Sunday 29 September 2013

Praying for Christians in Syria is not enough

We have all been deeply moved to hear about the desperate plight of Christians in Syria who have been targeted by radical Islamic groups during the civil war.

But recent weeks and days have brought powerfully home to us that Christians throughout the whole of the Islamic world are facing great danger from those who would like to see their communities eradicated: scores of churches in Egypt torched and burned, 78 killed outside a church in Pakistan, Kenyan Christians gunned down in Westgate shopping centre by Al Shabab for not reciting the ‘Shahada’ and now 40 students shot dead whilst they slept in Northern Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

These Christians are the tip of a much larger iceberg of those who have fled their homes, lost children, parents and family members or are without food, shelter or clothing. Many are included amongst over a million children who have fled fighting in Syria. Now they are hungry, homeless and fearful.

Many Christians in the UK and elsewhere have been praying for our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere but as Christians in the UK we can and must do far more than that.
Suffering Christians in the Islamic world are part of the global church, who we have a responsibility to help and are in a position to do so.

In the first century the Apostle Paul organised a collection for the poor in Jerusalem to which Christians from all over the Roman world contributed (2 Corinthians 8 & 9). He emphasised his concern for the poor (Galatians 2:10) and said that Christians should ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ (Galatians 6:2, 10).

Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, said that we way we treat our brothers and sisters who are hungry, thirsty, naked or without shelter is actually the way we treat him (Matthew 25:31-46).

His parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us to be neighbours to all those in need, regardless of nationality or culture (Luke 10:25-37).

James said that true religion involves caring for widows and orphans in their distress (James 1:27) and that faith without care for the physical needs of others is dead (James 2:14-17).

The Apostle John makes the challenge crystal clear:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? ‘ 
(1 John 3:16,17)

Not many of us will have the skills or openings to go to help and in most cases it will be best to leave it to those experts already on the ground. But in the 21st century it is now very easy to give to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care and other necessities.

Aid agencies like Save the Children, UNICEF, Red Cross, Christian Aid and Oxfam are already doing a lot to support refugees.

But there are also many Christian Missions who are specifically reaching and supporting Christian believers. I have listed and linked some of them below. As John exhorts us, ‘let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth’ (1 John 3:18).

Agencies supporting Christians in Syria and elsewhere

AWM – Syria Appeal
Aid to the Church in Need - Syria Crisis

The 4/14 Window – probably the world’s most strategic mission field

Most mission-minded Christians have heard of the 10/40 window (left) - the geographical region between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator - where most people unreached by the Gospel live.

But far fewer it seems have heard of the 4/14 window - the world of children between the ages of 4 and 14. Overall about one third of the world’s population is below the age of 15 years - in parts of Africa and Asia it is 40-50%.

The term was introduced in a 1996 publication by Dan Brewster, then program director for Compassion International.  He highlighted research by Bryant Myers, who showed that ‘85% of those who become Christians do so between the ages of 4 and 14 years old’.

A person’s life-long behaviours and beliefs are generally developed during childhood and early adolescence. In the overwhelming majority, moral and spiritual foundations are in place by age nine.

Fundamental perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality, and ethics are formed at this early stage of life.

It is therefore vital to reach children while they are young and equip them to make an impact throughout their lives.  Children are the most receptive to the gospel, and positioned to be a mighty force to bring others to faith in Christ. Children have their whole lives ahead of them to live out and share their faith, and they also have time to be long-term agents of change.

In September 2009 more than 300 international Christian leaders met at the 4/14 Window Global Summit in New York. The gathering was called by AD2000 and Beyond Movement founder Luis Bush, a renowned missiologist.

The 4/14 Window movement spawned by this event is still going and a host of resources are available on line (see below)

In October 2010, just over a year later, I was privileged to be amongst 4,000 Christian leaders from more than 200 countries attending The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa.

Through discussions and prayer, participants sought God’s direction to discern where the Church should invest its efforts and energies to most effectively respond to Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’(Matthew 28:19).

