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Newsline 21 June 2013

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Why the Guides’ new Promise is something to be celebrated

Why the Guides’ new Promise is something to be celebrated

Opinion | Thu, 20 Jun 2013

The reaction to the Girlguides decision to amend their promise has been greeted in some quarters as if it signals the end of the world.

Some Christian commentators have sought to portray this as yet another 'attack on Christianity'. It is of course nothing of the sort.

It is true that the privileged status of Christianity in the UK is slowly beginning to crumble. Christianity is now regarded as one influence among many that shapes modern Britain; we're now a nation of many denominations and religions and large sections of the population do not hold, or practise, any religious beliefs. The Girlguides are simply reflecting the reality of changing times. It's also worth remembering that Girlguiding is not and never has been a Christian organisation.

There is undoubtedly a shift away from religion going on, certainly amongst younger generations, and this new Promise is emblematic of that shift. According to the Girlguides: "Those who participated in the consultation felt that 'to love my God' did not truly reflect the society we live in". Many others commented on the need for the Guides to be open to all and to respect the beliefs of others, including those with no specific religious belief.

Separate Polling carried out last year by Girlguiding found that 70% of girls aged 7 to 21 thought that religious belief should be personal, and should not affect public issues such as education or politics. This clearly shows that the Guides new Promise reflects the attitudes of its core demographic. This week's poll in the independent also suggests the public are behind the move.

The decision to replace the phrase 'to love my God' with 'be true to myself and develop my beliefs' has come under fire from certain religious commentators for been in some way narcissistic. This possibly reveals more about those that sneer than anything else.

"God help us when Girl Guides ditch religion for the shallow cult of the individual" lamented Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail. But "Be true to myself" (which is reminiscent of Shakespeare's line from Hamlet where Polonius advises "To thine own self be true") does not, as Christina Odone suggests, mean that "It's now all about "Me" and the anything goes spirituality". Surely it's more about not sacrificing personal integrity for the sake of conformity. It's about following what you believe over what people pressure you to do. Surely a very positive message for young girls.

Odone goes go on to say "today's secularist authorities seem bent on erasing [God] from public life. They are getting their way – and meeting little resistance".

Who are these "secular authorities"? Nobody is imposing this on the Guides. The Girlguides made their own minds up. Nearly 44,000 people took part in this consultation and this is their decision. It's almost as if some people have a problem with women and girls having control of their own destinies. Surely not?

From the reaction of some you'd have thought the Girlguides had come up with a new atheist promise – or that their approach was in some way hostile towards religion. Again, not true. Their approach is classically secular – and there is nothing "anti-religious" about secularism, however much it may suit some people's agenda to pretend so.

Girls with religious beliefs will still be free to develop those beliefs within the Guiding movement. But by removing the religious presumption and creating a new secular Promise, the Girlguides are simply making clear that the two thirds of young girls who don't regard themselves as religious are also welcome to join and are equally valued by the organisation.

When the Scouts reveal their new Promise later this year, they too are likely to welcome the non-religious, but by introducing a new non-religious oath, which unnecessarily pushes children into adopting a religious (or non-religious) identity before they really know what they think about such things.

By introducing one secular oath for all, the Girlguides have decided to focus on common values that unite, rather than place an emphasis on religion, which can too easily divide – and for this they should be congratulated. This sort of secular approach is exactly what's needed in our education system. But in an area where the Church of England still wields enormous power, don't hold your breath.

Stephen Evans is the campaigns manager of the National Secular Society.

Also see: Ann Widdecombe condemns Girl Guide decision to drop oath to God

US President criticises faith schools during Northern Ireland visit

US President criticises faith schools during Northern Ireland visit

News | Thu, 20 Jun 2013

The US President, Barack Obama, has condemned 'faith schools' as 'divisive'' during a speech to an audience of young people and dignitaries ahead of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Catholic midwives face further legal challenge to “conscience” exemption

Catholic midwives face further legal challenge to “conscience” exemption

News | Mon, 17 Jun 2013

Two Catholic midwives who, in April, won a legal case at Scotland's supreme civil court for the right to conscientious exemption from all involvement in abortion procedures, now face a further legal challenge.

Conscientious objection in Scotland: a worrying precedent

Conscientious objection in Scotland: a worrying precedent

Opinion | Wed, 19 Jun 2013

With NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde seeking to appeal the ruling for the allowance of conscientious exemption from abortion procedures, Louise Finer of Reproductive Health Matters argues that judges must not forget the rights of women – to health, autonomy, dignity and respect

The recent decision of judges from the Scottish Court of Session – an appeal court – in the case of Doogan and Wood v. NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board [2013] CSIH 36 tests the limits of the conscientious objection provisions in the UK Abortion Act (1967), setting a worrying precedent for women seeking abortions in the UK.

