Sunday 30 September 2012

You've heard of the Ryder Cup but who was Samuel Ryder?

Well done Team Europe on a brilliant Ryder Cup victory tonight. But I wonder if you know who Samuel Ryder was and how he got interested in golf in the first place.

Samuel Ryder (24 March 1858 – 2 January 1936) was an English businessman, entrepreneur, golf enthusiast, and golf promoter who originated the idea of selling garden seeds in ‘penny packets’ and built a very successful business.

After funding an international golf competition in 1926, he sponsored the Ryder Cup, donating a gold trophy for the first biennial golf championship between the best professional golfers in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1927.

The Ryder Cup has since developed into golf's most important team competition.

Ryder was also a keen Christian and a member of our church – Spicer Street, St Albans. In fact had it not been for a conversation with the then church minister the Ryder Cup tournament might never have eventuated.

He had been a Sunday school teacher in Sale in his youth, and became president of the Mid-Hertfordshire Sunday School Union in 1911.

After moving to St Albans he joined the Spicer Street church soon after 1895 and quickly threw his weight behind the project of a new church building, Trinity Congregational Church.

After a period of ill health in 1908, Ryder's friend Frank Wheeler, preacher at Trinity, suggested that Ryder take up golf as a way to get more fresh air.

He became an enthusiastic amateur, quickly securing a single-figure handicap and joining Verulam Golf Club, where he served on the greens committee for 20 years. He made large donations to the club, and was appointed captain in 1911, 1926 and 1927.

Ryder considered that something vital was required to rouse British clubs to take a real interest and responsibility in encouraging young professionals of talent in order to match the Americans and expanded this idea with sponsorship of a succession of tournaments and challenge matches that ultimately resulted in his donation of the famous Ryder Cup.

The trophy was valued at 100 guineas and manufactured by the well-known firm of Mappin and Webb.

An informal 1926 match held at Wentworth Club between teams of professionals from Great Britain and the USA served as the impetus for the first official match for the Ryder Cup, staged at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, USA during June 1927.

Samuel Ryder started ‘Ryder Seeds’ in the old Dagnall Street Chapel and when he later built his premises in Holywell Hill, the old chapel became a warehouse. The packets would be posted each Friday so that his customers, working men, would receive them for their time off on Saturday afternoons. The business grew rapidly and soon employed around 100 staff.

Ryder, who was described as 'a man of strong and outstanding principles', was also active in local politics who was a city councillor from 1903 to 1916 and mayor of St Albans in 1905.

Sam Ryder died in April 1936 but his widow was a frequent worshipper at 'Spicer Street' until her death in 1955 at the age of ninety-one.

Golf is still very much part of our church’s life. Past and current members have been involved in leading Logos Golf Ministries, a Christian charity dedicated to helping Christians and Churches use golf for furthering the Christian Gospel.

Friday 28 September 2012

Trickle of British suicide cases to Dignitas continues as Swiss vote for status quo

Switzerland's parliament voted against a bid to toughen controls on assisted suicide this week, rejecting concerns about foreigners travelling to the country to die.

Members of the lower house of parliament voted against changing the code, arguing self-regulation by right-to-die organizations such as Exit and Dignitas worked and the liberal rules protected individual freedoms.

The vote in parliament mirrors a referendum in Zurich last year when voters rejected overwhelmingly proposed bans on assisted suicide and ‘suicide tourism’.

Assisted suicide has been allowed in Switzerland since 1941 if aided by a non-physician who has no vested interest in the death. Assisted suicide is also legal in the US states of Oregon and Washington. Euthanasia is permitted only in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium.

The number of Swiss residents who died by assisted suicide rose by 700% between 1998 and 2009, according to official statistics, with almost 300 Swiss residents dying this way in 2009, compared to 43 in 1998.

According to figures I obtained today, Dignitas (pictured above), the only Swiss association that helps applicants from abroad commit suicide, has so far accompanied 1,298 people in taking their own lives. Of these cases, 664 came from Germany, 182 from Britain, 129 from Switzerland, 117 from France, 33 from Italy, 27 from the United States and 17 from Spain.

The controversial Dignitas facility run by Ludwig Minelli, who has called assisted suicide ‘a marvellous possibility’, has attracted much criticism in recent years over discarded cremation urns dumped in Lake Zurich, reports of body bags in residential lifts, suicides being carried out in car parks, the selling of the personal effects of deceased victims and profiteering with fees approaching £8,000 per death.

Although most assisted suicides have been carried out for patients suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease there have also been case reports of people who could have lived for decades ending their lives (including those with arthritis, blindness, spinal injury or diabetes)

Thus far about 182 Britons in ten years – on average 18 per year – have killed themselves at Dignitas. The full numbers are as follows:

2002 1
2003 15
2004 10
2005 15
2006 26
2007 17
2008 23
2009 27
2010 26
2011 22

The British media give huge publicity to cases that do occur creating the false impression that there is a growing demand when in fact this is not the case at all.

These numbers are a tiny fraction of the 550,000 natural deaths that occur in Britain each year and a very small trickle compared with the 650 and 13,000 who, on the basis of the 2005 Lords Select Committee report, it was estimated would die in Britain annually under an Oregon or Dutch-type law respectively.

A recent study by Clive Seale at Brunel University found no cases of assisted suicide in Britain itself.

The huge increase in assisted suicides amongst Swiss nationals, along with the disturbing 18% annual increase in euthanasia in The Netherlands over the last year (in figures released earlier this week) will sound strong alarms to legislators in Britain that we should not be contemplating going down this route.

The right to die can so easily become the duty to die and any change in the law will inevitably place vulnerable people at risk out of fear of being a burden to others. It is appropriate that more than seven out of ten MPs refuse to back calls to legalise assisted suicide as shown in a recent ComRes poll.

The British Suicide Act is thereby shown to remain fit for purpose. Through its blanket prohibition on all assistance with suicide, it continues to provide a strong deterrent to the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people whilst giving both prosecutors and judges discretion in hard cases. It strikes the right balance, is clear and fair and does not need changing.

British parliaments have rightly rejected any loosening of the law here three times over the last five years – in 2006, 2009 and 2010 - on the basis that any change would place pressure on vulnerable people (those who are elderly, disabled, sick or depressed) to end their lives for fear of being a financial or emotional burden on others.

The Swiss vote means that the small number of British people travelling to Switzerland to end their lives will probably continue but we should continue to resist any calls from pressure groups to weaken the law here in the UK.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Why does God allow suffering?

What causes suffering? Is just fate? Retribution? All in the mind? Random molecules?

These are some of the explanations the world offers, but Christians cannot take refuge in them. We believe in a God who is omniscient (knows everything), omnipotent (can do anything) and benevolent (he cares). Herein lies the problem.

If God knows everything, then he must know about suffering. If he can do anything, then he must be able to eradicate it - and if he cares for his creatures then surely he would want to. So, why doesn't he?

'It's obvious,' sneers the sceptic. 'He either doesn't know, is powerless to stop it or doesn't care. The God Christians believe in can't possibly exist.' Many have lost their faith through this sort of thinking. Bernard Shaw put it rather cynically:

'How are atheists produced? In probably nine cases out of ten what happens is something like this. A beloved wife, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, struck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria. The onlooker, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.'

Is there an answer? We need to start by saying that faith and suffering have always co-existed, and that while the existence of suffering has caused great men and women of faith to ask questions of God, it has not shaken their belief in his knowledge, power or love.

