Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Are You Late? - the Catholic Version

After the fuss made by various pro-life and religious groups about the advert for Marie Stopes International on Channel 4 that I wrote about here, I've picked a couple of religious reactions to specific cases of abortion to take a rational look at.

Sister Margaret McBride is a nun, senior administrator and member of the ethics board at St Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. A 27 year old woman who was 11 weeks pregnant and already had four children, was admitted to the hospital with pulmonary hypertension and told by doctors that if she carried on with the pregnancy, the risk to her life was almost certainly 100%.

Sister McBride met with the woman and with doctors and decided that this case was an exception to Catholic health care directives. She gave the go-ahead, the abortion was performed and the woman survived.

The woman, Sister McBride and every other Catholic involved in either the decision or the procedure was then excommunicated by Bishop Thomas J Olmstead. McBride was also re-assigned to 'lesser duties'.

In a Q&A statement, the Diocese of Phoenix said:

What can be done when a pregnant woman's life is in danger?

The underlying condition should be treated.

If the baby cannot survive outside the womb and the mother may die, isn't it better to save at least one life?

First, we have to remember that a physician cannot be 100% sure that a mother would die. Second, the mother's life cannot be preferred over the child's. It is not better that the mother live the rest of her existence having had her child killed.

Why was Sr McBride excommunicated?

Since she gave her consent and encouraged an abortion she automatically excommunicated herself from the Church.

Does that mean that all women who have had an abortion are excommunicated?

Yes, anyone who has had an abortion is automatically excommunicated. But so are those who encouraged the abortion, helped pay for the abortion, or performed the abortion, including those who directly assisted in its performance.

What is the purpose of excommunication?

The purpose is to repair scandal, to restore justice and to reform the offender. It is a scandal to the entire Church that a woman religious [a nun] would consent to and encourage an abortion. It is also a scandal that a Catholic Hospital would perform such a reprehensible act.

Is anything more required of a woman religious who has been excommunicated by participating in an abortion?

Canon Law requires that a member of a religious community be dismissed from religious life unless their superior decides that dismissal is not completely necessary.

Is St Joseph's Hospital in danger of losing their endorsement from Bishop Olmsted?

These realities are a scandal to the faithful and must cease if CHW wishes to maintain recognition as a Catholic institution in the Diocese of Phoenix.

Another example:

Last year, a nine year old Brazilian girl was pregnant with twins after being raped, allegedly by her stepfather. The authorities said that the abuse started when she was six. The doctor, the medical team and the child's mother were excommunicated by Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Recife. He said that "A graver act than rape is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life".

The child was not excommunicated because she was a minor. Sobrinho explained that "The church is benevolent when it comes to minors".

Finally, in Canada, Cardinal Ouellet said that the crime of rape should not be compounded by another crime, that of abortion.

These stories have all caused strong reactions in the media. Should we be surprised? Is this a rational response? These are three men just doing their job, saying what they have been hired to say, following the company line. They have done nothing inconsistent or unexpected. While the nun was humane and undoubtedly aware of the consequences of her decision, she was effectively willfully breaking her employment contract.

The fable of the scorpion and the frog comes to mind. A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is afraid, but the scorpion reassures him that if he stung the frog, he would drown as well. The frog agrees and half way across the river, the scorpion stings him, and they both start to sink. When the frog asks why, the scorpion says "I'm a scorpion, it's my nature."

The Catholic Church is a competitive, hierarchical and deeply conservative organisation. Anyone with ambition is not going to speak out against company policy if he wants to rise up the ranks. While a parish priest with no ambition or talent for politics can turn a blind eye, any careerist cleric will follow what the men higher up the hierarchy say and do while waiting for a chance to replace them (if it is God's will, of course...). You don't get to be Pope by rocking the boat when it comes to issues like sexuality and female reproduction.

It is not rational to expect them to act otherwise. All the evidence from the past points to them behaving like this again. It's kind of a reproducible experiment.

The news is not that the Catholic Church, yet again, has done exactly what it says on the tin, but that Sister McBride put humanity before dogma.
In case this seems like an isolated case, one in six hospital beds in the US is in a Catholic institution.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Are you late?

