Ihave been asked to explain the strategy of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) on the (retitled) Mental Capacity Bill. SPUC has discussed this Bill in its various formats since 1995 and our strategy, of opposing its introduction, has been shared for most of that time by most pro-life groups, including sympathetic parliamentarians.
SPUC has also sought to change the government's mind over the content of the Bill. We have argued for substantial alterations for redrafting of the Bill — in successive consultation exercises, but the government does not want to do this. The Bill remains essentially the same. It will legalise euthanasia by neglect. Has anything changed to say that pro-life people can or should now support this Bill?
In recent months, following the consultation exercises, the Minister (Lord Filkin) has held small meetings with various interest groups (including SPUC). He has given assurances to allay pro-life concerns, but no commensurate changes have been made to the Bill.
SPUC maintains it is both morally required and strategically wise, to continue opposing the introduction of the Bill. We continue to express our concerns to the government, of course. Negotiation is not wrong in itself, though it can give us a false sense of our importance and influence. I should stress that SPUC respects the right of other groups to develop their own strategy, and we don't criticise others for talking to the Minister.
The leaders of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, have said they don't oppose the principles underpinning the Mental Incapacity Bill. Nor, they say, do the Catholic bishops. This is a very confusing and disturbing statement, because while it might be argued that the aims of the Bill were good (to help incapacitated people and their carers), the principles are, by and large, profoundly at odds with the culture of life. The principles are utilitarian and functionalist ones: intentional killing by neglect is permissible; quality of life trumps the sanctity of life; personal wishes and preferences are the paramount good, etc.
As early as 1997 the All-Party Group supported — and promoted — the same strategy as SPUC. They opposed the Bill, at the same time warning pro-life groups that it was likely to be included in the Queen's Speech under the new Labour government.
Recently they changed their approach: they now support the Bill and want to stop other groups from opposing it. Why have they changed? They say that opposing the Bill makes pro-lifers appear to lack concern for the social welfare of old and sick people. But that is a typical accusation of everyday parliamentary debate. It seems too little a thing to make pro-life politicians (or anyone pro-life) support a bill that is fundamentally unjust. Some MPs may have been lobbied by the Making Decisions Alliance, the group of charities and pro-euthanasia groups backing the Bill. But again this group has little claim to represent informed opinion on the Bill, and well-versed pro-life politicians should have little difficulty in refuting their claims. The reasons given don't explain the change.
SPUC and other pro-life groups continue to fight to keep it off the parliamentary agenda. It is premature to say that we have failed — though the threat is graver than ever.
Different organisations are at liberty to adopt other strategies, and we have not sought to undermine alternative approaches. It has been alleged that SPUC has repeatedly declined to meet with pro-life parliamentarians. This is not so. SPUC is in frequent contact with pro-life politicians, some of whom are members of the All-Party Group, and others who are not.
Advice from medical, political, legal and theological experts informs our strategy, as well as our own experience from nearly 40 years of pro-life campaigning. The policies we adopt are determined by our National Council — a body of 90 people elected by our members. After considering and discussing the issues, our Council agreed without dissent last year to continue opposing the introduction of the Mental Incapacity Bill.
SPUC was founded in 1966 to oppose an abortion bill when pro-life politicians were advising church leaders not to take a vociferous stand against the bill.
Some might say that out of humility and charity SPUC should change its position. This would be false humility, because it would not be based on the truth about this Bill. It would also be lacking in charity to those threatened by the proposals.
The wrong strategy will lead to euthanasia legislation.
John Smeaton is national director of SPUC
Let there be no doubt, the Government’s draft Mental Capacity Bill will, if left unamended, leave the door open to the legalisation of euthanasia by omission. In this respect we agree with SPUC. Sadly, disagreement has arisen with regard to the strategy to be adopted in confronting the dangers posed by the draft Bill. SPUC has been pressing the Government to withdraw the Bill, a campaign which, frankly, has been about as effective as using an Anderson shelter against the atom bomb. The All-Party Parliamentary Pro-life Group has been pressing the Government to amend those clauses which will legalise euthanasia by omission, while acknowledging the need to reform the law as it relates to those who are mentally incapacitated.
Pro-life parliamentarians such as Ann Widdecombe, Kevin McNamara, David Alton and Ann Winterton have decades of parliamentary experience between them. They recognise the political reality that surrounds this draft Bill.
Firstly, it is a draft Bill. It has not been published in its final form. It is unintelligent to reject outright a Bill that hasn’t even been finalised.
Secondly, the Bill has the support of all the major political parties, as well as the backing by 35 charities concerned with the welfare of those who lack mental capacity. Even if we wanted to, it would be impossible to stop the Bill being introduced into Parliament. The SPUC campaign demanding this as their primary objective has been counter productive. SPUC’s demands are so outlandish that they have stopped undecided MPs from examining the offending clauses in the Bill.
SPUC has argued that those of us seeking to amend the Bill, rather than oppose its introduction, are making the same mistakes that the pro-life lobby made back in 1967 when abortion was legalised. Then, Catholic parliamentarians asked the Catholic bishops not to intervene in the fight against abortion. This was a mistake. Catholic opposition to the Bill was not mobilised, with disastrous consequences.
However, the situation with the draft Mental Capacity Bill could not be more different. Working with pro-life parliamentarians and acting upon advice from leading medico-legal experts, the Catholic bishops are actively engaged in discussions with the Government. I am especially grateful for the advice and support pro-life Parliamentarians have received from Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff.
Pro-life Parliamentarians such as Ann Widdecombe and David Alton are not as naïve as SPUC would have you believe. In order to guard against the legalisation of euthanasia by omission and in order to save as many lives as possible (which is, after all, what the pro-life struggle is about) we have been arguing that, at the very least, the Bill should include a provision making it clear that nothing in the Bill permits any act or omission that would otherwise be an offence under the law relating to homicide.
Pro-life parliamentarians feel that progress has been made and we await keenly the final version of the Bill which is expected to appear before July. Throughout the consultation period on the draft Mental Capacity Bill we have made it clear to the Government that we have reserved our position on the Bill until it is presented to Parliament. If our concerns regarding euthanasia by omission have not been met, then we are prepared to vote against the Bill.
SPUC has a right to pursue whatever strategy it chooses, but it would have been courteous in the first instance to consult with pro-life Parliamentarians, as we will be the individuals voting on this Bill. This has not happened, despite repeated requests for a meeting. For reasons only known to SPUC, the organisation has chosen not to work with pro-life parliamentarians. Its mass lobby of Parliament was organised without liaising with the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-life Group. As a result, it was not a success. Can you imagine the NSPCC organising a lobby without help from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children?
In recent months I have chaired two meetings in Parliament to discuss beginning of life issues. All pro-life groups, including SPUC, were invited. All attended bar one – SPUC.
SPUC must be made to account for its actions. Each year it receives a substantial amount of money from the Catholic faithful through the White Flower Appeal in churches. The time has come for bishops to exercise some control over the funds raised. All pro-life groups should be invited to submit applications for funding from an annual pro-life collection to an independent committee established by the bishops’ conference. Only those groups that can demonstrate that they will use the funds for intelligent and effective charitable, political and legal work should benefit.
Pro-life parliamentarians would attest that it is not easy to uphold the sanctity of human life in an often hostile Westminster environment. We do not expect medals. What we do expect is the cooperation of pro-life lobby groups. This includes SPUC.
Jim Dobbin MP is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group