Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

“I realised that you could be pro-life and not be judging women”: Michaela Aston at OSFL

Michaela Aston used to be a teacher, and – in a good way – it shows. She knows the art of grabbing the listener’s attention and keeping it, and she is a natural storyteller. At her talk on Wednesday night, Aston told a little of her own story. “I managed to avoid the issue of abortion for a long time,” she said. “I just didn’t think about it.” Coming to political consciousness in the 70s, Aston saw around her a toxic culture which took for granted that women were inferior. Objecting to sexual harassment got you accused of being humourless. Employers were patronising and unsympathetic. Aston knew already that she wanted to resist that culture; and she assumed that, if you were on women’s side, you could hardly oppose abortion.

But a couple of experiences gave her pause. First, a couple of friends told her about their experiences of depression and anxiety, which they linked to their abortions. One had come close to suicide. Shaken, Aston read Susan Stanford-Rue’s semi-autobiographical study Will I Cry Tomorrow? Healing Post-Abortion Trauma. It was a turning-point. “I realised that you could be pro-life and not be judging women.” She also realised how many pregnant women lacked adequate help and information. Aston trained in counselling, which she still offers with the charity LIFE. “As a counsellor,” she explains, I would never lead or try to persuade; and I would never judge.” But what she has heard and seen convinces her that “women deserve better than abortion”.

One questioner put a challenge: how do we know that abortion creates post-abortion mental health problems? Might it not just as well be the rhetoric of the pro-life movement? Aston was sceptical: “You can’t manufacture the symptoms I’ve seen.” Of course, not all women feel bad after abortions. But some of the research – notably the Fergusson study, carried out by a pro-choice psychologist – suggests a connection between abortion and mental illness. It tallies with Aston’s long experience. “One woman said to me down the phone, ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me I would feel like this?’ That was all she said, over and over.”

For Aston, being pro-life ought necessarily to mean being pro-woman. Feminists have traditionally defended the unborn – as we noted earlier in the week – partly because the two causes are bound together by their respect for the human. “Pro-life means: to value every single individual human being, whether you’re male or female, born or unborn, able-bodied or disabled.” As misogyny still blights our society, so does a prejudice against the unborn. Moreover, the law upholds discrimination on grounds of disability. “Abortion law allows abortion up to birth – if you’re not perfect.”

As for being pro-choice, Aston doubts that it’s the right term. “Most women,” she claims, “don’t want abortions. The phrase I’ve heard over and over again is ‘I have no choice’. ‘My mum will kill me…’ ‘My dad will throw me out…’ ‘My partner will leave me… I have no choice.’” For all Aston’s engaging style, this was a challenging talk, which reminded the audience of how often society fails women in seemingly impossible situations.

But Aston made a more hopeful observation. Sophisticated imaging techniques can now tell us so much about the life of the unborn: and finally, “it’s the truth that convinces.” Society is slowly waking up to the human beings among us who deserve our respect. As Aston points out, doctors do everything they can to care for pregnant women. And when they do, they see two patients in front of them.

PREVIEW: Pro-woman, pro-life with Michaela Aston, tomorrow at 7.30

It’s often been pointed out that, until comparatively recently, trying to find a pro-choice feminist was like trying to find a vegan whose favourite eaterie is KFC. According to Feminists For Life and their Herstory series, the founding mothers of American feminism were ‘without known exception’ pro-life. What is more, they were pro-life precisely because they were feminist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought abortion ‘a crying evil’ for which the only solution was ‘the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women’, and Stanton’s was the mainstream view. When the suffragette leader Alice Paul remarked that ‘abortion is just another way of exploiting women’, she was looking back to a long tradition within the women’s movement.

Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst

The tradition began in Britain. For Mary Wollstonecraft, often called the first feminist philosopher, the taking of unborn life was yet another tragic consequence of male exploitation. In the twentieth century, Sylvia Pankhurst lamented abortion as ‘grievous’ and called for the social changes which would make it unnecessary. Even Marie Stopes – after whom hundreds of abortion clinics around the world have been named – was opposed, accusing a male friend of ‘murder’ after he pressurised his lover into having a termination. The Marie Stopes International website omits that detail in its biography of Stopes – just as Planned Parenthood, in a lengthy tribute to their founder Margaret Sanger, don’t find room to mention Sanger’s horror of abortion. She called it ‘a disgrace to civilization’; but her voice, like that of so many other feminists, has been edited out of history.

