Sunday, 19 December 2010

The ‘ultrasound’ Jesus of the ‘Christmas starts with Christ’ campaign is a reminder to reflect on the meaning of the incarnation

The creators of the 2010 ‘Christmas Starts With Christ' campaign say that its purpose is to bring attention to the true meaning of the holiday season by putting the message of Christ’s birth in a modern context. ‘He’s on His Way’, it declares.

But the image of the ultrasound ‘Christ’ in his mother’s womb that has been launched on thousands of billboards and other advertising venues in the UK and in other countries around the globe, also subtly showcases the fact that Jesus Christ was once an unborn child in need of protection to ensure his birth and ultimate mission in his life on earth.

John 1:14, puts this truth in the starkest possible terms. 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth'

Jesus the Son of God, the Word who was God (John 1:1), who was with God (1:2) and who created the world (1:3), literally put on human flesh, and took on our human existence in all its frailty.

Jesus was an unborn baby, confined by the boundaries of the womb, going through the trauma of a normal birth, needing to be wrapped up. As the writer of Hebrews tells us he was made like us in every respect (2:17).

So what does the incarnation mean for us personally?

First, it reminds us that Jesus understands us. He knows what it is like to be a human being. He knows hunger and thirst, pain and sorrow. He knows bereavement and loss. He knows rejection and betrayal. As Hebrews tells us he can sympathise with our weaknesses because he has been tempted in every way as we are, and much more (4:15).

Second, it reminds us that Jesus can help us. Again the writer of Hebrews tells us, 'Because he has suffered and been tempted he is able to help those who are tempted' (2:18). What are our areas of weakness? What do we despair over? What is it that is stopping us growing as Christians? What is it we are fighting that perhaps no-one else sees or knows about? He is able to help us.

Third, the incarnation is a model for us in our own Christian lives. We are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. The cross is the means by which God put us right with him, but it also a pattern to follow. We too are to carry the cross, to take our share of suffering, to bear the burdens of others.

Fourth, the incarnation helps us in our evangelism. It challenges us to cross social barriers as Jesus did, to make ourselves accessible and vulnerable, in the way that Jesus was, to be, in the words of Paul, 'all things to all men'.

But finally, and most importantly the incarnation reminds us of why Jesus came, because Christmas is the prelude to Easter. The same Jesus who grew in the womb and lay in the manger was sent to die on a cross and rise from the dead in order to reconcile us to God.

‘Christmas Starts With Christ’. ‘He’s on His Way’. Let’s keep Jesus’ birth and all that means at the centre this Christmas.

Personal Reflections on the Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010

It was a wonderful privilege to be able to take part in the Lausanne III World Congress, Cape Town 2010, from 16-25 October.

The gathering brought together over 4,000 evangelical leaders from 198 countries for a week of teaching, fellowship, worship and dialogue around the theme ‘The whole church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world’.

A busy programme (all main sessions still available on line) included morning Bible readings on Ephesians from leading international expositors, plenaries on issues relating to world mission and a whole variety of ‘multiplex’ sessions and dialogues (seminars) on a myriad of topics relevant to Christian mission today.

This was the third such conference on world evangelisation, following on from similar events in Lausanne Switzerland in 1973 and Manila, Philippines in 1989.

The ‘Cape Town Commitment’, currently being finalised, will be issued in the New Year outlining the challenges for world mission in the next decade.

There were so many encouragements from this event, and every delegate will have taken away their own precious memories, have made their own special friendships and their own specific challenges, but particular highlights and perceptions for me included the following:

•The explosive growth of the church in the ‘global south’. Those countries with the largest number of evangelical Christians, after the US, are now in order: China, India, Nigeria, Brazil, South Korea. The UK barely makes the top ten.

•The challenge from Chris Wright, Director of the Langham Partnership and Chief Editor of the Cape Town Commitment, that the greatest barrier facing mission today was not persecution, ‘other faiths’, or resistant people groups, but rather moral compromise of the Christian community. He challenged us to be HIS people (people of humility, integrity and simplicity).

•There were wonderful testimonies from Christians facing intense persecution in the hard places – particularly the Muslim world, North Korea and Northern Nigeria. A testimony from an 18 year old North Korean girl who had lost both of her parents but was wanting to return to her country to serve Christ was a turning point in the conference. Not a dry eye in the house.

