The other day I published a post about the recent flurry of excitement over abortion legislation in Britain and Canada, with a focus on people like Jeremy Hunt in Britain and Stephen Woodworth in Canada. One of the things that I wanted to know about both men was their religious affiliation, and though I searched the web at the time, I could not find out which church they attended, or whether they were or were not active members of their churches. So, it was interesting to read Matthew Parris’s op-ed piece in the Times this morning (“Religion does not belong in the small print“), to discover that he had the same question in his mind about Jeremy Hunt.
He begins by recording Jeremy Hunt’s position, and admits that he found himself thinking that perhaps this MP had a case for a reduction of the 24 week limit for abortion:
But then [he says] I noticed his surname. It struck me he was probably a Roman Catholic. I checked; he was a notably convinced Roman Catholic.
After reading this I thought it might be worthwhile making another try at finding out Stephen Woodworth’s religious background, so again I searched. The Wikipedia article said nothing about it, but there was a footnote with a link to a CBC candidate profile, and it comes as no surprise to read this:
Was founding board member and President of K-W Extend-a-Family. Has been involved with the Knights of Columbus and the Big Brothers Association. Founding member of the Christian Legal Fellowship and served on its board for several years. Has also, as a board member or advisor, been involved in the Oasis Centre, the United Nations Association, K-W Right to Life, Catholic Family Counselling Centre and The Natural Family Planning Centre of Waterloo Region. Has been a lector at Sacred Heart Church in Kitchener since 1967.
Should we hold this against him? No, indeed not. Mr. Woodworth has as much right as anyone to take an interest in and support his church. But this is something that should not be in the fine print, as Matthew Parris says, because his deep involvement with his church’s ”pro-life” involvement and activity betrays a focused interest in the issue of fetal rights that should be recorded as a “competing interest.”
As I said in my earlier post, I assumed from the start that Hunt’s motivation was largely religious. In his interview with the Times he acknowledged that he was a Christian, and then added, “but I don’t broadcast it.” However, he is more than just a Christian. It turns out he is also a Roman Catholic, and, if Parris is right, actively involved with his church, a church well-known for its subordination of women, as well as for its aggressive “pro-life” stand. The likelihood that a Roman Catholic MP’s interest in “pro-life” issues is due to his religious affiliation is, I would wager, pretty strong, and his claim that his religious interests had nothing to do with his stand on abortion –which, as he tried to claim, was based solely on new factual evidence — is hard to credit. In a similar way, when Woodworth’s motion to strike a parliamentary committee to explore the question as to when personal life beings was being put to parliament, no one bothered to mention Woodworth’s fairly heavy investment in his church’s “pro-life” activities.
This is more important than it may seem. In his column, Matthew Parris gives a classic example of the disingenuous way in which religion enters these moral discussions. He cites a conversation with Michael Nazir-Ali, onetime Bishop of Rochester, about gay marriage. This is worth quoting in full (M N-A is the bishop and MP is Matthew Parris):
MP But would I be correct in quoting you as having in the past said to homosexuals: “Repent and be changed!”?
MN-A [Long pause] We should all repent. We all need to be changed. Nobody’s behaviour is perfect … [There followed more in this vein] MP But specifically on homosexuals: do you disapprove of homosexuality?
MN-A There’s much in all our behaviour to disapprove of. We all do wrong … I have myself; we all have; my own relationships have been flawed.
CHAIR Bishop, you seem to be avoiding the nub of the question. Do you think homosexuality is wrong?
SHOUT FROM THE AUDIENCE Yes!
MN-A [Half smiles] We all fall short. Everyone falls short … (etc) MP Did you support the civil partnership legislation?
MN-A [Pause] I thought there were failings in it.
MP Did you support an equal age of consent?
MN-A [Pause] I did not . . .
Notice how the bishop tries to slink away by prevaricating. Instead of answering the question, he dances round it, every time, trying to put Parris off the scent. In answer to the question: Do you disapprove of homosexuality?, he answers: Much of our behaviour falls short.
This is exactly what happens in discussions of assisted dying too. Almost always, religious opponents of assisted dying never mention their religious reservations. Instead, they confuse the issue by talking about practically anything else. Anything that can be turned to their advantage, whether there is any foundation for it or not, they will use. Very much in the way that Jeremy Hunt claimed to have looked at the evidence, and, after much thought, decided that it would be best to lower the limit for legal abortion from 24 weeks to 12. But, as the experts very clearly stated, there is simply no basis, in the evidence, for such a move. And that leaves only his religious presuppositions. If you go to any website that takes a stand against abortion or against assisted dying, you would be hard put to it to find a reference to the real reason that the people concerned oppose either. Religion scarcely ever makes even a guest appearance.
To take an example, consider an article on Alex Schadenberg’s blog. Schadenberg is the Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, largely a Roman Catholic organisation which, at one time, I understood, worked out of the diocesan offices of the Diocese of London in Ontario. But religion is scarcely ever mentioned as the reason for opposing assisted dying. Here’s an example:
Among the deficiencies in the proposed law are the following:
• This law is premised on the accuracy of a prognosis that a patient has just six months to live. Most doctors will admit that they have no ability with any degree of accuracy to predict the end of life.
• The petition does not require the patient to receive a psychological or psychiatric evaluation before being given a lethal dose of medication.
• There is no provision in this ballot language that mandates that immediate family members of a person taking the lethal prescription be notified of the legal suicide. That is a cruel and inhumane provision.
