Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Month: December, 2014

The Falconer Bill addresses a real question – but it’s not the only answer

The debate surrounding Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill has brought to the forefront a number of questions currently facing our society. The most important of these is: what are we doing to care for the dying in the last stages of their life? The existence of such a Bill suggests that we can’t be doing enough.

In a recent talk hosted by OSFL, Tanni Grey-Thompson made the point that legalizing assisted suicide would be a drastic step and should not even be considered without first attempting to improve end-of-life care. Rather than seeking to improve care, the Falconer Bill offers the last resort, death. Can we really say that our best option is “to be compassionate by eliminating suffering through elimination of the sufferer“?

The UK is the first country to have introduced purpose-built hospices, thanks to the work of Dame Cicely Saunders. These hospices underlined the importance of palliative care in modern medicine and offered holistic care to meet the physical, social, psychological and spiritual needs of its patients. As Saunders herself frequently emphasized, however, there is always more to be done.

Baroness Campbell, who has spinal muscular atrophy, said in her speech to the Lords on the Bill: “My long experience of progressive deterioration has taught me that there is no situation that cannot be improved.” She later went on to say: “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.” Similarly, Baroness Finlay, a professor of palliative medicine, recognised that palliative care “does not have a magic wand to make everything right”, but insisted in her speech to the Lords that assisting someone to die “calls for good care, dedicated support and time, and not the quick fix of offering the medical equivalent of a loaded gun.”

Over the next 25 years, the number of people over the age of 65 will increase significantly and will take up a greater percentage of the NHS’s costs. This very vulnerable group is only going to grow and we must do all we can to protect them. We must make sure that they are cared for as well as possible at the end of their lives. So what is it that we can do to improve end of life and palliative care?

For a start, the problem of the ‘postcode lottery’ – where access to good hospices and care homes is dependent on where one lives – needs to be dealt with. We cannot have a situation whereby a person’s access to adequate end of life care is dependent on socio-economic background and address.

A huge amount of funding and research goes into finding the cures for diseases, but far less money has been put into the research to help take care of the physical and emotional pain. The medical community has new ways to understand the symptoms people experience, such as images of the brain to help study pain and depression. We can use these new techniques to see how different treatments help, and to develop new, improved treatments.

With regard to how we treat patients, there is a concern that we might come to value those at the end of life less than the rest of society. Yet it is crucial that we value their human dignity as equal to that of a physically healthy person. This means a consistent ‘ethics of care’, in which all patients are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. This should include spiritual as well as physical support, ensuring that each person is cared for in the way they want to be cared for. We should remember Baroness Campbell’s affirmation that there is no situation that cannot be improved.

This is not to claim that it is a straightforward task, but rather that it is one worth committing ourselves to. The end of life is inevitably a difficult time, and if not addressed, suffering can be great. Nonetheless, this does not mean we should give up trying and settle for the last resort of assisted suicide. We can instead focus on ensuring that our society provides the best possible support for the dying, be it medical, social, practical, or emotional. It can safely be said that we have a long way to go.

(Johnny Church)


First Person: Why I am a pro-life atheist

Rob 1A new series in which contributors discuss what being pro-life means to them. Our first piece is by Robert Stagg, a PhD student in English at the University of Southampton.

A couple of weeks after I agreed to write this blogpost, a friend handed me a book she had published: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. The book sat at the bottom of a pile for another couple of weeks, and I cast a suspicious glance at it every night before going to bed. Everything about the title seemed wrong. What’s the difference between a man and a “grown” man, or is the adjective only there as a sentimental intensifier? And the title’s “that make” was presumptuous to the point of seeming imperative, insisting upon the book’s efficacy even before I’d opened it. This is all to ignore the most obvious objection to the book: the idea that men shouldn’t or don’t cry (an objection which, unlike the others, is at least addressed by the anthology’s editors).

Realising that these poor relations with an inanimate object could only continue at the expense of my sanity, I decided to pick up the book. I started to read and didn’t stop until I reached a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (selected by Terrance Hayes) titled ‘The Mother’ (1945).

The poem can be read here.

Straight after reading it, I (a grown man) cried uncontrollably for at least five minutes.

Why? The poem had, as poems often do, lent force to a question that had been bothering me for a few years: if scientists can’t draw a clear line between a foetus and a human being, is our culture then killing human beings? There is no scientific answer to the question as to when a so-called foetus becomes a so-called human being, and this ought to cause severe and sincere distress among those who otherwise appreciate science. Philosophers have tried stepping into the breach, but with surprisingly undeft footing. First there have been attempts to locate the humanity of an organism in its consciousness, a typically brainy move for a brainy philosopher to make. Yet kindred philosophers are finding consciousness itself puzzling, and scientists are still unable to locate the presence or node or origin of consciousness in the body. More recently, philosophers have attempted to distinguish between ‘human beings’ and ‘people’ or ‘persons’; but, again, these debates tend to circle back upon consciousness.

I cannot think of any other area of science or public policy that is so incautiously policed as that around abortion. Given the radical and fundamental uncertainties about the division – or, rather, the current lack of a division – between foetuses and human beings, it seems wildly dangerous to permit a process like abortion to continue in its present form.

You will notice that I have not yet used the words ‘soul’ or ‘ensoulment’, often and erroneously seen as crucial to the abortion debate. That is because I am not religious, and nor do I share some of the larger philosophical convictions about life which motivate much of the pro-life movement. Instead my argument makes reference to science – without paying it, or its practitioners, obeisance – and to ethics. It appeals to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and her heartbreaking perceptions of potentiality (delivered via pun, of all things): “You remember the children you got that you did not get”.

Nor have I yielded to the mis- and distrust of women that can animate sections of the abortion debate. Brooks’s poem is delicate and sympathetic on this point, gliding between a detached (but not disinterested) narrative voice and the first-person dramatic monologue of a mother who has had more than one abortion. The poem ends with the insistent iterations of a woman who is unable to evade her own evasiveness: “Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All”. This reader, at least, inclines to believe her.

I have argued with fellow atheists and agnostics about abortion in two ways. One: by setting out the critical gaps in scientific knowledge about abortion, and the inability of philosophers to fill or bridge those gaps. Two: by reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem. The first provokes the irrational outrage of those whose rationality has been challenged. The second provokes silence and, often, tears. Sometimes I should like to think that those reactions could be reversed; but only sometimes.