The Bible details the suffering of God's people throughout the centuries. David wrestles with it in the Psalms in the depths of his own defeat and despair. Job devotes forty chapters to the problem. The prophets repeatedly quiz God as to why he allows evil apparently to triumph while the godly and innocent remain not vindicated.

According to tradition, eleven of the twelve disciples met a painful and ignominious death and today there are 150,000 Christian martyrs each year. Jesus' own death on the cross was one of prolonged torture, not just physical but mental and spiritual as well.

Many have suffered and not doubted, but this still leaves us with question of why God allows it. While it is dangerous to speculate on God's reasons for each and every tragic event, we can still give general guidelines. Let's consider the problem under the four headings of Free-will, Fall, Faith and Future.


As Christians we believe that God created human beings in his own image. This involved, amongst other things, giving us free-will and responsibility. We are not robots.

However, free-will implies the possibility of making bad choices.

How much suffering in this world occurs as a direct consequence of human beings making bad choicesl? Suffering due to war and violence is an obvious example. Most famine can also be attributed indirectly to war. Refugees have food-stocks looted, supply lines destroyed and can't plant crops. They are pushed onto unproductive land and may even produce environmental change themselves through deforestation and desertification.

A stroll around any hospital ward confirms that much disease is a direct result of human choice. Many patients are there because their own (or others') actions: alcohol, tobacco, stress, diet. The AIDS epidemic is largely a consequence of sexual choice.

Why are holes appearing in the ozone layer? Why is global temperature rising? Where does acid rain come from? These phenomena are all broadly the result of human activity. Man has caused a lot of suffering.

Let's turn the question around and ask how much suffering man could have prevented? Why is it, for example, that there are 30 million people in the world who are blind according to WHO definitions? Blindness is largely preventable (trachoma, avitaminosis A), treatable (onchocerciasis) or surgically correctable (cataracts).

Why is it that three million children die each year from diseases for which immunisations are developed and available (polio, tetanus, measles, diphtheria and whooping cough), and that four million under five years die from diarrhoea when in most cases simple oral rehydration would suffice? Why do a further four million die from respiratory infections when antibiotics exist? According to the WHO, the vast majority of the 15 million childhood deaths in the world each year are unnecessary.

Even suffering from so-called 'acts of God' is made worse through human negligence. Deaths from flooding in developing countries are compounded by tree felling up-stream and the fact that the poor are made to live in dangerous low-lying areas. Earthquake fatalities are potentiated by Jerry-building or location of cities on fault-lines.

John F Kennedy put human negligence in perspective when he said in the 1960s that we had the knowledge and resources to provide food, water, clothing, health and education for every man, woman and child on the planet. All we lacked was the will. In Jesus' parable, the goats were condemned for negligence, for what they did not do (Mt 25:31-46).

If we could remove all the suffering that we humans have caused or could have prevented, there would be substantially less.


Free-will aside, as Christians we also believe that the world we see today is not the world that God originally created. In the beginning all relationships were in harmony. We now live in a changed world where relationships are broken at all levels: between God and us (Gn 3:23-24), between human beings (Gn 4:8), and between us and the planet (Gn 3:16-19). The whole creation 'has been groaning' and is in 'bondage to decay' says Paul (Rom 8: 21-22). Disease, death and even natural disaster are symptoms of this.

These changes are indirect consequences of the Fall: a rebellion against God by both human and angelic beings. (The devil and his angels are part of this rebellion too - Rev 12:7-10.) Of course Satan can only do what God allows him to. In the Bible we see him having to ask God's permission to afflict Job (Job 1:12, 2:6) or to sift Peter (Lk 22:31). However like man, he is able to exercise his free will within the bounds God grants him and so wreak much havoc.

We should not be surprised that our world is full of suffering as a result.


Through the eyes of faith, suffering can be seen to have real value.

Sometimes it can protect us from far greater disaster. The mother who plucks her child in haste from the path of an approaching car may cause a little suffering in the process. But she averts far greater tragedy. Surgeons cause injury to prevent something far worse. Our God-given sensation of pain protects us from traumatic ulceration and infection. If we need any convincing of this, we need only look at the feet of a leprosy patient whose normal sensation is gone. C S Lewis has called pain 'God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world'. Suffering can protect us, not least from the greater suffering of being alienated from God. It is not evidence of God's lack of care for us,but rather of his love and concern. This is why Paul says, 'Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons'. The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb 12:6,7). Suffering may be God's way of protecting us.

It may also have good effects. Training as doctors is not easy, but the hard work we put in now will later bring great benefit to those we help. God works for good even in the most desperate situations. If a piece of coal is put under great pressure at the right temperature, a diamond may result. On the other hand we may be left with coal-dust. People under pressure behave similarly. Suffering may produce strength of character or may cause a person to collapse. Those who have been through war, famine or prolonged imprisonment testify to this. Such experiences can make us or break us. The Bible describes these effects of suffering (Rom 5:3-5, Jas 1:2-4, 1 Pet 2:19-22). God works through suffering for our good (Rom 8:28), and uses it to strengthen us in his service. Knowing this, we can be grateful and even rejoice through it.


Finally, we need to see suffering in the context of the future. The presence of suffering reminds us that one day God is going to put everything right. Justice will finally be done. As Christians, we look forward to 'new heavens and a new earth' (Is 65:17) where there will be 'no more death or mourning or crying or pain' (Rev 21:4). We await a world where 'the wolf and lamb will feed together and the lion will eat straw like the ox' (Is 65:25), where 'they will neither harm nor destroy... for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord' (Is 11:9).

It is only this perspective of how things will be in the future that makes real sense of suffering in the present. Paul, who suffered so much (see for example 2 Cor 11:22-29) could say that 'our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us' (Rom 8:18). He declared, 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him' (1 Cor 2:9). It was this same 'joy set before him' that enabled Jesus to endure the cross (Heb 12:2).

This may make us wonder why God doesn't bring in the 'new heavens and new earth' now. Aren't things bad enough?

We need to realise that God's perfect new world will only come with the destruction of the old. This will involve the annihilation of all evil. It is God's mercy which is leading him to delay (2 Pet 3:9). When the author walks back onto the stage the play will be over. When he returns to put things finally right, everything evil will be destroyed. Those who have rejected him will be banished from his kingdom forever. Just as the glory of the new world far eclipses the best of this, so the horrors of Hell, of separation from God forever, make any suffering in this world pale into insignificance.

This is why God delays, to allow us a chance to join his side before it's too late.

God understands human suffering intimately because he walked this earth in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus relieved suffering in others - he restored peace in nature, brought healing to the sick and mended broken relationships – but at great cost to himself. He also took the worst this world has to offer: rejection, humiliation and an ignominious and painful death. He did it for us. Through his death on the cross in our place and resurrection from the dead he made our rescue from judgement possible. It was the only way that we could be rescued from this world which is heading for destruction (2 Pet 3:10) into the perfect world that is coming. This is why we need to accept the wonderful gift of forgiveness, new life and assurance for the future which Jesus' death on the cross offers us - before it is too late. The offer is made now.


We may not understand the reason for every tragic event which happens to us or others. Much will remain a mystery. But when we understand that God has given man (and the Devil) free-will, when we recognise that we live in a fallen world. When we see suffering through the eyes of faith and in the context of the future, it does begin to make sense. The existence of suffering should not be a stumbling block to our faith. We don't have to dismiss it as fate, retribution, 'in the mind' or random molecules.

Christianity grapples with suffering and conquers it in a way that no other philosophy, religion or ideology does. Christ defeated sin and suffering through the cross.