The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action was one result. In Part 2 Section 5 it highlights the strategic nature of Children’s ministry:

‘Children and young people are the Church of today, not merely of tomorrow. Young people have great potential as active agents in God’s mission. They represent an enormous under-used pool of influencers with sensitivity to the voice of God and a willingness to respond to him. We rejoice in the excellent ministries that serve among and with children, and long for such work to be multiplied since the need is so great. As we see in the Bible, God can and does use children and young people – their prayers, their insights, their words, their initiatives – in changing hearts. They represent “new energy” to transform the world. Let us listen and not stifle their childlike spirituality with our adult rationalistic approaches.’

The section concludes in a call to action to:

‘take children seriously, through fresh biblical and theological enquiry that reflects on God’s love and purpose for them and through them’ and to seek to train people and provide resources to meet the needs of children worldwide, wherever possible working with their families and communities…’

The Bible calls us to ‘Start children off on the way they should go’ promising that ‘even when they are old they will not turn from it’ (Proverbs 22:6). 

Jesus called children to himself (Mark 10:14) and warned about leading them astray (Mathew 18:5,6). One of the most important passages in the Old Testament emphasises the importance of teaching children to love and honour God:

‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’ (Deuteronomy 6:6,7)

Children are the future and today’s 4 to 14 year olds will be the leaders of the church in just a few decades time. Let’s make them a priority in our churches and communities.

4/14 Window Resources

Global 4/14 Day – 14 April 2014

Saturday 28 September 2013

African woman journalist takes Sir David Attenborough to task for his ‘condescension’, ‘blatant inaccuracies’ and ‘common stereotypes’

Television celebrity Sir David Attenborough (pictured) has come under fire for blaming famine in Africa on population growth and the Catholic Church in a controversial interview reported in the Daily Telegraph.

These latest comments follow the broadcaster’s description of human beings earlier this year as ‘a plague on the Earth that needs to be controlled by limiting population growth’.

Sir David, who is a patron of the Population Matters, has spoken out previously about what he sees as the ‘frightening explosion in human numbers’.

This week in an article posted on Culture of Life Africa, and republished on Life Site News, African woman journalist Obianuju Ekeocha takes the presenter to task for his ‘condescension towards the people of Africa’, his ‘lack of understanding of the African reality’ and for predicating his comments on ‘blatant inaccuracies’ and ‘common  stereotypes’.  

The article is well worth reading in full but here are some highlights:

1. Sir David exhibits the exact alarmist mindset and philosophy that set the Chinese government on the painful path of extreme population control , a path now paved with the blood of millions of innocent unborn babies and soaked with the tears of millions of women coercively deprived of the joy of motherhood (See my previous blog on 160 million Asian women missing as a result of ultrasound and second trimester abortion).

2. The undeniable decline in population, which is now occurring in many western countries where the fertility rate has dropped below replacement rate, is creating all sorts of complex fiscal and economic difficulties associated with population aging, labour shortage, loss of tax revenues, collapse of social welfare systems and general economic decline. This has real consequences that are now slowly but surely paralyzing some of the most powerful countries in the world: growing elderly population, shrinking workforce, increasing health needs and the move into the ‘lonely world of the nursing home’ (See this article and my previous blog on Japan).

3. By contrast in the developing world there are enough children and grandchildren to care for their elderly parents in warm and loving multigenerational households.   A child is not just a mouth to feed, but a specially unique individual with incredible potentials to learn, love and live a life of service to the family and community. Africans encourage marriage, celebrate motherhood and welcome babies because they are a sign of hope for the future. 

4. With more than three times the population density of Ethiopia, there is still abundant food to feed the vast numbers of people living in Great Britain, so how can anyone living therein point an accusing finger to the Ethiopians to control their wildly reproducing population or forever face the scourge of famine? (Famine is Africa is due not to population but to a variety of factors including deforestation, poor farming, climate change and also war, often fought with weapons supplied by the West!)