• There is no requirement that a doctor be present when the lethal prescription is taken.
• The act defines “self administer” to mean a patient’s “act of ingesting medication.” The act of ingesting does not mean that the patient administers the medication, merely that it is ingested.
These are objections to the proposed law in Massachusetts. Not once is religion mentioned. What this kind of thing amounts to is just a filibuster. It’s not real argumentation, because, for Schadenberg, nothing can justify assistance in dying, nothing at all. I agree with Matthew Parris. This religious interest needs to be declared, just as you would declare your financial interest, if there were a financial interest that could plausibly be thought to be in conflict with what you are recommending. People are, as Parris points out, entitled to their own opinions, but they should not be able to present arguments in discussions of public policy issues which simply leave out a person’s religious interests when those interests may be determinative of the conclusions reached and the proposals recommended.
The public discussion of issues like abortion and assisted dying are hamstrung by the unstated religious presuppositions that lie behind the discussion. It ends up being a shaggy dog story that goes on and on and on without resolution, and thoughtful journalists nod their heads knowingly and repeat over and over that are such a complex and disputed matters, with good arguments on both sides, when the truth very often is that the religious arguments are only a smokescreen for the real argument, and the reasons presented can vary endlessly, because the unstated argument is not being made, and, if made, would be quickly dismissed. Here’s an example of what I mean
Victor Malarek, who did the research for the programme of which this is the tail end, relied almost entirely on the work of José Pereira, who published an article on euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands which was outrageously biased. I wrote an email to CTV’s W5 about this, but was ignored. Subsequently a study by Jocelyn Downie (who teaches ethics and law at Dalhousie University) and scholars from the Netherlands, came to the following conclusions (as recorded in the abstract of their paper, published in the same journal Current Oncology which published Pereira’s):
Pereira makes a number of factual statements without providing any sources. Pereira also makes a number of factual statements with sources, where the sources do not, in fact, provide support for the statements he made. Pereira also makes a number of false statements about the law and practice in jurisdictions that have legalized euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Pereira’s conclusions are not supported by the evidence he provided. His paper should not be given any credence in the public policy debate about the legal status of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada and around the world.
This is, however, typical of religious opponents of assisted dying, just as it is of religious opponents of abortion. Argumentation is conducted as though serious secular matters of relevance to everyone are at issue, when the truth is far otherwise, and religious dogma is hiding behind a smokescreen of obfuscation.
People who speak from a religious perspective will always come up with arguments against certain proposals, and they will keep using them, even though it is well-known that the arguments are not and never were valid. This is something that came up in the case of Gloria Taylor and Lee Carter, when Herbert Hendin, a supposedly expert witness for Canada, spoke in a video conference from New York. Hendin is well-known as a religious opponent of assisted dying. In the course of his testimony, he was presented with the following quote from John Griffith’s book, Euthanasia and Law in the Netherlands:
Hendin has, of all foreign critics, probably devoted the most effort to collecting information on the Dutch situation. Unfortunately, his research methods are quite inadequate to support the conclusions he draws… The ‘findings’ which supposedly support his conclusions are so filled with mistakes of law, of fact, and of interpretation, mostly tendentious, that it is hard to be charitable and regard them as merely negligent.
This is a common problem with the arguments put by opponents of assisted dying. Their real reasons are religious. However, they know that religious argument alone is not sufficient grounds for outlawing a practice that many people are claiming a right to; so they come up with other arguments, such as the ones above from a Massachusetts lawyer. But since the evidence does not make their case, all they can do is repeat it ad nauseam, and so they do, even when it fails to make their case.
It is not by chance that the two MPs (one in Britain, the other in Canada) who propose changes to abortion law are both men, and both Roman Catholics. In an article about religion in Canadian politics, the Glove and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson tells us that evangelical Christians have found a home in Conservative politics. While I have no doubt he is largely correct in seeing the new Conservative Party a haven for evangelical Christians, I think he is wrong about the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Here is what he says:
The Roman Catholic Church is a well-known opponent of abortion, which does not mean all Catholics agree with their church. But the church has some influence on the issue.
Of arguably greater influence are the evangelical Christian churches.
I think this is wrong, because he thinks of the Roman Catholic influence as dependent upon the outlook of Roman Catholics. It’s not. I don’t know what the percentages are in Canada, but in the US (which I assume is very similar demographically to Canada in this respect) a majority of Roman Catholics are in favour of abortion. The church’s influence, however, runs the other way, and with its network of connexions across the country, as well as the diplomatic representation of the church in Washington and Ottawa, the Roman Catholic Church arguably has as much or possibly greater influence than evangelical Christians. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church do not take their cue from the people, but from the Vatican, and it uses its influence and its wealth through all sorts of channels, to make sure that its priorities are represented where crucial decisions are made. What is not obvious is the amount of influence the Roman Catholic Church has, because it does not advertise its support of various “pro-life” groups. The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, for example, nowhere states its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, but the relationship is very close all the same. One person who attended an annual conference of the coalition remarked that it looked very much like a clergy conference, there were so many priests in attendance. This is the small print that Parris speaks about, and it is deliberate and, it has to be said, dishonest, that this competing interest not be stated up front, but in this realm anything goes, and lies are just as good as the truth, so long as the faithful are kept in line. This is about religious dogma, and that is why we need to be told, right up front, when people are speaking from the religious point of view.