Sunday, 25 June 2017

Over 1,000 doctors reject BMA abortion decriminalisation motion – five more reasons why

Over 1,000 doctors and medical students have signed an open letter urging the British Medical Association (BMA) to reject a motion calling for the complete decriminalisation of abortion. Also, just under 21,000 members of the public have signed a similar petition on Citizen Go

Motion 50, which I have already reviewed in some detail, will be debated at the BMA annual representative meeting in Bournemouth at 10am on Tuesday 27 June. The debate will be streamed online via the BMA website.

The letter, titled ‘Reject motion 50’, hits out at extreme pro-abortion campaigners who have been working behind the scenes to get the BMA’s support ahead of a private member’s bill in Parliament calling for all abortion to be decriminalised.

The bill is expected to be drafted along the same lines as Diana Johnson’s radical Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Billwhich received some support in parliament earlier this year. At that time Maria Caulfield MP argued strongly against the bill, in a speech well worthy of study.

The doctors’ letter argues that the overwhelming majority of women do not wish to see abortion decriminalised and that if the BMA passes the motion it will not only be completely out of touch with the mood of the nation but will but will also severely damage the reputation of the medical profession.

These alone are two good enough reasons to reject motion 50 but there are many more.

First, this whole campaign is based on the false premise that women who seek ordinary abortions are living under the constant shadow of arrest. That is  clearly not the case. Prosecutions are already exceptionally rare under the existing criminal provisions [section 58/59 of the Offences Against Persons Act / Infant Life (Preservation) Act] and abortion is widely available under the terms of the Abortion Act. Prosecutions are exceptionally rare—in many years there have been none at all—and in the past two years there were just two convictions, both of them in extreme and disturbing scenarios. One involved a man who had attacked a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry and the other a woman who aborted herself at 32 weeks.

Second, decriminalising abortion would remove abortion from the Offences Against Persons Act and render the Abortion Act null and void. This would mean that anyone at all could cause the death of an unborn baby in any way whatsoever, with or without the mother’s consent, and be liable only for any damage done to the woman. Furthermore this could happen right up until 28 weeks, the statutory age of ‘viability’ under the Infant Life Preservation Act. Babies now survive in large numbers in neonatal units from 23-24 weeks so this would mean legalising abortion for babies aged 24-28 weeks who would normally be born alive – effectively legalising infanticide.

It would also dismantle the entire regulatory framework surrounding abortion – including the need for two doctors’ signatures, approved premises, licensed drugs, conscientious objection, reporting and accountability.  Abortions could be done for any reason, by anyone, in any way and anywhere at any gestation up to 28 weeks. So that includes sex selection abortion, abortion to cover up rape, sexual abuse and incest – it would mean abortion on demand.

Decriminalisation would also aggravate the problem of amateur or backstreet abortion and would surely lead to a huge increase in the availability, circulation and use of abortifacients. It would facilitate the procuring and supply of abortion pills, whether by women (including teenagers), who could lawfully take them and/or pass them round to their friends and acquaintances, or by men, not least those who have impregnated women and who would ‘encourage’ those women to take them.

Third, the tide is turning against decriminalisation in jurisdictions where it has been tried and found wanting. It appears that the abuses that have been seen in the two Australian states that decriminalised abortion previously (Victoria, 2008 and Tasmania, 2013) have made it clear to politicians and wider society that radical laws should not be more widely adopted.

Both New South Wales and Queensland have more recently rejected moves to decriminalise.  In fact, there are now  moves underway to repeal the law in Victoria because of the problems there – an increase in the number of later abortions and abortion tourism (see here, here and here).

No decriminalised abortion model has yet shown to provide accurate abortion statistics. In jurisdictions like Canada and the states of Victoria and Tasmania, where abortion is decriminalised and largely deregulated, abortion data collection is unreliable or simply not recorded in any meaningful way. Canada, for example, recorded a 40% drop in the number of abortions between 2004 and 2010, due to a lack of data being reported by abortion practitioners. That said, all the current anecdotal evidence indicates a big increase in terminations post-24 weeks and a host of other problems such as a very sharp increase in babies born alive following termination.

Sex selection abortion is also fuelled by decriminalisation. In 2012 the Canadian Medical Journal reported that easy access to abortion and advances in prenatal sex determination have combined to make Canada a haven for parents who would terminate female fetuses in favour of having sons, despite overwhelming censure of the practice. A 2006 investigative report entitled ‘Canada’s lost daughters’ has highlighted how sex selection abortion has impacted on male female ratios in certain ethnic communities. In Brampton, Sikh areas had 109 boys to 100 girls and areas around Chinatown showed ratios of 108 boys to 100 girls.

Fourth, decriminalisation would remove scrutiny from private abortion providers at a time when they are increasingly under the spotlight. Perhaps this is why they are leading the charge for it. The majority of abortions in the UK take place at private abortion providers and recently, severe and repeated malpractice has been discovered.  

In August 2016, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) had to step in to protect women from potential harm at Marie Stopes abortion clinics and their report in December showed doctors had been bulk-signing abortion consent forms, babies remains had been left in open bins, women were left at risk of infection, staff were not trained in how to respond to deteriorating patients and post-surgery safety checks were being completed before the surgery started.

An investigation by a national newspaper revealed in March 2017 that practices that concerned CQC inspectors are continuing at Marie Stopes clinics, with, for example, abortions being signed off by call centre workers with no medical training after discussions which were as short as 22 seconds.

