Sunday 30 November 2014

The Human Journey – Thinking biblically about health

Many people today hold to an atheist worldview – they believe that God doesn’t exist, that human beings are just clever monkeys, that morality is largely a matter of personal choice and that death is the end. 

Within this framework medical technology can become simply a tool to improve life’s length and quality without regard to any overall meaning and purpose. If we want it, and can do it, and it seems to improve our life and health then why not?

By contrast the Bible teaches that God does indeed exist, that he has clearly spoken and acted in history in a way that leaves us in no doubt about his character and intentions. He has created human beings to know him and love him.

Death is not the end at all but rather a gateway to two radically different futures – either to enjoy eternity with God in a new and perfect world, or to be excluded from his presence forever.

Under this scheme history is indeed ‘his story’ – a ‘divine drama’ worked out according to God’s will and purpose.

My new book, the Human Journey, aims to equip Christians to think biblically about health and healthcare. But it sets these issues in the greater context of God’s design for man, the universe and everything – his great plan of redemption to unite everything under Jesus Christ.

The book starts by sketching out the grand ‘metanarrative’ – the overarching great storyline of the Bible in which all our individual little stories make sense. This big story makes sense of all that follows.

But then I focus down on issues at the interface of Christianity and health under eight big themes – each accompanied by a key question:

·         Humanity - What does it mean to be human?
·         Start of Life - When does life begin?
·         Marriage and sexuality - What is marriage for?
·         Physical health - How should I live?
·         Mental health – Am I supposed to feel like this?
·         End of Life – How should life end?
·         New technologies – Are we playing God?
·         Global health – Who is my neighbour?

The overall aim is to establish a biblical framework to help Christians think about health, both to make better personal healthcare decisions and also to help their churches incorporate healthcare expertise more effectively into pastoral life and ministry.

While the book can be read alone, it is accompanied by a set of videos and a study guide for small groups, expanding on each chapter. It’s intended to be shared and discussed within the context of the Human Journey course. To help readers explore the issues I touch upon in more depth, there are also a host of articles and further resources on the Human Journey website.

My desire is to see people excited about the whole Bible, more amazed about Christ’s great work and all that it means and more confident about how to bring God’s word and healthcare together. So I have deliberately packed this book full of biblical references.

If you finish it more grateful for all God has done and is doing, more hungry to mine the depths of Scripture, more passionate about serving Jesus and more equipped to think, speak and serve for Jesus Christ then it will have achieved its purpose.

Friday 14 November 2014

Lord Falconer’s phoney war continues

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill reached Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Friday 7 November. It seeks to legalise assisted suicide (but not euthanasia) for mentally competent adults (aged over 18) with less than six months to live, subject to ‘safeguards’ under a two doctors’ signature model similar to the Abortion Act 1967.

Opponents to the Bill had tactical choices: either to try to kill the bill dead at second reading on 18 July – as they did with a similar bill from Lord Joffe in 2006 – or to strangle it slowly in committee by amending it, if necessary with ‘wrecking’ devices. They have opted for the latter, which means clear arguments against will form part of the official record of the debate. This will effectively stop Falconer complaining that ‘we have not yet had the debate’. Peers will instead literally do it to death.

And so the House of Lords are now debating the bill line by line and considering amendments. Thus far 175 amendments to the bill have been tabled and collated into over 40 groups. Only four of these groups were considered on the first day of committee (7 November) so there is still a long way to go (you can read last Friday’s full debate here). There have even been extra amendments laid for pure comedy value!

House of Lords protocol requires that each proposed amendment has to receive the offer of debating time so given that there are only three more possible committee days this year to consider it, and none of these days have yet been allocated to it by the government whips, the bill is fast running out of time.

It may not even reach the report and third reading stages necessary for it to clear the House of Lords. And even if it does those on both sides agree that there is no time for it to go through the House of Commons before the general election on 7 May 2015.

This means almost inevitably that the bill will fall and that Lord Falconer will have to start all over again next summer – which he no doubt will do.

The debate now however is still very important as it will form part of the parliamentary record and will influence future discussions. And so we are asking all those opposed to the bill to write to members of the House of Lords urging them to reject the bill at third reading, if it should come to a vote.

One development on 7 November was the ‘acceptance’ of an amendment that judges, not doctors, should take final decisions about whether someone should be given the go-ahead to take their own life. Or at least that is how it was spun by the media. In fact, Lord Pannick (a strong supporter of Falconer), who moved the amendment, was reminded by other peers of the convention not to vote on amendments before report stage, but he pushed it to a vote regardless at a time when his supporters (many of whom left soon afterwards) were present in good numbers.

Those opposed to him then simply sat on their hands and abstained meaning that a formal division was not called for. So in effect the ‘acceptance’ means very little.  No amendment stands anyway if the bill falls at third reading and more can be moved at report stage before that.