Mary Teresa Doogan and Concepta Wood, Labour Ward Coordinators at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and both practising Roman Catholics, sought to exercise conscientious objection to their role in the "delegation, supervision and/or support" to other staff performing medical termination of pregnancy. Their conscientious objection to performing abortions had already been lodged and accepted. This case, reportedly brought in response to the increase in terminations in the labour ward which resulted from the closure of services elsewhere in the city, sought to extend this objection.

The decision of the Scottish Court of Session – an appeal court – reverses the 2012 decision that found against the two women's claim on the grounds that "nothing they have to do as part of their duties terminates a woman's pregnancy". In reaching their decision, Judges Drumadoon, Dorian and McEwan pay scant attention to the rights of women, the duty to make available and accessible health services set out by law, or the ethical obligation on midwives – as health providers – to make the care of people their first concern, to provide care without discrimination, and to act as an advocate for the people for whom they care [1].

The right to conscientious objection: not without limits
At the heart of the case is the determination of whether Doogan and Wood's attempt to invoke conscientious objection is legitimate. According to the UK 1967 Abortion Act (Art.4), one can conscientiously object to 'participation in treatment'. This warrants the discussion of whether their role – in "delegation, supervision and/or support" to the provision of abortion – constitutes "participation" in the procedure. But the case also throws up human rights concerns that must be examined alongside the UK's international human rights obligations.

That there is a right to conscientious objection is not up for debate, it is clearly grounded in the right to freedom of religion, conscience and thought, as set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights among other human rights instruments to which the UK is party. Yet the right is not absolute, and the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be limited for the protection of the rights of others [2].

The application of conscientious objection to the field of sexual and reproductive health has grown significantly in past decades, in parallel to the increasing liberalisation of abortion around the world. It is most commonly applied to abortion, but also sterilisation and fertility treatment

This judgment should be seen alongside the significant body of national and international law that has developed in response to the increased invocation of conscientious objection. The question at the heart of the Scottish case is "how direct does your participation in a procedure have to be for your conscientious objection to be justified". Existing jurisprudence suggests very direct:
- In 2001, the European Court of Human Rights dismissed the case brought by pharmacists Bruno Pichon and Marie-Line Sajous in France who refused to sell contraceptives based on their religious beliefs, ruling that "as long as the sale of contraceptives is legal and occurs on medical prescription nowhere other than in a pharmacy, the applicants cannot give precedence to their religious beliefs and impose them on others as justification for their refusal to sell such products, since they can manifest those beliefs in many ways outside the professional sphere."[3]
- In Colombia in 2006, the Constitutional Court set out unequivocally that only individuals can exercise conscientious objection, and therefore any attempts by institutions such as hospitals or health centres, to object to the provision of legal abortion, would violate women's rights4.
- In the UK, in 1988, the House of Lords rejected an appeal brought by Mrs Janaway, a secretary who claimed conscientious objection to refuse to type a letter referring a woman for an appointment that may have ended in her obtaining an abortion [5]. The appeal was rejected on the grounds that this did not constitute "actually taking part in treatment administered in a hospital or other approved place".

United Nations human rights bodies have consistently warned states of their responsibility to ensure that access to safe and legal abortion, contraception and other sexual and reproductive health services is not restricted by the practice of conscientious objection.

It is interesting to note that even Pope John Paul II recognised that invoking conscientious objection should not result in the limitation of the rights of others: "freedom of conscience does not confer a right to indiscriminate conscientious objection. When an asserted freedom turns into license or becomes an excuse for limiting the rights of others, the State is obliged to protect, also by legal means, the inalienable rights of its citizens against such abuses. [6]"

The Scottish ruling: a worrying precedent
The Court of Sessions' ruling is worrying on a number of counts.

