Monday, 30 January 2012

Event report: Philip Satherley - 'The Case for Assisted Dying'

Time: 19 January 2012, 19:00-21:00
Place: Ramsay LT, Christopher Ingold Building, University College London

We invited Philip Satherley, the Research and Policy Officer of Dignity in Dying (DiD), to give a talk on assisted dying.

DiD is a UK organisation campaigning for the legislation of assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. They work alongside Compassion in Dying, a partner organisation focused on informing and supporting terminally ill individuals concerning their current choices and rights at the end of life.

To introduce the topic, Satherley sought to clarify what is meant by assisted dying, and its definition relative to similar concepts:
  • Assisted dying applies to terminally ill, mentally competent adults who are medically deemed to have less than 6 months to live; and who have met strict criteria and safeguards, including psychological tests. This involves the patient receiving life-ending medication, which they will self-administer at their own will - quite often this is done at a very advanced stage in their terminal illness. Assisted dying is practiced legally in Oregon and Washington. 
  • Assisted suicide applies to not only terminally ill individuals, but also chronically ill and disabled individuals who wish to receive assistance to terminate their life. This is legalised in Switzerland. 
  • Voluntary euthanasia allows a medical doctor to administer life-terminating medication - usually injection - directly to the patient. Strict safeguards and tests are still undergone. Voluntary euthanasia is practiced in the Netherlands and Belgium. 
  • Non-voluntary euthanasia applies to cases where the patient has lost all mental capacity, yet a third-party administers life-ending medication without the explicit consent of the patient. This is not to be confused with involuntary euthanasia, which is when euthanasia is performed against the will of the patient. While illegal all across the world, non-voluntary euthanasia is practiced in the Netherlands under the Groningen Protocol.
Satherley stressed that DiD campaigns for assisted dying only, specifically addressing critical safeguards such as appropriate mental capacity, 18 years of age, the patient having a terminal illness and voluntarily and repeatedly having requested assisted dying.

Two examples of personal stories illustrate the types of cases DiD works with:
  • Waltraud Coles: Waltraud's husband wrote to DiD telling them about his wife's struggle with advanced secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. Due to excessive fatigue and severely limited mobility, severe side effects from partially effective pain relief, and an onset of pneumonia, she self-terminated her life by refusing all foods and water for 19 days. Her last words were: "Society is making me die in this abysmally cruel way. Society is anybody who cannot be bothered to lift one single finger to change this (current) inhumane law, and thus give completely helpless people like myself, in the very advanced phase of a degenerative illness, no other legal option (than starvation) when we want to end the unbearable daily ordeal which is all that is left of our 'life'."
  • Geraldine McClelland: A member of DiD, Geraldine contacted the organisation when she was informed of her terminal illness - lung and liver cancer metastasised from breast cancer. On the day of her death, she wrote a letter to DiD, detailing her actions and what she believed needed to be changed in UK legislation regarding assisted dying. Her condition, which involved serious breathing problems, had confined her to her home. She wanted the option to take life-ending medication to terminate her life surrounded by friends and family. However, as UK laws prevent this, she travelled to Dignitas, an assisted dying organisation in Switzerland. As she could not die in her own country, she pleaded for the UK laws to be changed such that other people would not need to travel abroad in order to die. 
Importantly, and also expressed by Waltraud Coles, Geraldine believed loved ones should not be in a position of breaking the law in such situations. Debbie Purdy, suffering from multiple sclerosis, won a significant case through the House of Lords where she succeeded in arguing that the partner of a terminally ill patient should not be prosecuted when accompanying them abroad for assisted dying.

Satherley proceeded to summarise why DiD strongly believes laws should be changed to allow assisted dying in the UK:
  • Personal autonomy: as Sir Patrick Stewart, one of the patrons of DiD, put it - "We have no control over how we arrive in the world, but at the end of a life we should have legal control over how we leave it."
  • Research from Oregon: approximately 40% of patients receiving life-terminating medication choose not to use it, but consider the option a great comfort or an 'insurance policy'; most patients are well-educated, medically insured (i.e. no financial difficulty), had no prior disabilities or mental illness, and had cancer as the underlying cause of illness; and while some had symptoms of depression, all patients receiving assisted death had full mental capacity and were able to make rational decisions. 
  • Opinions of the general public: the 2010 British Attitude Survey (BAS) found that 82% of the general public supported assisted suicide, and the 2008 BAS found that 80% supported assisted dying. 
  • Opinions of religious people: breaking down the survey between religious and non-religious people, the 2010 BAS found that 92% of non-religious people supported assisted dying and assisted suicide, while 72% of religious people did the same.

