Britain is a veritable hotpot of cultures, with Christians, agnostics, atheists or even Jedis taking its share of the census. But why is it that despite religion’s unwillingness to conform to modernity, 21st century politics is still bending to the will of an antiquated tradition? It’s a disaster waiting to backfire.

Earlier this week, Tony Nicklinson, a long-term sufferer of locked-in syndrome won his case to go to the High Court, in order to lawfully end his life at the hands of medical professionals. It was a mini success for those advocating civil liberties, but a major setback for religious establishments, with the Church’s moral compass spinning uncontrollably. ‘Pro-life’ alliance Care Not Killing has said that the current law was “clear and right,” claiming that Mr Nicklinson’s case is an “assault on the Murder Act 1965.”

However, what Care Not Killing conveniently forgets to state is the fact that Mr Nicklinson does not have a choice in terms of wanting to have an assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. “Mercy killing” as it is widely known, refers to the active termination of another’s life to end some form of incurable suffering to which that person is subjected to, with informed consent.

Although both are forms are illegal in England and Wales, in the case of assisted suicide proceedings can only be taken by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions which will only be given where it would be in the public interest to prosecute.

As a result of this where a person clearly wishes to commit suicide, but requires assistance to do so, it may be less likely that the DPP will prosecute a person providing such assistance. However, the 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales, and a person could face up to 14 years in prison in doing so. Hence, it isn’t as straightforward as asking for permission to end a person’s life.

Yet, in Mr Nicklinson’s case, who is completely paralysed, suicide is not even a valid option, which limits his choices to voluntary euthanasia. Mr Nicklinson released a statement that summed up the issue eloquently: “I was given no choice as to whether or not I wanted to be saved […]What I object to is having my right to choose taken away from me after I had been saved.”

“Why should I be denied a right, the right to die of my own choosing, when able-bodied people have that right and only my disability prevents me from exercising that right? […]It’s no longer acceptable for 21st century medicine to be governed by 20th century attitudes to death.”

No doubt, it raises a complex issue in terms of how far a person may go to help others. But in a ‘democratic’ world, it is a fundamental right to have choices, in spite of the pro-life alliance’s incongruous thoughts: “Even in a free democratic society there are limits to choice.” Unsurprisingly, the coalition includes: the Christian Medical Fellowship, Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

In 2008, 45-year-old MS sufferer Debbie Purdy invited the judicial system, to do what parliament has declined to do, which is to define the reasons under which euthanasia will be allowed, if not yet regulated. In this she was supported by a YouGov poll putting support for assisted euthanasia at 86% (in 2010, it was 87 %.) A poll for Dignity in Dying records 76% support, and a British Medical Association survey of doctors 56%. Again, the government took a backseat in the euthanasia debate.

And true to form, the (former) Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams confessed to the Telegraph that “every life in every imaginable situation is infinitely precious in the sight of God.” So this isn’t really about people suffering from terminal illnesses, having the choice to end life in dignity, it’s about the religious ‘moral’ obligation to a ‘God,’ and the fact it is considered a ‘sin.’

A shame really, as in 2007, Dr Williams said an oft-quoted passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans meant to warn Christians not to be self-righteous when they see others fall into sin, specifically to those Conservative Christians who cite the Bible to condemn homosexuality.

Let us reiterate, religion has taken a massive tumble in the polls according to YouGov, claiming that only 29% of people are practicing their faith in the UK. So why do the minority still have such a stronghold over the government?

Following Dr William’s speech about ‘sin’ in the Telegraph, he then drew parallels to the growth of abortion since it was introduced, with around 200,000 pregnancies a year now terminated in Britain. He said: “The default position on abortion has shifted quite clearly over the last 40 years and to seek a change in the default position on the sanctity of life would be a disaster.”

Controlling women’s bodies by means of religion has been part and parcel of the history of misogyny. Unfortunately, it is still very apparent in the US, and is now slowly creeping back into UK legislation. Whether it is on the topic of contraception or abortion, establishments have been bringing religious ideologies into women’s reproductive systems, regardless of scientific evidence proving otherwise.

Since the inauguration of the Conservative parliament in May 2010, sexual health reforms have been hit the hardest by the government. From strongly favouring cuts to the current 24-week upper time limit on abortion to the issuing of anti-choice group LIFE on the sexual health forum board over leading abortion provider, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) it seems the UK is backtracking after decades of progress.