Already within our current legal framework we have seen doctors pre-signing abortion forms, gender-selective abortions being offered, live babies being left to die following abortions that have gone wrong and children with minor disabilities, such as cleft palate, being aborted. In this context, where the current law is supposed to be preventing such appalling practices, the thought of allowing abortion, on demand, up to 28 weeks or even birth, is seriously worrying. If these kinds of breaches in patient safety protocols are occurring under the current law and close inspection of clinics, what would happen if all legal restrictions are lifted from abortion practice?

But fifth, and finally, the decriminalisation campaign ignores the key fact that abortion is not like other healthcare procedures because it involves the intentional taking of another human life. This is precisely why the law has always treated it differently from regular medical procedures, and continues to do so.

The Offences against the Person Act, like many of our country’s laws, was originally based on the Judeo-Christian ethic which forbids the taking of innocent human life on the basis that all human lives are made in the image of God.  It treats abortion in the same way as murder - that is, as a crime punishable by life imprisonment.

Not many people know that abortion is also against historic codes of ethics like the Hippocratic Oath, the Declaration of Geneva (1948) and the International Code of Medical Ethics (1949) or that in 1947 the British Medical Association itself called abortion 'the greatest crime'. Ironic indeed!

There are many good reasons for the BMA to give this decriminalisation motion short shrift on Tuesday. Let’s hope that it does so. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Doctors debate the complete decriminalisation of abortion at BMA ARM

Doctors could back the complete decriminalisation of abortion in Britain next week.

On Tuesday 27 June the British Medical Association annual representative meeting in Bournemouth will vote on a motion seeking to end all legal restrictions on abortion.

Currently, abortion remains illegal in Britain under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Under this law both mothers attempting to abort on their own, or any other person (including doctors) seeking to help them, are potentially liable to life imprisonment.

But under the Abortion Act 1967 doctors can authorise abortion on several grounds relating to the health of mother or baby. Although the Abortion Act was intended to be restrictive, allowing abortion only in strictly limited circumstances, its provisions are very liberally interpreted leading to the situation where one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion. 

There have been over eight million abortions in Britain since the abortion act came into being 50 years ago this year.  Department of Health figures for England and Wales released earlier this month show that there were 190,406 abortions in 2016 and that 98% of these were carried out on mental health grounds.

So in practice, although abortion is still technically illegal, the law is widely flouted and we have a situation tantamount to abortion on demand.

Now some doctors are seeking to decriminalise abortion completely.

The six part motion (motion 50), from the BMA agenda committee, is to be proposed by the BMA’s City and Hackney Division. It reads as follows:

That this meeting:
i) supports the principles set out in part three of the February 2017 BMA discussion paper on decriminalisation of abortion;
ii) believes that abortion should be decriminalised in respect of health professionals administering abortions within the context of their clinical practice;
iii) believes that abortion should be decriminalised in respect of women procuring and administering the means of their own abortion;
iv) believes that decriminalisation should apply only up to viability in respect of health professionals;
v) believes that decriminalisation should apply only up to viability in respect of women procuring and administering the means of their own abortion;
vi) believes that abortion should be regulated in the same way as other medical treatments.

It is likely that each part will be considered separately by the 500 BMA delegates with each section receiving a majority vote becoming official BMA policy.

The votes will follow an hour long presentation of a 52-page discussion paper on abortion decriminalisation which the BMA claims is ‘neutral’.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the country’s leading abortion provider, and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have campaigned heavily for a change in the law in recent months.

This culminated earlier this year in parliament voting by 172 votes 142 to support Diana Johnson’s radical Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Billwhich seeks to remove all legal restrictions on abortion (more here).

As this was a Ten Minute Rule Bill it will not become law but it is most likely that a very similar bill will be reintroduced following the Queen’s Speech later this month, either in the House of Lords or House of Commons.

In theory, Johnson’s bill would have made the 1967 Abortion Act defunct by scrapping section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which make carrying out abortions, or supplying drugs or equipment for that purpose, illegal.

Johnson implied that the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which makes it illegal to destroy a child ‘capable of being born alive’ (the act defines this as 28 weeks although many babies born as early as 23-24 weeks now survive), may also be scrapped under her plans. If so this would make abortion legal for any and every reason right up to term.

The BMA motion has been deliberately crafted to match the terms of Johnson’s bill as part of a wider campaign to change the law.

Johnson’s Bill is primarily backed by private abortion provider BPAS. The decriminalisation campaign specifically acknowledges that they are campaigning for a situation that would remove all gestational time limits for abortion. This position was affirmed by BPAS CEO, Ann Furedi, who said at the London launch of the campaign, ‘I want to be very, very clear and blunt... there should be no legal upper limit.’

If such a bill were to become law, and this would be far more likely with BMA backing, abortions could be carried out legally in any location, for any reason, potentially at any stage during pregnancy.

Without legislation on abortion, practices such as sex-selective abortions, mail-order abortions and school nurses handing out abortions pills on school premises would all be perfectly legal. The conscience clause would also fall, meaning that health professionals might be forced to carry out abortions or lose their licenses to practise.

Last year the Royal College of Midwives support for the BPAS’ abortion up-to-birth campaign caused widespread condemnation from midwives, the media and the general public against this extreme proposal. Over 1,000 midwives have now signed the open letter asking for RCM position to be revoked.

If the BMA were to pass motion 50 it would be signalling that abortion should be treated in the same way as surgical procedures like having one’s appendix or tonsils taken out – requiring consent only.

It would also put the doctors’ trade union at odds with its historical ethical code and with public opinion in Britain.