Ekeocha concludes with an appeal to all the ‘population control minded elite of the western world, who are propagating and pushing their philosophy to the ends of the earth, to please respect the African people in their quest for sustainable authentic growth and development that is consistent and compatible with their Culture of Life.’ Strong words indeed!

Some previous blogs on population

MP withdraws euthanasia bill after pressure from Labour Party colleagues

A bill to legalise voluntary euthanasia in New Zealand has been withdrawn amid fears it would become a political football.

Labour MP Maryan Street (left) withdrew her End of Life Choice Bill on 26 September before the member's bill ballot saying that she didn’t want it debated in election year.

She claimed that the move was ‘simply pragmatism’ and that she ‘absolutely’ planned to put it back in the ballot after the election.

Street was believed to have been pressured by Labour party colleagues to withdraw the bill amid concerns that some would have to campaign against it, distracting from the rest of the campaign.

This bill (see draft here) is opposed by the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA], Hospice New Zealand and the Catholic Bishops Conference. The Chairman of the NZMA has said, ‘euthanasia is unethical and cannot be condoned’.

Professor Emeritus David Richmond, spokesperson for Euthanasia-Free New Zealand, welcomed the move and said that the withdrawal would provide the much needed time to educate the NZ community and Members of Parliament about the hazards of legalising euthanasia.

‘Public opinion polls that appear to show a majority in favour of legalising euthanasia reflect the one-sided nature of the debate thus far in New Zealand – largely the fault of the media - the simplistic nature of the questions asked and the ignorance of the majority of New Zealanders about the wider issues involved,’ he said.

He called for a redoubling of efforts on the part of all groups and organisations opposed to the Bill to alert the public to the danger to society, including the loss of human freedom, that accompanies legalised euthanasia.

As I have reported before, Street’s draft bill is very broad in scope proposing that euthanasia be open to people with terminal illness likely to cause death within 12 months, or to people with an irreversible physical or mental condition that renders their life unbearable - by their own assessment.

Therefore anyone in New Zealand who has a terminal illness that may cause their death within 12 months or anyone who personally assesses that their physical or mental condition is unbearable would qualify for euthanasia even if they have chronic depression or mental illness.

The delay will give campaigners in New Zealand a well needed reprieve to educate the public about strong arguments against changing the law. I hope they make the very best of the opportunity.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

What people should know about the ‘once-a-month contraceptive pill’

The Guardian and other news outlets have highlighted a new journal article arguing that a ‘once-a-month contraceptive pill’ is ‘scientifically possible’.

Writing in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care, the researchers say such an advance would be welcomed by many women but the biggest hurdle to development is likely to be ‘political opposition’.

The new pill, they say, could be routinely used after, rather than before, sex. The idea would be that women wouldn’t have to take any precautions against pregnancy at all other than popping a pill whenever their period is delayed and they think they might possibly be pregnant.

What the Guardian doesn’t tell us is that such a pill would not be a ‘contraceptive’ (literally ‘against conception’) at all but rather an abortifacient (destroying an implanted human embryo). This is abortion and not contraception.

Nor does it tell us that a pill that acts in this way in the first few days after conception, ellaOne (ulipristal acetate), has already been available on prescription in the UK since 2009. Another similar drug, mifepristone (RU 486), is already used in Britain to procure medical abortions up to several weeks, but only under the auspices of the Abortion Act.

What is really being advocated is the deregulation of early abortion, by making it available over the counter. And there is no doubt that if such a move took place some women would stockpile the drugs and also use them in higher dose to procure their own later ‘do it yourself abortions’ at home. The thought of young girls disposing of their pregnancies at home – with all that might involve – is really quite horrifying. 

There are other huge dangers with such a strategy. British and American studies have already clearly demonstrated that  making emergency contraception available free over the counter without prescription leads to an increase in rates of sexually transmitted infections and does not decrease pregnancy or abortion rates. If this new pill were to be made available we would expect it to be at least as bad (see note on 'risk compensation below).