  • Firstly, in stating that "the right of conscientious objection extends not only to the actual medical or surgical termination but to the whole process of treatment given for that purpose" it broadens exponentially the definition of treatment that can be subject to conscientious objection. Without providing any further clarity on where "the whole process of treatment" begins and ends, the judges' approach directly undermines existing clinical guidelines specifying that midwives "should be prepared to care for women before, during and after a termination in a maternity unit under obstetric care" and that "the conscientious objection clause solely covers being directly involved in the procedures a woman undergoes during the termination of pregnancy…" [7].
  • Secondly, in failing to address the claim to conscientious objection to "delegation" in particular, the court strays dangerously close to condoning any failure of conscientious objectors to refer patients seeking the services to which they object. Referring patients on in such circumstances is the only guarantee that they will be able to access the services to which they are entitled, and a clear responsibility under human rights law [8]. Accepting the role of "supervision" as grounds for conscientious objection leads to an unworkable situation: how far up the hierarchy of a health service does the ability to conscientiously object to playing a supervisory role reach?
  • Thirdly, in dismissing the respondents' concerns about the administrative and financial burden of allowing staff in the petitioners' position to conscientiously object, the Court fails to give credence to the responsibility of public health services to make available and accessible health services including abortion. Any evidence that the exercise of conscientious objection were to delay or hinder access to health services would bring the UK into violation of its human rights obligations.
  • Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the Court pays scant regard to the necessary balancing of rights that arises from any situation relating to conscientious objection. Just as conscientious objection is a right recognised in international human rights law, the right to access health services is also a recognised human right. On reading the judgment one could almost be forgiven for forgetting that women in the UK do have a right to access legal abortion, and that abortion is just one of the necessary medical procedures that health services provide by law.

What next? A call for "conscientious commitment"
The power dynamics at play behind conscientious objection must not be ignored. Women who seek a legal procedure that, for some, is religiously or morally contentious, must necessarily rely on health providers. These health providers may have chosen to work in an area of health even in the knowledge that their objection to certain legal procedures will mean they are unable to provide the full range of services to which women are entitled. As Professor Bernard Dickens has written:

'Health care professionals who place their own religious or moral interests above their patients' health care interests experience an especially unethical conflict of interest because physicians enjoy the power of a legal monopoly over the provision of medical services [9]'.

How far should health services have to go to accommodate the conscientious objection of its staff? The implications are wide-reaching and have the potential to be unworkable, even in a large health facility where there are sufficient trained staff to cover the duties of those who object. Doogan and Wood claimed objection to supervising abortions, and the judges considered that as "part of the team responsible for the overall treatment and care of the patient" their objection is warranted. This formulation not only blurs the distinction between individual and collective roles as subject to conscientious objection, but it suggests that the objection of one member of a team could trump the commitment of another person in the team to providing the procedure. The judges pay insufficient attention to the delays in care that will be caused by expanding the application of conscientious objection to managerial roles. This ruling, if implemented, will lead to unworkable situations for the management of health services and quite possibly delays in care that jeopardise the health of women seeking abortions.

The decision in this case sets a worrying new precedent. For judges to suggest that the right to conscientiously object exists "because it is recognised that the process of abortion is felt by many people to be morally repugnant" without also recognising that many not only do not find the legal procedure morally repugnant, but find the idea of denying health services and autonomy to women unacceptable on ethical and human rights grounds, is a serious omission that fuels its stigmatisation.

As orchestrated anti-abortion groups seek new ways to hinder access to, and stigmatise women seeking abortions, it is time for doctors, nurses and others to declare their conscientious commitment to providing abortion services. It is also time for judges to remember the rights of women – to health, to autonomy, to dignity and to respect – when reaching decisions that affect them directly.

Louise Finer is the Managing Editor of Reproductive Health Matters. This blog was originally published on the RHM website and is reproduced with the author's permission. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.


[1] Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). The Code: Standards of conduct, performance and ethics for nurses and midwives. 6 December 2007.

[2] Bueno de Mesquita J and Finer L. Conscientious Objection: Protecting Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights. University of Essex.

[3] European Court of Human Rights. Pichon and Sajous v France. Application No. 49853/99, admissibility decision of 2 October 2001.

[4] Corte Constitucional de la Republica de Colombia. Sentencia C-355/06. Paragraph 10.1.

[6] John Paul II Address, If You Want Peace, Respect the Conscience of Every Person, Vatican City 1991 Message for the 24th World Day of Peace 1991, para. 4.

[7] Royal College of Midwives. Position Paper No.17, Conscientious Objection. April 1997.

[8] See, for example, United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Concluding Observations on Poland, E/C.12/POL/CO/5. 2009, para.28 and UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover. A/HRC/14/20/Add.3.para.36.

[9] Dickens, B M. Unethical Protection of Conscience: Defending the Powerful against the Weak. American Medical Association Journal of Ethics Virtual Mentor 2009;11(9):725-729.