The Hippocratic Oath forbids abortion in all circumstances and the Declaration of Geneva requires that doctors show the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception.

But this new motion, if passed, would entrench doctors’ position as abortion’s greatest facilitators.

In the last few years, polls have consistently shown that a larger proportion of women want more, not fewer restrictions on abortion. A ComRes poll in May 2017 found that only 1% of women wanted to see the time limit for abortion extended above 24 weeks and only 1% of women wanted to see the time limit for abortion extended through to birth.

The same poll found that 70% of women wanted to see the abortion time limit reduced to 20 weeks or below and that 91% of women favour a total and explicit ban on sex-selective abortion. Clearly, women want the law to be stricter on the legality and regulation of abortion, not laxer.

The BMA must not bow to the will of this small and extreme pressure group. Motion 50 needs to be voted down. 

If you are a doctor or medical student, you can sign an open letter to the Chair of the ARM calling for the rejection of Motion 50. If not, you can still sign the Citizen Go petition.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Brilliant Resources to help Christians engage with the General Election on 8 June

On 8 June the UK goes to the polls for the general election. Whoever assumes power will have a profound influence in shaping public policy in matters which affect us, our families, churches, patients and colleagues.

Some claim that politics and religion should not mix – ‘We don’t do God’, famously said spin doctor Alistair Campbell. But God is intimately involved in politics. He is sovereign over the rise and fall of nations. He establishes governing authorities, and holds them ultimately accountable. As Christians, we should both pray for our political leaders and be subject to them.

But God has also given us a part to play in who actually exercises civil authority. Each of us, before God and in good conscience, must make our own decisions about voting; but we have a duty before God to ensure that we exercise our votes wisely, thoughtfully and in an informed way.

For some, the key question will be about who they would prefer as prime minister for the next five years. For others it will be a matter of which specific issues they care about most and how the various parties and candidates stand on these.

Christians will want to be informed on the big headline issues of leadership, ‘Brexit’, the economy, health, education, welfare and immigration.

But we must also consider issues that are often forgotten in the mainstream press like marriage and family, sexuality, abortion, euthanasia and freedom of conscience.

Here are twelve questions – apart from health, education, crime and the economy – that Christian doctors might ask their candidates.

1. Euthanasia - How will you ensure that euthanasia is not legalised in this country?

2. Abortion - What will you do to stem the tide of abortions?

3. Embryo-destructive research - Will you seek to repeal existing laws and prevent further liberalisation? 

4. Sexual health - What is your policy to arrest the spread of STIs?

5. Poverty and Health - How will you ensure justice in healthcare for the developing world?

6. Freedom of worship - How will you ensure that Christians are able to practise, share and defend their faith without being prosecuted? 

7. Marriage and family - What will you do to affirm, protect and support the traditional family?

8. Addiction - How will you act to reduce alcohol, nicotine, drug and gambling addiction?
Present policy is aimed more at harm reduction than at restricting access (through price control) and effecting behaviour change.

9. Obesity and Inactivity - What will you do to encourage the general population to adopt a healthy diet and get regular exercise?

10. Marginalised groups - How will you ensure that vulnerable groups like the elderly, the mentally ill, ethnic minorities and asylum seekers receive an adequate basic level of healthcare and are not marginalised in healthcare allocation?

11. NHS – How are you going to fund the health service better?

12. Care – What are your plans to address the crisis in care provision and its lack of integration with the health service?

Whether we choose to vote for, or against, a particular party or candidate, or on a specific issue, there are lots of resources to help us reach our decision.

Several Christian campaigning groups have produced helpful resources which shed light on why and how our faith can inform our choice in the election, as well as how it can affect life and family issues:
·        Evangelical Alliance: ‘What Kind of Society?’ explores the core Christian themes: ‘love’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘truth’, and how they affect what we should be asking and looking for in our candidates. 
·        CARE: engaGE 2017 gives a great overview of how the general election works, why Christians should vote and how to get involved. It focuses on family, marriage and life issues.

·        Where do they Stand? is a helpful independent resource to find out where your local candidates stand on life issues, such as abortion, euthanasia and embryo research.

·        Care Not Killing provides important information on how to think about end of life issues when considering which candidate to vote for and how to encourage candidates to think about and express these issues too.

·        Christian Institute has a comprehensive list of resources. These include a briefing, which goes through the policies of each party, question cards, and how each MP voted on important ethical issues.    

·        Christian Concern has a brilliant ‘Election 2017’ website ‘the Power of the Cross’ which focuses on marriage, freedom and life issues:  A Christian Vision, a Christian Voice, A Christian Vote.

These resources explain how important it is to vote and give helpful overviews on crucial issues. Of course, these are not just things to engage with at election time.

MPs are our representatives with the power to preserve or change our existing laws and country’s direction.

Let’s make use of all this valuable information in making an informed vote that really counts this June. But let’s also pray for the future of our country, and our health service.

For a brief rundown on why Christians should vote in the election, visit here.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The importance and credibility of Jesus’ resurrection

Nearly one in four ‘Christians’ do not believe in the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, according to a recent ComRes poll.

But actually, as Ludwig Kennedy once claimed in a radio debate with Lord Rees-Mogg, 'Christianity stands or falls on the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.’

The Apostle Paul put it even more bluntly: 'If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ (1 Corinthians 15:14) The resurrection is of ‘first importance’ (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).

