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ss nucleus - summer 2006,  Together we stand

Together we stand

Mark Pickering examines some implications of Lord Joffe's defeat

It was a great day in the House of Lords on 12 May when Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill was defeated by a majority of 148-100. It is comparatively rare nowadays to hold a vote at the second reading of a bill in the upper house, but this gave a comprehensive message that the Lords were rejecting not just the fine detail, but the very principle of the bill.

Some in the media caricatured it as a victory for blinkered religious fundamentalism and a defeat for the forces of compassion. It was of course quite different to this. The valiant Anglican bishops were only a small part of the reasoned and passionate opposition to the bill. The Care Not Killing Alliance, which ran a strong campaign against the bill, had significant representation from palliative care physicians and disabled rights groups as well as Christian groups.

One thing it did teach us is that so much can be achieved when Christians get involved in campaigning on issues that have the potential to shape our society for good or evil. It is not enough just to pray – we must pray and act. The defeat of Lord Joffe's bill, and the earlier defeat of the Religious and Racial Hatred Bill, were quite astounding, and were by no means certain beforehand. Of course God was very active in overturning both pieces of legislation, but much of what he did was through people like you and me who got involved – in lobbying, in the media, as individuals and organisations. It demonstrated the huge power that is unleashed when concerned people work together, and the effects were amazing. One commentator estimated that the Care Not Killing Alliance had sunk £11.8 million into the campaign against the Joffe bill. In reality it was just over £30,000, but the beauty of it was that the wise use of that limited budget both united and ignited many around the country who needed a rallying point to express their concern and opposition to assisted dying.[1]

It's not over yet

It would be foolish at this point to sit back and pretend that the war is over. Of course, a significant battle has been won. Although Lord Joffe announced his intention to reintroduce his bill in the next parliamentary session, this was met with derision in the house. But the assisted dying lobby will keep working hard to influence public opinion and change legislation. On 20 June, in an insert with Doctor magazine, a retired surgeon with Motor Neurone Disease has petitioned readers to contact the Secretary of State for Health in support of changing the law to permit physician-assisted suicide. Furthermore, Professor Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Bart's and the London medical and dental school, shocked many in June by arguing outspokenly for non-voluntary euthanasia in the Royal Society of Medicine's new journal, Clinical Ethics.[2] One commentator noted, 'Who could have foreseen that one of our most distinguished experts in medical ethics would himself not so much slide down that slippery slope but leap to the bottom in one go.'[3]

As I write the British Medical Association is poised to debate assisted dying on 29 June at their annual meeting in Belfast. The BMA now stand as virtually the last island of medical neutrality on assisted dying, with the official bodies of physicians, nurses, GPs, psychiatrists and palliative care physicians all in opposition. After the victory of a minority of vocal proponents at last year's BMA meeting, 23 out of 24 motions proposed on assisted dying are this year in opposition – the groundswell of grassroots doctors continues.

A culture at war

The reality is that assisted dying is just one of many issues where Christian morality is at odds with the prevailing secular wisdom. Abortion, stem cell research, sexual morality, the downplaying of marriage and the trumpeting of individual rights without sufficient emphasis on corresponding responsibilities – all leap out from the media on a regular basis. The general direction of the government, but also the opposition, is that of liberalisation. The clashes between liberal and conservative morality will be the new battle lines in the 21st century, rather than the traditional arena of left and right wing politics.[4]

In these battles we may find ourselves engaged in co-belligerence - standing side by side with others who do not share our Christian convictions, but can unite with us on particular single issues.[5] The Care Not Killing Alliance is a good example on the issue of assisted dying, or the Alive and Kicking Campaign [6] on abortion. These strategic alliances may be of huge importance as we fight the cultural battles on several fronts at once. It is vital in taking part that we learn to express timeless truths in language that is accessible to those who are not Christians. And yet we must not be tempted to compromise on our Christian convictions in one area just in order to win gains in others, or maintain the support of those we are working with. Nor must we forget the paramount importance of evangelism – persuading others that the Christian message is both true and reasonable.[7] After all, although we may shore up society and slow the rot in one area or another, ultimately it is only the renewing power of the gospel that will change hearts and transform our nation.

  2. Doyal L. Dignity in dying should include the legalization of non-voluntary euthanasia. Clinical Ethics 2006;1:65-67
  3. Phillips M. So would you want a doctor to end your life against your wishes? Daily Mail 2006; 9 June:14
  4. Saunders P. Culture Wars – defining the battle line. Triple Helix 2006; Summer:4
  5. Saunders P. Co-belligerence – compromise or Christian duty? Triple Helix 2006; Winter:3
  7. Acts 26:25
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