Monday, August 29, 2005

All the indications are that the more people know about the facts, the more prolife they become

It's great to wake up on a bank holiday morning and see a YouGov poll that shows that public opinion is strongly behind a restriction of abortion. The poll for the Daily Telegraph shows that only 2% of the public support the extreme position represented by the abortion agencies and proabortion lobbyists in this country who have a massively disproportionate influence on our laws, such as Marie Stopes and BPAS, who support abortion on demand on babies that are 6 months old and allowing abortion up to birth.

This means that discounting the 9% who don't know, a total of 89% think that there needs to be restrictions on the age at which a baby can be aborted. While some people continue to support abortions on babies at 6 months, a total of 64% think that the abortion law should be reduced from the current 24 week limit. The urgent question that has to be asked is why is it when there have been call after call for the abortion limit to be restricted that our abortion laws are still dictated by a 2% extreme proabortion fringe?

It's not as though this is the first poll that has showed that the public backs a serious restriction of abortion law (see Student LifeNet's neat collation of polling results). This is a natural consequence of greater information being available to the public about the sophistocated development of the baby.

Currently public and parliamentary opinion support either a 20 week restriction (which is arguably terribly late for anyone who knows how developed the baby is at this stage), or a 12 week restriction (inspired by the beautiful ultrasound pictures of the baby walking in the womb). I have no doubt that the more people know about the baby's development, the greater the demand will be that our laws are focused on the humanity of the baby.

Two years ago, I was telling one of my friends that I was arrested for showing a picture of a 21 week old aborted baby while I was a ProLife Alliance election candidate for the Welsh assembly elections. There is really very little difference between a 20 week abortion and a 21 week abortion, which just shows how inadequate a restriction to 20 weeks would be. A baby aborted at 21 weeks is an horrific sight and one which I do not wish anyone to see but any debate has to be weighted in reality not euphemism. I was asking her, how is it that we have child protection laws and yet we allow abortions of babies (nearly 3,000 abortions a year on babies over 20 weeks). I remember her response was "it's not a child". I said how is it not a child at 24 weeks, six months pregnancy, when the baby is perfectly formed and can survive if born prematurely ??!! I remember the look on her face. A year later, in 2004 after the articles that were in the papers previewing the Channel 4 documentary My Foetus, and calls from every quarter it seemed for a restriction of abortion, she wrote to me and said my views have completely changed, of course it is wrong, its about human rights not about choice.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Why bother to advocate sex selection when no one wants it anyway, and the harms are at best predictable, and at worst incalculable?

It is reassuring that every public opinion poll has shown that the public are staunchly and overwhelmingly opposed to allowing parents to choose the sex of their child. A solid 80% of the public oppose sex selection. Even the HFEA was forced to acknowledge opposition, following a public consultation in 2003 (see CORE). This overwhelming opposition seems to have two explanations. On one hand, thankfully we are not a sexist society (whatever arguments can be had about equal pay), and parents frankly think it is absurd to want to have a boy rather than a girl or vice versa.

Children are loved and wanted unconditionally and this is exactly as it should be. This is not to say that parental expectations would not change if society encouraged parents to prefer children of a particular gender, which is why whatever the current views of social sex selection, the law should not be changed to allow it as it would inevitably generate a demand for it. The other reason for such deep seated opposition to social sex selection is because of the serious implications of demographic imbalance, sexist stereotyping, psychological harms to the child and the slide towards infanticide in cases where sex selection hasn't worked.

Anjana Ahuja wrote a superb piece in The Times on the eugenic whiff of sex selection. In her critique of what "family balancing" can possibly mean, and what measurement government could use to measure parental distress at children of a particular gender, and the demographic implications, she asked: "And is there potential psychological fallout? What message does it send to daughters when mum and dad are prepared to spend thousands to ensure that their next child is not female? How will the youngest daughter feel — like a mistake that her parents will pay money not to repeat? Perhaps not, but is anyone gathering evidence?"