More than that, Paul linked belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ to salvation: ‘if you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’

And Jesus on at least three occasions, in Mark’s gospel alone, declared that he would rise from the dead (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34). So if he did not, that makes him a false prophet, with all that entails (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Paul referred to Jesus’ resurrection as the ‘firstfruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20), the initial sign that guarantees the coming of the ‘new heaven and new earth’ promised by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 65 & 66) and further described in the book of Revelation (Revelation 21 & 22).

He promises us that Christian believers will be raised with bodies just like that of Jesus after the resurrection (Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10).  God has prepared for those who love him, ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).

The resurrection is thereby central to the Christian faith, and yet the difficulty of accepting it happened is a major stumbling block for many people.

And yet believing it happened is not a matter of ‘blind faith’.  The disciples themselves, even though they had been told repeatedly by Jesus that it would happen, did not believe it when it was first reported to them by a group of women returning from the empty tomb. But they became convinced by the evidence.

So what is the evidence for the resurrection?

First, no-one disputed the fact that Jesus died on the cross. He was seen to breathe his last by eye-witnesses, and was certified dead by Roman soldiers whose very business was killing. They decided not to break Jesus' legs (customary practice to hasten death in crucifixion), because they were convinced he was dead already; and this was confirmed by the observation of 'blood and water' (separated cells and serum) coming from his pierced side. This only occurs as a post-mortem event.

The so-called 'swoon' theory, that Jesus may have only fainted and revived in the cool of the tomb, does not hold water. It involves believing that a man beaten to within an inch of his life, impaled on a cross and then wrapped in 75 pounds of bandages and spices (rather like a plaster of Paris cast!) could somehow unwrap himself, push away a one ton boulder, single-handedly overcome an armed Roman guard; and then persuade over 500 others that he had conquered death. The foolishness of this position is evidenced by the fact that no-one dared suggest the possibility until centuries later. Would Christ, the model of integrity, really deceive his followers by claiming he had risen when he knew he hadn’t? Apart from the testimony of eye-witnesses, no non-Christian historian at the time (see Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus and Lucian) doubted that Jesus died.

Second, the body was gone. If the Jews had removed it (Mary's immediate assumption) then they would simply have reproduced it at the first rumour of resurrection. If the disciples had removed it, they would not have subsequently been prepared to die for what they knew had not happened. In any case, the tomb was heavily guarded, and they had all run for their lives when Jesus was arrested. Pilgrims never flocked to Jesus' tomb. It was empty.

Third, the post-resurrection appearances were impressive. Despite Jesus’ repeated predictions that he would rise from the dead, all his followers first thought of other explanations for the missing corpse. What convinced them? Mary, the twelve disciples, the followers on the Emmaus Road, Paul and 500 others (1 Cor 15:6) became convinced when they saw him. Some have suggested hallucinations as an alternative explanation; but hallucinations do not occur with varied groups, on multiple occasions, in different places, over a period of several weeks. They don’t light beach fires or eat fish either!

Fourth, one has to account for the rapid spread of Christianity after Christ’s death. Most of the twelve disciples later died for their belief that Jesus was God. Although dying for a belief does not make it true, the point is this: they came to believe in Christ’s divinity after being convinced that he really had risen from the dead. It was this conviction that transformed them from fearful cowards into the bold apostles who literally turned the world upside down. The survival and growth of the early church resulted from the unshakeable belief that Jesus was alive.

Fifth is the personal experience of Christians, generations of people who have come to know Jesus as a person, with whom they enjoy a genuine friendship. Christianity is not just a creed to be followed nor an ideology to be embraced; it is a dynamic relationship with a real living God - through Jesus Christ.

People who are unconvinced by the above usually have philosophical objections to miracles per se. Here, no amount of sound historical evidence will convince them. But in reality, the real miracle is the incarnation. Once we allow for the possibility that God exists and could become a man; then a resurrection presents no difficulty at all. It is then a case of reviewing the evidence.

Ultimately, the fundamental block to belief in the resurrection is often not intellectual, but moral. In Jesus’ own words, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31) For those who choose not to believe, no amount of evidence will suffice.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Diana Johnson’s radical abortion bill narrowly passes first hurdle but is unlikely to become law

You can listen to my Premier Radio interview on this bill here.

Today, Monday 13 March 2017, Diana Johnson’s radical Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill, which seeks to remove all legal restrictions on abortion, passed narrowly by 172 votes 142.

As this was a Ten Minute Rule Bill it is very unlikely that it will be given further time by the Government to be debated in Parliament. It is even less likely that it will become law.

In theory, Johnson’s bill would make the 1967 Abortion Act defunct by scrapping section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which make carrying out abortions, or supplying drugs or equipment for that purpose, illegal.

Johnson implied that the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which makes it illegal to destroy a child capable of being born alive, may also be scrapped under her plans. If so this would make abortion legal for any and every reason right up to term.

Johnson’s Bill is primarily backed by private abortion provider BPAS. The decriminalisation campaign specifically acknowledges that they are campaigning for a situation that would remove all gestational time limits for abortion. This position was affirmed by BPAS CEO, Ann Furedi, who said at the London launch of the campaign, ‘I want to be very, very clear and blunt... there should be no legal upper limit.’

If the motion were to become law, abortions could be carried out legally in any location, for any reason, potentially at any stage during pregnancy. Without legislation on abortion, practices such as sex-selective abortions, mail-order abortions and school nurses handing out abortions pills on school premises would all be perfectly legal. The conscience clause would also fall, meaning that health professionals might be forced to carry out abortions or lose their licenses to practise.

Last year the Royal College of Midwives support for the BPAS’ abortion up-to-birth campaign caused widespread condemnation from midwives, the media and the general public against this extreme proposal. Over 1,000 midwives have now signed the open letter asking for RCM position to be revoked.

