You may remember George Pitcher from his rather sour dismissal of Evan Harris, MP, who lost his seat in the last British general election: “The best result of the election: Let’s rejoice that Lib Dem Evan Harris has lost his seat.” It was a scurrilous attack on a thoughtful politician of intelligence and integrity by an Anglican priest who seems to lack both. Yet Pitcher, a religious hack who seems to lack both humanity and common sense, and tends to see things as though his brain doesn’t correct for the upside-down and backward image received from his eyes, saw Harris through a filter created wholly by his religion, and condemned Harris for shortcomings most evident in Pitcher himself:
A stranger to principle, Harris has coat-tailed some of the most vulnerable and weak people available to him to further his dogged, secularist campaign to have people of faith – any faith – swept from the public sphere.
Harris made no secret of his support for a secular Britain, and his opposition to the outsized influence of religion on a British society which is increasingly non-religious or anti-religious. He also attracted the slur, “Dr. Death,” because of his support for assisted dying, and freer abortions, and it is likely that Pitcher’s glee at Harris’s loss in the election is linked as much to Harris’s advocacy for relaxed abortion laws and the legalisation of assisted dying as it was to anything else about him.
Here, as an example of Harris’s advocacy for secularism and an end to religious privilege, is part of an advertisement in which Harris was asking for support for the Secular Europe campaign last September (2011):
Contrary to Pitcher’s slander, Evan Harris is a man of principle, principles which, given Pitcher’s leaning towards yellow journalism of the most sleazy variety, are clearly higher than Pitcher’s own, which are rooted in authority and grounded in nothing but religious privilege.
Why this sudden interest in George Pitcher? Well, I used to follow the blog of the religious “think tank” which calls itself, a bit grandly, Theos (which means God!), claiming to provide clear thinking on religion and society, and, while paying a rare visit, I just happened upon something emanating from Pitcher’s addled brain with the unlikely title of “Who wants assisted dying?” (The answer, of course, is: lots of people!) At the bottom of the article are Pitcher’s credentials:
George Pitcher is former Secretary for Public Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury and author of A Time to Live: The case against assisted suicide and euthanasia.
The archbishop, having apparently lost confidence in him, after a crude comment Pitcher made about the archbishop regarding the latter’s attack on coalition government policies, a Lambeth Palace spokeswoman said that Pitcher’s contract would not be renewed.
George [she said] will have finished the project he was working on and he wished to return to journalism.
Details of the affair were published in the Telegraph at the time, but it came as no surprise that a man with the kind of twisted mind displayed in his article celebrating Evan Harris’s loss in the election should not have been welcome at Lambeth over the long haul. Pitcher’s contribution to the Theos blog lives up to his reputation of being unable to attend to the detail of arguments of those whose views differ from his own. It did come as a bit of a surprise to find that he had actually published a book on the topic of assisted dying, since thinking is not his strong suit, but it was not surprising to find that it was published by a purveyor of light evangelical theology.
We’ve heard it all before, of course, but for Picher’s sake, let’s do it one more time. Pitcher says that he was “making the case against Lord Falconer’s lobby for the legalisation of assisted suicide” on LBC (London’s Biggest Conversation) Radio, when Nick Ross, assisted dying supporter, patron of Dignity in Dying, and former host of the BBC programme Crimewatch, called in to say (‘sneer’ is the word that Pitcher uses) that it is always religious people like Pitcher who oppose it. He takes this as his opening to say that “there are people of all faiths and none on both sides of the debate.” And, no doubt, this is true, for, clearly, given the statistics, which almost always show strong support for legalisation, many religious people must support assisted dying. In this they are different from their leaders; for religious leaders are almost unanimous in their opposition, and, while they do, as Pitcher points out, argue against assisted dying on apparently secular grounds, their motivating reasons are almost without exception religious.