•Richard Stearns’ powerful challenge to the western church to live simply and give generously (Richard Stearns is the US President of World Vision). US Christians give on average 2.5% of their incomes to church and charitable work and 98% of this is spent in the US. ‘Imagine’, he said, ‘if they gave 10% and half was spent in the global south what impact it would have.’

•The strong emphasis on ‘integral mission’, - Christ’s ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ call (Luke 4:18, 19) to the ministry of ‘preaching, mercy and justice’ with the aim of bringing God’s people to full maturity in Christ.

•A growing recognition of the importance of ‘workplace ministry’ equipping Christians to be witnesses in the workplace.

•New opening doors to world mission into previously closed countries through the roots of business, education, government, media and medicine (BEGMM). Doctors are perhaps unique in having an open door to every country on earth, many where traditional avenues to missionary work are closed.

‘Turning Points’: After a glimpse of the opening of the conference, this video traces in two segments the growth of the Church from Pentecost to the present in the face of many obstacles.

•‘Best practice’ models of whole person ministry of the church to local communities. An HIV/Aids project I visited in the Cape (Living Hope) is seeing many people converted and the community transformed through practical Christian love at all levels including hospice and clinic care, schools education, employment training and ministry to the homeless.

•The exponential progress in Bible translation and the rapidly diminishing number of ‘unreached people groups’ as para-church organisations in particular deliberately and intentionally fulfil the great commission in a systematic way.

•The wonderful experience of worshipping in a multi cultural environment - a real foretaste of Revelation 7:9, 10.

•The innovative ‘table groups’ enabling groups of four-six to have ongoing deep fellowship within the context of 4,000 strong plenary sessions.

I hope this gives you a glimpse of some of the highlights and encourages you as we move together to fulfil Christ’s great commission (Matthew 28:19, 20) and great commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) in this next decade.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

European Court ruling raises question of how common abortion to save the mother’s life actually is

Ireland’s ban on abortion was upheld this week by the European Court of Human Rights in a case brought by three Irish women backed by the Irish Family Planning Association. The women had argued that the lack of access to abortion in Ireland breached their human rights.

But the court ruled that a nation may define for itself protections afforded to life and said there is no Convention ‘right’ to abortion.

However, the European judges noted that while abortion has been allowed in Ireland on limited grounds, including safety, since 1992 ‘there was no explanation why the existing constitutional right had not been implemented to date’.

The European judges, whose human rights court predates the EU, rejected two cases (A & B) but ruled that a third woman (C) should not have been forced to travel to the UK in 2005 for an abortion because of fears that she or the unborn child would fall seriously ill. She was awarded 15,000 euros (£12,700) in damages.

The woman, a Lithuanian, had complained to the court that she could not get proper medical advice in Ireland and the country's laws had stigmatised and humiliated her and put her health at risk.

The Guardian carries a useful commentary explaining what the ruling will mean in practice, but it seems that initial reports that Ireland will be forced to change their law were overstated.

Regardless, according to a Press Association report, Mary Harney, the Irish health minister, has insisted that legislation is the preferred option to a referendum.

‘I don't want to pretend that there is an easy solution. We have to legislate, there's no doubt about that,’ she said. ‘This will take time as it is a highly sensitive and complex area.’

Ireland has already had three referenda on abortion law: 1983, affirming an outright ban; 1992, allowing women to legally travel for a termination and access information while maintaining the domestic ban; 2002, when by a margin of less than 1% of the vote the ban was upheld.

However, a series of court judgments complicated issues such as the X case of a 14-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped. She was allowed to travel because of the real and substantial risk to her life from suicide.

As it stands in Ireland therefore, a woman is allowed an abortion currently if her life is at risk from high blood pressure, an ectopic pregnancy or cervical cancer. The issue of suicide and other health complications are not set down in law.

How common is abortion to save the life of the mother?

The whole saga raises the question of how commonly abortion is really necessary to save the life of the mother.

Usually when the mother's life is at risk from an ongoing pregnancy, the baby is at a viable age and so can be saved simply by bringing forward the time of delivery. However on very rare occasions it may be necessary to terminate an early mid-trimester pregnancy (13-22 weeks) in an emergency in order to save the life of the mother.