The bill comes at a time where the private abortion industry is knee-deep in scandal and revelations of unethical, unsafe and unprofessional practices.

Last year, the Care Quality Commission had to step in to protect women from potential harm at Marie Stopes abortion clinics. Their subsequent report showed that women were left at risk of infection, doctors were going home with women under sedation, fetal tissue from a succession of terminations left in open waste bins, staff were not trained in how to respond to help deteriorating patients, 2,600 serious incidents were reported at the clinics and post-surgery safety checks were completed before the surgery had even started.

MP Maria Caulfield, who spoke in opposition to the bill, pointed out that its extreme position is in direct conflict with what the majority of British women want with regard to the UK abortion law.
One 2011 YouGov poll showed that 88% of women in the UK either want to keep the current law and time limit as it is, or restrict it further. This contrasts with the 2% of women who wanted to see an increase in the abortion time limit beyond 24 weeks.

Conservative MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield, speaking in the debate said:

‘This Bill would not protect women. Instead it would embolden those men who pressurise women into abortions they do not wish to have; whether it is a controlling relationship, or the wider communal discrimination and pressure that tells a woman she must abort her child because it is a girl, or because it has Down’s Syndrome or disabilities. This Bill would make those women more vulnerable...

Indeed, by undermining all the safeguards and regulations around abortion... the Bill becomes a charter for extreme abortion practices, such as sex-selective abortion...

This Bill is a response to a non-existent threat; it would exacerbate the dangers posed by any increase in the availability of abortion pills; and it would remove some of the few protections and regulations in abortion law – fuelling unethical and unsafe practices in many UK abortion clinics, and leaving women less safe and less informed.’

Most people aren’t aware that abortion is still illegal in Britain. But what the 1967 Abortion Act did was to provide legal protection to doctors carrying it out only in certain limited circumstances.

However, the current law has been widely flouted and has resulted in 200,000 abortions per year in Britain and over 8 million since the act was passed.

Currently one in every five pregnancies ends in abortion and abortion is legal right up to birth for disabled babies.

Were Johnson’s bill, or another similar one, eventually to pass this already bad situation would worsen even further.

It is chilling that so many MPs supported a bill that removes all legal protection from these most vulnerable of all human beings. 

But this is Britain in the 21st century and we need to wake up to reality.

Today’s events have shown that the price of freedom and protection for unborn children in this country is eternal vigilance. 

Elijah’s mental meltdown and what it teaches us about God

I gave the following talk at the CMF Cambridge Day conference (an event for Christian doctors and lawyers) on Saturday 11 March 2017. The talk is based on the prophet Elijah’s mental meltdown as described in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

I wonder what some of your more stressful experiences have been -  for me a few stand out.

Being rescued by helicopter in the Scottish Highlands last summer attempting to scale a (relatively minor) Munro

Being rescued by police launch off the Coromandel coast in New Zealand after a capsize on a Scripture Union leaders canoe trip.

Rolling my mother’s car down a bank a few days later on the same trip with four people on board.

I’m not sure what was more stressful - anticipating major injury and/or death as the car turned or having to break the news about the state of the car to my mother afterwards.

Or maybe it was taking a young man with a ruptured spleen, following a renal biopsy that had gone wrong, over the Auckland Harbour Bridge in gridlocked rush-hour traffic as he slowly bled out in the back of an ambulance.

What made that one particularly stressful was that he was the son of one of my former bosses. Thankfully, he also was saved.

Well, I’m sure we can trade stories over coffee later.

But for me the common thread in all these experiences was that the stressful situation was completely beyond my control and power to rectify but also that I felt deeply responsible even if not all of these incidents were entirely my own fault.

We do have this expectation that Christians under great stress will sail through difficult circumstances without ruffling their feathers, and certainly without “losing it”.

We know that we are “not to be anxious about anything”, but rather experience “the peace of God that passes understanding” in all circumstances. And we can be very hard on ourselves when events push us beyond the limit.

I don’t know about you, but I derive huge comfort from the fact that some of the greatest heroes of faith were tested apparently way beyond their ability to endure and did actually “lose it”. And in those situations they said some quite extraordinary things about the Lord and even to the Lord.

Consider some of these:

‘We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life.’ (2 Corinthians 1:8) – the apostle Paul

‘The word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach day-long... Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?’ (Jeremiah 20:8, 18) – the prophet Jeremiah

‘I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now.’ (Numbers 11:14,15) – the prophet Moses

‘All was well with me, but he shattered me: he seized me by the neck and crushed me.’ (Job 16:12) – Job

‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, with there is no foothold.’ (Psalm 69:1,2) – King David

‘We were harassed at every turn - conflicts on the outside, fears within.’ (2 Corinthians 7:5) – the apostle Paul

‘I have laboured to no purpose; I’ve spent my strength and for nothing.’ (Isaiah 49:4) – the prophet Isaiah

The last of these is particularly striking as it comes from the first of Isaiah’s four ‘Servant Songs’ which look forward to the coming of Christ. So the very clear implication is that Jesus himself would feel this too.

So it shouldn’t surprise us to see that the Bible has quite a lot to say about stress.

We might attack this subject biblically in a variety of ways. But I want today to focus on one character who faced an unbelievable amount of stress and came through it with God’s help.

I’ve chosen Elijah for several reasons.

First, because he was a remarkable man of God who suffered extraordinary pressure. Alongside Moses, he was arguably the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. It’s telling that he appears with Moses at Christ’s transfiguration and that John the Baptist is described as “the Elijah who was to come”.