One important question that was raised during the following Q&A session was why DiD campaigns for assisted dying, specifically, and not the other forms of euthanasia. Satherley stressed the importance of having safeguards in place, e.g. ensuring that the patient has a terminal illness, and not a chronic illness or disability which may be open for improvement of life quality. Moreover, DiD believes it is essential that physicians are involved as there are problems with taking the procedures out of the medical system; and that voluntary euthanasia ultimately takes the final decision out of the hands of the patient by - to an extent - forcing the practitioner to end an individual's life. 

DiD campagins for what the UCLU ASHS believes is a very important cause, and they are always looking for people to get involved. If you want to join the campaign, they can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Event report: Keith Porteous Wood - 'Religious Threats to Equalities'

Time: 12 January 2012, 19:00-21:00
Place: Harry Massey LT, 25 Gordon Street, University College London

UCLU ASHS welcomed Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society (NSS) to give a talk on the special privileges and exemption from laws given to religious people in society. Having been in his current position since 1996, Wood leads the NSS in lobbying the UK government and Parliament, focusing on universal equalities and human rights. While his job description is to promote equalities and human rights, Wood began his talk saying he is actually fighting religion all of the time, 'so often it's religion that's the problem.'

Wood gave several examples of cases he had dealt with in his work throughout his talk, to illustrate the manner in which religious bodies claim exemption from various codes of conduct. These include the disadvantages faced by teachers in faith schools, the vast majority of whom are not religious, yet work in schools whose authorities can legally employ and dismiss qualified teachers on the basis of their religious beliefs. Similarly, the NSS has been involved in cases of individuals being discharged from job positions on the basis of their sexual orientation. While such instances angered Parliament, the Blair government at the time (2003) let these cases pass  - which 'gives an idea of exactly how much influence religion has in government.' The cumulative effect of having had religious Prime Ministers almost exclusively for the past 30 years is huge.

To further illustrate the kind of fights and their scope the NSS has to encounter, Wood described a case under the Brown government, whereby it was stated there should not be any concessions in VAT for religious places of worship. Wood and the NSS wanted this to be generalised to all public places - however, this request was rejected. It was not until Wood wrote an appeal to Brussels, that the UK government finally gave in. The work of the NSS spans broad horizons, then, as there interventions at a European level and occasionally in the UN. Although the Fundamental Rights Agency has been set up under the EU to look into human rights issues around Europe, tied to e.g. immigration and homophobia, Wood argued that a fundamental problem is the immense power of churches: their historical roots coupled with well-developed and well-funded networks of people part of a large hierarchical organisation, make the fight for human rights and equalities particularly challenging. To illustrate this, he described an episode during one of his visits to the headquarters of the European Commission - purposed to be a secular organisation - where he witnessed a male secretary greet a visiting bishop by kissing his ring.

Another fundamental problem, is the heterogeneity of the religious population: as many religious people are rather liberal and secular, there is a huge mismatch of democracy that religious representatives have so much power. This illustrates a worrying misrepresentation of the religious population. Indeed, in his conclusion of his talk, Wood argued that the entire religious make-up of the country is changing. Roughly 7% of the population go to church on a regular Sunday, at a rate that is constantly dropping, while the average age of church-goers increase at a meteoric rate. Considering this, it is 'absolutely bloody terrifying what they [religious bodies] can do because of their noddy religious status.'

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Event report: 'Sharia Law Negates Human Rights' - a debate co-hosted with One Law For All

Time: 8 December 2011, 18:00-21:00
Place: Bedford Way LG04, 26 Bedford Way, University College London

Alongside One Law For All, a human rights campaign opposing Sharia Law in Britain with the view that it violates the principles of equality grounded in UK law, UCLU ASHS hosted a debate on the motion 'Sharia Law Negates Human Rights.' Debaters in proposition were Maryam Namazie, human rights campaigner and spokesperson for One Law For All; and Anne-Marie Waters, human rights lawyer and also a spokesperson for the campaign. Debaters in opposition were Ayazz Mahmood, representative from the UK Ahmadiyya Muslim University of Theology and Languages; and Jonathan Butterworth, UCL Law Faculty lecturer and member of the human rights charity Just Fair. 

Moderator of the debate, 4th year medical student Jacob Ressa, introduced the topic by referring to the recent media attention dedicated to the prospects of implementing Sharia Law into the Western legal systems. He clarified that this was not to be a debate on the existence of Sharia, but its nature and whether it is compatible with human rights.