Marie Stopes International have launched a new campaign called Are You Late?, part of which is an advert that will be shown on Channel 4 at 10.10pm on 24 May 2010 and then throughout June. This will be the first ever advert for pregnancy and abortion advisory services on TV.

The advert and the campaign were set up after research showed that only 42% of adults in the UK know where to get specialist advice other than from their GP.

The campaign aims to give information about services and also to encourage people to discuss abortion more openly. One in three women have one. In 2008, 215,975 were performed in the UK and in 2009, Marie Stopes International performed about one in three of all abortions in England and Wales.

I wrote a submission to BCAP for the National Secular Society about the advertising of condoms and advisory services a while ago and also wrote about the Christian Medical Forum's response to the consultation - they were one of the religious groups who tried to stop such adverts happening.

Not surprisingly, pro-life organisations are against the advert. The Society For The Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) put out a press release saying: 'Allowing abortion to be advertised on TV will lead to more unborn babies being killed and to more women and girls suffering the after-effects of abortion. Abortions ads will trivialise abortion. It is an insult to the hundreds of women hurt by abortion every day. Such ads are offensive and will mislead viewers about the reality of abortion'.

Emotive statements backed up by no evidence whatsoever.

Firstly, the slipperly slope argument is a favourite of groups who want to deny women control over their own lives and sexual health. It's similar to the argument that, if you give young people sex education, it will encourage them to go out and have sex. Or the argument put forward by the Catholic Church in Scotland that if young women are given the potentially life-saving HPV vaccine, this will make them promiscuous. SPUC reason that abortion will be trivialized, presumably meaning that women will start to see it as a form of contraception, which is another old argument, backed up by no evidence

They give no details about how women are hurt by abortion. As to suffering after-effects, research has found that 'the time of greatest distress is likely to be before the abortion. While some women may experience sensations of regret, sadness and guilt after an abortion, the overwhelming responses are relief and happiness'. Pro-life groups may claim to be concerned for women but they always put the tiny ball of cells first, even when a woman's life and well-being is at risk.

Then the press release tries another tactic. It says that 'Abortion is in English law a criminal offence'.

I rang their press officer who quoted me the Offences Against the Person Act, Section 58.

The Offences against the Person Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict. c.100) consolidated provisions related to offences against the person from a number of earlier statutes into a single Act to simplify the law. It's essentially a revised version of an earlier consolidation Act, the Offences against the Person Act 1828.

Section 58 replaces section 6 of the Offenses Against the Person Act 1837 and says: Abortion by unlawfully administering any poison or noxious thing is an offence.

However, SPUC are forgetting or ignoring or wilfully misrepresenting one thing - the Abortion Act 1967. This is 'An Act to amend and clarify the law relating to termination of pregnancy by registered medical practitioners'.

In summary, the Act states that a person is not guilty of an offence under the law as long as certain conditions are met, mostly to do with who authorizes and carries out the termination, and where. An abortion carried out by an approved practitioner in a hospital or approved clinic is not against the law. Moreover, 'No offence under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 shall be committed by a registered medical practitioner who terminates a pregnancy in accordance with the provisions of this Act'.

So when SPUC say that 'Abortion is in English law a criminal offence', they are talking about a law that is 43 years out of date and which is based on a law from nearly 100 years ago. Getting emotive about abortion is par for the course with them and similar groups. But they are also ignoring a law that doesn't suit their prejudices and wilfully misleading the public, not just in a press release that has limited circulation, but also in the media. As a lawyer I know put it, they are "irresponsibly misrepresenting the law". It might be termed a sin of omission. SPUC is claiming that the advert 'will mislead viewers about the reality of abortion' but that is exactly what they are doing.

Dr Ed Mitchell, a GP and member of the Secular Medical Forum, commented: 'Abortion up to 24 weeks pregnancy is legal in English law. Indeed, abortions are paid for by the NHS, who offer counselling to help women make the right choice. The SPUC's statement that such a service is illegal is grotesque, a piece of misinformation affecting women at a vulnerable stage of their lives just when they need unbiased information and help'.

Indeed, if they are right, then thousands of doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals are criminals, and the NHS has institutionalized law-breaking.

It's becoming standard practice for groups or individuals to ignore laws that don't suit them, or to think they are exempt from them, most often because of religious convictions.