Second, because of the obvious similarities between the role of the Prophet and the role of a doctor or lawyer. Like a prophet, doctors and lawyers have privileged information, special powers and high accountability for the way that we use them.

Third, because the time Elijah lived was remarkably similar to ours. There was widespread unbelief, apostasy, immorality and very little tolerance of genuine believers.

Finally, James tells us that he was “a man just like us”.

The passage we have just heard read is set in one of the darkest times of Israel’s history. The northern kingdom is under the rule of King Ahab, the son of Omri, who had seized power in a military coup. 

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was a Sidonian Princess who had introduced Baal worship and attempted to kill off all the Lord’s prophets. Obadiah, who was in charge of Ahab’s palace, had managed to hide a hundred prophets in caves. But Elijah had sought refuge in the wilderness.

Under God’s instruction, he had returned to confront Ahab and had called 450 prophets of Baal to meet him on Mount Carmel where he arranged a contest to demonstrate whose God was more powerful.

The prophets of Baal had sacrificed a bull, and in response to Elijah’s challenge had called on their God to answer with fire, but to no avail.

When Elijah sacrificed a bull on a second altar and called upon Jehovah, he answered with fire which not only burned up the sacrifice, the wood the stones and the soil, but also licked up water from a trench which Elijah had dug around it to make the task that much harder.

It was a stupendous result and Elijah had then taken the 450 prophets of Baal down to the Kishon River and slaughtered them there. His prayers then brought a three-year drought to a rapid end.

Jezebel, not surprisingly, was none too pleased and when she breathed death threats against Elijah he was afraid and ran for his life, as we have just read in the passage from 1 Kings 19.

In considering this passage I want to look at the specific stressors that Elijah faced, the clinical features of his meltdown, the positive aspects of his response and God’s prescription for his recovery.

So first, the specific stressors that Elijah faced:

The first stressor was internal: Elijah’s own determination to be faithful to the Lord. Had he chosen to escape, migrate, remain silent or otherwise just keep his head down he could have saved himself a huge amount of trouble. But as he says in verse 10 and 14, “I have been zealous for the Lord Almighty”. And he most certainly had been.

It was true that he had confronted the king on more than one occasion, obeyed the Lord in praying for drought, tended to the widow of Zarephath at a time when he himself was under attack, and finally taken on 450 prophets in a fight to the death. How often do we avoid potentially difficult or embarrassing situations through small compromises and subtle denials of Christ, perhaps by telling ourselves that this is neither the time nor the place to speak out. Elijah was determined to be faithful no matter what.

The second stressor was the rejection of God’s laws. “The Israelites have rejected your covenant”, he said. He confronts Ahab in 18:18: “you have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals”. The false religion that Elijah confronted had three major features: sexual immorality, the shedding of innocent blood and the undermining of civil liberties. These were the three characteristics of all Canaanite religion, but they are also the features of almost every ideology which seeks to dethrone the God of the Bible: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, paganism but also interestingly secular humanism: sexual immorality, the shedding of innocent blood (abortion on an industrial scale) and the undermining of Christian civil liberties.

The third stressor was the divorce of public worship from public life. They have “broken down your altars” says Elijah to the Lord. Those Israelites who had compromised with Baal worship had mixed in its idolatrous elements with their worship of Yahweh. In 2 Kings 17:40,41 we read God’s final verdict on the northern kingdom after its destruction by the Assyrians. “Even while these people were worshipping the Lord, they were serving their idols.”  They had, in Paul’s words to Timothy, “a form of godliness but denying its power”. Or in the words of Isaiah, they spread out their hands in prayer, but their hands were full of blood.

The fourth stressor was the suppression of truth. The prophets were put to death. They were silenced. Similarly, in our own society we are seeing an increasing level of hostility to Christian faith and values with Christian believers being gagged in the name of this suffocating political correctness. The recent case of Mike Overd, who was convicted simply for reading the Bible in the course of street preaching, is a case in point. Astounding that the Archdeacon of Oxford could call in response for a ban on street preaching. In Britain! Among Overd’s alleged indiscretions were claiming that Jesus was the only way to God and that sexual acts outside lifelong heterosexual marriage were morally wrong.

Next was the scarcity of obvious believers, such that Elijah could say “I am the only one left”. This was no delusion but simply what he experienced. He confronted Ahab alone and he met the prophets of Baal alone. He did not know about the hundred prophets of Jehovah that Obadiah had hidden, nor of the 7000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Part of the cost of being faithful to God in a society such as ours, is that we will find ourselves not infrequently in a minority of one. And this pressure will be faced at all ages. A good friend was telling me the other day of his seven-year-old grandson coming home from school after a lesson on “transgender” and saying that he was the only Christian boy in his class of 30.

Finally, was the stressor of discrimination against practising believers: ostracism, misunderstanding, loss of reputation, job, career, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and ultimately loss of life.

So, these were some of the stressors that Elijah faced, all of which we face in some measure in post-Christian Britain today.

So what were the clinical features of Elijah’s meltdown?

Fear - He was afraid of what might happen to him and went into hiding.

Withdrawal - He sought to avoid any further confrontation.

Lack of energy - He was physically and emotionally exhausted.

Despite his great success, he entertained suicidal thoughts: “take my life; I’m no better than my ancestors”.

He was selective in his memory. We see him concentrating on all the things that have gone wrong: “they have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your profits to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

No apparent recollection here of God’s extraordinary faithfulness to him in so many ways over the previous few years: fed by ravens, manufacturing oil from nothing for a widow who couldn’t pay her debts, raising her child from the dead, causing and then dramatically ending a three-year drought, and then that amazing victory over the prophets of Baal.