Lords Pannick’s amendment puts a fearsome onus on judges but also demonstrates one of the weaknesses of Falconer’s bill – the fact that someone on his own side felt moved to tighten his ‘safeguards’ further is further evidence that they are not safe. A fuller analysis of the bill and a paper giving warnings from Oregon where similar legislation was passed are both available on the Care Not Killing website.

These concerns about safety are further confirmed by a new Comres poll which showed that a clear majority of public says there is no safe system of assisted suicide and that more than four in ten believe assisted suicide will be extended beyond the terminally ill if the current law is changed.

Andrew Hawkins, Chairman of ComRes, has commented:

'The obvious conclusion is that while the public are broadly sympathetic to the rights-based argument in favour of ending lives at the time of a person's choice, there is widespread concern about the abuse to which any system is likely to be open. These concerns are apparent across three areas - by the medical profession... by unscrupulous relatives, and in terms of pressure to end lives prematurely and on diminishing palliative and other health care resources.'

This latest series of events has all the hallmarks of a phoney war. Regardless, Falconer and his allies will undoubtedly not let the matter rest. The first shots have indeed been fired but this battle will run and run. 

Monday 3 November 2014

Lord Falconer has suffered enough - it's time to put him out of his misery

Lord Falconer’s ‘Assisted Dying Bill’ , which reaches its Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Friday 7 November, seeks to legalise assisted suicide (but not euthanasia) for mentally competent adults (>18) with less than six months to live subject to ‘safeguards’ under a two doctors’ signature model similar to the Abortion Act 1967.

The Bill had an unopposed second reading in the House of Lords on 18 July. This is not unusual for the House of Lords and simply means that the Lords were opting to debate it line by line rather than just rejecting it on principle.

A Supreme Court ruling earlier in the year put pressure on the Lords to give the bill a proper hearing and if they didn’t, doubtless Falconer would keep bringing it back, using up more precious parliamentary time and complaining that ‘we have not yet had the debate’.

For opponents to the bill – and there are many – the tactical options were either to kill the bill dead – as they did with a similar bill from Lord Joffe in 2006 – or to strangle it slowly in committee by amending it out of recognition before putting in the boot one last time.

They have opted for the latter, a kinder and more compassionate course of action for a piece of draft legislation which is already terminally ill. And a better plan for kicking it beyond the long grass to a place where no one dare retrieve it.

When the bill was debated in July thousands of people wrote to the Lords to complain about its loopholes and inadequacies and disabled people staged a mass protest outside Westminster Palace.

The depth of feeling against the bill across the political spectrum was underlined when the Guardian newspaper – that bastion of right wing conservative values - changed its editorial policy to oppose it because of real concerns about public safety.

Already a massive fight is brewing for this Friday with peers tabling a sack load of amendments aimed at exposing the bills weaknesses and inconsistencies. More are expected later this week and the government is already talking about extending the committee stage so that they can all be heard.

But in reality this is something of a phoney war.

It is conceivable that the bill may yet come to a final vote in the House of Lords, but both sides are agreed that the chances of it clearing the Commons in the run up to the election are virtually zilch.

The most Falconer’s supporters can hope for is some sort of a ‘moral’ - albeit Pyrrhic - victory by perhaps winning a vote over an amendment or two in a poorly attended committee debate.

The real battle will happen after next May’s general election and the chances of the bill progressing then will depend very much on who is in power. It’s very clear that the current House of Commons would not pass it.

Having said all that it is crucial that those opposed to the bill make their voices heard. Peers have been buried in letters from the pro-euthanasia lobby in the run up to committee as the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society – aka Dignity in Dying – launch their attack.

Now is the time for those opposed to the bill to strike back and urge peers to put down this deficient draft legislation. 

We don’t need this bill.

Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide will place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others. This will especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed. The right to die can so easily become the duty to die.

The law we have at present does not need changing. The stiff penalties it holds in reserve provide an effective bulwark against exploitation and abuse, but in so doing it still allows judges to act with mercy in hard cases. It also protects vulnerable relatives from being subtly coerced into assisting a suicide against their better judgement.

The pressure people will feel to end their lives if assisted suicide is legalised will be greatly accentuated at this time of economic recession with families and health budgets under pressure. Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions are real and dangerous and this is why strong laws are necessary. Where there is a will, there is an anxious relative.

Furthermore experience in other jurisdictions, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the US American states of Oregon and Washington, shows that any change in the law will lead to ‘incremental extension’ and ‘mission creep’ as some doctors will actively extend the categories of those to be included (from mentally competent to incompetent, from terminal to chronic illness, from adults to children, from assisted suicide to euthanasia). This process will be almost impossible to police.

It’s time to put Falconer out of his misery. He has suffered enough. Let’s not draw things out too long. 

Come and stand with disabled people this Friday at 9am outside parliament.

And write some letters to peers. You’ll find all the briefing information you need on the Care Not Killing website along with the specifics of the Bill’s specific defects and the broader arguments against a change in the law.

Don’t delay.