There have been several recent examples of attempts to flout the Equality Law relating to non-discrimination against homosexuals ( the Christian B&B owner refusing gay guests, Gary McFarlane the Relate councillor refusing to work with gay couples, Lillian Ladele refusing to conduct civil partnerships for example). And in many cases, when the law finds against them, they claim persecution.

As Lord Justice Laws said of the McFarlane case: "We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion - any belief system - cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens, and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. (...) The conferment of any legal protection of preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however long its culture, is deeply unprincipled."

While not everyone who opposes abortion does so on religious grounds, the vast majority of pro-lifers are religious.

SPUC and other pro-life groups do not represent the majority of the population, They do not even represent the majority of religious people in this country. A YouGov poll in November 2007 showed that 63% of people agreed/ strongly agreed that 'it should be legal for a woman to have an abortion when she has an unwanted pregnancy'. What's more, 58% of self-identified Protestants and 43% of Catholics agreed/strongly agreed with this statement too. The Marie Stopes survey showed that 76% of adults supported showing such adverts at appropriate times.

SPUC and their ilk are also confusing being pro-choice with being pro-abortion. As a spokesman for Marie Stopes said: "We are empowering women to make choices. We believe that women have the right to choose the destiny of their bodies and their lives and we are always client-led. If a woman is clear that she wants an abortion, she is a grown woman who has made up her own mind and we support that. If she is not sure, we will counsel her on all the options, including adoption.

"SPUC's agenda is that they do not want women to have the right to an abortion in any circumstances; they always put the foetus above the woman's rights." As an illustration of what would happen if they got their way, he added: " In parts of the world where abortion is illegal, around 70,000 women die every year from backstreet abortions."

SPUC are trying to stop the advert being shown.


Complaints about the ad, mostly by religious groups and individuals, have been rejected by the ASA.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Homeopathy is witchcraft

The British Medical Association's annual conference of junior doctors has declared that homeopathy is witchcraft. They have voted for a blanket ban and an end to all placements for trainee doctors to teach them homeopathic principles.

Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA's junior doctors committee in England told the conference: "Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the NHS".

As The Times of India commented: "It was not insulting for members of the British Medical Association to describe the practice of homeopathy as witchcraft. What would be insulting to the intelligence of the observer and the basic principles of reason is to suggest that it is anything but."

This is excellent news for all of us who care about evidence, science and the survival of the cash-strapped NHS.

Latest figures show 54,000 patients are treated each year at four NHS homeopathic hospitals in London, Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool, at an estimated cost of £4 million.

Of course, the defenders of homeopathy have responded. Crystal Sumner, chief exec of the British Homeopathic Association (BHA) said that cutting NHS funding ignores the views of the public, especially patients with chronic conditions.

She said: "Homeopathy helps thousands of people who are not helped by conventional care. We don't want it to be a substitute for mainstream care, but when people are thinking about making cuts to funding, I think they need to consider public satisfaction, and see that homeopathy has a place in medicine".

She may not want it to be a substitute for mainstream care but she and the rest of them certainly want homeopathy to be given equal standing with medical treatment and the same respect.

Public satisfaction is an interesting defence. Boots sell homeopathic remedies not because they work but because people like them. By this logic, patients should be given any kind of treatment they choose, as long as it makes them happy. If public opinion were the yardstick of medicine, we'd still be putting butter on burns.

Seeing a practitioner who gives you a lot of attention, makes a sad face when you talk about your problems and lots of sympathetic noises may make you feel nice, but most right-thinking people would prefer someone who knows a) what caused your problem and b) how to cure it. It's nice if the doctor smiles but it's nicer if they save your life.

Chronic conditions are an area where mainstream medicine may appear to fail because in some cases, conditions can be managed but not cured. Some alternative treatments may make a condition more bearable and if a patient chooses to pay for it, then that's up to them - as long as they know what they are getting. Which, with a lot of alt med, is a big fat placebo. Feeling better is not the same as being better.

Another defender of alternative medicine is Dr Mukesh Batra of Dr Batra's Positive Health Clinic, who opened a clinic on Harley Street two months ago. He said, "We're in the heart of their city, not some far-flung suburb".

It would seem that the location of a clinic is an indicator of its efficacy, so if you attend a tiny local hospital in a rural area, you're probably not getting very good treatment, according to that logic. When you walk into a clinic, it really should smell of money if you want to be cured.