Here we are not saying that the baby's life is less important than that of the mother, but simply (since the baby will die regardless) that it is better to intervene to save one life rather than to stand by and watch two die. Even in these situations it is often possible to deliver the baby alive in such a way that the parents can have some short time with it.

In the UK it was reported in 1992 that in the first 25 years of the operation of the Abortion Act 1967 only 0.013% of all abortions were performed 'to save the life of the mother' and it is even questionable whether many of these required such radical action. The 2009 Abortion Statistics for England and Wales do not record any on these grounds.

Ireland's leading obstetricians stated in 1992: '... we affirm that there are no medical circumstances justifying direct abortion, that is, no circumstances in which the life of the mother may only be saved by directly terminating the life of her unborn child'. (Letter to Irish Times, 1 April 1992)

This was not unsubstantiated. The National Maternity Hospital in Dublin investigated in detail the 21 maternal deaths which occurred among the 74,317 pregnancies managed in 1970-1979. The conclusion was that abortion wouldn't have saved the mother's life in a single case.[1]

Alan Guttmacher, former President of the pro-abortion US Planned Parenthood Federation has said:

'Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal illness such as cancer or leukemia, and if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save life'.[2]

One suspects therefore that the Irish Family Planning Association has an agenda here that goes far beyond legalising abortion to save the mother's life alone.

1. Murphy J. Maternal Mortality - is there ever a case for abortion? Irish Medical Journal 1982; 75:304-306 (September)
2.Guttmacher A. Abortion - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' The Case for legalised abortion now. Diablo Press.1967

A new exhibition touring the United States is highlighting lessons to be learned from the Nazi Doctors

Most when remembering the holocaust will think of six million Jews but apparently this was only the final chapter in the story. What ended in the 1940s in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka had much more humble beginnings in the 1930s in nursing homes, geriatric hospitals and psychiatric institutions all over Germany.

I have previously written about lessons we can learn from the grisly history of the Nazi doctors.

Dr Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist who worked for the Office of the Chief of Counsel for war Crimes at Nuremberg, described the process whereby doctors were instrumental in the euthanasia programme as follows:

'The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.'

With the advantage of hindsight we are understandably amazed that the German people and especially the German medical profession were fooled into accepting it. The judgement of the War Crimes Tribunal in 1949 as to how they were fooled was as follows.

'Had the profession taken a strong stand against the mass killing of sick Germans before the war, it is conceivable that the entire idea and technique of death factories for genocide would not have materialized...but far from opposing the Nazi state militantly, part of the medical profession co-operated consciously and even willingly, while the remainder acquiesced in silence. Therefore our regretful but inevitable judgement must be that the responsibility for the inhumane perpetrations of Dr Brandt (pictured above)...and others, rests in large measure upon the bulk of the medical profession; because the profession without vigorous protest, permitted itself to be ruled by such men.' (War Crimes Tribunal. 'Doctors of Infamy'. 1948)

I am therefore grateful to John Smeaton of SPUC for drawing my attention to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new exhibition on medicalised killings under the Nazis which is currently travelling to different American cities.

John similarly argues that the Exhibition shows us why we can never be complacent about the threat of medicalised killing.

A report on the exhibition by American Medical News says:

“‘The misguided scientific ideas of physicians and scientists were integral to Nazis' crimes against humanity and should serve as a reminder to doctors to put patients before political ideology ... As evil as these actions appear in retrospect, they arose out of a highly sophisticated German medical culture, said Matthew K. Wynia, MD, MPH ... More than half of the Nobel Prizes that were awarded in science through the 1930s went to Germans ... 'If we divorce ourselves from them or view them as entirely alien, then our ability to understand these medical crimes is thwarted, as well as is our ability to prevent other medical crimes,' Dr. Wynia said. 'These doctors became killers, not despite their training but in the name of their science and training' ... t is so important for doctors to maintain their professionalism in the face of political and other pressures ... 'This is not just Jewish history,' Dr. Wynia said. 'All doctors and medical professionals need to know and understand this material.'"

Friday, 17 December 2010

Two letters to the Times regarding Lord Falconer's Commission on Assisted Dying

I have had two letters regarding Lord Falconer's Commission on Assisted Dying published on the Times website but unfortunately neither has made the print edition of the newspaper.