The question about evidence is a good one. Mary Ann Sieghart for example took the opposite view in T2 the following week, arguing that social sex selection is "perfectly natural" (not for the 80% of the public opposed, it isn't!). In any case, the question about whether a parent may excitedly look forward to having a daughter or son is very different from making this a matter of public policy. Idle speculations about the gender of the baby during pregnancy shouldn't be made elevated from speculation to a parental right to have a boy or a girl, as the cultural preference for boys and feticide and infanticide of baby girls should unequivocally prove. Far from being guilty of a "knee jerk" reaction against social sex selection, as Mary Ann Sieghart suggests, it seems that favouring sex selection is a knee jerk reaction that fails to properly weigh the negatives and also acknowledge that sex selection has unpredictable harms associated with it that cannot be measured until we can see the demographic problem for ourselves, or we have a cohort of children who we can start to measure for psychological damage.

Mary Ann Sieghart's answer to the problem of psychological harm to children is that children will sense their parents' disappointment anyway if sex selection is not used. I don't see how this is an argument in favour of encouraging parents to be disappointed with their children and to seek out expensive fertility treatment. She also dismisses the problem of demographic disaster on the grounds that currently only a small number of British parents have a preference for one gender over the other, and that as the preference for gender goes both ways, it would balance out, with no more boys or girls being born. This seems at least a little shaky. It might be the case in 2005 when 80% of the public are opposed to gender selection, but can we really be sure of what parental demands will be in 2010 or 2020 if these trends are set in motion?

Anyone who passionately believes in gender equality should be appalled at any attempt to suggest that a child of one gender can be prefered to a child of the opposite sex. What happened to allowing children to develop their own interests and personalities? To reduce a child to a gender stereotype and ignore a child's personality, ability, temperament and development (surely much more interesting than gender) is absurd. Have we come so far in terms of gender equality and feminism only to reduce the potential of every child to whether we can dress them in pink or blue?

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Sunday, August 21, 2005

Mick Hume is wrong - This is about ethics, not the personalities of parents

I've followed debates on genetics and embryology for the last five years. The main thrust of opposition to issues like embryo experimentation, human cloning, the creation of designer babies and social sex selection, has at least three major concerns. Firstly, that there is real physical and/or psychological harm to the child that is being created, secondly, that the implications for society are serious, and thirdly, that there are ethical alternatives which do not involve harm and will benefit all parties. I am not aware of anyone who has ever argued that controversial and experimental scientific practices need to be prohibited or subject to the most serious restrictions because of the personality of parents, but this incredibly is what Mick Hume tried to argue in The Times ("Well, fancy that! Children’s future decided by parents, not by committee") when he claimed that any regulation or protection of children by the state would be "treating prospective parents as irresponsible infants."

It's not necessary to have a degree in ethics to see that Mick Hume is wrong to say that the the case for restrictive legislation is based on "the authorities see[ing] parents as potentially selfish fashion victims who cannot be trusted to decide what is best for their own children." It has got nothing to do with whether parents are selfish or not. They could have the best intentions in the world and still advocate harmful procedures if they are being encouraged to do so, or the information is not available to them. There is good evidence that prohibition and restriction is necessary to prevent these highly experimental and in some cases frivolous techniques (and even Mick Hume acknowledges he personally would not use sex selection) being used. IVF specialist Lord Winston pointed out as long ago as 2003, in a speech to the British Association Festival of Science reported by BBC NewsOnline that a "lack of laboratory research into IVF means scientists are effectively "experimenting on children". He blamed the commercial focus of many IVF clinics for the lack of funding for IVF research.

As long as the state intervenes in highly experimental and untested ways, which may result in harm to the child that is born from IVF, the state has a duty to ensure that state sanctioned interventions are prohibited if there is evidence to suggest that the child may be harmed. The goal of everyone involved in IVF should be to protect children. If there is a conflict, the state's overriding concern must be towards the child is the primary victim of any treatment that goes wrong.

Mick Hume slates half of the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee for refusing to support the final report. Apart from the fact that it is absolutely right in a democracy that MPs should take a principled stance and cannot be just rubber stamping reports, he also grossly misrepresents the concerns of the Labour MP who branded it a “Frankenstein report”, when he says: "Perhaps she knows of parents keen to chop up their babies and make a monster out of the body parts."

Anyone who followed the coverage of the MPs objections at the time will know that they took the unprecedented step of condemning the report because of the shocking nature of some of the committee's recommendations - one of the most shocking was the creation of animal human hybrids. No where in his tirade does Mick Hume analyse in any depth the possible harm that could result from a demographic imbalance if parents routinely picked one child, or the implications for other children if parents seek a child of a different gender. Neither does he refer anywhere to issues like the proper boundaries of science (and everyone agrees that there are some), and the vast array of other concerns encompassed in the HFE Act which have little to do with fertility treatment, and much more to do with scientific experimentation.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Who put these jokers in charge of decision making? Whatever else we disagree on, we can at least agree that there should be proper wide-ranging debate and a transparent, accountable, democratic Parliamentary process

I was amazed to be told recently by a senior journalist, who out of fairness I will not name, that I should not pursue a particular line of argument in an interview, because "the public won't be interested"! The line of argument I was pursuing is that decisions on major ethical issues and scientific experimentation - such as whether to allow the creation of designer babies, human cloning, or the creation of animal human hybrids - should be made by Parliament following thorough public and parliamentary debate, not by unelected bureaucrats behind closed doors, who are not accountable to anyone. It is perhaps true that our Parliament system is not entirely perfect, but at least parliamentary democracy gives the opportunity and hope that the best evidence will win out, rather than allowing a few individuals, without any particular qualifications, to make decisions about the future direction of humanity based on their own whims. I also find it impossible to believe that the public is not interested in the question about who is deciding on these issues. I find it incredible that any individual can steamroll over the democratic process or that decisions can be made behind closed doors. Far from being a boring point, the question of who is making these decisions currently borders on farce, which would be almost funny if it wasn't so serious.

To take a few examples, three years ago, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology took oral evidence from the then former chair of the HFEA, Ruth Deech. During the hearing, the MP, Bob Spink asked about the massively controversial issue of whether a baby should be created in order to provide tissue for another child, he asked: "Should that decision have been taken by the HFEA or should it have been brought back to the democratically accountable Parliament to be discussed?" To the amazement of the MPs on the select commmittee, Ruth Deech actually said, and I kid you not: "The fact that the HFEA took that decision protects Members of Parliament from direct involvement in that sort of thing". It is quite something to tell MPs to their face that they aren't capable of making complex decisions and that they need protection! She was immediately asked, "How can it be democratic if you are preventing the democrats, the Members of Parliament who are elected to make difficult decisions on behalf of society as a whole, and protecting them from having to make such complex, fundamental decisions?"

As a second example, it is often repeated ad nauseam that the HFEA is the greatest organisation in the world and a model for the world to follow, usually it has to be said by the HFEA themselves. This isn't borne out by the number of scandals involving embryo mixups, black twins born to a white couple, etc etc, but around the time that the Government was pushing through human cloning legislation in Parliament, (although they liked to call it CNR, cell nuclear replacement, so no one would think that it was cloning) the Government were also saying that there would be very strict regulation about which licences were issued, so it was very interesting to read in the appendix to the Science and Technology committee's Fourth public report, the admission from a scientist about how exactly he got his licence from the HFEA. He says that because the HFEA in fact did not know whether or not to issue the licence "the HFEA looks to the Medical Research Council for specialist input, who in turn ask for my view, with the result that I am asked my view of a ruling which I am seeking." Very rigorous. The argument has always been that if expertise does not exist in this country on cutting-edge science then we should be looking for peer review internationally, drawing on some of the expertise available on this superb website on Stem cell research.

Thirdly, The Times reported that the Times had obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act and discovered that the HFEA had passed a secret ruling on designer babies to allow bone marrow to be taken from the child, without publicising this rule change. In fact, the HFEA's own lawyers had argued "in a pretrial submission that such screening involves “no adverse effect for the baby — indeed no invasive procedure relating to the baby”, because only cord blood is used. This is not true when bone marrow is involved." Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics,the pro-life group that has brought today’s case, said that the HFEA had “moved ethical goalposts” without consulting or even informing the public. “We were categorically promised during all legal hearings that tissue-typing would result only in non- invasive applications, dependent exclusively on harvesting stem cells from the designed baby’s umbilical cord blood,” Ms Quintavalle said. “The HFEA resisted with self-righteous indignation any accusations that saviour siblings were being set up as future bone marrow donors. Now the HFEA has completely changed its mind by suggesting that bone-marrow donation is OK after all. Bone-marrow donation is invasive and can be painful and never more so than for a tiny newborn baby, who derives no benefit from the procedure and is unable to give consent. “The concept that a baby should be created with this specific purpose in mind goes beyond the comprehension of compassionate and civilised citizens.” The authority ought to have done much more to make its decision public, she added. “The ethical decisions of the HFEA should be blazoned across every newspaper in the country, instead of being cunningly buried in committee meetings.”

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Friday, August 12, 2005

The gorgeous little girl on the front of The Times who proves that PGD for late onset diseases is wrong

Any parent if asked if they want to protect their child from disease is obviously going to respond enthusiastically and without reservation with "yes, of course!". What a loaded question! No parent wants to see a child suffering. However, we should be wary of any attempt to pressurise public opinion by using this good parental impulse as an argument to justify testing and eliminating those embryos which may have a genetic predisposition to some late onset condition. The murkily named acronym PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) is eugenics dressed up as medicine, used not to treat but to determine who should be allowed to live and who should die. Screening sounds a benign medical practice, the sophistocated preserve of medical experts, but it is neither benign nor sophistocated when it is used to destroy embryos which may, perhaps, possibly, one day, hypothetically, maybe get a condition that may by that time be entirely curable.

The Times editorial on the 12th August drew a clear distinction between screening embryos and screening adults, also pointing out that:

"it would, inevitably, lead to the termination of embryos that would have grown into healthy adults. A proportion would develop cancer, but only after several decades of good health and with a range of treatments available to them, including, in the case of those at risk of breast cancer, radical surgery reducing their chances of developing the disease by 90 per cent."

The editorial goes on to point out that "Britain lags behind the US, Sweden and much of Western Europe in its breast cancer screening efforts." Clearly all research and funding and medical expertise should be channelled into the identification and treatment of disease not used to terminate the lives of potential sufferers. To eliminate an embryo that may get breast cancer in 40 years time doesn't say much about how society views breast cancer sufferers. Does a woman who gets breast cancer have no worthwhile life up to the moment in which the condition is first discovered? Does 20-40 years of life mean nothing at all? Is all this to be thrown away? And what about in 40 years time when there is a treatment for the condition anyway?

On the 1st November 2004, the front page of The Times reported on the first licences granted by the HFEA without any public or parliamentary debate, for screening for cancer. Katie Stevenson, a cute little girl, pointed at the reader with the imperiousness that children have. Her mother refused screening. If the screening had happened, there would be no Katie.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

Is self-regulation appropriate when there are reports that babies struggle to breathe after abortion at 18 weeks?

A shocking study in the August edition of the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology reveals that 31 babies were born alive following abortions on babies who were 18 weeks or older, with the babies struggling to breathe and crying in two cases. 13 babies died after an hour. One baby aborted at just over 19 weeks died after nearly five hours. There are no official national figures for the number of babies born alive following abortion, but it is inevitable that the national figure is much higher since the BJOG study only covered the North West region of England and the authors frankly admit that there is “significant underreporting”.