He also says: "A homoeopath needs to obtain a five-year degree so they're not all quacks".

Which would imply that most of them are. He also has homoeopathy clinics in Muscat and the United Arab Emirates - jolly nice locations, so they must be good.

The BMA motion was supported by Chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum, but it will only become official policy of the whole organisation if it is agreed by their full conference next month. After parliament's science and technology committee reported in February that 'the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA' it does look like the writing may be on the wall for publicly-funded homeopathy.

Dr Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum commented: "Homeopaths believe that serial dilution increases potency. The results of scientific experiments do not support this belief and have shown conclusively that homeopathy performs no better than placebo. Yet, following the logic of the homeopathic argument maybe just one more experiment should be conducted to serially dilute the number of NHS-funded homeopaths. In the interests of compassion and human rights, the ten strikes against a hard object known as succussion, could be deferred until the dilution process had removed all traces of actual homeopaths.

It would be ironic to prove that the memory of homeopathy is more effective than the real thing. The true value of homeopathy would then be forever imprinted on the memory of the NHS which would have the added benefit of more money to spend on proven treatments."

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Knock, Knock

The Virgin Mary will appear at Knock in County Mayo today (May 11 2010) at 3pm. She'll be coming to chat with Joe Coleman, a Dubliner who describes himself as a psychic and clairvoyant and who has compared himself with Padre Pio and Joan of Arc. It's not clear what he has in common with either of them. He is known to those close to him as the Knock Seer. Or possibly just to himself. Our Lady will convey messages to Joe about the state of the world and crosses will appear in the sky all over Ireland. Which is nice.

This is not the first time Holy Mary has been due at Knock to visit with Joe. He promised an appearance on 11 October 2009 but, according to Lavelle, who runs the shrine, 'Nothing happened (...) All he can rely on is get people to look at the sun'. Which, as we all know, is a Very Bad Thing to do.

When Our Lady failed to show, Joe was not daunted and called for a rematch on October 31. All that happened there was a huge clean-up operation to get rid of the waste left behind by around 15,000 pilgrims. Thou Shalt Not Litter isn't one of the Ten Commandments.

Coleman insisted that she had shown up on both occasions, although apparently only to him.

Undaunted, he tried again in December. Again, he claimed that she did appear. The evidence for this was that a tear ran down his cheek, which someone in the audience (sorry, congregation) interpreted as a sign of Holy Presence.

Coleman really doesn't know when to quit. For today's appearance, he claims Our Lady has told him 'that mankind is now undergoing 'the cleansing' that has been foretold in the Holy Bible. We are now in the throws of the immediate lead-up to the Second Coming of Jesus, back to this earth'. She is, not surprisingly, 'pleading with the Irish people to return to their faith (...) This will help avert world unrest, ecological disasters which are imminent (...) and can help rid the world of many evils we are witnessing right now'. More praying equals less global warming?

Senior Catholic churchmen appealed to people not to attend and issued warnings that such predictions were misleading the faithful. They don't like freelancers.

The Irish press has covered this story widely, with no critical comment at all. The only serious note in the whole saga comes from opthalmologists, warning people not to look at the sun. University Hospital Galway saw five cases of solar retinopathy back in December. This gives a whole new meaning to 'blind faith'.

It is now nearly 7pm and the media is not swamped with stories of Our Lady's arrival. Coleman will no doubt be back soon. There are some pictures of the event here.
UPDATE 12 MAY 2010: The Belfast Telegraph reports today that at 2pm, Coleman claimed the Virgin had appeared to him and would be coming back for an encore at 2.30. Two people out of around 300 who turned up claimed they had indeed seen white crosses in the sky, as Coleman predicted. He said: "She gave me a fantastic message but I'm not going to reveal it today." He has now put it on his website.
The Virgin's latest heavenly words include the warning 'The oceans will explode - The Atlantic Ocean - Three major volcanic explosions under the sea. Tsunamis both sides of the Ocean between America and Europe. Fire will fall from the heavens.' Blimey.
Coleman also claimed yesterday that he had predicted the Iceland volcano eruption three weeks ago. It began on March 20, nearly two months ago.
Some of the press coverage: