Start&end of life
The difference between a secularist/humanist outlook and a religious one is often very plain in matters concerning the beginning and end of life – bioethical questions concerning stem-cell and genetic research, medically-aided conception, abortion, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, etc.
The root of the difference lies in the religious view of life as a conditional gift from God by contrast with the humanist one of life as our own to optimise according to human considerations – and the secularist view that the state should not interfere in such matters on the basis of any religion or belief.
The EHF responded in November 2011 to an EU consultation on research policy with a robust rejection of religious interference in research using embryonic stem cells – see here.
Some years ago the EHF was actively concerned with bioethical questions. The following three documents indicate our stance at that time:
- Medically-assisted Procreation and the Protection of the Human Embryo – a paper by Georges Liénard for a symposium on bioethics at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on 15-18 December 1996.
- Comment (31 May 1997) by the Ethical Network attached to the Council of Europe (on which the EHF was represented) on a 1992 Council project for a convention on bioethics.
- Bioéthique, politique et économie – an article in French by Yvon Englert, a professor of fertility treatment at the Free University of Brussels, from our publication Bioethics in Europe (November 1998, 24 pp.), produced on the occasion of the adoption of the “Bioethics convention” of the Council of Europe.
Abortion is a fundamental right for women
is already legal in many European Union member states but some countries still impose tight restrictions on this fundamental right under the influence of conservative religious principles. For instance, in Ireland, abortion is illegal unless it is proved that the pregnancy will lead to the death of the mother. In Cyprus, it is illegal except in case of rape or for medical reasons. In Malta, it is illegal except in cases of rape or fetal abnormality. In Poland, it is illegal except in cases of rape, fetal abnormality or for medical reasons.
The EHF believes that these reactionary laws must be changed because they can create tragic situations and are an offence to women’s free choice. We have frequently stood up for women’s rights in our campaigning.
Georges Liénard, EHF acting general secretary, spoke at an important conference on “Abortion rights: what is at stake for the women of Europe?, organised by the Mouvement Français pour Le Planning Familial” (MFPF) and held on September 19-20 in Paris. It was organised by a number of bodies including the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the European Women’s Lobby. This is an English version of his address: the original French text is below.
The EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights prepared a report [opinion N° 4-2005 du 14/12/2005]which is worth consideration at this symposium. This Opinion was sought in 2005 at the initiative of some of the associations represented here. It was relayed to the European Parliament and then to the European Commission by aworking group of the European Parliament that specializes in issues of separation of religion and politics.
The subject was the issue of conscientious objection on religious grounds raised by a proposed concordat between Slovakia and the Holy See.
The lawyers studied the draft arrangement to examine its compatibility with human rights and European Union legislation. Without going into details of the very carefully documented Opinion, which examines the right to conscientious objection in different countries, let us adopt its approach of considering the various rights which may come into conflict with conscientious objection so far as concerns free access to abortion services, and also euthanasia, contraception and artificial fertilization.
- First, the Opinion pointed out in a particularly clear way, that where abortion is legal legislation should ensure that the right to conscientious objection does not limit the effective right of every woman to have access to a medical abortion service. This entails three obligations on the State.
- First it must ensure that an effective solution is available to address any refusal to procure an abortion.
- Secondly, that an obligation is imposed on every medical practitioner exercising his right to conscientious objection on grounds of religious duty to refer a woman seeking an abortion to another doctor who is willing to perform abortions.
- Finally the State must ensure that a qualified practitioner who undertakes abortions is available, including in rural areas and places remote from urban centers. (§ 3.2; a)
- As to the concordat with Slovakia, the lawyers’ Network focussed on Articles 3 and 4 of the draft.
- Article 3 states that conscientious objection is an objection … “by which anyone can refuse to act in a way that his conscience finds incompatible with the teaching of faith and morals”, this teaching being understood as “the body of the teaching of the Catholic Church”.
- Article 4 of this document establishes that the right to conscientious objection applies in these areas and activities: “health care activities, particularly on abortion, assisted or artificial fertilization, experiments with and use of human organs, human embryos and sexual cells, sterilization and contraception.”
The Opinion finds three threats in these Articles. (5.2)
1 – they are discriminatory against those who practise a different religion and those who have no religion, and generally, people whose moral principles are not governed by the principles of official ‘ Catholic Church.
2 – They will force the Slovak Republic to violate several international conventions such as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
3 – They will force the Slovak Republic to violate the Council Directive giving effect to the principle of equal treatment of men and women to access for goods and services. (Council directive 2004/113/EC of 13/12/2004)
This opinion of the independent expert group attracted little attention in Western countries, but in contrast it brought about the fall of the Slovak government. There is no time to go into the political aspects of these issues, but it is interesting to consider some ethical implications.