Each debater was given 20 minutes to put forth their argument, before the floor opened up for Q&A.

Namazie stated that the two terms, Sharia Law and human rights, are 'antiethical, contradictory, and oppositional', highlighting features of Sharia Law's criminal code, which includes stoning individuals to death for adultery and executions for homosexuality. Drawing a parallel between Sharia Law and the history of Christianity, she emphasised that Sharia Law is 'brutal, it's medieval, it's barbaric.'

Further, Namazie stressed that Sharia Law not only negates human rights, but also women's rights, referring to how a woman's testimony is worth half the that of man as, supposedly, 'women are governed by emotion, men are governed by the mind', and that men have unilateral right to divorce while women do not. To further illustrate the subjection of women by Sharia Law, she strongly questioned the Sharia Law argument that 'marital rape is not an aggression, because sexual intercourse is a part of the marriage; calling it 'rape' is an aggression.' A qualifying argument that is often raised, is that individuals subscribing to Islam are free to attend Sharia courts or UK courts as they see fit. Namazie countered this, however, by noting that Muslim women often do not have a choice, but are driven into these courts by their husbands to renegotiate decisions already made in a UK court.

The danger of human rights proponents not speaking up against Sharia Law, Namazie argued, is that it would leave an open space for far-right movement to take on that role. While right-wing extremists have unfavourably hijacked the view of opposing Islam and Sharia Law, she considers right-wing extremism and Sharia Law to be equally anti-human rights and racist.

Finally, Namazie emphasised that while she is of the perspective that 'religions are equal and equally bad', her attack on Sharia Law is not an attack on the religion of Islam, but rather an attack on how Sharia Law 'violates rights left, right and center.'

In opposition, Mahmood stated that Namazie and other human rights activists have a gross misunderstanding of the nature of true Sharia. The Law as presented by Namazie and as acted out in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, he argued, is not representative of Islam and Sharia. He emphasised that Islamic jurisprudence consists of different schools of thought, each with their own interpretation of Sharia Law. The only authentic source of Sharia is The Holy Koran, according to which Sharia Law does not negate human rights, as it is fundamentally based on principles of humanity.

Mahmood then proceeded to address each of Namazie's and other Sharia Law opponents' criticism of the Law's criminal code with the argument that none of the human rights-violating codes practiced are prescribed in the Koran. For instance, forced marriages are not condoned - rather, the Koran states that the consent of the bride is necessary for marriage.  Moreover, on the violation of women's rights, Mahmood pointed out that Islam afforded rights to women 14 centuries ahead of Western countries. He attributed Sharia opponents' objections to their lack of detailed study of the Koran and misunderstanding of facts; and noted that misuse of Sharia Law is not representative of the true Sharia as originated in the Koran. To draw a parallel, he argued that secular laws have been equally misused in history, e.g. in the world wars and the USSR - but that these are not representative of Western secular values in general.

Nevertheless, Mahmood highlighted that an Islamic government is a secular government, based on equal justice and adherence to human rights, and with no religious compulsion: 'religion does not need to be the predominant legislatory power in a state.' He then emphasised the necessity to join forces and reach a common ground against violations of human rights, by promoting the true Sharia.

Waters countered Mahmood's argument that Sharia Law cannot negate human rights as it is originated in the Koran, by stating, 'Sharia is what Sharia does', i.e. 1400-year-old philosophical origins are not an argument against what is actually happening under Sharia Law in the UK today. While Namazie gave a passionate and moral argument against Sharia Law, Waters set out to provide a legal point of view, to prove that the motion is a matter of fact. Referring to paragraphs in the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as the UK adheres to, she demonstrated how Sharia Law - as it is practiced today - violates these. Examples of violated articles from the UN Declaration include:
  1. Article 4 'No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms': Waters noted that children are still allowed to be married in Yemen, with the argument 'because this happened to the Prophet, we cannot prohibit children to be married'
  2. Article 5 'No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment': in Afghanistan, thousands of women are imprisoned because they have been raped. 

Aware of the counterargument from Sharia proponents that such practices do not represent true Sharia, Waters repeatedly stated, 'Is this not true Sharia? The Sharia councils seem to think so - if you don't like it, then take it up with them.' To emphasise the importance of protecting human rights and its relevance to Sharia Law, her concluding statement was, 'Human rights are all we've got and human beings are all we've got. If human rights apply to women, then we need to get rid of Sharia, because they trample on the rights of women, and that is a fact.'