This article is adapted from a longer one I originally wrote for the CMF Student Journal Nucleus

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Patients with dementia and psychiatric illnesses included as Dutch euthanasia cases rise steeply

According to Dutch media reports today, euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands in 2011 increased by 18% to 3,695. This follows increases of 13% in 2009 and 19% in 2010.

In fact from 2006 to 2011 there has been a steady increase in numbers each year with successive annual deaths at 1923, 2120, 2331, 2636, 3136 and 3695.

Euthanasia now accounts for 2.8% of all Dutch deaths.

In addition euthanasia for people with early dementia doubled to 49 last year and 13 psychiatric patients were euthanized, an increase of over 500% on the two reported in 2010.

But as alarming as these statistics may seem they tell only part of the full story.

On July 11, 2012, The Lancet published a long awaited meta-analysis study concerning the practice of euthanasia and end-of-life practices in the Netherlands in 2010 with a comparison to previous studies done in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2005.

The Lancet study indicated that in 2010, 23% of all euthanasia deaths were not reported meaning that the total number of deaths that year was in fact not 3136 but 3859.

The 2001 euthanasia report also indicated that about 5.6% of all deaths in the Netherlands were related to deep-continuous sedation. This rose to 8.2% in 2005 and 12.3% in 2010.

A significant proportion of these deaths involve doctors deeply sedating patients and then withholding fluids with the explicit intention that they will die.

As I reported recently, although official euthanasia deaths are rising year by year in the Netherlands, these deaths represent only a fraction of the total number of deaths resulting from Dutch doctors intentionally ending their patients’ lives through deliberate morphine overdose, withdrawal of hydration and sedation.

Euthanasia in the Netherlands is out of control.

The House of Lords calculated in 2005 that with a Dutch-type law in Britain we would be seeing over 13,000 cases of euthanasia per year. On the basis of how Dutch euthanasia deaths have risen since this may prove to be a gross underestimate.

I have never been convinced by the term ‘slippery slope’ which implies passive change over time. What we are seeing in the Netherlands is more accurately termed 'incremental extension', the steady intentional escalation of numbers with a gradual widening of the categories of patients to be included.

I recently described the similar steep increase of cases of assisted suicide in Oregon (450% since 1998) and Switzerland (700% over the same period).

The lessons are clear. Once you relax the law on euthanasia or assisted suicide steady extension will follow as night follows day.

There is more analysis of the latest Dutch figures on Alex Schadenberg’s blog.

Monday 24 September 2012

What do Ludwig van Beethoven, Justin Bieber and Tim Tebow have in common?

A professor in a college ethics class presented his students with a problem. He said, ‘A man has syphilis and his wife has tuberculosis.

They have had four children: one has died, the other three have what is considered to be a terminal illness.

The mother is pregnant. What do you recommend?’

After a spirited discussion, the majority of the class voted that she should abort the child.

‘Fine,’ said the professor. ‘You've just killed Beethoven.’

Pattie Mallette was sexually abused as a child and, by age 14, was already using drugs and alcohol. When her hardships became too much to bear, she attempted suicide by throwing herself in front of an oncoming truck.

Then, while staying in a psychiatric hospital during one of the darkest points of her life, she discovered God through a friend and became a Christian. This conversion, she said, gave her peace of mind.

But, after just six months, she relapsed back into bad behaviour and, at age 17, discovered she was pregnant. Because of her young age and difficult situation, many people encouraged her to end her pregnancy.

Mallette, however, insisted abortion was never an option.

Today her son Justin Bieber can sing to millions of fans and inspire them as a living example of the sanctity of human life.

She has recently told her courageous story in her new book Nowhere But Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom.

Doctors told Tim Tebow’s mother Pam to abort her son after she became ill because the pregnancy, they said, could endanger her life. Pam refused, instead asking God that she have a healthy baby. He answered her prayers with a future star football player.

Decisions to keep babies in circumstances in which many might opt for an abortion resulted in Beethoven, Justin Bieber and Tim Tebow.

Every abortion stops a beating heart. Every abortion ends a life. Every abortion robs the world of someone who could have made a real difference to the lives of others.

And every abortion robs a person of the opportunity to live life.

Warning to UK - Oregon Health Plan steers patients towards suicide

Members of the pro-euthanasia movement frequently point to the US state of Oregon, which legalised assisted suicide in 1997, as a model which Britain should follow.

Lord Falconer and Margo Macdonald MSP are two British politicians who have frequently sung the praises of Oregon which allows assisted suicide for mentally competent adults with less than six months to live (although Falconer’s and Macdonald’s recently proposed bills to be debated in the New Year are much more lax on their definition of ‘terminally ill’).

I have previously blogged about the huge increase in assisted suicide cases in Oregon since legalisation (see graph), the shroud of secrecy which surrounds assisted suicide practice there and the worrying trends in neighbouring Washington state which enacted a similar law more recently.

I was therefore interested to see on Margaret Dore’s ‘Choice is an Illusion’ site recently evidence of how the Oregon Health Plan is steering patients to suicide. Dore is an attorney in Washington.

Last Friday, the Canadian Department of Justice filed evidence in Leblanc v. Canada, including the affidavit of Oregon doctor Ken Stevens. Therein, Dr Stevens talks about his patient, Jeanette Hall. He also describes how with legal assisted suicide, the Oregon Health Plan steers patients to suicide.

The Oregon Health Plan is a government health plan administered by the State of Oregon.

If assisted suicide were to be legalised in Britain, a similar pattern could well ensue. If so, the taxpayer will pay for a patient to die, but not to live.

In a recent poll by Communicate Research 60% of Tory MPs said they believed that legalising assisted suicide in the current economic climate would increase the risk that vulnerable people might opt for suicide so as not to be a financial burden upon loved ones.

78% agreed that if doctors are allowed to prescribe lethal drugs to patients on request, vulnerable people could feel under pressure to opt for suicide.

The full text of Dr Stevens affidavit is here. It concludes as follows:


1. I am a doctor in Oregon USA where physician-assisted suicide is legal. I am also a Professor Emeritus and a former Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, Oregon. I have treated thousands of patients with cancer.

2. In Oregon, our assisted suicide law applies to patients predicted to have less than six months to live. I write to clarify for the court that this does not necessarily mean that patients are dying.

3. In 2000, I had a cancer patient named Jeanette Hall. Another doctor had given her a terminal diagnosis of six months to a year to live, which was based on her not being treated for cancer. I understand that he had referred her to me.

4. At our first meeting, Jeanette told me plainly that she did not want to be treated and that was going to "do" our law,i.e., kill herself with a lethal dose of barbiturates. It was very much a settled decision.

5. I, personally, did not and do not believe in assisted suicide. I also believed that her cancer was treatable and that her prospects were good. She was not, however, interested in treatment. She had made up her mind, but she continued to see me.

6. On the third or fourth visit, I asked her about her family and learned that she had a son. I asked her how he would feel if she went through with her plan. Shortly after that, she agreed to be treated and she is still alive today. Indeed, she is thrilled to be alive. It's been twelve years.

7. For Jeanette, the mere presence of legal assisted suicide had steered her to suicide.

8. Today, for patients under the Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid), there is also a financial incentive to commit suicide: The Plan covers the cost. The Plan's "Statements of Intent for the April 1, 2012 Prioritized List of Health Services," states: "It is the intent of the [Oregon Health Services] Commission that services under ORS 127.800-127.897 (Oregon Death with Dignity Act) be covered for those that wish to avail themselves to those services."

9. Under the Oregon Health Plan, there is also a financial incentive towards suicide because the Plan will not necessarily pay for a patient's treatment. For example, patients with cancer are denied treatment if they have a "less than 24 months median survival with treatment" and fit other criteria. This is the Plan's "Guideline Note 12."