This matters because a lot of people defend the status quo on abortion from an uneasy feeling that if they don’t, they are standing against the advances of feminism; that being pro-woman involves being pro-choice as a matter of course. History suggests the opposite; but then, names as mighty as Alice Paul and Sylvia Pankhurst are still names from the past. They don’t necessarily prove that, in 2014, you can be pro-woman and pro-life. What proves it is someone like Michaela Aston.

Michaela

Michaela Aston

Having been involved with the charity LIFE for 20 years, Michaela knows this issue in all its complexity. From her work counselling pregnant women, she understands the heart-wrenching difficulties many face. From her work in schools and the media, she knows the arguments back to front. Michaela, who happens to be a brilliantly engaging speaker, insists that a just society can no more neglect the rights of the unborn than it can disregard those of women.  ‘As a society,’ she has said, ‘we are failing to cultivate respectful attitudes to life, and failing to promote positive and responsible attitudes to motherhood, family life and sexual relationships.’ What would it mean to build a better society? Come along on Wednesday evening to hear more.

The Facebook event is here.

NB bring a Bod card if you have one – if you don’t, email studentsforlife.oxford@gmail.com and we’ll put you on the mailing list. See you there!

The Man who Ate Life, and other Freshers’ Fair stories

‘Can I eat them?’

After three days of Freshers’ Fair, you think you’ve heard everything. But this was a first.

‘No,’ I explained, ‘they’re for planting. They’re wildflower seeds.’

‘I get that, but I mean – can I eat them?’

I turned for help to our Publicity Officer Alisha, who’s a doctor.

‘You won’t die,’ she advised.

Freshers fair

Freshers’ Fair is a friendly event, but it’s also definitely a competition. There are thousands of visitors and hundreds of stalls, and only a few seconds in which to grab someone’s interest as they wander through on their way to the Domino’s special offer booth. Bowls of free sweets, that old standby, are not permitted, so you have to try something else. People get inventive. The Roleplaying Society have impressive costumes, the Chess Society put a board on their table – though they admitted, when I came by, that nobody had yet challenged them to a game on the spot. At the Fencing Society I was told that, if I joined the mailing list, one of them would put on that helmet which makes you look like a giant fly. The Oxford Union hire a large mock-up of a boxing ring. Passing the Geography Society, someone cried out, ‘Have you ever wondered – Geography? What is that?!’, to which one answer is surely, ‘Yes, at about age 7.’

What could Oxford Students for Life offer, in this crowded marketplace? But the answer is already obvious. It was our job, surrounded by sports teams and music groups and charitable ventures, to affirm the one thing which makes all these excellent things possible – life itself. We decided to make our stall a little life-affirming beacon. We had bunting and lightbulbs and a vase of flowers. We displayed photos of past OSFL events. We pinned up aphorisms and scraps of poetry:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
(Mary Oliver)

Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Freshers stall

Because I had absolutely no hand in the design – all praise here to our Secretary, Megan – I think I’m allowed to pass on some of the compliments we kept getting. ‘This is the best stall I’ve seen,’ we heard more than once. ‘If there was a prize for best stall…’ someone told us. A neighbouring stallholder came over to admit she had ‘stall envy’.

Plus we had seeds. It turns out you can get a big bag of mixed wildflower seeds pretty cheap. And what student room doesn’t need a splash of colour and nature? So we offered little envelopes of seeds, attached to our termcard, for anyone who wanted to get involved by joining the mailing list. ‘We’re all about life,’ we told inquirers.

‘I didn’t realise,’ one remarked shrewdly, ‘that was the kind of life you guys were interested in.’

Take your point – but don’t you agree that flowers are one of the things that makes life worth living?

A shrug. ‘Fair enough. OK, I’ll sign up.’

People did sign up, too, in their hundreds. Most loved the seeds, while a few were unsure if they could offer them a good home – though, as we were able to point out, and we’d like to repeat this message for the benefit of anybody reading this blog who picked up one of our mini-envelopes: You do not need a plant pot in order to make use of the seeds. You can put some soil in an eggshell or a mug. But whether they accepted the seeds, or took an info leaflet or a termcard, the response was seriously encouraging. Some people knew us already. (‘I’ve been looking for you!’) (‘I already follow you on Facebook.’) Faces lit up as soon as we began our spiel. Some had been involved with pro-life work already, and wanted to carry on now they were in Oxford.