Finally, Butterworth brought forth the view that both opponents and proponents of the motion arguing for the same case; however, kept talking past each other as they were referring to different notions of Sharia Law. As a recent converted Muslim, he believes that the acts performed in the name of Sharia is 'disgusting' - 'But is it true Sharia? No.'

Echoing Mahmood's closing statements, Butterworth stated that freedom is the basis of both human rights and Islam, and that Islam thus guarantees universal human rights. Referring to J.S. Mill's harm principle as an essential component of freedom, Butterworth acknowledged that Islam is often criticised for violating this principle by advocating religious compulsion. He countered this by quoting the Koran: 'there is no compulsion in religion', i.e. Islam advocates choice and secularism. He further referred to the Koran to demonstrate its promotion of universal human rights - for example, the Prophet Muhammed famously declared that all people are sacred and inviolable.

Butterworth then set out to argue for Sharia's protection of economic and social rights, children's rights, and women's rights. For instance, 2.5% of every Muslim's wealth goes to promote social and economic rights for the most vulnerable members of the population - thus, Sharia takes an explicit human rights approach by acknowledging the rights of those who ask for help and need it. With regards to women's rights, the Koran states that women and men are in equity, but that men are above women in responsibility: 'If Sharia was applied properly, it would be the men who would be complaining.' Finally, the Koran deals with children's rights by stating that those dealing with minors should care for them equally as if they were their own. Thus, Butterworth argued, true Islam and Sharia seek to protect human rights - if it does not, it means it is not true Islam. He concluded by commending the One Law For All campaign for working against the human-rights violating acts that are practiced in the name of Sharia Law today.

Much debate was sparked by issues raised by audience members during the Q&A session. For example, a proponent of the motion sought to provide a source correction by pointing out that there is a verse in the Koran that does condone wife-beating. In response, Mahmood stated that the Koran advocates for married couples that the first step to communicate, the second step is to separate, and only if those two actions do not work, the third step is for the husband to arbitrate when the wife is being severely impossible. Importantly, however, it is stated that the husband is not to inflict any physical pain upon the wife. Namazie and Waters both argued that the Koran allows the husband to get away with domestic abuse by hiding behind a verse. Moreover, Waters questioned the status such a verse gives to women: 'You can be hit, but without a mark?' Another issue raised, was that of citizens explicitly wanting a Sharia government: during the Arab Spring, the niqab was banned under Gaddafi - while the first thing Liberian women did following liberation was to reinstate it. In response, Namazie noted that there is never a case where an entire population is Muslim, nor is every Muslim the same: 'Secularism is not every religion doing what they want in public space'.

It became apparent that the two sides of the motion maintained different concepts of 'Sharia Law', i.e. as it is practiced versus as it is truly described - which concept is the most relevant today is a question to brought forward.

Many thanks to One Law For All and the debate panel for partaking in this successful event on such an important topic.

For those of you who were unable to attend, here is a video of the debate:

Event report: Winterval Quiz & Social 2011

Time: 2 December 2011, 18:00-2200
Place: The Old Refectory, Wilkins Building, University College London

As the second academic term is commencing (and I've finally submitted my 10 000 words of coursework), it's time for a recap of our last two main events of the first term.

Joining forces for the first time with Central London Humanist Group (CLHG) and London Skeptics in the Pub (SitP), UCLU ASHS co-organised Winterval 2011, a fun night of quiz rounds, snacks and socialising to collect money for the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, a charity organisation working towards offering liberal, humanist education to children in need.

Maneuvering the show was comedian and writer Helen Keen, winner of the first Channel 4 New Comedy Writing Initiative Award. The event attracted around roughly 100 attendees, immersing themselves in questions on atheism, science, skepticism, and humanism; as well as general topics including music, history, geography and film.

7 rounds of questions - with bonus rounds in between - and several drinks later, the victory went to the team 'The Skeptics in the Pub', with 'The British Homeopathic Association', 'Nation of Quizlam', and 'Quizlamic Extremists as close runners-up.

With the combined sales from snacks and drinks throughout the night, donations at the entrance, and a generous contribution from an anonymous donator, we ended up sending off £2437.20 to the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust! This big accomplishment could not have been attained without the hard work of the co-organisers, Alice Fuller and Alex Gilbert, and Helen for running the event so smoothly; nor without all who decided to come for the night. Special thanks to those who volunteered to help out collecting donations and cleaning up afterwards. We hope you enjoyed the night and look forwards to similar events in the future!

 The quiz winners: The London Skeptics in the Pub

Happy London atheists