctors who were guilty of these crimes against humanity lacked both the moral and professional conscience that is to be expected of members of this honourable profession. They departed from the traditional medical ethic which maintains the value and sanctity of every individual human being.’ (emphasis mine)

The statement majors, as one might expect, on the atrocities carried out by German doctors during the Nazi holocaust, but returns again and again to general principles about respect for life:

‘The doctors who took part in these deeds did not become criminals in a moment. Their amoral methods were the result of training and conditioning to regard science as an instrument in the hands of the State to be applied in any way desired by its rulers. It is to be assumed that initially they did not realize that the ideas of those who held political power would lead to the denial of the fundamental values on which Medicine is based. Whatever the causes such crimes must never be allowed to recur. Research in medicine as well as its practice must never be separated from eternal moral values. Doctors must be quick to point out to their fellow members of society the likely consequences of policies that degrade or deny fundamental human rights.’ (emphasis mine)

So what does this have to do with abortion you might ask? The answer lies in the document’s conclusion:

‘Although there have been many changes in Medicine, the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath cannot change and can be reaffirmed by the profession. It enjoins…The duty of curing, the greatest crime being co-operation in the destruction of life by murder, suicide and abortion.’ (emphasis mine)

The BMA was once strongly opposed to abortion. But it has chosen to discard its own ethics. A vigorously pro-abortion position has now been wholeheartedly embraced and is ardently defended by its present leadership.

By contrast the CMF still opposes abortion. This does not make the CMF a lobby group. It rather raises questions about the behaviour of the BMA.

Saturday 23 July 2011

British Medical Journal features Christian Medical Fellowship after playing a role in its inception over sixty years ago

I see that the British Medical Journal this week has featured the Christian Medical Fellowship in its ‘lobby watch’ column. Apparently CMF is a lobby group.

The article mainly focuses on the case of Richard Scott, a Christian doctor who is awaiting a hearing with the General Medical Council for talking about his Christian faith in the consulting room.

However, although it discusses the appropriateness of sharing faith within the consultation, no mention is made of the fact that the General Medical Council and Medical Defence Union have recently endorsed 'tactful' offers of prayer by GPs or that the GMC has similarly confirmed the appropriateness of sensitive faith discussions with patients.

Nonetheless I would like to take this opportunity personally to thank the BMJ for almost a whole page summarising our history and aims in the opening paragraph, linking to CMF's website and ending with details of our development fund appeal.

I hope the article brings in lots of new members for CMF.

This is not the first time that the BMJ has given publicity to CMF. In fact, as I discovered recently, the BMJ may have actually carried a key role in CMF’s inception through a notice it carried back in 1948.

The short piece makes reference to the Medical Prayer Union, which one year later in 1949 merged with the medical division of the postgraduate fellowship of IVF (now UCCF) to form CMF. The MPU’s secretary Neville Bradley is suggesting the formation of a new ‘Christian Medical Group.

Dr. NEVILLE BRADLEY, Hon. Secretary, Medical Prayer Union (South End Cottage, Turville Heath, Henley-on-Thames), writes:
Founded over 50 years ago the Medical Prayer Union has sought in various ways to foster fellowship among Christian doctors. It has organized the Missionary Breakfast at the Annual BMA Meetings and another for medical students every year in the spring. It would seem from many points of view that the time is opportune to link medical men and women in some more effective way in order to promote and maintain a distinctive Christian witness in what is tending to become an increasingly secularized and nationalized service and to foster and support the medical missionary activities of the Church at home and overseas. Will any interested send me their suggestions regarding such a ‘Christian Medical Group’?

I was not previously aware of this piece but I’m sure that the Christian Medical Fellowship’s formation shortly afterwards was no coincidence. So even more thanks to the BMJ is in order.

The ‘missionary breakfasts’ at the annual BMA meetings referred to are still running over 60 years later. This year’s ‘CMF breakfast’ was addressed by Prof Glynn Harrison and chaired by the BMA president David Haslam.

Just as the Church of England has been called ‘the Tory Party at prayer’, so the CMF in previous days was known as ‘the BMA at prayer’.

Back in the 1940s members of the BMA and the CMF shared common views on most ethical issues but this is no longer the case as a result of the secularizing process that Bradley mentions.

Interestingly the CMF has not moved its position over these sixty years and still holds to ethics based on the Judeo-Christian tradition and historical codes of ethics like the Hippocratic Oath and Declaration of Geneva.