They highlight my concerns about the commission's bias and also the way that Lord Falconer (pictured), the former Lord Chancellor, has misrepresented publicly the Director of Public Proseuction's guidance on assisted suicide.

You may also like to read the letter from the Care Not Killing Alliance giving the reasons why they are refusing to give evidence to the Commission.

If you have a Times subscription then you can access them on the Times website but I have reproduced them here for easier access.

Letter to Times (December 15, 2010 11:52 AM)

Dear Sir,

Lord Falconer, in promoting his new ‘Commission on Assisted Dying’, says he wants to hear ‘from all sides’ but neglects to mention that six out of his eleven initial invitees have already refused to give evidence. Why are people so reluctant to lend credibility to this enquiry?

Falconer’s commission is first unnecessary. There has already been a comprehensive recent examination of ‘assisted dying’ by a House of Lords Committee along with three parliamentary votes in the last five years all strongly rejecting a change in the law, two in the House of Lords and one in the Scottish Parliament.

It is next unbalanced. The commission was suggested by the pressure group Dignity in Dying and is being part-funded by Terry Pratchett, one of their patrons. Nine of the twelve members, handpicked by Falconer, are already known to favour a change in the law, including all five parliamentarians and all four doctors. It is furthermore to be chaired by Falconer himself, who led a failed bid to decriminalise assisted suicide in the House of Lords in 2009.

Finally, it is lacking in transparency as none of its members’ conflicting interests have been openly declared. Why is it, when the five major disability rights organisations in the UK (RADAR, UKDPC, NCIL, SCOPE, Not Dead Yet) all oppose a change in the law, that Falconer has chosen a disabled person who represents none of them and takes a contrary position? Why, when 95% of palliative medicine specialists and 65% of doctors support the status quo, has he picked four doctors who hold the minority view?

Falconer’s grand jury is nothing other than a covert ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of politicians too busy to ask questions about its independence and objectivity.

Letter to Times (December 16, 2010 10:35 AM)

Dear Sir,

The former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer (The Times, 13 December), seriously misrepresents the Director of Public Prosecutions guidelines on assisted suicide prosecutions in two important respects.

This can be easily verified as the DPP guidelines, published in February 2010, are freely available on the Crown Prosecution Service Website. There are 16 criteria making prosecution more likely and 6 criteria making prosecution less likely.

First, he says, in a video on the Times website, that the DPP’s criteria indicate ‘when he will prosecute and when he will not prosecute’. They actually do nothing of the sort as the DPP was at great pains to point out at the time. The presence, or absence, of the various factors simply makes it more or less likely that a prosecution will be brought. Not only that, but each case must be decided on its own facts. For the DPP to make a rule of any of the factors would be ‘fettering his discretion’, which is unlawful.

Second, and more seriously, Lord Falconer includes ‘terminal illness or serious disability’ in the victim as factors making prosecution less likely. This is simply not true. The physical condition of the victim is irrelevant. In fact these criteria were removed from an earlier draft of the guidance as it was felt that they discriminated against sick and disabled people by removing legal protection from them.

Are we really to believe that the former Lord Chancellor, and chair of the ‘independent’ Commission on Assisted Dying, is really not familiar with the DPP guidelines? Or is he just being disingenuous? And if so why? And why did the Times publish these false statements without checking their facts?

These are serious questions which require serious and comprehensive answers.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Former Lord Chancellor misrepresents law on assisted suicide in national newspaper

Yesterday the Care Not Killing Alliance wrote to Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor (pictured), saying that we were declining his invitation to give evidence to his new Commission on Assisted Dying on the grounds that the commission was unnecessary, unbalanced and seriously lacking in transparency.

Foremost amongst these concerns was the fact that the vast majority of the members of Lord Falconer’s commission were well-known figures in the pro-legalisation lobby.

Amongst the eleven people initially invited to give evidence to the commission I understand that at least four others, apart from me (including Telegraph columnist George Pitcher), have also now declined.

Yesterday Lord Falconer launched his commission via the Times newspaper, with an article and video, and in so doing made some rather astonishing statements about the law as it currently stands.

Under the Suicide Act 1961, encouraging or assisting a suicide is a criminal offence carrying a custodial sentence of up to 14 years. But the law gives the Director of Public Prosecutions some discretion in deciding whether or not to prosecute in any given case. He must be satisfied both that there is enough evidence to bring a prosecution and also that it is in the public interest to do so.

The DPP was required by the Law Lords, in their judgement on the Debbie Purdy case, to publish his ‘public interest’ criteria and did so, after a public consultation, in February 2010.

These criteria are freely available on the Crown Prosecution Service Website. There are 16 criteria making prosecution more likely and 6 criteria making prosecution less likely.

They come into play only after it has been established that there is enough evidence to bring a prosecution.

In his video on the Times website (you will need a subscription to listen) Lord Falconer summarised the Director of Public Prosecutions’ policy on assisted suicide as follows (from 0.36-1.03):

‘The Director of Public Prosecutions, who is the chief prosecutor in this country, has laid out guidelines setting out when he will prosecute and when he will not prosecute. In summary, he won’t prosecute if somebody’s terminally ill or suffering from a severe disability which is incurable, if in sound mind they’ve decided they want to kill themselves and the person who helps them is doing it from the very best motives.’

In the article accompanying the video he describes it slightly differently:

‘The DPP’s guidelines specify that where someone is terminally ill or suffering from a serious and irreversible disability, then if the decision to commit suicide is made freely by him or her, and the assister is driven by good, loving motives, he will not normally prosecute. Eligibility is restricted only to those who are over 18, who have a settled intention to die and who are aided by someone who is motivated by compassion and not a healthcare professional.’

Lord Falconer’s oral and written statements above quite seriously misrepresent the DPP’s guidelines in two important respects.

First, he says in the video that the DPP’s criteria indicate ‘when he will prosecute and when he will not prosecute’. They actually do nothing of the sort as the DPP was at great pains to point out. The presence, or absence, of the various factors simply makes it more or less likely that a prosecution will be brought. Not only that, but each case must be decided on its own facts. For the DPP to make a rule of any of the factors would be ‘fettering his discretion’, which is unlawful.

Second, and more seriously, Lord Falconer includes ‘terminal illness or serious disability’ in the victim as factors making prosecution less likely. This is simply not true. The physical condition of the victim is irrelevant. In fact these criteria were removed from an earlier draft of the guidance as it was felt that they discriminated against sick and disabled people by removing legal protection from them.

Why might Lord Falconer, a former Lord Chancellor (a member of the Cabinet responsible for the efficient functioning and independence of the courts), misrepresent the law in this matter?

The first possibility is that he is simply not familiar with the DPP's prosecution criteria. If so, that would be rather astonishing, as surely an understanding of the intricacies of the law in this area, one would think, would be essential if one was to chair a commission examining that law. That would be, at very least, rather embarrassing.

The second possibility is that he is familiar with the criteria, but for some reason is deliberately misrepresenting them. That, of course, would be much more serious.

The Commission’s first evidence session took place today. We are told that ‘the meeting explored the current medical and legal landscape shaping people’s experiences of dying in the UK today’.

Amongst the witnesses, interestingly, was the DPP Keir Starmer.

We are told that full transcripts and a recording of the evidence will be published on the commission’s website as soon as they are available. It will be interesting to see whether the DPP was able, in giving his own evidence, to correct the former Lord Chancellor’s apparent misunderstanding of the very law that is the subject of his enquiry.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

More knowledge of fetal development leads to new US laws making late abortion illegal

In April this year the US state of Nebraska legislature signed off a bill that could weaken further the Roe v.Wade Supreme Court decision that has resulted in 52 million abortions.

The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the well-established concept of fetal pain.

By a vote of 44-5, the Nebraska unicameral legislature gave final passage to the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act introduced by Speaker Mike Flood.

The legislation has been hailed by pro-life advocates across the country for its innovative approach and focusing the public’s attention on unborn babies who have been medically documented as pain capable at 20 weeks gestation.

One effect of the bill was to drive LeRoy Carhart, an abortionist doing late abortions, out of the state to do abortions in Iowa, Maryland, and Indiana.

I see now that Iowa legislators are in the process of drafting similar legislation to drive him out of Iowa and Medical News Today has reported on moves to push similar bills more widely afield.

These recent developments are most interesting in the light of the controversy earlier this year surrounding a report from the RCOG claiming that fetuses cannot feel pain until 24 weeks gestation.

I reviewed this report in June 2010 and argued that the RCOG had simply cherry picked both the evidence and the researchers which led them to their conclusions.

However these new bills in the US give an indication how opposition to late abortion is growing with every new piece of knowledge about the fetus.

Chile’s president says country’s respect for life mandated great efforts to save lives of Chilean miners

I see that 26 of the rescued Chilean miners have just been welcomed to Manchester United by football legend Bobby Charlton.

Back in October my wife heard an astonishing interview about their rescue on Radio Five Live’s Drive programme.

Reverend Alfredo Cooper, chaplain to Chile’s president, spoke to presenter Peter Allen and gave an amazing testimony about the role prayer and faith had played in the whole drama.

I found the interview on ‘Listen Again’ later that night and transcribed it on this site.

Others copied and pasted the words and a recording of the interview appeared on you tube and on other websites.

Later a friend pointed out to me that one of the miners was wearing the CCC logo of Campus Crusade for Christ on the right shoulder of his T-shirt and the Jesus Film ‘Jesus’ on the left shoulder. The front of the shirt carried the Chilean Flag with the words ‘Gracias Senor’ (Thank you Lord!)

You can see the pictures on this site.

I have just this last week received word of another video featuring the miners titled Chile, The Miners, and Respect for Life.

The six minute video features video footage of the rescue along with interview clips but then goes on to give a prolife message and show some fascinating Chilean government adverts on marriage, family and pregnancy.

Chile has a strong judicial-legal system with their Constitution and civil, criminal, juvenile and health codes protecting the life of the unborn.

Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, apparently said that Chile’s respect for life mandated the great efforts to save the lives of the miners. A few days later, Cabinet Minister Carolina Schmidt publicly linked the Chilean effort to save the lives of the miners to their great respect for human life including protection of the unborn.

Schmidt had also previously announced a few months before at an international UN-related meeting in Brasilia, Brazil, that Chile’s new government is pro-life, and therefore would not accept abortion. As a result, some other Latin American countries followed Chile’s example, and subsequently made similar clarifications.

Chile is a pro-life model for the world in other ways too. It has the lowest maternal mortality rate in all of Latin America. This has been reduced by over 50% from 43.7 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 21.1 in 2008 placing it at 46th in the world just 7 places behind the US and primed to overtake.

This relationship between abortion rates and maternal mortality is important to note because abortion promoters are pedaling the false notion that legalising abortion reduces maternal mortality as a way of promoting abortion in developing countries.

This is one of the myths highlighted in CMF’s submission to the Department For International Development’s (DFID’s) recent consultation on maternal mortality.

Maternal deaths worldwide have in fact fallen from 500,000 to 343,000 between 1990 and 2008. This has nothing to do with abortion.

Our report concludes that the real solution to reducing maternal mortality is multi-level: addressing social attitudes, education and empowerment of women, good quality obstetric/midwifery care and better birth spacing.

Furthermore this is best achieved through positive engagement with religious leaders, communities and faith based organisations (FBOs).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Send a gift this Christmas that will really transform lives in the developing world

Do you feel you are just going through the motions this Christmas spending money on unneeded gifts?

Some friends told me last year that they had given each of their children a £50 allowance to buy Christmas gifts for people living in developing countries.

Their kids had grasped the opportunity with both hands, putting careful thought into their purchases, and even adding some of their own savings in an effort to make a real difference in the lives of those they were seeking to help.

The idea of 'buying a goat for Christmas' is not new but it is amazing to see the huge variety of other gifts that are now available on line. And for not much outlay at all.

On the Christian Aid site you can buy 5 mosquito nets for £15, a beehive for £12, and a 'wormery' for £7. 16 ducks go for £25 and a goat for £15.

Samaritan's Purse is offering four chickens for £10, a latrine for £15 or four blankets for £14.

From CBM £26 will provide enough Mectizan tablets to help 40 families for an entire year - stopping the progression of River Blindness (Onchocerciasis) and freeing them from the associated, debilitating symptoms. £15 will protect 50 children for 6 months from vitamin A deficiency and related loss of sight.

World Vision is offering piggeries (£60), llamas (£46) and sewing machines (£98).

These are just a few of the hundreds of imaginative options on these sites and others like Oxfam and Save the Children.

Why not make someone you have never met feel special this Christmas.