10. The term, "less than 24 months median survival with treatment,"means that statistically half the patients receiving treatment will live less than 24 months (two years) and the other half will live longer than two years.

11. Some of the patients living longer than two years will likely live far longer than two years, as much as five, ten or twenty years depending on the type of cancer. This is because there are always some people who beat the odds.

12. All such persons who fit within "Guideline Note 12" will nonetheless be denied treatment. Their suicides under Oregon's assisted suicide act will be covered.

13. I also write to clarify a difference between physician-assisted suicide and end-of-life palliative care in which dying patients receive medication for the intended purpose of relieving pain, which may incidentally hasten death. This is the principle of double effect. This is not physician-assisted suicide in which death is intended for patients who may or may not be dying anytime soon.

14. The Oregon Health Plan is a government health plan administered by the State of Oregon. If assisted suicide is legalized in Canada, your government health plan could follow a similar pattern. If so, the plan will pay for a patient to die, but not to live.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Major split in LibCon Coalition over assisted suicide

The Liberal Democrat conference has voted today to back the legalisation of ‘medically assisted dying’, a euphemism for assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The complex motion included an explanatory note which applauded the Dutch legal model, which a House of Lords enquiry in 2005 predicted would lead to 13,000 euthanasia deaths annually in Britain.

The result was not unsurprising given the Liberal Democrats long support for decriminalising euthanasia but demonstrates a wide gap between the two main coalition partners on this important issue.

Both party leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, are opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide, but a poll published last week by Communicate Research demonstrated graphically just how deep the gulf is between MPs in the two parties on this issue.

Here are the answers given to specific questions:

1.Would you support or oppose legalising assisted suicide for adults who are mentally competent and have less than twelve months to live?

Support (Con 28% LD 50%) Oppose (Con 67% Lib Dem 39%)

2.It would be impossible to put in place sufficiently robust legal and medical safeguards to protect the vulnerable from a law permitting assisted suicide even within strictly defined legal guidelines.

Agree (Con 60% LD 39%) Disagree (Con 29% Lib Dem 42%)

3.Legalising assisted suicide would make suicide more socially acceptable and would lead to an increase in the overall suicide rate

Agree (Con 56% LD 33%) Disagree (Con 26% Lib Dem 51%)

4.Legalising assisted suicide is a key priority at the present time

Agree (Con 14% LD 30%) Disagree (Con 80% Lib Dem 60%)

5.Legalising assisted suicide in the current economic climate would increase the risk that vulnerable people might opt for suicide so as not to be a financial burden upon loved ones

Agree (Con 60% LD 44%) Disagree (Con 27% Lib Dem 30%)

6.If doctors are allowed to prescribe lethal drugs to patients on request, vulnerable people could feel under pressure to opt for suicide

Agree (Con 78% LD 44%) Disagree (Con 19% Lib Dem 40%)

There have been three parliamentary votes on legalising assisted suicide and/or euthanasia in Britain since 2006. On each occasion a change in the law was strongly rejected over concerns about public safety and the degree to which vulnerable disabled or elderly people might feel pressure to end their lives.

Lord Joffe’s ‘Assisted Dying’ bill in 2006 was rejected in the House of Lords by 148-100. Similarly an amendment by Lord Falconer to the Coroners and Justice Bill in 2009, which would have decriminalised some assisted suicides, was defeated by 194-141 and a bill which would have legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia in Scotland in 2010 was overwhelmingly rejected by 85-16.

New bills by Margo Macdonald and Lord Falconer will be debated in the Holyrood Parliament and House of Lords respectively in the New Year.

It has been said that the first duty of government is to protect its citizens. But the above results indicate that the Liberal Democrats, more than the Conservatives, place individual liberty above protecting the rights of vulnerable people.

It is a perhaps therefore a good thing that they are losing ground in the opinion polls.

David Cameron enlists help from American pressure group to help push through gay marriage

Unlike Australia where measures to legalise same sex marriage were defeated twice last week – once in each parliamentary house – the British parliament looks committed to legalisation.

The main difference seems to be the stance of the respective Prime Ministers – Australia’s premier Julia Gillard is opposed to legalising same sex marriage whereas David Cameron is for – some would say with a passion entirely out of proportion to the importance of the issue.

I have blogged frequently before on David Cameron’s obsessive commitment to same-sex marriage (see links below) which is a major contributor to the Tories losing almost two thirds of their party membership over the last five years.

But now it seems his passion to make this happen has led him to enlist help form across the Atlantic.

James Forsyth has an interesting short piece in the Mail on Sunday titled ‘Cameroons lead charge on gay marriage’ which reads as follows:

Cameroons lead charge on gay marriage

Downing Street is preparing a concerted push in favour of gay marriage.

There is a feeling within No 10 that opponents of the idea have been allowed to dominate the debate.

Campaigners from the American organisation Freedom to Marry were brought in earlier this month to advise on how best to make the case.

Particular emphasis was put on the need to make conservative arguments for gay marriage.

The Americans also urged the Cameroons to try to find religious leaders prepared to endorse the idea.

Among Conservative strategists there is a sense that, having personally identified himself with this cause, David Cameron cannot allow it to be defeated or drift down the agenda.

They believe that this issue speaks to the kind of optimistic, inclusive Conservative that Cameron wants to be and that voters find appealing.

However, there is still debate on whether there’s a need to launch a specifically Conservative campaign. Some argue that it is necessary to counteract the Coalition For Marriage, which is pressuring Tory MPs to oppose the measure.

Former Minister Nick Herbert is being primed by No 10 insiders to lead any Tory pro-gay marriage movement. He is passionate about the issue and has campaign experience, having run the successful drive against Britain joining the euro.

Past blogs on David Cameron’s commitment to same sex marriage and the gay lobby

1. David Cameron’s promotion of the gay rights agenda is based on a false presupposition

2. David Cameron, by his comments about homosexuality, demonstrates that he does not understand what true tolerance actually is

3. Over half of British Christians would not back Tories if they push for same-sex marriage

4. David Cameron owes the public an explanation as to why he thinks legalising same sex marriage is necessary

5. Sarkozy opposes same sex marriage as Cameron backs it

6. David Cameron has professed Christianity but fails Luther’s test of confession

7. Do you object to being labelled 'homophobic' when you are actually just 'homosceptic'?

Saturday 22 September 2012

BBC article on ‘gay therapies’ is simplistic, misleading and ignores much of the available evidence

Should people with unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction seek professional help? And if so what kind of help and what expectations should they realistically have?

BBC Religion and Ethics have today published an article on this extremely controversial subject titled ‘Ex-gay survivor's tales of exorcism in middle England’.

I was asked to submit a quote for it yesterday but was unable to obtain any information about what angle the author would be writing it from. So I sent in four carefully drafted sentences of which they used only the one that most closely fitted with their agenda.

The article relates the story of Peterson Toscano, who ‘after $30,000 for controversial conversion therapy, three attempts at exorcism and one failed marriage, finally resolved the conflict between his faith and sexuality - he was gay’.

At the end there are some comments from Peter Ould and myself (see Peter’s take here)

Toscano's case highlights the dangers of well-meaning Christians without proper professional training doing more harm than good in attempting to, in effect, ‘pray the gay away’.

But the article throws the baby out with the bathwater. Its fundamental flaw is to argue from the particular to the general, that is, because this man’s personal experience was negative therefore all attempts to help people with unwanted same-sex attraction are misguided and bad.