In May 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron put forward a motion for the abortion time limit to be cut to 20 weeks and Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, to 22 weeks. However, due to widespread campaigning by both pro-choice advocates as well as thousands of disgruntled women, MPs voted 304 votes to 233 to retain the current abortion time limit of 24 weeks.

Louise Hutchins, Abortion Rights Campaign Coordinator said: “The Commons vote against anti-abortion amendments is a decisive win for women and the pro-choice movement. Despite a sensationalist and misleading campaign by the anti-abortion lobby, women’s voices, the wealth of medical evidence and the majority of the population have been listened to. This must now be the end of anti-abortion attacks on women’s crucial rights.”

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, a firm promoter of the anti-choice bill, backed by many religious lobbying groups was one of those responsible for the appointment of LIFE’s pregnancy counselling centres to sexual advisory health board. The pro-life service conveniently are unable to provide contraceptive services as well as testing for sexually transmitted infections, as they are not included on the Department of Health’s register of Pregnancy Advisory Bureau, not to mention, they violently oppose abortion. Do the government want women to return to backstreet abortions, essentially putting their own life at risk?

And if it isn’t religion dictating choices to live or die, to give birth or not to; it’s choosing who can be married under the eyes of the law. The government may have made some headway with enforcing civil partnerships, and current plans to legalise same-sex marriages, however, as Home Secretary Theresa May reiterated it has “nothing to do with telling the Church what to do” and that religious marriage would remain illegal. Although this is clearly no longer the case.

Now even the Bible has been lost in translation and muddled by interpretation, asserting that homosexuality may or may not be a ‘sin.’ Either way, the only thing that religion has done for its reputation is make sure people feel sufficiently oppressed and alienated from an old-fashioned mentality. It’s really no wonder that there are so few practicing any religion.

The Bishop of Leicester, The Right Reverend Tim Stevens has said that the “government has gone too far” in terms of civil marriage, according to an ITV News report. However, the point he raises is that of ‘procreation’, stating that same-sex marriages would be unable to fulfil the purpose of matrimony. But again, without taking 21st century technology and social politics into account; IVF treatments, sperm donors, surrogacy, pregnant men, and the collapse of the ‘nuclear’ family – marriage isn’t the same as what it used to be.

In a world where science and innovation is progressing at warp speed, why is politics continually held back by irrelevant, outdated cultural interpretations? Let’s not forget the hundreds of wars that have been fought thanks to that Molotov cocktail of religion and politics. In their Encyclopaedia of Wars, authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod document at least 123 wars involving religious conflict.

Even now, areas in Northern Ireland are affected by three decades of violence between the Roman Catholics and Protestant unionist community. The Serbian Orthodox Christian attacks on Muslims during the Bosnian war were elevated to the level of genocide. And currently small scale conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects in Iraq, and even pacifistic Buddhists have been at the end of long-term battles in Thailand and Tibet.

Whether in the name of a crusade or jihad, the hypocrisy that stands can be summed up into one phrase: “Love thy neighbour,” but with a fifty-foot barbed wire fence between you and your fellow citizen. So why should one stay far away from the other? Because while religion is riddled with contradictions; politics acts upon it, making it a messy reality for those in society.

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About suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a 25 year old writer, journalist and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC. Winner of the Emma Humphries Memorial Prize in 2007, also shortlisted for the Guardian Mary Stott Prize in the same year, and more recently longlisted for the Guardian International Development Award. Has worked in China, India and the UK and currently writes on a freelance basis. Works as a digital producer for ITV News, but views are all her own.

2 responses »

  1. redcommissar says:

    I’ve not looked to see what support for euthanasia is in the United States. The last time it really came to the public’s attention was the case of Terry Schiavo some years back. There were other problems wrapped up in that case but it took similar dimensions with ‘pro-life’ arguments and such. It was greatly compounded though by Schiavo’s inability to express herself though due to being nearly brain dead, so then it became a case of who had the right to say what she wanted.

    Lot of pro-life things are just highly politicized anyways. In the United States at least their pro-life positions only extend to the question of abortion, but the same position on life is absent on say, the death penalty, which by and large the same crowd typically supports strongly.

    • suswatibasu says:

      Absolutely, capital punishment is also a part of the debate, and highly contradicted by those who support it. Yes the ‘pro-life’ stance is a complete misnomer, and to be honest shouldn’t be referred to as such, because it isn’t the life of the actual person they are valuing, but the person’s position under the eyes of religion.

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