Freshers visitor

And – just as hearteningly – visitor after visitor told us that they really wanted to think more about these questions; that they didn’t know quite where they stood, and would like the opportunity to discuss the issues; that they were clear on abortion but less so on assisted suicide, or vice versa. We explained that, while we take a pro-life stance, we want to hear from everybody – the pro-choice, the undecided, the confused. People responded well to that. It’s one thing you hope for in a university, that you’ll be able to work out what you think, in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

As for the pro-choicers, they were mainly polite and good-natured. One of our neighbouring stallholders came over to cheerfully berate us every so often; eventually she concluded: ‘You seem like lovely people, but what you’re doing is… insane.’ But it was said with a smile. So were most things. Of course, not everybody was friendly. One man announced imperiously, ‘I disagree with you. Goodbye,’ and turned on his heel, which sounded like an epitaph for democratic pluralism if ever there was one, but that kind of response was in a tiny minority. Literally not a single person told me that, as a man, I had no right to be there.

All of which indicates that we are onto something. The debate about human life is not over. It is ongoing, and a lot of people are coming to it with unprejudiced eyes, eager to make up their own minds. As one fresher said to me, ‘it doesn’t get much more important than this, does it?’

Oh, and we never finished the story about the man who wanted to eat the seeds. Having ascertained that they weren’t lethal, he tore open the envelope and tipped it back like a packet of dry roasted. He chewed, swallowed, and frowned. Then he gave his verdict. ‘Pretty bland.’ By now, several of our neighbours had crowded round. One woman, from a charity in the row behind us, poked her head between the banners. ‘Do you eat everything you get given at Freshers Fair?’ she asked.

It was one of several memorable encounters. One of the nicest was speaking to a firmly pro-choice student. We offered a leaflet and she demurred. ‘But’ – she added, turning back – ‘I think it’s good you exist.’ We were touched. Same to you!

(Dan Hitchens)

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No.7: Mildred Jefferson

Of all of the pro-life heroes and heroines we’ve featured in this series, perhaps none is more worthy of her place in the pro-life hall of fame than Dr. Mildred Jefferson. Certainly none could be more qualified to speak out on the subject of abortion, as Dr. Jefferson spent her life doing. As a woman, a doctor, and a member of a long-oppressed racial minority in the United States, Jefferson experienced firsthand the struggle to defend the rights of the vulnerable against the will of the strong. And so she devoted her life to the pro-life cause, which she called “the cause of every man, woman and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man”.

Mildred

Born in Pittsburg, Texas in 1926, Jefferson distinguished herself at an early age. After graduating summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree from Texas College at the age of 16, and earning her master’s degree from Tufts, Jefferson became the first black woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951 and went on to be the first female surgical intern at Boston City Hospital and the first female doctor at the Boston University Medical Center. The timeline of her early career is impressive enough, but it was in the early 1970s, when increased cultural and legal trends towards abortion gathered momentum, that Jefferson came to the fore as one of the earliest and most outspoken leaders of the modern pro-life movement.

Many argue that abortion is a moral grey issue, absent a clear-cut right or wrong. Dr. Jefferson knew this was not so. She famously said:

I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.

Jefferson helped found Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Black Americans for Life, and the National Right to Life Committee (of which she served as President for three terms), and ran as a political candidate on a pro-life platform in the 1980s and 90s. She served on the boards of dozens of pro-life organizations and lobbied to support other pro-life political candidates. Up until her death in 2010, Jefferson gave speeches against abortion and in support of other pro-life advocates.

Mildred speech

Beyond her commitment to the cause – evident in the bare facts of her life – Jefferson’s strength as a pro-life advocate stemmed from her talents as a leader and orator, and her ability to understand the issue from several different perspectives. As a doctor, Jefferson knew that abortion is killing, and that licensing doctors to kill is a perversion of medical care. She insisted that “my earnest effort is to uphold medicine as a high calling, a sacred profession.” As a black woman raised in the United States before the Civil Rights movement, Jefferson knew all too well that many pro-choice advocates at the time saw abortion as a way to control the poor black population. She witnessed firsthand the efforts of the strong to oppress the weak in the racial battles of the 20th century, and identified abortion as yet another manipulation of power, arguing that “it is unconscionably unfair that the victim selected on which to test the social remedy of expendable lives is the most defenseless member of the human family.” And, in her own words, “as a woman, I am ashamed” – ashamed that abortion was advanced in the name of women’s rights, and that mothers might willingly choose their own interests over the lives of their unborn children.