But the BMA has moved its position considerably.

It is good that despite this the BMJ still grants the CMF considerable column inches.

Scientists’ call for new regulatory body on human-animal hybrids branded as 'hollow gesture' and 'mere PR gambit'

I blogged yesterday about UK scientists calling on Parliament to create a regulatory body to approve experiments with animals using human tissue or DNA and gave seven reason why we should we wary of it.

I see that Wesley Smith (pictured), of Second Hand Smoke, has called the scientists call a ‘hollow gesture’ and a ‘mere PR gambit’.

Again he gives seven reasons why. I have reproduced them below.

Many Scientists and Bioethicists Reject Human Exceptionalism: Regulating this field presumes that there is something important, even sacrosanct, about maintaining the distinction between human beings and animals. But many bioethicists and scientists today reject that moral view. In the absence of protecting HE as a core purpose, any regulations that are enacted will be as robust as tepid tea.

Regulations Over Science Tend To Cover Only That Which Can’t Yet be Done: Most proposed restraints in these cutting edge areas of science would only regulate that which cannot yet be done. Example: We often hear scientists say that they should be barred from experimenting on embryos beyond 14 days “for now.” That’s because embryos currently can’t be maintained in vitro beyond 14 days. When and if embryos can be maintained outside a woman’s body longer, count on the regulations being “revisited.”

Regulators are Often Rubber Stamps: The UK Embryo Authority has rarely, if ever, said no to scientific experiments. And if they appear ready to disapprove, the scientists merely start yelling and the regulators quickly fold. We saw that with the request to engage in human SCNT cloning in the UK using animal eggs. Why would the human-animal DNA regulatory authority be any different? In the USA, most regulations over embryonic manipulations deal with government funding, rather than what can be done legally. Moreover, these regulations are usually tighter than “expert” advisory bodies want.

Suffering Is The Ever Ready Excuse: These kind of experiments are always promoted as necessary for future cures. In a society in which “preventing suffering” has become the overriding purpose–and in which important ethical principles often fall to emotional narratives–it is hard to see where any permanent limits can ever be drawn or enforced–unless it hurts animals, that is.

Scientists Don’t Like Being Told No: The scientific community is in dire need of a humility injection. Indeed, I have detected a real sense of entitlement within the science community, even a presumption that they possess a fundamental liberty interest to conduct virtually any experiment they want. If laws and regulations with teeth were ever created–and kept when the proscribed activity became feasible–in the USA there would be a lawsuit filed to create a constitutional right to research, as has already been threatened. I would expect similar litigation in Europe.

The Rogue Countries Excuse: Since some corrupt countries could always be found to allow unethical experiments, some scientists would argue that they should be allowed to pass previously proscribed lines to ensure “transparency”–which has become a substitute for principled moral boundaries in the West.

Nothing Can Be Defined Anymore: We live in a postmodern age in which language has become so malleable that clear definitions are almost impossible to create and crucial distinctions are obliterated with malice aforethought.

Friday 22 July 2011

Seven reasons to be wary of British scientists’ call for expert body to advise on animal-human hybrids

British scientists have said today that a new expert body should be formed to regulate experiments mixing animal and human DNA to make sure no medical or ethical boundaries are crossed.

In a new report scientists at the Academy of Medical Sciences are claiming that a new advisory group should be set up under the auspices of the Home Office to advise whether certain tests on animals that use human DNA should be pursued.

Professor Martin Bobrow, a medical geneticist at Cambridge University and co-author of the report, has said society needs to set rules before scientists begin experiments that the public would find unacceptable. ‘We are trying to get this out in the open before anything has happened.’

Tighter regulation isn’t needed for most such experiments, says Bobrow, chair of the group that wrote the report. ‘But there are a small number of future experiments, which could approach social and ethically sensitive areas which should have an extra layer of scrutiny.’

The government has said it will consider the recommendations.

According to news reports, last year, more than one million experiments were carried out on genetically modified animals – mostly mice and fish carrying human DNA. These ‘transgenic’ laboratory animals are used to develop new drugs for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, or to investigate the role of individual genes. Researchers also create humanised animals by inserting human stem cells into animal embryos. These ‘chimeras’ are used to shed light on conditions such as stroke, hepatitis and cancer.