Britain already has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe.  Rates of sexually transmitted diseases are also rising. In 2009 there were 12,000 more cases than the previous year, when 470,701 cases were reported. The number of infections in 16-to 19 year-olds seen at genito-urinary medicine clinics rose from 46,856 in 2003 to 58,133 in 2007.

The availability of such pills would also expose women to greater risks of sexual abuse. The fact that one is not using contraception is a strong argument to avoid being coerced into having sex by a strong-willed boyfriend or someone wanting to cover up abuse. Having such a pill available for use by would-be abusers - ‘It doesn’t matter; if you miss a period you could just take this pill’ – actually makes women more vulnerable.

This latest ‘advice’ is not just another ill-conceived non evidence-based knee-jerk response to Britain’s spiralling epidemic of unplanned pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted disease. It is also an attempt to smuggle in even more abortion by the back door.

The best way to counter the epidemic of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease is to promote real behaviour change. The government would be well advised to enter into dialogue with leaders of communities in Britain where rates of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy are very low, especially Christian faith communities, to learn about what actually works.

Note on risk compensation 

The phenomenon whereby applying a prevention measure results in an increase in the very thing it is trying to prevent is known as ‘risk compensation’. The term has been applied to the fact that the wearing of seatbelts does not decrease the level of some forms of road traffic injuries since drivers are thereby encouraged to drive more recklessly.

In the same way it has been argued that making condoms readily available actually increases rather than decreases rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections because condoms encourage teenagers to take more sexual risks in the false belief that they will not suffer harm.

But whilst condoms offer some protection against sexually transmitted infections the morning-after pill offers absolutely none. Rather it encourages more risky behaviour in the false belief that one is safe.

Other blogs on related issues

What economics can tell us about teen pregnancy rates 
School contraceptives to 13 year olds 
Three false presuppositions about teenage pregnancies 

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Euthanasia deaths continue their relentless rise in the Netherlands

According to Dutch media reports today, euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands in 2012 increased by 13% to 4,188. This follows increases of 13% in 2009, 19% in 2010 and 18% in 2011 and comes in the first year after the introduction of 'mobile clinics' which euthanize people in their own homes.

In fact from 2006 to 2012 there has been a steady increase in numbers each year with successive annual deaths at 1923, 2120, 2331, 2636, 3136, 3695 and 4,188 – an overall increase of 118% in just six years.

Euthanasia now accounts for over 3% of all Dutch deaths.

In addition 42 people with early dementia and 14 psychiatric patients were euthanized.

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 last year may not have been 4,188 but rather 5,151. 

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 previously, 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 way 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. 

previously described the similar steep increase of cases of assisted suicide in Oregon (450% since 1998), Switzerland (700% over the same period) and Belgium (509% in ten years from 2003 to 2012).

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

Britain needs to take warning as debate on the Falconer and Macdonald bills approaches.

Further reports 

Daily Mail  (Euthanasia now accounts for one in 30 Dutch deaths)

Daily Telegraph  (13% rise in Dutch euthanasia deaths in one year)

Daily Mirror (My case against euthanasia)

Press TV

Washington Times 

Monday 23 September 2013

European Campaign to protect human embryo gains one million signatures

Last week, 'One of Us' announced that 1 million EU citizens had signed its initiative to protect tiny human lives. 

There will now be an official public hearing on the need to ban EU funding for activities that involve destroying human embryos. 

It's an amazing achievement - and this week, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič officially congratulated the campaign.

The One of Us’ campaign underlines the moment of conception as the beginning of human life, and aims to prevent any funding of activities which result in the destruction of human embryos, particularly focusing on areas of research, development aid and public health (see previous CMF update by Philippa Taylor  for more detail). 