Jefferson’s influence was compounded by her natural ability as a speaker and debater. She was famously articulate. As Darla St. Martin of the NRLC put it, “She was probably the greatest orator of our movement. In fact, take away the probably.” Jefferson has been credited with changing Ronald Reagan’s stance on abortion; in a letter to her, he wrote “You have made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of a human life, I am grateful to you.” In her numerous appearances as an ambassador of the NRLC and other pro-life groups, Jefferson high standards for pro-life advocates, demonstrating the grace, precision, and confidence that pro-life advocates today should and do strive to emulate. In her dedication, intellectual sophistication, and compelling composure, Jefferson can serve as a model for all of us who work for the cause of which she was one of the greatest champions.

(Molly Gurdon)

Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose, Ovid.

Thank you

…to everyone who donated, shared, or told a friend about the OSFL fundraising campaign! We reached our target of £3000 in a little under two months. In other words, we have a lot of thank-you cards to send out. Not for the first time, it has been moving and encouraging to see how much can be achieved by a collaborative effort. This funding will put OSFL on a solid foundation to continue our work in the years to come. And we have exciting plans for 2014-15 – stay tuned.

As ever, if you would like to get involved or ask us about anything, email us at studentsforlife.oxford@gmail.com.

On Oxford’s very own Richard Dawkins

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You’ve probably read about Dawkins’ 20th August Down’s syndrome foot-in-mouth tweet and the furore it caused – perhaps you’ve even forgotten about it (two weeks is a long time on the internet). I wanted to draw attention to a point we can take away from the discussion it sparked, now that Twitter’s moved on. It’s one most of us pro-lifers have shaken our heads at before, but which we need to highlight more when talking about the abortion issue: the strange contradiction in our society’s (rightful) defence of the disabled, and that same society’s qualification of the value of a disabled life when it’s legal to cut it short.

Dawkins’ tweet to a Twitter user who called a Down’s syndrome diagnosis a “real ethical dilemma” read “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

Cue the response he labelled a “feeding frenzy”. From outraged tweets to articles in national and international papers, accompanied online by comments from the public including this one: “Dawkins would have thrived in 1930s Germany”. My pro-life and pro-choice friends alike shared the link on Facebook – accompanied by statuses to the tune of either ‘oh dear’ or ‘what an idiot’. A pro-choice journalist at the Independent wrote that Dawkins’ “ethical values appeared to [have] come a little unstuck”; the Down’s Syndrome Association responded with “we do not believe Down’s syndrome in itself should be a reason for termination”; personal testimonies refuting Dawkins’ later insinuation that those with Down’s have nothing to “contribute” were published: “Down’s syndrome girl passes six GCSEs as Dad calls Richard Dawkins ‘an ignorant idiot’”. Simon Barnes’ piece in the Spectator is particularly worth the read.

A similar backlash was generated earlier in August when it emerged that an Australian couple had abandoned a baby with Down’s syndrome born to a surrogate mother.

‘Uproar’, ‘storm’, ‘fury’, ‘outrage’. But wait: this isn’t an opportunity to Dawkins-bash – shake our heads and wonder what he’ll come out with next – this is a time to point out to those who do, that actually, he’s ‘right’. Dawkins’ follow-up tweet: “If I were a woman with a DS fetus, I would abort. So do most women, in fact. If you wouldn’t, good luck to you, it’s your decision.” And another one: “Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending what actually happens to the great majority of Down Syndrome foetuses. They are aborted.” Estimates of fetuses aborted post-Down’s diagnoses range as high as 92%. Down’s syndrome abortions have gone up by nearly 50% since 2003. Despite the fuss made about his utilitarian logic, Dawkins is in tune with society: many people in Britain clearly take the same position as he does in practice. The consequence of allowing abortion up to birth for unborn children with ‘defects’ is that it happens.