These revelations should have been front page news in every paper in the country in terms of the loss of life involved, the public's right to know, the proper scrutiny of medical practice and the major significance of the report for a thorough and informed debate on restricting abortion law. How many people for example are aware that late abortion involves the horrific procedure of feticide to kill the baby, which is recommended by the RCOG, or that babies can be born alive as early as 18 weeks? The Daily Mail, to its credit, reported the study on Saturday, but the seriousness of the issue – nothing less than the reporting of infanticide - demands much greater public attention and action to ensure that it is prevented from happening again.

It is an additional cause for concern that although these reports have been brought to public attention before, there has been no action to prevent these babies dying from neglect, despite the assurances of medical associations. In February 2004, The Sunday Times reported a study published orginally in the BJOG of a baby who survived three abortion attempts and was born alive at 24 weeks after his 24- year-old mother changed her mind about wanting the child after feeling it move on the way home from an abortion clinic. The attempted abortions had been carried out at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s Blackdown clinic in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Although the clinic had told her an ultrasound scan had confirmed the child was dead, she went into labour that afternoon and the boy was born alive. The journal reported that this little boy is now a healthy two year old.

A few months later, in June 2004, the Sunday Times reported cases of babies who were born alive following abortions. One baby thought to have a severe abnormality was born healthy, but was not resuscitated when it stopped breathing. Another baby was left to die in a sluice-room, even though it was born with a heart-beat and was breathing. Another baby born at 25 weeks the day before he would have been killed through the barbaric practice of feticide. The ProLife Alliance noted at the time that survival rates of premature babies between 23-26 weeks are reaching the 90% mark according to a major US retrospective study published this year.

These reports prompted a successful motion at the BMA conference proposed by a number of medical students, calling on the BMA to "work with the GMC, NHS and appropriate Royal Colleges to ensure that babies born alive as a result of termination of pregnancy procedures receive the same full neonatal care as that available to other babies".

Even before the conference, the BMA protested vigorously that the motion was unnecessary because they already had guidelines to ensure that babies born alive received medical care. This echoes the RCOG guidance on the issue which states “The management of fetuses and newborn infants at the threshold of viability should be in accordance with the British Association of Perinatal Medicine’s Framework for Practice. It is professionally acceptable not to attempt to support life in fetuses below the threshold of viability." BBC Newsonline quoted Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives as saying that: "There are guidelines to prevent the live birth of babies following late abortions. However, should the baby be born alive, it must receive the necessary life support, as would any other baby born at such an early gestation."

However the survey of the 31 babies struggling to live in BJOG frankly contradicts this by saying that "although midwives are bound by their code of practice, there are many who will still ignore signs of life at this gestation....Many terminations at this gestational age are performed on gynaecology units; the women being cared for by nursing staff rather than midwives, who are not governed by the midwives rules and code of practice, although the Births and Deaths Registration Acts and Public Health Acts apply to all."

If there is any doubt that the abortion law is out of date and urgently in need of restriction, then these stories of babies struggling to breathe should remove all doubts. The current law allows babies to be aborted for any reason up to 24 weeks (6 months) or up to birth on grounds of disability. The 24 week limit was based on the baby being able to survive at that point, so even from the flawed logic of the Abortion Act, the current time limit of 24 weeks is outdated and incomprehensible when premature babies can be born and survive after 21 weeks and these babies struggled to breathe after abortions at 18 weeks.

When the reality of babies being born alive following abortion is before us, we have passed the stage of esoteric debate about when life begins. It is blindingly obvious that these babies are alive and have human rights and that they deserve as much protection as any other child under child protection guidelines and international human rights law. Only a tiny extreme fringe thinks that it is acceptable to abort babies up to and including birth. The majority of people in this country are naturally appalled by the brutal reality of late term abortion. Dr. Stammers, senior lecturer in general practice at St. George's University Hospital in London was reported in the Mail as saying that even doctors who carry out abortions sometimes break down: "I know of obstetricians who have been doing abortions for many years who have broken down saying they cannot carry on any more. Despite all attempts at emotional neutrality, the heart does not work that way when you get a baby in front of you that colleagues on another floor of the same building would be trying to keep alive. For the parents it must be extremely upsetting, as it is for the doctors."