It was launched in January 2013 by leaders in twenty European countries and follows a European Court of Justice ruling in 2011, in a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace, that human life begins at conception and deserves legal protection (See my previous blogs on the ‘Bruestle Judgement’  here and here).

‘One of Us’ is a European Citizen Initiative, a new method provided in the Treaty of Lisbon for proposing legislation in the European Union. Such an initiative must have the support of at least 7 of the 27 member states and each individual state involved must collect a minimum number of signatures based on its overall population. 

Now that it has gathered one million signatures, the European Parliament is duty-bound to schedule a debate on the issue. With just six weeks to go until the deadline, organisers are keen to boost the total still further - the higher the total, the greater the political and public impact.  

Currently, European policies are at odds with the European Court of Justice decision. Europe today is funding scientific research that destroys and manipulates embryos and funds international groups touting abortion. With the recognition of life from the moment of conception, Europe’s policies would shift in favour of unborn life.

The UK sadly remains woefully under-represented ... Across Europe the initiative has proved very successful - but here in the UK it is yet really to take off. 

How to sign

To take part in this campaign you must be resident in a EU State, be 18 or over and eligible to vote in the European Elections.

To sign the petition you need to go to the ‘One of Us’ website (click here) and follow the few simple instructions. It takes about two minutes from start to finish.

The ‘One of Us’ campaign reminds us that we were all embryos once. But some scientific research activities destroy human embryos. Please help us stop public funding for this research.

Further background

Sunday 22 September 2013

Another amazing ethical stem cell advance

Here is another amazing breakthrough in ethical stem cell research that I haven't yet seen reported by any UK media source.

Researchers have for the first time converted cultured skin cells into stem cells with near-perfect efficiency. The discovery could clear the way for scientists to produce large volumes of stem cells on demand, hastening the development of new treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s disease, spinal injury and diabetes.

Some ten years ago scientists thought that the only way of producing programmable therapeutic stem cells was to cannibalise human embryos (see picture).

The problem was that these embryonic stem cells could not be transplanted into other individuals without inducing immunological reactions or tumours and their harvesting involved the destruction of human embryos.

But then in 2006, scientists first showed that mature body cells could be reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells — capable of growing indefinitely and of becoming any type of cell in the body, a property known as pluripotency (see diagram below right).  Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University won the Nobel Prize in medicine last year for his pioneering work in producing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from adult skin cells in mice.

Yamanaka’s techniques have been since refined but the production of these induced pluripotent stem cells remained mysteriously inefficient.

Now, by removing a single protein, called Mbd3, a team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have been able to increase the conversion rate to almost 100% — ten times that normally achieved. Moreover, the researchers show that the cells all transition to pluripotency on a synchronized schedule.

The new work, described this week in Nature, has huge potential for therapeutic advance and does not involve the destruction of early human life in the process.  It is amazing that manipulating a single molecule is sufficient to make this switch, and make essentially every single cell pluripotent within a week.

The work was carried out using mouse cells but the team has also reprogrammed human cells from a human and demonstrated similar effects.

The best and most effective treatments are also ethical treatments. Maybe that is the most important lesson to learn from all this.

Saturday 21 September 2013

New round of celebrity-led cheer-leading for assisted suicide

This story is covered in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph

Euthanasia season has arrived and the pro-death lobby, aided by their cheerleader and press office, the BBC, are now gearing up for a campaign aimed at forcing the legalisation of assisted suicide through British Parliaments both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. 

Lord Falconer’s assisted suicide bill had its first reading in the House of Lords in May and Margo Macdonald’s Scottish bill is to be published next month.

Expect no let up for several months as story after supportive story mysteriously fills our television screens and airwaves.

In pushing their cause, this alliance of private campaigners and publicly-funded ‘news’ generators will face four major lines of opposition: parliamentarians, doctors, faith groups and disabled people.

Neutralising these opponents will be their major focus as they seek to build their case around emotive testimonies and celebrity endorsement (See here and listen here for why their ideas should actually be given short shrift).