Dawkins’ defence against those making the “emotional point” that they know and love someone with Down’s syndrome was that “There is a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” I don’t think the difference is as clear as all that. If there is a moral imperative to kill the unborn who have Down’s syndrome “from the point of view of the child’s own welfare”, then it’s a small to step to the statement that those living outside the womb with Down’s syndrome would be ‘better off dead’. There are all sorts of other questions his comments raise, particularly about the criteria his calculation of the ‘worth’ of a life rests on, but for now let’s focus on pointing out to people that if abortion on the grounds of disability is ok – up to birth – we’ve got a pretty hard job to do to defend the worth of a disabled life outside the womb.

The 92% figure doesn’t sit well with our anti-discrimination policies and joy over Britain’s Paralympic success, or with the recent ‘Lose the Label’ campaign that’s been doing the rounds since World Down’s Syndrome Day.

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Here at OSFL we want to stimulate discussion: the controversy over Dawkins’ statements brings a serious contradiction in our culture to light, and it’s not one we should let go unnoticed – talk to your friends about the way they look at disability and abortion.

I’ll wrap this up by pointing you in the direction of Madeleine Teahan’s article from last week: she makes the case from personal experience, but doesn’t forget to remind us that we can’t fight the battle using terms like ‘potential’ to lead what we consider a ‘successful’ or ‘fulfilled’ life – because if we do that we’re still basing someone’s worth on a calculation of what someone might be able to do, rather than on what they are. “The right to life is inalienable regardless of capacity,” she says, and it’s of this that we need to remind Dawkins.

(A.O.)

Oxford Students for Life is fundraising! Go here to find out more.

Pro-Life Heroes and Heroines, No. 6: Ovid

The poets, as Freud said, always get there first. The author of the Metamorphoses and the Amores, a man best known for his vivid narratives of maidens turning into trees and heroes descending into the underworld, seems an unlikely candidate for the first pro-lifer. But it is hard to find many people before Ovid who made such an expansive statement against abortion as he does in the Amores, Book II Elegy XIV.

Ovid

Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?

To complicate things, there seems to be a strong possibility that the child in question was his. He pleads with his lover:

You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done.

Though the poem builds up to a rhetorical height of grief and indignation, anger is abruptly replaced by something more merciful:

…let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!

The Roman world, the classical world in general, was a dangerous place to be small and vulnerable. The philosophers casually justified the destruction of life. Plato felt that women over 40 ought not to be allowed children: they ‘should be very careful not to let a single foetus see the light of day, but if one is conceived and forces its way to the light, they must deal with it in the knowledge that no nurture is available for it’ – ‘deal with it’ meaning ‘get rid of it’. Aristotle recommended ‘a law that no deformed child shall live’.

Athens

People lived by these principles. About a century after Ovid, in Trajan’s reign, an inscription records that out of 181 newborns, 35 were girls. This was no coincidence: as in parts of the modern world, including Britain, the words ‘It’s a girl’ were some of the most dangerous you could utter. Classical writers do not seem to distinguish much between taking life before and after birth, an honesty which makes the facts even more chilling. All those lives ‘dealt with’ – for being female, or disabled, or inconvenient. Ovid sorrowfully reminds us that everyone was once unborn and defenceless:

If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.
If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.

It has to be said that Ovid doesn’t come across entirely well here. There’s not much acceptance of responsibility on his part. Even so, the elegy is a remarkable moment. Just for a moment, somebody struggled free of the barbarism of the ancient world, and launched into history a cry of compassion for the unborn. It is one of those strange coincidences that the somebody in question just happened to be Shakespeare’s favourite poet.

(D.H.)

Previously in this series: Alice Paul, Jack Scarisbrick, Gandhi, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Lila Rose

Oxford Students for Life is fundraising! Go here to find out more.

Keeping the pro-life voice alive at Oxford

Oxford Students for Life is starting a fundraising campaign called ‘Keeping the Pro Life Voice Alive at Oxford’ to support its work for the coming year and years ahead. Our aim is to create a culture on campus that protects and cherishes human life from conception until natural death. Life issues are more and more in need of debate. In the UK the Falconer Bill on assisted suicide is currently going through Parliament, and about 200,000 abortions are carried out every year. Just this February Belgium extended euthanasia for children without any age limit and the number of people dying each year in the Netherlands from euthanasia is rapidly increasing. Far too often these issues are met with indifference and the silence that surrounds them must be broken.

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We strive to create the opportunity for conversation about life issues by organizing speaker events and debates, and running workshops as well as our blog. The culture on campus is often hostile to this work, and a motion threatening our freedom of speech was only just beaten at a Student Union Council in June of this year. In order to keep the pro-life voice alive we need your support. Just putting on a speaker event can cost up to £150 and having a stall at Freshers’ Fair, where we will meet most of our new members, will cost more than £100. Your money will be of huge help and will go towards:

  • attracting the best speakers for high-profile events and debates;
  • helping student parents, by organising events and practical support like ‘nappy drives’;
  • setting up street stalls offering information about the start of life;
  • spreading the pro-life message by publishing material and maintaining a website.

We want to make sure OSFL is on a strong foundation for the next few years so that the case for human life can be expressed widely and effectively throughout the university. OSFL is going to be met by an ever-increasing number of challenges, and your support will ensure that we are ready to face those challenges and keep the pro-life voice at the forefront of people’s minds.

Please give whatever you can to invest in the future of the pro-life movement. Follow the link here to donate and thank you for your support.

(J.C.)

‘This Bill is about me': Baroness Campbell’s speech at yesterday’s Lords debate

The Falconer Bill was debated yesterday in the House of Lords. (A good report is here.) The speeches were about half-and-half for and against the Bill. Many peers spoke from their own personal experience, including Baroness Jane Campbell, who has spinal muscular atrophy. The full text of her speech is below.

Campbell

My Lords, I have fought for autonomy the whole of my life. I have fought for that for myself and for others. I do not want this Bill.

First, I must declare a very important interest. This Bill is about me. I did not ask for it and I do not want it but it is about me nevertheless. Before anyone disputes this, imagine that it is already law and that I ask for assistance to die. Do your Lordships think that I would be refused? No; you can be sure that there would be doctors and lawyers willing to support my right to die. Sadly, many would put their energies into that rather than improving my situation or helping me to change my mind. The Bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because, in periods of greatest difficulty, I know that I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges which life holds for me.

However, it is not just about me. My story is echoed by the majority of disabled and terminally ill people in Britain today. Many of them are outside this House, protesting against the Bill. I urge your Lordships to go and talk to them. Many more will have written to your Lordships. Supporters of the Bill argue that there is a hard and fast distinction between terminal illness and disability. I can tell you absolutely that there is not. We, the folk this Bill claims to serve, know that. The Bill purports to offer choice – the option of premature death instead of pain, suffering and disempowerment – but it is a false choice. It is that of the burglar who offers to mug you instead. That is not choice. Pain, suffering and disempowerment are treatable – I have to believe that – and they should always be treated. My long experience of progressive deterioration has taught me that there is no situation that cannot be improved.

Campbell 2

I have spent my life developing ways to prevent people in vulnerable situations feeling powerless and burdensome. They do get cajoled and do feel a burden, especially when they are at home with no one to come and assist them to go to the toilet and to have dignity. I have seen this transformation when people have been helped. Those whom society once saw as totally dependent have become active and valued human beings. I am afraid that assisted dying will bring back outdated beliefs that devalue disabled and terminally ill people, when we have tried so hard to get away from them. Small wonder then if some succumb to those beliefs and see premature death as the only answer. Small wonder if family, friends, doctors and others see it as their duty to support that goal. It appears easier, cheaper and quicker – and it is.

The Bill is motivated by fear and pity but as the greatest French novelist Balzac observed,

“pity is death to us – it makes our weakness weaker still.”

Death is seen as a release from pity, for both giver and receiver, but there are far better ways of responding. We must put our energy into providing the best support, be it medical, social, practical or emotional, to disabled people and terminally ill people. We are nowhere near there yet. Helping people to live with dignity and purpose must surely be our priority. Disabled people and terminally ill people do not deserve pity. They deserve so much better. The Bill has become a runaway train, and the more frightening because of that. Please let us pause and find ways to reflect further. The Bill is not the answer.

The very wording of the Falconer Bill reveals its implications for the vulnerable

About the author: A former OSFL committee member, Greg Jackson is currently studying for an MA in Ethics.

For those of you who have not yet had a chance to read Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, here are some of its key phrases.

To begin with ‘assisted dying’: The phrase is a euphemistic attempt to make it seem as if what is here described is a part of the practice of palliative medicine. All it really amounts to is assisted suicide under certain conditions – conditions that we may fear will expand in the future, perhaps without limit.

Much of the Bill’s wording, when looked at closely, gives cause for real concern.

 

a person is terminally ill if that person –

(a) has been diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner as having an inevitably progressive condition which cannot be reversed by treatment (‘a terminal illness’); and

(b) as a consequence of that terminal illness, is reasonably expected to die within six months. 2 (1)

As a previous blogpost explained, this is an unworkably vague criterion. But in any case, why is the cut-off at six months? Why is it only these people that are to be given lawful assistance in ending their own lives? This is surely discriminatory. The law, in effect, is putting these people in a category which is not worth protecting, and therefore is failing to recognise the equal worth of such people. The Assisted Dying Bill, were it to succeed, would be telling people in this category that society has given up on them; that they are no longer valued enough for the law to be concerned with their protection to the extent that it is concerned with others’. At the time when they need hope more than ever, the law is telling them that their case is hopeless.

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‘[the [patient’s decision must have] been reached voluntarily…without coercion or duress.’

3 (3) (c)

One may wonder how such a thing could ever be accurately determined. After all, ‘coercion and duress’ can be extremely subtle forces, difficult to detect. We cannot simply rely upon the patient’s word that he or she is not under coercion or duress. Financial and familial pressures can exert a powerful influence on all of us, but perhaps even more so on the sick and the dying, and such pressures can remain virtually impossible to detect. Surely some terminally ill people will end up making this decision against their own will.

 

‘…the attending doctor and the independent doctor must be satisfied that the person making it has been fully informed of the palliative, hospice and other care which is available to that person.’

2 (4)

Here as elsewhere, we see the enormous trust that the Bill places in the medical profession. It relies upon the medical profession policing itself. Who else, after all, is going to determine whether a patient kills themselves in accordance with the criteria set out in the Bill? While we can assume that the majority of medical professionals are upright and conscientious individuals, can we trust that each and every medical professional will fully inform a patient of other options?

Furthermore, the Bill undermines the grounds upon which our ordinary trust in the medical profession is based. People look to doctors for cure and care, and they entrust themselves to them in the confidence that doctors are dedicated to those ends. But if doctors are not dedicated to these ends then a relationship of trust with them is no longer possible.

 

The attending doctor of a person who has made a valid declaration may prescribe medicines for that person to enable that person to end their own life.

4 (1)

The Bill refers to ‘medicine’ used to end one’s life. But this is a clear abuse of the term – ‘medicine’ being, of its nature, directed towards treatment and healing. In this case the lethal drug is not directed towards treatment and healing, but rather towards the death of the patient.

Baroness Finlay: the former President of the Royal Society of Medicine opposes the Bill

Baroness Finlay: the former President of the Royal Society of Medicine opposes the Bill

 

‘the attending doctor and the independent doctor, having separately examined the person and the person’s medical records and each acting independently of the other, must be satisfied that the person…has a clear and settled intention to end their own life which has been reached voluntarily’. 3 (3) (c)

The Bill makes no requirement whatsoever that the person who seeks to end their own life need undergo psychological assessment – which is not a small matter. There is no procedure to assess whether or not the patient is suffering from depression or some other psychological condition that will affect their decision-making capacity. All that is necessary is that two physicians determine that the patient ‘has the capacity to make the decision to end their own life’, and one might legitimately wonder how that might be determined as well. Again, the Bill places an awful lot of trust on the medical profession to police itself in these matters, yet as said, this Bill undermines the very foundations of that trust.

 

‘The Secretary of State may issue one or more codes of practice’.
8 (1)

And ‘the Secretary of State may specify in regulations’ what experience a doctor needs (3 (7)); ‘The Secretary of State may by regulations specify’ how the ‘medicines’ are to be administered (4 (7)); ‘the Secretary of State shall consult such persons as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate’ (8 (2)). A lot of the Bill’s implications are left to unknown circumstances.

 

Much has been made of the safeguards in the Bill, yet in addition to the issues that we have noted, legislation that permits assisted dying can never have adequate safeguards because the essence of such legislation is to make respect for the lives of the dying dependent upon the strength of their will to survive. The Bill represents society losing hope. And it detracts our efforts away from palliative care, a holistic solution which recognises the true value of the sick and the dying.

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You can still email peers and ask them to oppose this dangerous Bill.

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