This conclusion is unwarranted and not actually supported by the available evidence.

I’m not going to comment on the individual case, but rather make some comments on the general issue.

There is first a huge amount of confusion both in the Christian church and in the world generally about the difference between homosexual attraction, orientation, identity and behaviour, which I attempt to address in my earlier blog, ‘Should gay Christians be true to their feelings?’

But there is even more confusion about what the media has unhelpfully branded ‘reparative therapies’.

The full quote I gave the journalist who wrote today’s BBC article read as follows:

‘Many people believe that homosexual and heterosexual are distinct biological categories which are unchangeable, biologically fixed and genetically determined but this view is being increasingly challenged by new research. Sexual attractions are now best understood as lying on a spectrum rather than in terms of a simple dichotomous binary categorisation, and mixed patterns of sexual desire, including attraction to both sexes at the same time and changes in the strength and direction of sexual attraction over time are not uncommon. It is on this basis that some people understandably will seek professional help in dealing with their changing feelings. Professionals providing such care should do so in a way that both respects the beliefs and values of the person seeking help and is also evidence-based.’

They chose only to use the last sentence, I suspect because the other three, about the fluidity of sexual feelings, did not fit with the underlying presupposition of the article that sexual orientation is something fixed, unchangeable and genetically determined and that the only approach to people experiencing feelings of same sex attraction is to encourage them to embrace a ‘gay lifestyle’.

But this view is overly simplistic and not actually supported by the evidence (see my article on Max Pemberton for more on this)

Instead the latest research supports the idea that, for some, sexual feelings are often quite fluid and changeable. Many gay rights commentators including Peter Tatchell and Matthew Parris share this view.

This leaves us then with the question of how to help those who are experiencing ‘unwanted’ feelings of same sex attraction.

On this I would particularly recommend a booklet published last year and available on the CMF website titled ‘Unwanted same sex attraction: Issues of pastoral and counselling support’.

The whole booklet is worthy of careful study but I have pasted part of the executive summary below which amplifies on what I said in my quote:

People with unwanted SSA who seek to live in conformity with their beliefs should be free to receive appropriate and responsible practical care and counsel. Most may choose counselling and pastoral support to maintain, within a Christian ethical framework, the disciplines of chastity. Others may wish to explore the possibility of achieving some degree of change in the strength or direction of unwanted sexual interests.

Experience of change in the strength or direction of one’s sexual interests is sometimes possible. Although the extent of such change will differ between individuals, what is commonly referred to as sexual ‘orientation’ is not invariably a fixed and enduring characteristic of the human condition, rooted in biological difference and experienced from birth. Whilst some people experience same-sex attraction from their earliest memories of sexual interest, for others sexual desire can be relatively fluid. There are many personal narratives of change of sexual ‘orientation’ reported in both the secular and religious media. When assessing counselling efforts that seek to promote ‘change’ in the strength, direction, or expression of same-sex desire, the entire range of human sexual experience must therefore be addressed rather than assuming all sexual attraction is always fixed.

No high quality scientifically controlled trials have been carried out on efforts to promote change in sexual ‘orientation’ and claims for or against the effectiveness of specific approaches must therefore be treated with caution. ‘Sexual Orientation Change Efforts’ have provoked passionate opinions on all sides. Various mental health bodies and professional associations have made negative declarations about their desirability and effectiveness. It has been asserted that there is ‘no evidence’ that efforts to promote change in sexual ‘orientation’ are effective. Such statements, if allowed to stand unqualified, are potentially misleading. Because no randomised controlled trials have been carried out in this area, it is not possible to assert conclusively whether efforts to promote ‘change’ are effective or whether they are not effective. There is no ‘cast iron’ evidence either way. A balanced and objective assessment would note there are many personal reports of change in sexual orientation from within both secular and religious cultures, but that there remains uncertainty about the effectiveness of any particular psychological or counselling approach designed to promote such change.

Health and counselling professionals must practice ethically by respecting the religious beliefs and convictions of their clients and exercising due care in distinguishing between fact and personal opinion.

Given the absence of conclusive, high quality, scientifically controlled trials, those offering formal counselling to people with unwanted SSA must exercise considerable caution. They must follow conventional ethical guidelines in terms of informed consent and show respect for client autonomy and self-determination. When counselling clients with unwanted SSA, harm could result from raising unrealistic expectations or claims that go beyond the available evidence.

Those with unwanted SSA who seek to live within the orthodox boundaries of Christian faith and ethical practitioners who support them deserve our honour, support and respect. Both groups should be free to act in accordance with their conscientious beliefs without harassment, misrepresentation or discrimination.

Liberal Democrats back Dutch style legislation which would lead to 13,000 British euthanasia deaths annually

On Sunday 23 September the Liberal Democrat conference debated and passed a motion on ‘medically assisted dying’.

Chris Davies MEP and Lorely Burt MP called on the Liberal Democrat Conference to ‘press for the introduction of a government bill on (medically assisted dying)’ and, ‘in the event of a Bill being introduced through Private Members’ procedures, to press for time to be made available in the House of Commons to enable it to be fully considered’.

This was a rather odd motion for several reasons.

First, the likelihood of the government introducing a bill on a conscience issue is zilch. This is a role for private members. It is even less likely on this issue given that the leaders of both coalition parties (Cameron and Clegg) are actually opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Second, a private member’s bill in the Commons looks most unlikely given that neither of the two MP members of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life (aka the parliamentary wing of the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society) who finished in the top five of the last parliamentary ballot chose to bring a bill on this issue earlier this year. This suggests they did not consider it a priority. Lord Falconer, of course, is planning a private member’s bill in the House of Lords in January, but the last two measures of this nature (by Joffe and Falconer) were both defeated by huge majorities in the Lords and did not even make it to the Commons.

Third, a poll of MPs just last week showed that the majority actually oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide and believe that this issue is not a priority to debate at this time.

But more than that, the explanatory stem accompanying the Davies/Burt motion in the conference agenda is full of so many distortions and untruths that the Conference in ‘noting them’ has effectively endorsed ‘lies and fiction’.

Let’s consider each in turn – I have added my comments after each: marked ‘>>’.

Conference notes that:
a) A significant minority of people who suffer unendurably from medical conditions that offer no hope of recovery are physically unable to end their lives at a time of their own choosing without assistance.
>> ‘Unendurably’ is an interesting word as suffering is always ‘endured’. I think Davies means here ‘unacceptably to them’ which is something quite different indeed. But also the minority of people who cannot commit suicide without assistance (and suicide is not illegal!) is actually vanishingly small. Even Tony Nicklinson, the locked-in man, was able to end his life by making a choice to refuse food, fluids and antibiotics. This statement makes little sense.

b) It is over 50 years since the passage of the 1961 Suicide Act established the current legislative framework, but that scores of British citizens now travel to Switzerland each year to seek medical assistance to die.
>> The maths of ‘2012-1961=>50’ is correct but the total number of people who have travelled to Switzerland to die is about 160 over ten years. This is not ‘scores each year’ by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that a small number of British people are going abroad to end their lives also does not mean that we should legalise it here.