Their aim will be to find ‘role models’ from each of these ‘problem groups’ willing to become a public voice for their campaign to help create the impression that their proposals of ‘assisted dying with safeguards’ have universal backing.

Dignity in Dying (DID), the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society, has already established a group of retired professors and past medical leaders - originally HPFC but now rebranded HPAD (Health Professionals for Assisted Dying) - to counter the inconvenient fact that the BMA, all major medical colleges and two thirds of all doctors are opposed to any change in the law. They are now infiltrating the RCGP to try to push it neutral after failing to do the same with the BMA and have support from the editor of the BMJ. HPAD represents a massive 0.25% of doctors (Yes that's one quarter of one per cent).

Gathering a lobby of clerics has proved even more difficult but DID has managed to scrape together a flock of ‘faith leaders’ under the leadership of liberal rabbi Jonathan Romain. Interfaith Leaders for Dignity In Dying (or IFDiD) uses highly unorthodox interpretations of sacred texts to push the view that helping people to kill themselves is consistent with ‘loving one’s neighbour’.

In parliament there is the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Choice at the End of Life chaired by Heidi Alexander, Labour MP for Lewisham East. But their real champion is Lord Falconer, whose sham commission on ‘assisted dying’, stacked full of euthanasia sympathisers, recommended just over a year ago that the law should be changed to allow doctors to be licensed to dispense lethal drugs to mentally competent adults with less than six months to live. His bill currently before parliament seeks to make this a reality.

Disabled people have been much more difficult to pull into line, especially given that all the country’s major disability advocacy groups – SCOPE, Disability Rights UK, Not Dead Yet UK and UKDPC – remain opposed to any change in the law. They, more than anyone, know how easily vulnerable people can be pushed into ending their lives so as not to be a financial or emotional burden to others. 

So the pro-death lobby has been looking for a disabled people’s champion to become the new poster boy for the campaign. And this week they found him –in celebrity scientist Stephen Hawking.

The only missing ingredient was the means of getting international media coverage for Falconer and Hawking. Enter the BBC.

The publication of Hawking’s new book provided the hook for an invitation onto the BBC Breakfast national news programme last Tuesday where Hawking could be asked the question that would elicit the answer required to create the international news story:

‘I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives and those who help them should be free from prosecution. But there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressurised into it or have it done without their knowledge or consent, as would have been the case with me.’

Now the stage was fully set for Falconer the next day, on the very same programme, to promote his bill as the solution. But in order for him to do this unimpeded the opportunity for any cross-examination to take place, or contrary position to be put, had to be nullified.

On Tuesday night I received a text from a BBC Breakfast producer asking me, as campaign director of the Care Not Killing Alliance, to contribute to the programme at 0820 the following day:

‘Hi Peter, James at BBC Breakfast here. We’d like you on the show tomorrow morning talking about Stephen Hawking. Are you available?’

I phoned back and accepted. ‘James’ lined me up to speak to camera at the Oxford Street Studios the following morning and said he would ring me back in five minutes to confirm travel arrangements.

Ten minutes later I was dumped by text:

‘Thanks for speaking to me just now. Afraid we’re not going to talk to you on the programme on this occasion. Sorry for the hassle. James, BBC Breakfast.’

I was naturally interested to see who they had in my place. But next morning, it was a one-to-one interview with Lord Falconer that was heavily billed throughout the programme.

So how did our national broadcaster provide ‘balanced coverage’ on this contentious issue?

Basically we had the extract from Hawking interview the previous day followed by the presenters, Bill Turnbull and Susannah Reid, offering Falconer an open goal to say what he wanted in order to promote his bill.

Falconer understandably grasped the opportunity with both hands and waxed lyrical about how wonderful things were in Oregon and will be here too once his bill was passed - far safer than at present when we all have to go off to Switzerland where there are no ‘safeguards’. There was no serious challenge and no opposing view put.

Why did they drop me? One can only speculate. I suspect that BBC cheer-leading played a part, but I suspect also that Falconer, possibly remembering our last debate on the Radio Four Today programme, might have said that he would prefer to speak unopposed and they deferred to his requests. 

I guess we will never know – unless someone truly in the know speaks out.

But this is just the latest in a long line of episodes of BBC cheerleading for various forms of euthanasia.

Yes, I’ve written to the Director General of the BBC about it and have encouraged others to complain. But I am not holding my breath.

In the meantime I have been privy to a conversation this week of angry disability rights leaders wondering what they have to do to get their voices heard in the media. My advice is not to try the BBC. 

Dr Seuss and the genius of writing simply

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) was an American writer, poet, and cartoonist most widely known for children's picture books written and illustrated under the pen name Dr Seuss.

Geisel published 46 children's books, characterized by imaginative characters, rhyme, and poetic rhythm.

His books have topped many bestseller lists, sold over 600 million copies, and been translated into more than 20 languages. 

Some of his most celebrated works, including The Lorax,  Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton Hears a Who! and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! , have been made into successful films.

 In 2000, Publishers Weekly compiled a list of the best-selling children's books of all time; of the top 100 hardcover books, 16 were written by Geisel, including Green Eggs and Ham, at number 4, The Cat in the Hat, at number 9, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, at number 13.

Giesel was a perfectionist in his work and would sometimes spend up to a year on a book. He wrote most of his books in anapestic tetrameter, a poetic meter employed by many poets of the English literary canon. This is often suggested as one of the reasons that his writing was so well received.

But his genius was also in being able to express himself in very simple words. Unlike his later works which employed hundreds of imaginative made up words, his earlier books used simple common words of mainly one syllable.

His friend William Spaulding apparently proposed that he write and illustrate a book that six and seven year olds ‘can't put down!’  He supplied Geisel with a list of 348 words that every six year old should know, and insisted that the book's vocabulary be limited to 225 words. 

Giesel used 223 of them and added 13 more. The Cat and the Hat is 1,629 words in length and uses a vocabulary of only 236 distinct words, of which 54 occur once and 33 twice.

Green Eggs and Ham is even simpler. It contains 50 different words of which 49 are only one syllable in length; the only exception being ‘anywhere’.

Writing simply and clearly is an extraordinary gift and skill that many don’t have but it is an essential ingredient for reaching a large audience.

I was intrigued to read on the Bible Society website to see Chief Executive James Catford extolling the merits of retelling Bible passages using only the1,000 most commonly used English words.

He quotes Leonardo da Vinci as saying that 'simplicity is the ultimate sophistication'. Catford argues that recasting Bible passages in this way compels us to really consider the text, helps ‘lower the barrier to entry’ and can give a fresh personal view. He includes a rewrite of Psalm 46 to illustrate his point.

In linguistics, the Gunning fog index measures the readability of English writing. The index estimates the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading so a fog index of 12 requires the reading level of a US high school senior (around 18 years old).

The fog index is commonly used to confirm that text can be read easily by the intended audience. Texts for a wide audience generally need a fog index less than 12. Texts requiring near-universal understanding generally need an index less than 8.

Tabloid newspapers are generally 8-12, broadsheets 14-16 and medical journals 18. Interestingly Jesus Sermon on the Mount is 6 and the Ten Commandments 5!  

There’s certainly a lesson there. 

In case you are wondering this blog post has a Gunning Fog index of 9.8, which means you need to be 16 to understand it on a first reading. I can see I still have some way to go!

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Stephen Hawking is a great scientist but his advice on decriminalising assisted suicide should be given short shrift

Scientist Professor Stephen Hawking has spoken out in favour of assisted suicide for people with terminal diseases (See Independent, BBC, Telegraph).

In an interview with the BBC, he said:

‘I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives and those who help them should be free from prosecution. 

But there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressurised into it or have it done without their knowledge or consent, as would have been the case with me.’