We could hare off after Peter Saunders’ opinion, on his aptly named blog, Christian Medical Comment, as Pitcher invites us to do, or we could stick with Pitcher’s own arguments. Pitcher tells us that Peter Saunders “calmly and empirically demolishes Lord Falconer’s latest report.” But this is not really true. Indeed, I have read many arguments against assisted dying, and Peter Saunders’ post is perhaps the most inflammatory and least empirical of them all. Some arguments are simply unsound. Sanders doesn’t really make an argument. To take one example: He acknowledges that there will always be some people who want to end their lives, but, he says, “[m]ost of them are not even disabled or terminally ill.” It’s fairly clear what his purpose is. He wants to muddy the waters and confuse the issue. Yes, there are many people who die by suicide as a result of transient episodes of despair or desperation, but these are not the people for whom assisted dying laws are intended, and by referring to them Saunders completely misrepresents the intention of assisted dying legislation. By referring to the disabled in this context Saunders also introduces the old religious claim that “the vulnerable” will be put at risk. It’s just a religious bogeyman. This is neither calm nor empirical; it is, as Saunders claims it to be, Christian medical comment, biased, misleading and disingenuous.
The same, of course, goes for Pitcher’s hatchet job. Pitcher says that Nick Ross makes the mistaken assumption that liberals like him are
the compassionate liberals, up against swivel-eyed bigots like me.
But, says Pitcher — or “Peculiar George” as Ophelia Benson once called him – an embarrassment to the Anglican Church as well as to the Telegraph – the situation is exactly the reverse (see what I mean about Pitcher’s brain not correcting for the upside down, reverse image received by his eyes?):
It is we who are enjoined by our Christian faith to defend the weak, the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, to stand by them and declare that their lives are as valuable and as valued as any of us. It is the enthusiasts for assisted suicide who are affirming that some lives are not worth living, that there is a lower tier of human life, that we should assist some of these people to kill themselves, that in doing so we should squander our world-leading standards of palliative care and that those who do not choose to die by lethal dose have in some way chosen to suffer.
The same lack of thought went into that as went into his slanderous article about Evan Harris’s loss of his seat. For no one — and I mean no one — who supports assisted dying affirms “that some lives are not worth living, [or] that there is a lower tier of human life.” That’s the old slur that those who support assisted dying are really Nazis at heart, and want to kill off people whose lives are not worth living, just as Hitler did in the notorious T4 programme.
Pitcher’s entire Theos article is like this, full of false assumptions and inaccuracies. Margaret Somerville, very much an Australian-Canadian George Pitcher, thinks that the push for assisted dying legislation comes from what she calls an intense individualism. Pitcher says that assisted dying supporters’ “obsession with personal autonomy, rather than our utter dependence on one another,” takes us down the road taken long ago by Hitler and his Nazis. That is ridiculous. We are not utterly dependent on one another. This is another falsity. We exist in a network of relationships of different strengths, but few of them mount to the level of utter or absolute dependence. Hobbes thought in those terms, and believed, consequently, that the only way to preserve peace and unity in society was to accord absolute power to a sole ruler, whose word would be law. But we know that this is not necessary. Rights based democracy is founded on the ideal that people can be granted enormous amounts of freedom, and that denying them those freedoms is effectively to bind and enslave them. The dying, and those who are suffering from permanent disabilities or degenerative conditions that to them (and only to them) amount to intolerable suffering, are now enslaved to an outmoded idea that our days are numbered, and that only God knows the answer, and that to allow people the freedom to end their lives when they have determined that life has become an intolerable burden, would endanger us all, but especially those who may suffer from conditions similar to those that some find intolerable and a reason to seek to die. There is simply no logical connexion between my conviction that my life is intolerable in my condition, and the claim that anyone else in a similar condition must also be living in intolerable suffering. Yet every argument against assisted dying assumes that there is, and that, for that reason, we cannot permit people to make up their own minds about whether or not they should be allowed to receive assistance in dying. And so the suffering are forced to suffer. They are in fact, as Ronald Dworkin said many years ago, effectively enslaved by the state, and forced to live in circumstances that they would, if given the choice, bring to an end. And it is the church, that so often speaks with pride of its role in the movement to abolish slavery, that insists on perpetuating the enslavement of those who suffer, and, suffering, are asking to be free.