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.(Luke 12:33)

As Christian doctors today let’s, like Nehemiah, be people of prayer and perseverance

Nehemiah was the key figure, along with Ezra, who was used by God in the fifth century BC to help bring about one of the most profound revivals in biblical history.

He was a skilful politician, a clever strategist, a brilliant manager, a social reformer who championed the rights of the poor and an intransigent visionary who never gave up despite threats and opposition from those in high places

His achievements were monumental. He rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem in 52 days when it had lain in ruins for 150 years. He re-established full employment in a climate of economic recession. He reconstructed an effective social welfare system for the marginalized and reintroduced Bible exposition resulting in nationwide repentance and revival. He reinstated public worship and rooted out heresy and idolatry.

He was used by God to put a whole nation back on its feet.

But first of all Nehemiah was a passionate man of prayer. When he was told that ‘those who survived the exile…are in great trouble and disgrace’ and that ‘the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire’ his response was to weep, fast, pray and then offer himself to God as part of the solution.

When opponents tried to discourage him by pointing out his meager resources, small progress thus far, strength of the opposition and size of the task he asked God to ‘turn their insults back on their own heads’. And when he felt his strength was giving out he called upon God to ‘strengthen my hands’.

When his perseverance was rewarded with the completion of the wall we read that his enemies ‘were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.

As Christian doctors today we are involved in a similar task of rebuilding in a similarly broken society. Our consulting rooms, clinics and hospital wards are filled with people who have physical, social and spiritual needs. Some are reaping the consequences of poor life-style choices. Others are there through no fault of their own or because they have been sinned against.

Every day we are sent like the first disciples to preach good news, heal the sick and be advocates for those who have no voice. The task is huge. The progress is slow. The resources seem inadequate. The opposition is strong.

Let’s also, like Nehemiah, be people of prayer and perseverance.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Further Stem Cell advance brings clinical trials with ethically produced embryonic-like stem cells one step closer

Ethical stem cell treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis are moving ever closer.

Ever since scientists first switched adult human cells into an embryonic-like state from which they can develop into any tissue type, recipes for making these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells have multiplied. These cells provide an ethical alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells which are produced by destroying human embryos.

In October I reported on a huge stem cell advance unnoticed by the British media under the title ‘American scientists make new breakthrough in producing embryonic-like stem cells by ethical means’.

Derrick Rossi and colleagues of Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute had reported online that they had produced induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from skin cells using modified forms of messenger RNA. The new technique appeared to be one hundred times more efficient than that initially pioneered by Yamanaka who produced iPS by introducing DNA into adult cells using viral vectors. Shinya Yamanaka's group at Kyoto University in Japan — one of two to first create iPS cells — infected adult cells with viruses carrying the genes OCT3/4, SOX2, KLF4 and c-MYC.

Now, in a further step forward, researchers have replaced all but one of the genes used by Yamanaka with a cocktail of chemicals, taking scientists a step closer to creating patient-specific iPS cells that could be used in the clinic.

The advance, by chemist Sheng Ding at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, and his colleagues (S. Zhu et al. Cell Stem Cell 7, 651–655; 2010) is an adaptation of the approach originally developed by Yamanaka.

In 2008, Ding's team showed that a mixture of chemicals and two genes could reprogram neural progenitor cells, which already express other genes needed to make iPS cells (Y. Shi et al. Cell Stem Cell 2, 525–528; 2008).

Now his group has made human iPS cells from skin cells by treating them with drugs and just one virus-delivered gene, OCT4. The resulting cells express the same genes as embryonic stem cells and can transform into different types of cell.

OCT4 can be replaced as well, so an iPS protocol entirely free of foreign genes shouldn't be far off. Ding says that his team has already created mouse iPS cells using only drugs, and is making progress with human cells.

Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts, says that iPS cells should soon be safe enough to test in humans. ‘I think we now have the tools to contemplate clinical trials.’

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Margo Macdonald’s criticisms of the Care Not Killing Alliance are without foundation

In the two hour debate that immediately preceded the overwhelming 85-16 defeat of her End of Life assistance (Scotland) Bill in the Holyrood Parliament last Wednesday, Margo Macdonald MSP spent almost her entire opening and closing speeches launching a scathing attack on the Care Not Killing Alliance (CNK).