The humane response to these babies suffering and deaths is not to discuss, as the authors of the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology report do, with horrifying calm, whether these babies could be killed earlier using feticide, or to suggest that it could be up to the parents whether they prefer feticide or neonatal death, or to suggest that "the reasons why feticide is necessary should be made clear, along with the potential benefits". It is outrageous that parents could be presented with propaganda and euphemism about feticide. It should be blindingly obvious that feticide is as wrong as neonatal death, since it is only a legal fudge to prevent the doctors being prosecuted for murder.

It is overwhelmingly clear that we cannot leave it up to midwives and nurses involved in abortions to regulate themselves. The wider arguments about abortion will take more time, but there is immediate and obvious action that must be taken. The only humane response to knowing that babies can be born alive at 18 weeks is to outlaw abortion during the second and third trimester.

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Friday, August 05, 2005

Jasper Gerard, how many prolifers have you met?!

A year ago, in a flurry of articles about abortion in reaction to the news that abortion was going to be shown on TV by Channel 4, in a moving article expressing his own growing discomfort with abortion, (which I intend to expand on elsewhere) Times columnist Jasper Gerard wrote:

"If the law is ever to be revised, antis need a more likeable spokesman. Many display the warm understanding of the Rev Ian Paisley. Jepson would be perfect but she might need to lose the dog collar: the British like their debates rational, not religious."

It is a pity that in an article that was otherwise sensitive to the seriousness of the issue of abortion, Jasper Gerard reduces the issue to the issue of personality. To say that the prolife case is based on a religious view is a massive presumption, when in fact the opposite is true. The prolife case is explicitly not religious and based on rational argument and evidence based on the biological development of a child, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the physical reality of abortion.

No one needs celebrity endorsement to assess the issue of abortion. The facts of abortion as another Times columnist put it "scream to be debated". The truth of abortion eclipses whoever is speaking. I was interviewed briefly in the documentary "My Foetus". No one was interested in me. I have seen people walk past demonstrations using abortion images and their faces reflect gravity and shock, they are certainly not interested in something as trivial as the clothes worn by the spokesperson.

But even if it was about the spokesperson rather than the issue, the caricature Jasper Gerard refers to is not one that I recognise. The prolifers I know are doctors, nurses, teachers, students, solicitors, vets, computer programmers, pilots, tax consultants, accountants, artists, university lecturers, charity workers, journalists and political campaigners, to name just a few. In other words, an incredibly diverse group in terms of age, profession, temperament, political affiliation, interests and personality, some with religious belief and some with none. The issue is just basically about humanity and anyone with humanity can respond. As for the emotional warmth Jasper Gerard refers to, it is inescapably the case that if you believe what we do about abortion than your heart must go out to any woman affected by abortion.

If the media's impression of prolifers is skewed than whose fault is that? When has the media ever covered Student LifeNet, the network of prolife students in universities, which doesn't in the least resemble Jasper Gerard's caricature? Student LifeNet actively campaigns for better support for pregnant students, issues press releases which are expert and relevant, and a few years ago, when I was involved, donned Tony Blair masks to campaign against cloning (the sight of 15 grinning Tony's Clonies were simply irresistable, and appeared on news bulletins and even on Have I Got News For You) . It is perhaps understandable that the media as a whole isn't that fascinated in student news, but The Times has its own survey of Generation X, and Newsnight's recent student house gave huge publicity to a few students. The media is missing out on much more interesting news. It is more than tuition fees that affect students.

And then there is the ProLife Alliance which fielded candidates first in the 1997 election and again in 2001, and in the European elections in 2004. Even forgetting the democratic imperative for proper reporting and vigorous debate at election time, which should have guaranteed the ProLife Alliance fair coverage, the media were looking for a way to make the election more interesting and had a goldmine in the ProLife Alliance candidates - ordinary people inspired to stand for something they believed in, speaking from the heart, without the cushy support of a mainstream party machine.