Prof Hawking, now 71, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) aged 21 and told that he had just two or three years to live.

Following a bout of pneumonia in 1985, he was placed on a life support machine which his first wife, Jane Hawking, had the option to switch off, but instead insisted that he be flown back from Geneva to Cambridge.

He recovered from his pneumonia and went on to complete his popular science best-seller ‘A Brief History of Time’, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

Somewhat ironically, he is living proof of the fact that doctors can be very wrong about prognoses (28 years out in Hawking’s case!), and that one can live a worthwhile life, full of meaning and purpose, despite having a serious, progressive, life limiting disease.

There have been three attempts to legalise assisted suicide in Britain since 2006 all of which have been defeated by substantial majorities. Two further bills, one in the House of Lords and one in Scotland are currently awaiting debate.

All of these bills contain the kind of safeguards Hawking has referred to but on each occasion in the past parliamentarians were not convinced that they would work and opted to reject them out of concern for public safety.

Their judgement was that any change in the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia would place pressure on vulnerable people – those who are elderly, sick, disabled or depressed – to end their lives for fear of becoming a financial or emotional burden. Such fears would be acutely felt at a time of economic recession when many families are struggling to make ends meet and health budgets are being cut. Moreover subtle forms of coercion within families are extremely difficult to detect, even by skilled health professionals.

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

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

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

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

As I have previously argued, evidence of practice in those jurisdictions that have legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia (especially Belgium and the Netherlands) shows that the safeguards are illusory.

Lord Falconer’s bill, about to be debated in the House of Lords, uses a licensing system similar to that in the Abortion Act whereby two doctors certify in good faith that the necessary legal conditions apply.

But practice under the heavily 'safeguarded' Abortion Act demonstrates clearly why such a system involving doctors as the gatekeepers does not work in practice.

First, there has been a steady escalation in abortion since the change of the law in 1967 to the current situation where there are 200,000 abortions per year, accounting for one in five pregnancies. This is in spite of the law being 'heavily safeguarded' to allow abortion only in rare circumstances.

Second, almost all abortions currently fall outside the legal boundaries. 98% are carried out on grounds that continuing the pregnancy poses a greater risk to the mental health of the mother than having abortion, when there is no scientific evidence that this is ever the case. In most of these cases the real grounds are social inconvenience, failed contraception, economic difficulty or unwanted pregnancy.

Third, flagrant abuses of the law are not prosecuted. The current case of the DPP’s refusal to prosecute two doctors who authorised abortions on grounds of sex selection has attracted widespread criticism but no action. Similarly cases identified in 14 NHS trusts of forms authorising abortion being signed by doctors who had not even seen the women concerned have brought no action from the CPS, despite being in breach of the Perjury Act.

In addition there are other reasons to be suspect of such legislation.

First, we have already seen in the failures of regulation by the Care Quality Commission and other regulators over poor care in hospitals and care homes (eg, North Staffordshire) that abuses by healthcare staff will not be dealt with adequately until it is too late.

Second, if some doctors cannot be trusted with a clinical tool like the Liverpool Care Pathway, which was abandoned after a major enquiry due to widespread abuse, why do we imagine they can be trusted with authorising and administering assisted suicide?

Third, and this is probably what concerns me most, having assisted suicide as a healthcare option potentially saves a lot of money on care. This will inevitably make it an attractive option to families, healthcare managers and politicians who are wanting to cut costs. The danger of vulnerable people then being subtly steered toward suicide under such a system is very real and will be very difficult to detect. For a start, the key witness in each case will be dead and unable to give evidence.

We are best off with the current law, a blanket ban on assisted suicide and euthanasia but with discretion given to prosecutors and judges in hard cases. The penalties the current law holds in reserve provide a strong deterrent to those with an interest in another person’s death but allow flexibility for compassion. Most importantly it does not give doctors the power and authority ever actively to end life. We tamper with it at our peril.