Fear, withdrawal, physical and mental exhaustion, selective memory and desire for it all to end.

Psychiatrists will argue about whether this was a case of burnout or just an acute stress reaction, and I’ll leave that to the experts to unpack later. But certainly Elijah had been subject to heavy prolonged stress and this was a major meltdown.

So what were the strengths of Elijah’s response?

It is striking that through all of this he kept communicating with God. It wasn’t “I’ve had enough, I’m ending my life, goodbye cruel world”. It was rather “I have had enough, Lord. Take my life; I’m no better than my ancestors.” He even recognised that he could not commit suicide, that his only hope of death was if God intervened to take his life. We see this open, honest communication with God throughout Scripture in great men and women of God: the Psalms of David, Jeremiah’s self-destruct passage we quoted from earlier, Moses’ total meltdown in the face of overwhelming responsibility. None of them hide their feelings from God or toward God. Rather they are in constant communication with him through it all.

Note also that even in the midst of it Elijah is remembering God’s promises. It is striking that the two places he visits during his flight - Beersheba and Horeb - are places of God’s revelation. He wants to hear God’s voice. He is seeking a message and a refilling with God’s power. Beersheba was where God appeared to Isaac and declared “I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. I will bless you.” It was in exactly the same place, Beersheba, that God spoke to Jacob: “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt. I will go down with you.”

Horeb was of course where Moses received the then Commandments. Do we, and at times of greatest need return to God’s promises, remember his past faithfulness to us, and seek his voice afresh?

Note also, that Elijah willingly submits to God’s scrutiny: “what are you doing here, Elijah?” The Lord specialises in questions that cut right to the heart. From the earliest pages of Genesis we see this: “Who told you that you were naked?” “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” “Where is your brother?” He questions Job after his trials for three whole chapters? 

And of course Jesus did much of this teaching through asking searching questions. David submits to God’s Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is one thing to desire God’s help. It can be quite another actually to let him search us in order to help us.

Finally, what was God’s prescription for Elijah?

We don’t find any trace of rebuke, condemnation or instructions to pull himself together. God’s response is gentle, measured and sequential.

It is at first, entirely practical and simple: food, rest and solitude. He ministers to Elijah’s physical needs. Lack of food and rest can distort one’s perception of reality and impair one’s ability to cope. One of the first lessons I learnt as a junior doctor on call was to make sure, even on a busy take, that I made time to eat. One of the first statements in the Lord’s prayer is “give us this day our daily bread”. One of my favourite verses for busy doctors is Luke 5:16: “the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Food, rest and solitude.

Next, God urged reflection: he twice asks in different locations, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” (v9 and 13) The question on each occasion elicits the same response: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” In answering the questions, Elijah is prompted to remind himself that he’s in this situation precisely because he was trying to be faithful to God, and also to remind himself that he had, in fact, faced extraordinary trials. In so reminding himself he is beginning to understand the genuine reasons for his stress, good reasons. He comes to see that his stress is completely understandable and appropriate. God urged reflection.

Next, God reminds him of his power. Elijah had to some extent forgotten who he was working for and what he had already been used to do. These reminders are dramatic. We see a great and powerful wind tearing the mountains apart and shattering the rocks. Then an earthquake. Then the fire. Then a gentle whisper. Then more questions. Elijah is beginning to know again the peace that passes understanding. To be still and know that God is God.

But God is not finished with him yet. Next comes his recommissioning in verse 15: “go back the way you came, and go to the desert of Damascus. When you get there anoint Hazael king over Aram. Anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet”. It is striking that these tasks all involve the equipping of others, because although Elijah was used mightily to start the fightback against Baal-inspired apostasy it was a task that could only be fully accomplished with the help of others.

It’s somewhat ironic that Elijah only anointed the last of these three - Elisha. Perhaps, he already had an inkling of the extraordinary destruction against his own people that both Hazael and Jehu would unleash. We are not told but we do learn in the subsequent chapters that some of Elijah’s greatest work is yet to come. God had not finished with him. Rather, he was learning like the Apostle Paul that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness”, that God “comforts us in our distress so that we might in turn comfort others” and that “these things happen that we might rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead”.

Every man and woman of God who is used mightily needs preparation in the crucible of trial. Even the Lord Jesus, we are told, “learned obedience through what he suffered”. Not that he was ever disobedient, but rather that his trials prepared him ultimately for the cross that won our salvation, and that in the midst of them he was sustained by that “joy that was set before him”. In small measure, Elijah’s suffering was to aid the salvation of a chosen remnant.

Which brings us to the next element of God’s prescription: reinforcements. Although Elijah had faced Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal alone, he was not actually alone. There were 7000 others who had not bowed the knee to Baal, who had not compromised and who would ultimately stand alongside him and be that faithful remnant who God would use in coming days.

It’s a reminder for us that however alone and isolated we may feel in the battles we face, that a multitude of Christian brothers and sisters too great for anyone to count is being kept similarly faithful in their small corners of the vineyard all around the world. And that one day we will stand with all of them drawn from throughout the ages before the throne of Christ.

Finally, Elijah is reminded of God’s sovereignty. It is the Lord who is in control of this great drama working it all out to a glorious conclusion. Because Elijah, one of the greatest prophets who ever lived, points forward to that “Elijah who was to come”, John the Baptist. Just as Elijah was to point out and introduce to the world Elisha who would follow him and surpass him, so John the Baptist would point Jesus out to his disciples and declare “I must decrease and he must increase “.