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Sponsored skydive for ProLife

This is a picture of me just after I fell head first out of the plane at about 13,000 ft, over Cambridgeshire, attached to a professional skydiver, during a skydive I did a while back.

Don't be fooled by the huge grin! There's not much else you can do while falling at 120mph and you know that the picture will be captured forever.

The feeling of falling through blue sky is incredible and terrifying and exhilarating and terrifying and terrifying but once the parachute opens at 5,000 ft you feel tremendously and bizarrely safe, if a little disorientated.

On the promotional literature when I was researching the idea, it said that they would tell you how to open the parachute in case something happened to the professional skydiver, ie. he has a blackout or a heart attack. I don't think there is the least chance I would have the presence of mind to remember if the situation had arisen, but they never told us, and thankfully we touched down safely, without breaking any bones.

I've never bungee jumped, and I would never skydive without a very good reason, but prolife is a very good reason! If every person who thought human rights are important donated even a tiny amount, we'd be able to change the world. People said during Live 8 that if children were dying in England we wouldn't stand for it. Well they are.

If you are prolife, why not make a donation to the ProLife Alliance

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Opposition to designer babies misrepresented by media

I enjoy debate with anyone who grapples fairly with ethical issues, on the grounds that sooner or later the strength of arguments will win out. So despite being slightly perturbed by the subtitle, "Questions of life and death are too important to be decided by zealots and dogmatists", I wrote to Observer columnist, Mary Riddell, to point out that her article in the Observer entitled "Beware the moral minority" (March 27, 2005), contained a number of factual errors, when she wrote:

"It is iniquitous that couples like the Hashmis, now awaiting an imminent verdict from the House of Lords, have had to fight so hard to have a baby who can provide stem cells to cure their six-year-old son, Zain, of a serious blood disorder.... such cases are for parents and doctors, not for pro-lifers leeching their sanctity from other people's heartbreak."

This is the kinds of misunderstanding and inaccuracy that has been passing as fact in the media as a whole, whereas the reality is that the arguments against designer babies or "saviour siblings" is much more weighty and evidence based, certainly not irrational. I wrote to her to say that this is incorrect for a number of reasons:

1) the Hashmi family were not prevented from continuing with IVF, and have been trying for a number of years to have a baby that is a tissue match. The court case has in no way prevented them from continuing to do this (the Whittakers for example, went ahead anyway). However the Hashmi family have been unsuccessful.

It is inaccurate to imply that tissue matching is an easy solution. In November last year, it was widely reported that the Hashmis are instead appealing for bone marrow donation. I am sure you are aware of this, see TheGuardian

2) One of the major arguments against allowing the creation of saviour siblings is that it is unnecessary and the preferable medical approach would be to routinely collect and store umbilical cord blood which is currently thrown away, and also encourage more bone marrow donation. Those of us who oppose the creation of babies to provide donor tissue have been calling for the routine collection of umbilical cord blood for years. I joined the bone marrow donation register in 2003. If umbilical cord and bone marrow donation was much more widespread, Zain Hashmi may have been cured by now. There was a very good article on this in the Guardian in November last year:

3) Finally can I point you to CORE's reasons for the legal challenge, which I think cannot be described as anything but strongly rational?
HFEA designer baby decision unethical, unnecessary and undemocratic (26 July 2004)

I hope that if you accept my points above, you might be willing to include these points in any further article you write on this subject. It is wrong to misrepresent opposition as "pro-lifers leeching their sanctity from other people's heartbreak". There are serious ethical issues at stake for the baby that is created, and any rational analysis has a duty to factor this into deliberation. It is not clear to me how the heartbreak of parents in this dilemma is helped by tissue typing methods which are much slower and ethically problematic compared to society being committed to developing a readily available source of umbilical cord blood and bone marrow."


Mary Riddell was kind enough to write back and acknowledge some of my arguments while siding with the couple who wanted to create the donor-child, despite the evidence against this position.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

BBC interviews cardiologist but fail to ask him about cardiology

BBC News needs to adopt more of an interviewing format, like Newsnight or the Jeremy Vine show, where lots of voices get heard. The problem with the current BBC news bulletin format when it comes to controversial ethical issues, like embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, is that it gives too much weight to the reporter's own perspective while the people who are interviewed, have barely time to complete a sentence before the camera is whisked away.