c) Legislation making provision for medically assisted dying, and incorporating many safeguards to prevent misuse, was enacted in Belgium and the Netherlands a decade ago and continues to enjoy very strong public support in those countries.
>> Davies clearly has in mind here with this motion the legalisation of euthanasia as well as assisted suicide as euthanasia is legal in both Belgium and the Netherlands. From these two countries we also hear disturbing reports of abuse including the illegal killing of people with dementia, the killing of disabled children and thousands of people killed without their consent. In Belgium the latter group constitutes 32% of all euthanasia deaths. In addition there has been a huge increase in those being killed in the Netherlands through ‘continuous deep sedation’ since legalisation in 2001. The House of Lords calculated in 2005 that with a Dutch-type law in Britain we would be seeing over 13,000 cases of euthanasia per year. The House of Lords has also twice in the last six years rejected assisted suicide legislation (helping people to kill themselves) on the basis that the proposed safeguards were not safe. How would they then countenance legalising euthanasia? (doctors killing people)

d) There is continuing debate on the subject in the United Kingdom, and the evidence of
successive opinion polls demonstrates very strong public support for similar legislation here.
>> Public opinion polls moulded by emotive hard cases on the media should not be driving government policy. It must be properly informed debate. Furthermore most MPs along with medical groups like the BMA and RCP and all disabled people’s groups are firmly opposed to a change in the law. Parliament has strongly opposed the reintroduction of the death penalty despite overwhelming public support for it on grounds that it will lead to some innocent people being killed by the state. How much more should we avoid enacting a law which will put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives and will lead inevitably, on the basis of what is already happening in Belgium and the Netherlands, to some people who have not expressed a wish to die having their lives taken regardless?

Two amendments to the original motion were considered.

The first by Cllr Julie Smith and George Kendall called for a Royal Commission to be set up to examine the implications of the current legal framework and potential changes to it by the end of 2014. It was soundly rejected.

The second amendment by former MP Evan Harris called on the government to ‘allow Parliament the opportunity to consider, as a minimum, the legalisation of those who are terminally ill to have assistance to die with dignity, subject to safeguards’ in line with Lord Falconer's proposed bill. It was carried.

Friday 21 September 2012

Abortion after rape - the issues and emotions involved are not as straightforward as most people presume

I was interested to see published this week a statement from the ‘Ad Hoc Committee of Women Pregnant by Sexual Assault (WPSA)’. This group was formed eight years ago to petition the US Congress to hold hearings on the issue of abortion in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.

So far, however, this petition has not been heard by political leaders on either side of the aisle, or by most in the pro-choice or pro-life communities.

The full statement from WPSA is available on the Elliot Institute website.

Here are some excerpts:

‘Many people have strong opinions about abortion in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. However, the real experiences and needs of women who have actually experienced pregnancies from sexual assault are often ignored, even though our experiences are frequently used to promote abortion on demand.

From the perspective of those of us who have actually been through a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, people on both sides of the abortion debate, and the media fanning the flames of this controversy, are getting it wrong.

On one side are those who argue that pregnancies resulting from rape and incest occur so rarely that we shouldn’t let it impact public policy on abortion. This is hurtful to women who do become pregnant from rape or incest and who need support. It can also lead to questioning as to whether a woman or girl is telling the truth about being raped.

On the other side are those who perpetuate the myth that women and girls who become pregnant from sexual assault overwhelmingly want, need and benefit from having abortions. This also hurts women and fans the flames of prejudice toward those who do not want to have an abortion, even leading some to question whether a woman or girl who wishes not to abort has “really” been raped. And it can lead to strong pressure to abort by those who think the woman or girl does not know what is really best for her.

Despite the belief that most women in such circumstances would want an abortion, a national study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that only half of those who became pregnant from rape had an abortion. Another survey of pregnant sexual assault victims found that only 30 percent had abortions.

Whether the true number is closer to 30 or 50 percent doesn’t matter. What matters is that women and girls who become pregnant from rape or incest need real support and resources that meet their needs. In many cases, however, these needs are not met because most people assume that abortion will solve the problem.

In fact, there are no studies proving that this claimed psychological benefit occurs in general, or even for certain groups of women pregnant by sexual assault. And from personal experience, many of us discovered that abortion only added to our trauma and created additional obstacles to finding healing.

Many people naturally fear themselves or someone they love being raped, or becoming pregnant as a result of rape. We have been on the other side of that fear. From our perspective the issues and emotions involved are not as straightforward as most people presume. This is why those of us who have actually been in this situation need and deserve to be heard.

Our situation is not uncommon, and our needs are worthy of public notice and discussion in terms of public policy and health care directives.’

The members of WPSA don’t claim to know all the answers to this difficult issue but are simply asking to be given the opportunity to speak about it.

The website also makes reference reference to a book titled Victims and Victors: Speaking Out About Their Pregnancies, Abortions and Children Resulting From Sexual Assault which was based on letters and survey responses from 192 women who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

164 were victims of rape and 28 were victims of incest (sexual assault involving a family member). Overall, 69 percent continued the pregnancy and either raised the child or made an adoption plan, 29 percent had abortions and 1.5 percent had miscarriages.

They claim that this is the largest survey ever done of women who became pregnant through sexual assault. Victims and Victims reveals that:

* Nearly 80 percent of the women who aborted a pregnancy conceived in sexual assault reported that abortion had been the wrong solution.

* Most women who had abortions said that abortion only increased the trauma they were experiencing.

* In many cases, the victim faced strong pressure or demands to abort and in some cases, especially those involving teenage girls, was even forced to have the abortion by others.

* In cases of incest or ongoing sexual abuse, abortion was frequently used by the perpetrator to cover up the abuse, and in many cases the girl was given an abortion with no questions asked and then returned to the abusive situation.

* None of the women who gave birth to a child conceived in sexual assault expressed regret or wished they had aborted instead.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Current law supports eugenic abortion for disabled people – our letter in today’s Daily Telegraph

I am one of nine joint signatories to a letter in the Daily Telegraph today arguing that the success of the Paralympics should trigger a rethink of Britain’s abortion laws to make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy solely on grounds that a child will be born disabled.

We describe the practice of aborting foetuses on physical grounds as a form of ‘eugenics’ and say that while pregnancies can be terminated even up to 40 weeks on physical grounds in certain circumstances, the moment the child is born a ‘moral volte-face’ is performed and the official approach is ‘full of compassion’.

This we argue is deeply hypocritical and discriminatory.

Abortion is legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in Britain if the pregnancy poses a risk to the mother’s mental or physical health greater than that from having an abortion. But after 24 weeks, an abortion is allowed only if there is substantial risk of ‘serious’ physical or mental abnormality.

The letter is the basis of a long article in the same issue of the paper which is well worth reading.

The full letter (accessible on Telegraph website – you need to scroll down from here) is titled ‘Disability Hypocrisy’ and reads as follows :

Disability Hypocrisy

SIR – A special-needs child in the womb can be aborted at up to 40 weeks. But once he or she is born, we do a moral volte-face and become full of compassion.

The recent Paralympics made this contradiction yet more glaring. The athletes produced such astonishing examples of courage and triumph over disability that we now have to rethink what we mean by ‘disabled’ and ‘able’.

Eugenic abortion is bad medicine. Killing people with disabilities, rather than striving to support and care for them, is contrary to the high principles of medicine.

We should be proud of Britain’s unique programme of children’s hospices and Zoe’s Place baby hospices. These are an example of a positive, civilised response to the challenge of disability.

We encourage Parliament to repeal the discriminatory section of the Abortion Act 1967, which allows eugenic abortion up to birth, and instead to promote research into disabilities which, once diagnosed, currently amount to a prenatal death sentence.