In statements that were widely reported by the media, she condemned CNK’s campaign as ‘cheap and unworthy’, its literature as ‘tacky’ and said that she wanted to get her ‘retaliation’ in first’.

Care Not Killing is actually a broad alliance of over 40 organisations including human rights groups, faith groups, professional groups, disabled peoples organisations. It was founded in 2006 to oppose Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill’ which was defeated in the House of Lords on 12 May that year.

CNK’s two aims are to promote good palliative care and to oppose any weakening of the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia. Operating as a cobelligerent coalition it has been extremely effective.

CNK has been engaged at every stage in the debate surrounding Margo Macdonald’s Bill. It produced a detailed briefing paper and written submission for the committee scrutinising the bill and was invited also to give oral evidence. Later it coordinated a campaign encouraging ordinary Scots to write to their MSPs and send postcards outlining objections to the bill.

In this way CNK placed an active part along with many other individuals and organisations in the democratic process that ultimately led to the bill’s heavy defeat.

But we need to remember that CNK’s submission was just one of 601 written submissions sent to the committee and that 86% of all submissions opposed the bill with only 6% in favour. We also need to remember that five out of the six MSPs on the committee recommended that the bill be rejected at the first stage debate.

We need to give MSPs the credit they deserve. They decided to reject the bill after an exhaustive democratic process during which both sides were given ample opportunity to present their arguments and after an objective, dispassionate review of the issues.

Margo Macdonald’s bill was rejected because it was judged by MSPs overwhelmingly to constitute a real danger to vulnerable people.

CNK outlines the failings of the bill on its website and I would recommend this concise analysis to anyone wanting to see quickly what its deficiencies are:

I leave the final words to Gordon Macdonald, CNK Scotland’s Policy Officer, who has formally responded to Margo Macdonald’s criticisms in a letter to the Herald.

You report Margo MacDonald’s condemnation of Care Not Killing (CNK) for our campaign against her Bill. In particular she seems to object to our response cards, which enabled people to express their opposition to her proposals.

We did not misrepresent the proposals in her Bill. Indeed, many of our criticisms of the Bill were shared by the parliamentary committee that considered the matter. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are highly charged and emotive issues. It is no surprise our campaign should provoke such a vehement reaction.

Ms MacDonald cannot dismiss the 21,000 people who responded to her Bill, using material provided by CNK, to indicate their opposition to her proposals. Of the 601 written responses to the parliamentary committee, some 86% were opposed to her Bill.

Ms MacDonald quotes opinion polls when they support her Bill, but cries foul when those who are opposed to her Bill express their opinion in substantial numbers. This is democratic politics in action and Ms MacDonald has to accept there is also a substantial and considered public and political opposition to her proposals.

The vast majority of MSPs considered her proposals and concluded that they should not be supported.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Overwhelming defeat for Margo Macdonald's End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill

Tonight, the Scottish Parliament has voted overwhelmingly by 85 to 16 to reject Margo Macdonald's End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill at its first stage debate.

I warned earlier on this blog that Margo Macdonald was seriously misleading the Scottish people about the number of deaths that would result if her bill were to be passed.

It was not surprising that 87% of all who made written submissions to the scrutinising committee were opposed to it and the committee overwhelmingly recommended that it be rejected. Scottish GPs later added their voices.

I said last week that it was now time to bury the bill and tonight the Scottish Parliament did just that. You can read the transcript on line.

Commenting on this result, Gordon Macdonald of Care Not Killing Alliance, said:

'This is a fantastic result and a victory for the most vulnerable in our community. The detailed scrutiny and exhaustive investigation that this bill has had over many months and the sheer magnitude of its defeat should settle this issue in Scotland for a generation.

MSPs have voted overwhelmingly today to reject in principle the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in Scotland recognizing that such a move would seriously endanger public safety. They have instead sent a ringing endorsement to making the very best palliative care widely available and accessible.

The key argument that decided this vote and the similar votes in the House of Lords in 2006 and 2009 is a simple one. The right to die can so easily become the duty to die. Vulnerable people who are sick, elderly or disabled can so easily feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to end their lives so as not to be a burden on others.

Parliament’s first responsibility is to protect the vulnerable and that is what they have voted to do today.’

I did an interview today with Christian Today on the bill that has been turned into a comment piece.