Much research in this area raises few ethical or legal concerns and has already been with us for years. Goats carrying human genes have been used for example to produce human blood clotting factors to treat people with bleeding disorders and bacteria with implanted human DNA have been used to produce insulin to treat people with diabetes. Mice modified to carry human genes are widely used to study diseases including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and anxiety. Mice implanted with pieces of human tumours are used to test cancer drugs.

Using an animal as a biological factory to produce human proteins or as a living laboratory to examine the behaviour of human cancer cells is one thing. Such research is limited in scope and has a specific human benefit in mind. But enhancing an animal with uniquely human characteristics in order to produce a new trans-species organism for other purposes is something altogether different.

So what concerns should we have about this new development?

First is the composition of the committee. Virtually all, with the exception of theologian Michael Banner and ethicist John Harris are research scientists.
Scientists regulating scientists is worrying because scientists are generally not experts in theology, philosophy and ethics and they often have ideological or financial vested interests in their research. Moreover they do not like to have restrictions placed on their work. We have tighter regulation of the banking industry and medical profession now because we do not trust that groups professionals are fully capable of regulating themselves.

Second is the presence of John Harris as the advisory ethicist. Harris is regarded by many as an extremist given his support for infanticide for disabled children. Any ethical guidelines coming from Harris are likely to be liberal and permissive.

Third is the way these recommendations have been announced. The report we are told has taken two years to produce but I suspect that very few members of the public even know that it was being written. And it has been released by a group of scientists at a secret meeting attended only by journalists and from which other stakeholders were deliberately excluded. From what has been written this morning most people will have very little idea about its contents as most busy science journalists will have taken the (carefully spun) press release produced by the group more or less at face value.

Fourth are the vested interests of the biotechnology industry. Much research in this area will be funded by biotechnology companies who will be interested primarily in profits for shareholders and will be less concerned about crossing ethical boundaries. One can be sure that they will be watching these developments very closely behind the scenes if not actually pulling significant strings.

Fifth is the track record of members of this group. In the lead up to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008 former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris and others coordinated an alliance of biotechnology companies, patient interest groups, research scientists and the science media group to make the case for legalising animal human hybrid embryos. In a high level campaign led by Mark Henderson, science journalist at the Times newspaper, the government was brought on board and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that research involving hybrid embryos would lead to millions of lives being saved. The whole operation was carefully stage-managed to bring the British public on board and to sideline any credible opposition but animal-human hybrid embryos are now largely a farcical footnote in history.

Sixth, the group already regard as ethical things that many members of the public either reject or have severe misgivings about. Animal human hybrid embryos for stem cell research and three parent embryos for research into mitochondrial disease are two examples. So where are they actually going to draw the lines?

Finally, the examples the group has given about what should not be permitted are extreme. They suggest, for example, that injecting human stem cells into the brains of primates if it ‘engenders human-like behaviour’ should be banned outright. The Daily Mail is predictably already talking about gun-toting gorillas, apes with human-like memories or a new ‘planet of the apes’ complete with chimpanzees with the ability to speak. But my concerns are about what might be being slipped in under the radar. Giving extreme examples can be a clever way of creating an illusion of self-regulation in order to move the boundaries of what is ethically acceptable. In other words if you make it clear you are not asking for a mile then you may reassure people enough to smuggle several hundred yards whilst no one is looking.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that an expert advisory committee be set up to monitor these developments. We need that at very least. But the real questions will be around the terms of reference and regulation of that committee. Who will be on it? How will they be selected? How will its activities be scrutinised? What primary parliamentary legislation and regulations will be put in place to ensure that it doesn’t simply become a vehicle driven by scientists who don’t want restrictions on their freedom, biotechnology companies who want to make money and desperate patient interest groups which are tempted to cross ethical boundaries to find cures?

These are important questions that need answering.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Is seven billion people too many? More nonsense from the population control lobby

SPUC Director John Smeaton has drawn my attention to an article I missed in last weekend’s Observer titled ‘Beckhams a “bad example” for families’.

Now you might wonder why the Beckhams are a bad example. Is it for calling their daughter ‘Harper Seven’? Or their expensive tastes? Or their choice of friends?

It’s actually none of these. According to ‘population experts’ they have joined the ranks of the irresponsible by having four children.

Apparently the world’s population is about to pass seven billion in the next few days and so environmentalists like the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and zoologist David Attenborough are using it as an opportunity to call for the UK to open a public debate about how many children people should have.