Because, Elijah would stand with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration witnessing to Peter, James and John just who Jesus was. And Elijah, like all of us, would ultimately join in Christ’s victory procession at the end of the age through the shedding of Christ’s blood and the power of his glorious resurrection.

So, I hope this short reflection on a life of faith once lived in the face of extraordinary pressure will serve as encouragement to us as we begin this day on “burnout or resilience”.

That we will bear in the mind, in the light of the stresses that we face as believers today, the need to keep communication open with God, to remember his promises and past faithfulness and to submit to his searching questions.

That we will seek wisely to ensure that our physical needs of food, sleep and solitude are met.

That we take time out regularly.

That we reflect on the reasons for our stress.

That we are reminded of God’s extraordinary power made perfect in weakness.

That we are ready to be recommissioned once filled afresh with his spirit.

That we seek to involve others and share our load.

And finally that we never forget that God is utterly sovereign, completely in control and working all things both for our good, and toward a glorious and certain conclusion.



Monday, 6 March 2017

Increasing survival of extremely premature babies again raises questions about upper abortion limits

The increasing survival of extremely premature babies is again raising serious questions about the 24 week upper limit for social abortion.

Tonight, 6 March, Inside Out on BBC One in the East Midlands related how new treatments - including some trialled in Nottingham and Leicester - are helping to limit disabilities and boost life expectancy in premature babies weighing as little as one pound (450g).

Last week, under the headline “extremely premature baby saved by groundbreaking NHS surgical team”, the Guardian reported on the astounding case of Abiageal Peters who last year became the youngest baby ever to survive major abdominal surgery.

Abiageal was born three months premature in October 2016 at St Peter’s hospital, Chertsey after a gestation of only 23 weeks.

Her parents were warned at her birth that she had very little chance of surviving a severe gut condition known as perforated necrotising enterocolitis.

But thanks to the surgical team led by consultant Zahid Mukhta, Abiageal made an extraordinary recovery. ‘Any patient that comes into our system gets the best we can do for them’, Mukhta said.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times (£) reported that survival rates for babies born at 23 weeks’ gestation are now so high that up to 70% are being saved at some hospitals:

At University College London Hospitals, one of Britain’s leading trusts, the figures show that in the past five years, 22 out of 30 babies born after 23 weeks in the womb survived, according to new figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws.

At Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, 16 out of 25 babies born at 23 weeks between 2011 and 2016 survived, and at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, 9 of the 18 babies born at 23 weeks between 2012 and 2016 survived.

These figures are strongly at odds with those from the last national study, Epicure 2, which looked at babies born in 2006, and found survival of babies at 23 weeks of just 19%.

The best survival rates, not surprisingly, come from centres with expert levels of neonatal intensive care, but lower survivals elsewhere are nonetheless something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Although there has been no comparable national study since Epicure 2 to assess how survival rates are improving, many units are still being guided in their treatment decisions by these antiquated figures.

Lower survival of premature babies in some parts of the country is not surprising when, backed by the RCOG and BMA,  neonatal units apply blanket rulings on resuscitation based on a simplistic assessment of gestational age – which is often inaccurate – and fail to treat each baby as an individual in her or his own right.

This means effectively that that some babies that could be saved are dying from neglect.

There is an excellent article on this in the CMF journal Triple Helix by Professor John Wyatt which makes these points in greater detail.

These latest figures from centres of excellence demonstrate dramatically what can be achieved with a proactive approach and skilled staff and they highlight an unacceptable postcode lottery of care.

Every extremely pre-term baby deserves the chance to be considered for treatment and, even if curative treatment is not possible, to be given the best possible palliative care.

If there is a realistic chance that a particular baby can survive without overwhelming and catastrophic injury, then surely as a wealthy country we owe it to each child to give them a chance of life.

In this situation it is best to start ‘provisional intensive care’, giving the baby the initial benefit of the doubt, and taking each day as it comes.

But these latest figures will also fuel calls for the Abortion Act upper limit for able-bodied babies of 24 weeks to be revised (abortion is of course currently legal up until full term (40 weeks) for disabled babies, a situation which Lord Shinkwin is currently attempting to change with his abortion (disability equality) bill).

It is utterly incongruous that on the one hand we are aborting babies at a gestation when others are surviving with good neonatal care. Abortion at this gestation is tantamount to infanticide.

When this issue was last debated in Parliament, in 2008, MPs voted by a narrow margin not to lower the upper limit from 24 weeks to either 20 or 22 weeks. I argued back then (and again here) that it was time for change. 

But since this time survival rates have improved yet further and the composition of Parliament has also changed. At the last vote Labour government MPs were informally whipped to vote against any lowering of limits.

Were the issue to be revisited now there’s a good chance of a very different result.

A lowering of the upper abortion limit to 20 weeks would save more than 3,000 babies a year.

That may be a small start when we consider that there are around 200,000 abortions a year in Britain. However, for those 3,000 it would represent every difference in the world.

Ultimately each society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members. Neonatal centres of excellence in Britain are already demonstrating how worthwhile it is to make sacrifices for these most vulnerable of human beings.

Nearly two thirds of the public and more than three-quarters of women support a reduction in the 24-week upper age limit. 

76% of the public think that aborting a baby at six months is cruel. Furthermore, a 2007 poll by Marie Stopes International found that two thirds of GPs wanted a reduction from 24 weeks (more similar figures here). 

It’s time now for Parliament again to ask serious questions about late abortion.