Professor Jack Scarisbrick
National Chairman, Life

Josephine Quintavalle
Director, Comment on Reproductive Ethics

Dr Peter Saunders
Chief Executive, Christian Medical Fellowship

Nola Leach
Chief Executive and Head of Public Affairs, CARE

John Deighan
Parliamentary Officer, Catholic Bishops' Conference of Scotland

Dr Agneta Sutton
Fellow, Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity

Andrea Minichiello Williams
Chief Executive, Christian Concern

Peter Elliott
Chairman, Down Syndrome Research Foundation UK

Dominica Roberts
Chairman, ProLife Alliance

The signatories are organisational leaders and include Peter Elliott, a businessman who founded the Down Syndrome Research Foundation UK, after the birth of his son, David, in 1985.

I have recently drawn attention on this blog to the frightening attitudes to disability revealed in responses to a Daily Mail article on abortion of IVF babies for Down’s syndrome.

Between 2002 and 2010 there were 17,983 terminations on the grounds that there was a ‘substantial risk’ that the babies would be ‘seriously handicapped’ — known as Ground E abortions. The overwhelming majority of these were compatible with life outside the womb.

Of the 17,983, a total of 1,189 babies were aborted after 24 weeks, the accepted age of viability, after which there must be such a serious risk for an abortion to be legal if the mother is not in danger.

Figures also showed a total of 66 terminations after 24 weeks were because of problems with the nervous system of the foetus, such as spina bifida.

The abortions included 26 for babies with cleft lips or palates and another 27 with ‘congenital malformations of the ear, eye, face or neck’, which can include problems such as having glaucoma or being born with an ear missing. Of those, one was aborted after 24 weeks, in 2003.

Last year 147 babies were aborted after 24 weeks, a rise of 29 per cent since 2002. Altogether in 2010, 482 babies were aborted for Down's syndrome, including 10 who were over 24 weeks. Over the period 2002-2010 there were altogether 3,968 Down’s syndrome babies aborted.

There were also 128 terminations in 2010 for the nervous disorder spina bifida, including 12 after 24 weeks.

There is no doubt that bringing up a child with special needs involves substantial emotional and financial cost, and yet at the very heart of the Christian gospel is the Lord Jesus Christ who chose to lay down his life to meet our own 'special needs'. The Apostle Paul tells us that Christ died for us 'when we were powerless' (Romans 5:6) and that 'bearing one another's burdens' is at the very heart of Christian morality (Galatians 6:1).

The way we treat the most vulnerable in our society speaks volumes about the kind of society that we are and the current abortion law clearly discriminates against disabled people. It should be revised.

Monday 17 September 2012

Three parent embryos for mitochondrial disease – unsafe, unethical and unnecessary

The BBC reports this morning on the launch of a new consultation by the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) into a new controversial fertility treatment which creates embryos from two women and one man to prevent life-threatening disorders.

Children born through 'three-person IVF' would contain some genetic material from each of three different people.

Ministers could change the law to make the technique legal after the results of the consultation are known.

There are about 50 known mitochondrial diseases (MCDs), which are passed on in genes coded by mitochondrial (as opposed to nuclear) DNA. They range hugely in severity, but for most there is presently no cure and little other than supportive treatment.

It is therefore understandable that scientists and affected families want research into these two related ‘three-parent embryo’ techniques (pronuclear transfer and maternal spindle transfer) to go ahead. But there are good reasons for caution.

This is not about finding a cure. It is about preventing people with MCD being born. We need first to be clear that these new technologies, even if they are eventually shown to work, will do nothing for the thousands of people already suffering from mitochondrial disease or for those who will be born with it in the future.

There are also already some alternative solutions available for affected couples including adoption and egg donation.

But apart from this I’m left with four big questions.

Is it safe? This is far from established. Each technique involves experimental reproductive cloning techniques and germline genetic engineering, both highly controversial and potentially very dangerous. Cloning by nuclear transfer has so far proved ineffective in humans and unsafe in other mammals with a large number of cloned individuals spontaneously aborting and many others suffering from physical abnormalities or limited lifespans. Also, any changes, or unpredicted genetic problems (mutations) will be passed to future generations. In general, the more manipulation needed, the higher the severity and frequency of problems in resulting embryos and fetuses.

Will it work? I am sceptical. This technology uses similar ‘nuclear transfer’ techniques to those used in ‘therapeutic cloning’ for embryonic stem cells (which has thus far failed to deliver) and animal-human cytoplasmic hybrids (‘cybrids’). The wild claims made about the therapeutic properties of ‘cybrids’ by the biotechnology industry, research scientists, patient interest groups and science journalists duped parliament into legalising and licensing animal human hybrid research in 2008. Few now will remember Gordon Brown’s empty promises in the Guardian on 18 May that year of ‘cybrids’ offering 'a profound opportunity to save and transform millions of lives' and 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'. That measure was supported in a heavily whipped vote as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, now the HFE Act. But ‘cybrids’ are now a farcical footnote in history. They have not worked and investors have voted with their feet. Ironically, it was in that same Act of Parliament, that provision for this new research was also made.

Is it ethical? No, there are huge ethical issues. A large number of human eggs will be needed for the research, involving ‘harvesting’ that is both risky and invasive for women donors. How many debt-laden students or desperate infertile women will be exploited and incentivised by being offered money or free IVF treatment in return for their eggs? How many thousands of human embryos will be destroyed? If it ever works, what issues of identity confusion will arise in children with effectively three biological parents? What does preventing those with mitochondrial disease being born say about how we value people already living with the condition? Where will this selection end? Some mitochondrial diseases are much less serious than others. Once we have judged some affected babies not worthy of being conceived, where do we draw the line, and who should draw it?

Is the debate being handled responsibly? No. The research scientists involved have huge financial and research-based vested interests and getting the regulatory changes and research grants to continue and extend their work is dependent on them being able to sell their case to funders, the public and decision-makers. Hence their desire for attention-grabbing media headlines and heart rending (but highly extreme and unusual) human interest stories that are often selective about what facts they present.

It must be tempting for politicians to make promises of ‘miracle cures’ in years to come which no one may remember. But I suspect it is much more about media hype than real hope.

This new push is being driven as much by prestige for government, research grants for scientists and profits for biotechnology company shareholders as anything else.

Let’s keep a cool head and instead concentrate on finding real treatments and providing better support for affected individuals and their families rather than spending limited health resources on unethical, risky and highly uncertain high tech solutions that will most likely never deliver.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Are there limits to free speech in dissuading women from having abortions?

Should protestors be allowed outside abortion clinics? And if so should there be any limits on what they can say and do? To what extent should the right to freedom of speech trump the right to an abortion?

These were some of the questions being considered at a debate at the Conway Hall, London last Tuesday night.

On the prochoice side were Ann Furedi, Director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Guardian journalist Sarah Ditum.

Representing the prolife perspective were Andrea Williams of Christian Concern and Max Wind-Cowie from the think-tank Demos.

The debate was chaired by New Statesman political editor David Allen Green. About 300 people attended and there were good representations from both pro-life and pro-choice perspectives.

The debate was interestingly timed. In the very same week a British pensioner received a suspended jail term for sending abortion pictures to the new chief executive at an NHS hospital and two protestors faced trial for displaying similar pictures outside a Brighton abortion clinic.

But this was in fact coincidence. The debate had been primarily prompted after a prolife group called ’40 days for life’ held prayer vigils outside a BPAS clinic in London.

Apart from a short comment piece by one of the participants in the Guardian (which gives few details of the debate) and a video on the Christian Concern website there has been surprising little about this debate in the media which has prompted me to write about it.

The four speakers set out their stalls as follows.