A prime example of this was the BBC News report on the Korean cloning breakthrough in May. After presenting footage from Korea and Newcastle, while the news correspondent looked very happy, the news report devoted barely a minute to interview a cardiologist who opposes embryonic stem cell research and cloning. The cardiologist was broadcast saying: "In doing these experiments we have to understand first of all safety and secondly the implications both ethically and culturally and many patients may have difficulties with this sort of treatment".

It is impossible that during the longer pre-recorded interview, this professor of cardiology did not argue that messing around with embryonic stem cells and cloning (never mind the ethical issues) is a waste of time given the very promising developments using bone marrow stem cells to treat heart damage, which is being trialled in London.

It remains a mystery why this vital information was withheld from the public, but there was time for the news correspondent to approve wholeheartedly of cloning by concluding "The moral arguments will continue, but the hope is that one day this could revolutionise medicine", even though in the Korean scientists own report they said that these cloned cells will never be able to be used in treatment because they were cloned from patients and will therefore have the same condition.

see Heart Treatments: Adult stem cells v. Embryonic stem cells

BBC bone marrow Stem cells treat heart attacks (8th July 2004)

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Don't succumb to pro-euthanasia propaganda: Diane Pretty died peacefully

Watching Questiontime two years ago, it was reassuring to hear all the representatives from all the political parties, including Robin Cook for the Government, state their steadfast opposition to any law allowing euthanasia. What united all the politicians was not only a belief in what Robin Cook called "the first duty of the Government to protect the lives of its citizens" (a line incidentally from the beginning of the ProLife Alliance election manifesto), but the knowledge that, as Cook put it, it would be absolutely impossible to legislate to allow euthanasia and protect vulnerable ill or old people from non-voluntary euthanasia.

The impossibility of legislating to allow euthanasia was also responsible for the European Court of Human Rights unanimous ruling by seven Strasbourg judges that it would be practically impossible to withhold prosecution in the case of assisted suicide by a relative, since as Bruno Quintavalle, a barrister with the ProLife Alliance pointed out "the implications of her petition to allow her husband to kill her with state immunity did have colossal repercussions which go far beyond her personal tragedy." Evidence presented by Professor John Keown of thousands of cases of non-voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, have also persuaded supporters of euthanasia such as the previous editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics for twenty years, Raanan Gillon, to oppose euthanasia.

The arguments against euthanasia are considerable, including the fact that very few terminally ill patients request it, many change their minds, and prominent disability rights activists speak against it, including Jane Campbell, commissioner at the Disability Rights Commission, Chair of the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), co-founder and directer the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL) and previously chair of the British Council of Disabled People (BCODP). You only have to read the list of Jane Campbell's achievements, never mind hear her speak passionately about her narrow escape from a Do Not Resuscitate order, to see that the way forward is helping disabled and terminally ill people to live, not to help them die.

In October 2004, the ProLife Alliance published opinion polling showing that 4 out of 5 MPs Against Voluntary Euthanasia. But recently pressure has been mounting to allow euthanasia, through living wills contained in the recently passed Mental Capacity Bill, and with more scare stories. On 1st July 2005, the Daily Mail ran a story called “Doctors: We no longer oppose mercy killing” which stated that Diane Pretty “developed breathing difficulties and gradually choked to death over more than a week.”

In fact the reality was very different for Diane Pretty:

"Dr Ryszard Bietzk, the head of medical services at the Pasque Hospice, Luton, where Mrs Pretty was cared for, said her death was "perfectly normal, natural and peaceful". He added: "There was no reason for police to be involved or notified. Diane was admitted to the hospice last Friday for a pre-arranged admission. Over recent weeks her condition had deteriorated and she continued to deteriorate following her admission until she died peacefully yesterday afternoon."

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