It is important to remember that bioethical issues are, by definition, multidimensional, and that thorough debates are needed in society preceded by as full an exploration as possible of the various aspects of the problem. It is probably here that the ethical approach is different from [religious] morality.
Ethics, especially bio-ethics, is based above all on consideration that if possible takes into account all angles on the question. It differs fundamentally from the assertion of a normative doctrine, whether religious in nature or otherwise.
Thus the concept of human dignity can lead to dogmatic and fundamentalist positions especially if a particular conception of dignity (as sacred and therefore untouchable) is treated as fundamental and one seeks to deduce all values and all standards from it. By contrast, we see respect for human dignity as respect for individual autonomy.
So we must wonder at the paradox that if you base action on an abstract conception of human dignity you are prevented from taking into account the dignity of a person in difficulty and seeking an abortion. This is the difference between purely abstract concept of “Respect for Life” and that of respect for the “quality of life” of a person.
The first concept is based on doctrinal considerations, often but not always religious, while ethics requires a more complex approach where the outcome is not known in advance.
This approach is closely linked to an ongoing assessment of situations and knowledge, and also risks, and underlies the development of a new form of “social regulation”, namely, ethics committees. A pragmatic ethics forgoes anticipation and resolution of all problems in advance and so cannot be satisfied with the a priori determination of solutions for all issues.
Finally, if we return to to the draft concordat and the report by the legal experts, it is clear that a church was giving itself authority to influence the legislative processes of an independent state, to the extent of intervening directly in its civil law about questions of fundamental rights. But the priority of civil law over special considerations of a religious nature remains a fundamental issue of secularism.
It is in this spirit that the Working Group of the European Parliament on the Separation of Religion and Politics has recently set itself the target of initiating consideration of various sources of opposition to real-life exercise of fundamental rights (divorce , abortion, contraception, sexual equality), opposition that is felt as much at the level of the European institutions as in member countries of the Union (see, for example, the colloquium of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, Brussels, 27/08/2008).
This question has a political side as affecting democracy but at the same time requires deep reflection within civil society.
Euthanasia is a personal decision which must be respected
The great majority of Humanists and Secularists support legal provision for voluntary euthanasia or assisted dying subject to necessary safeguards in circumstances where people are suffering unendurable pain or loss of faculties and there is no hope of cure or improvement.
Since we hold that this is the only life we have and that we are not beholden to any deity, we see it as essentially a personal decision whether or not to accept help to end one’s life. Many will wish to continue to the end; but many will wish to have a good and easy death rather than endure a humiliating and unrewarding conclusion to their lives.
In taking such a decision, as with any other decision a humanist takes, one must take account of the effects the decision may have on others – which includes not just the burden that caring for them places on others but also the possibly devastating effect of their loss on close family and friends.
It can only be a highly personal decision but it is one people should be free to take, with safeguards to guard against real or imagined pressure from family and against the effects of clinical depression, etc.
The EHF has over the years issued a number of statements critical of the position of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and some of its members, calling on it to reconsider its restrictive position.
Here are some links to relevant material:
Euthanasia: We must promote solidarity (article by Georges Liénard – October 1995)
Press release deploring PACE resolution (28 June 1999)
Press release protesting at PACE rapporteur’s statement (December 2000)
Statement on the PACE Debate on Voluntary Euthanasia (4 October 2002)
Euthanasia: opponents reduced to underhand manoeuvres (23 February 2012)
No to Death Penalty
The EHF is opposed to the use of the death penalty. It issued the following statement on 3 March 2002, partly in reaction to the death sentence for blasphemy passed on Dr Younis Shaikh in Pakistan. Dr Shaikh and Safyia Yakubu Hussaini were later reprieved, mainly as a result of international pressure.
The Board of the European Humanist Federation, meeting in Brussels, on 3 March 2002 :
- has noted that on numerous occasions, severe corporal punishment, amputation and flogging, are practised by several States,
- is indignant that sentence to death is pronounced for religious reasons, in particular in Pakistan against Doctor Yunous Shaikh, accused of blasphemy, and in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, against Ms Safyia Yakubu Hussaini, accused of adultery even though she is not married,
- urges the Institutions of the European Union to take all possible steps so that those States put an end to such practices.
The European Humanist Federation defends the right to freedom of religion and of conviction, but cannot accept that, by misusing religious freedom, such excesses are committed.
This content last updated 21 March 2013 @ 12:48 pm