This is a recurring theme for Britain’s liberal elite and drives much of the obsession with population control in developing countries. Back in February 2009 Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, said that curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of efforts to combat global warming, and that couples who had more than two children were irresponsible. This idea - that our planet is heating up as a result of people in developing countries breeding too much – seems to be gaining more adherents amongst the Western intelligentsia.

Simon Ross of Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust) is quoted in last weekend’s Observer article as saying:

‘[F]amily planning is cheap, yet many people don't use it properly and accidental pregnancy rates are very high. We need to change the incentives to make the environmental case that one or two children are fine but three or four are just being selfish. The Beckhams, and others like London mayor Boris Johnson, are very bad role models with their large families." [Smeaton’s emphases]

Smeaton identifies the coercive element in this statement:

‘Excuse me? For all my adult life, supporters of "family planning" have claimed - repeatedly and in no uncertain terms - that "family planning" is all about choice, that no one (especially not men) has a right to tell women what to do with their bodies and that one should never, ever be judgmental about another person's private reproductive decisions. Mr Ross' chutzpah shows that population control extremists are as bendy as a Beckham free-kick.’

But is seven billion people too many? Whether the world is overpopulated is debatable. All the world's buildings would fit in Scotland or Ireland alone and the world's population could currently stand shoulder to shoulder on the Isle of Wight. World per capita food production has more than kept pace with population and Europe's own past demonstrates that fertility can be managed effectively - even without contraceptives - as living standards improve.

Furthermore citizens of the developing world choose large families for good reasons, as insurance against an uncertain future in circumstances of high infant mortality, low and insecure income and labour intensive farming.

Family planning combined with economic development allows couples to plan the number and spacing of their children in the light of their own circumstances and beliefs. On the other hand imposed population control, with all that involves, coupled with mounting developing world debt and economic austerity measures which slash health and education budgets, actually causes huge damage to poor indigenous populations.

Our stewardship of the earth is not a licence to exploit but to govern wisely. We cannot impose solutions on the world's poor without addressing our complicity in unjust economic structures, environmentally destructive technologies, and consumptive lifestyles.

I have previously argued that, regardless of what we might believe about the importance of global warning, those countries which are amongst the biggest contributors are not those in the developing world with rapidly growing populations but those in the developed world with relatively static populations.

In other words carbon footprint is much more about consumption per capita than about population. It is not how many children the Beckham’s have, but how much resource each one consumes. That is the real issue.

Sodom came under God's judgment, at least in part, because she was 'arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; (she) did not help the poor and needy' (Ezekiel 16:49).

This description fits our Western World well. Let’s not simplistically condemn people for having children without addressing the real problem – consumption of more resources than one needs coupled with neglect of those in real need.

The real challenge is how we can live more simply in order that others might simply live.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

New studies confirm obesity as significant risk factor for cancer - but are we being open and honest about it?

Amidst the media feeding frenzy over phone hacking lots of significant news continues to pass largely under the radar.

This week, for example, we have had two news stories drawing attention to the link between obesity and certain forms of cancer which have had very little media coverage.

The first, ‘Cancer rate rising in middle-aged’, relates to a report from Cancer Research UK showing that whilst cancer survival rates have doubled since the 1970s, nevertheless the risk of developing cancer in middle-age has risen by over 20% in a generation.

Data show that in Britain in 1979, 44,000 people aged 40-59 developed the disease, compared with 61,000 in 2008.

CRUK said the rise for men and women was partly due to better screening, but also lifestyle factors like obesity. In women, use of the contraceptive Pill, drinking more alcohol, having children later and being overweight have increased breast cancer risk.

The second, ‘Obesity leading driver of breast cancer’, relates to research, also from CRUK, showing that obesity is the biggest lifestyle factor behind the most common form of breast cancer in older women. Alcohol and then cigarettes are the next largest culprits.

One in eight women in the UK develop breast cancer in their lifetime, data shows, and the majority of these tumours are ‘hormone sensitive’ meaning their growth is fuelled by hormones. Too much stored fat in the body raises the level of these ‘sex’ hormones.

According to the BC, experts say women should be made aware of these modifiable risk factors. Dr Julie Sharp, of Cancer Research UK, said: ‘This is an important study as it helps to show how alcohol and weight can influence hormone levels. Maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing alcohol consumption are key to reducing breast cancer risk.’

So there you are. If you didn’t know this before then you do now.

But do most people at risk actually know this? And if not why aren’t they being told?

And why is it an issue that is seldom, if ever, addressed by the church?

Well there’s a question!