Ann Furedi said that freedom of speech was absolute but that we were not free to say ‘anything, anywhere at any time’. Prolife people were entitled to debate with her and other abortion providers or prochoice campaigners but not with women outside abortion clinics who were vulnerable and could be easily upset. Abortion was a clinical procedure and women had a right both to seek and to undergo it without being made to feel guilty. She said that the protesters' agenda was not primarily to engage in debate but to dissuade women from having abortions. The key issue was not to cause women seeking abortions any more stress than they have already.

Andrea Williams responded that abortion was a serious matter with serious consequences. One life was taken, one generational line broken. She showed some abortion pictures used by the prolife group Abort67 and argued that we can't hide the ‘violence and violation which is abortion’. Ann Furedi was not portraying the world as it actually is. She asked what sort of society puts people in prison for showing what actually happens in an abortion clinic and added that it is not pictures which offend but the portrayal of the truth. She said that William Wilberforce used images of injustice to awaken the nation's conscience. The fundamental issue was the humanity of the unborn child although we needed continuing dialogue on informed consent.

Sarah Ditum replied that seeing abortion pictures had never changed her mind about the morality of abortion. She argued that pictures inflict cruelty. ‘Abortion is not traumatising’ she said, but ‘calling a woman a murderer is’. She found peaceful protests, such as those carried out by ’40 days for life’ to be ‘less obviously objectionable’. She supported the freedom of speech of those who opposed abortion but wanted people to understand the pressure women felt under.

Max Wind-Cowie countered that abortion is a moral choice and women making it ‘have a right to hear those’ who consider it immoral. He said he couldn’t accept Ann Furedi insisting that prolife people could only have the discussion with her. That was placing limits on freedom. There was inconsistency in Furedi arguing for full freedom of speech and at the same time placing restrictions on the expression of certain views. People who believed abortion was a gross moral wrong were entitled in a free society to express those views freely. He defended the right of prolife people to act on their sincerely held beliefs to attempt to dissuade women from having abortions.

Discussion was then opened to the floor.

There were a large number of contributions from both sides of the debate in a session capably chaired by David Allen Green, who ensured that both sides had freedom of expression and could be easily heard.

This at times veered off the issue of free speech and degenerated into an exchange of many of the standard arguments for and against abortion.

Ellie Lee, although strongly pro-choice, agreed with Max Wind-Cowie that there should not be limits on freedom of speech. She did not accept that speech and protest were separate categories of freedom of expression.

A woman, whose name I did not catch, gave a powerful testimony of seeing women change their minds and deciding to continue with their pregnancies after conversations outside abortion clinics. She felt a duty to be there for people like his who were undecided and vulnerable.

Stuart Derbyshire, whose controversial view that foetuses cannot feel pain has been recently challenged, likened abortion to having a tooth extraction. Seeing pictures of both procedures were upsetting and unhelpful.

Another man who described himself as pro-choice said he felt uncomfortable about the fact that clinic operators were reporting protesters to the police and having them arrested.

No vote was taken before or after the debate so it was impossible to tell if anyone’s views had shifted on hearing the various positions presented but the overall impression was that most of the audience had come with their minds already made up.

The key question on at what point the right to an abortion curtails free speech was understandably not resolved.

Oliver Wendell Holmes argued famously in the United States Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States in 1919 that there were limits to free speech. One should not falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre:

‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.’

The key question therefore in this debate is what level of free speech or persuasion is justified in order to encourage women to reconsider having an abortion. And that question turns almost entirely on whether or not abortion is considered to be a gross moral evil.

Is abortion ‘killing an innocent human being’ as Williams and Wind-Cowie argued or simply ‘a clinical procedure’ to remove tissue, the view taken by Furedi and Ditum? That was the key question on which both sides disagreed.

Let’s consider an analogy. If in some future state or parallel universe it was legal for women to take their ‘unwanted’ two year olds or grannies to a licensed centre to have them dismembered under anaesthetic what level of intervention would be justified for those who believed such behaviour constituted a great moral evil?

Would it be justified for the women to argue that they felt under a huge amount of pressure and burden having to care for their dependent relatives? Might not protesters attempt to use all the means legally available to them such as attempting to dissuade people from entering the doors of the institution or even showing pictures of what happened inside?

For those of us who regard babies in the womb as morally and humanly equivalent to two year olds or elderly people the answer is pretty clear.

I have personally not yet protested outside an abortion clinic nor displayed a poster showing what happens within. My efforts to curb abortion are directed largely in the public domain and not at women with unplanned pregnancies.

But one’s view of the unborn child and the morality of taking innocent human life is the key factor that determines one’s position in this debate.

Free speech may have its limits. But protecting innocent human lives and dissuading others from making moral decisions that are profoundly damaging to themselves, others and society itself are good reasons for not keeping ones mouth shut.

The mystery of the thirteenth constellation of the zodiac and its connection to medicine

The zodiac is that band in the sky followed by the sun, moon and planets. Just 13 of the 88 named constellations cross the ecliptic, its midline.

13? But aren’t there just twelve constellations in the zodiac? Yes indeed – Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.

So what’s this about a thirteenth?

Well it’s called Ophiuchus and it lies between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

Ophiuchus is the serpent carrier and it has a rather interesting history, with connections both to Christianity and medicine.

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius, the Son of Apollo, was said to have learned the art of healing from Chiron.

Asclepius was so skilled in the medical arts that he was reputed to have brought patients back from the dead. For this he was punished and placed in the heavens as the constellation Ophiuchus (meaning ‘serpent-bearer’).

The rod of Asclepius, a snake on a pole, has been adopted as the symbol of the medical profession and still features in the logo of the British Medical Association and many other medical organisations around the world. Asclepius also features in the Hippocratic Oath.

But the snake on a pole also has three strong Christian associations.

When the Israelites expressed ingratitude for the daily portion of manna during their exodus from Egypt, God punished them by sending fiery serpents that bit and killed many. The story is told in Numbers 21:4-9 as follows:

‘They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.'

Ever since a serpent on a pole has been recognised as a symbol of healing and I was interested just this week to find it referred to in a Jewish website which linked it to the BMA logo.

In early Christianity, the constellation Ophiuchus was associated with Saint Paul holding the Maltese Viper. Paul, after surviving a shipwreck was bitten by a snake which wriggled out from a woodpile and fastened itself on his arm.

The islanders, in seeing that he did not swell up and die, assumed that he must be a God. Medically speaking Paul survived by somehow not mounting an immune reaction to the venom, but as Christians we also see it as a fulfilment of the prophecy given by Jesus in Mark 16:17,18 that the apostles would be able to pick up snakes and not be hurt.

‘And these signs will accompany those who believe… they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’

In confirmation of this Paul then healed the father of the chief official and later went on to heal all the sick people on the island (Acts 28:1-10).

Finally, and most importantly Jesus himself makes reference to the snake on a pole in explaining the purpose of his coming crucifixion to the Jewish elder Nicodemus in John 3:14-15.

‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’

This account immediately precedes the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which distils the Gospel message, clearly and concisely.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’

You may never have heard of Ophiuchus or even Asclepius before, but this set of links is a useful way of getting to explain the Gospel to astrologers and doctors.

Ask the astrologer if they have heard of the thirteenth constellation of the zodiac and take it from there. Or with a doctor, ask about the origin of the ‘snake on a pole’ symbol and its connection with medicine.

One more thing. If someone tries to tell you that the symbol of the medical profession is two snakes on a pole with wings, then tell them that they are confusing the rod of Asclepius with the caduceus of Hermes.

The caduceus was carried by Hermes in Greek mythology and is a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings.

It has mistakenly been used as a symbol of medicine and/or medical practice, especially in North America but this is simply due to historical confusion.