Multiculturalism and Cultural Relativism

Multiculturalism and Cultural Relativism

Opinion | Thu, 20 Jun 2013

The Pro-Islamist Left relies on multiculturalism (not as a positive lived experience but as a social policy and political point of view) to deny the existence of dissent by pigeonholing innumerable individuals with innumerable characteristics into one imagined homogeneous grouping: 'the Muslim community' or 'the Muslim world'. And since it is those in power that determine the dominant culture, this point of view sees Islamist values and sensibilities as that of 'authentic Muslims'.

In fact, 'Muslims' or those labelled as such include secularists, ex-Muslims, atheists, free thinkers, women's rights activists, LGBT campaigners and socialists.

Conflating Islamism with Muslim is a narrative peddled by Islamists in an attempt to feign representation.

Contrary to how it's viewed, regressive Islamists are given authority as 'community leaders' not because they actually represent the 'Muslim Community' but because of their access to the state, political power and their links with the political Islamic movement. Multiculturalism is a cheap way for the state to outsource social control.

Clearly, the 'Muslim community' is not synonymous with Islamism any more than English is synonymous with the English Defence League or Christian with the Christian-Right.

Ironically, like the far-Right which 'despises' multiculturalism yet benefits from its idea of difference to scapegoat the 'other' and promote its own form of white identity politics, the post-modernist Left also uses multiculturalism to defend cultural and moral relativism and side with the oppressor.

To accept the Islamist narrative that Muslim equates Islamist is to hand over countless individuals to the political Islamic movement and to ignore the dissent, political, social and civil struggles and class politics.

This conflation means that those who challenge Islamism are accused of cultural imperialism and orientalism because the pro-Islamist Left has bought into the culturally-relativist notion that societies in the Middle East and North Africa (and the 'Muslim community' in the west) are 'Islamic' and 'conservative'. Whilst those in power determine the dominant culture, there is no one homogeneous culture anywhere. Those who consider opposition to the veil or Sharia law as 'foreign' and 'culturally inappropriate' are only considering Islamism's sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist.

Only those who see their rights and lives as separate and different from those deemed 'other' and who have bought into (or are selling) Islamism's narrative can see solidarity and the demand for equality in this warped way.

In fact, this politics doesn't merely ignore dissent, in many ways it forbids it. The likes of StWC, Socialist Workers Party, Unite against Fascism, Islamophobia Watch, and Respect Party or Ken Livingstone and George Galloway are there as prefects to silence dissenters and defend Islamism as a defence of 'Muslims'. There are many examples to show that they equate Muslim with Islamist.

In responding to those opposing its alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain (which is understood to be a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), the StWC's leadership Andrew Murray and Lindsey German have written:

Anyone remotely acquainted with the British trade union movement will be aware that neither sexism nor homophobia are uncommon in its ranks. […] woman can be subjected to more crude sexist behaviour than they might be likely to encounter within the Muslim Association of Britain. No one would suggest that an anti-war movement should have no truck with trade unionism until its ranks are 100 percent cleansed of such behaviour. Yet this is good enough as a stick to beat Muslims. Such attitudes indicate a form of racism, a desire to hold their organisations at arm's length for the flaws which are, in some measure, tolerable in ours.

The comparison is absurd. The difference of course is that the ethos of the trade union is not anti-woman, its ethos does not say that apostates should be killed or as the head of the MAB said recently at a debate with One Law for All that women should be stoned to death. StWC's alliance with the MAB is akin to aligning with the EDL and then saying that racism exists in the ranks of the trade unions too so why single out the English!?

Racism and Islamophobia

This pro-Islamist Left deems any criticism of Islam or Islamism as racism or Islamophobia. However, criticising a religion, ideology or political movement – far-Right or otherwise – has nothing to do with racism. In fact, Islamophobia is a political term used to scaremonger people into silence.

In some ways, these bogus accusations serve Islamism in the same way that Sharia law serves them where they are in power. It helps to threaten, intimidate and silence criticism and dissent. Charges of offence and Islamophobia are the equivalent of 'secular' fatwas. It is a warning by the powers that be of what is acceptable and what is not; of what is sacred and cannot and must not be challenged.

This is of course not to ignore that racism exists. Of course it does. But racism cannot be stopped by silencing much needed criticism of Islam and Islamism. Also as campaigner Rahila Gupta says: 'Recent anti-racist alliances… reveal the capitulation of the left to the fascists within while organising against the fascists without. We should be sophisticated enough by now to construct a politics that is simultaneously anti-racist and anti-fundamentalist so that vulnerable groups like women, lesbians and gays and religious minorities do not get hung out to dry. As feminists we have been abandoned by those who should have been supporting our right to make 'legitimate criticism'. They feel now, during the War on Terror, is not the right time. In a racist society, it is never the right time. When we expose the underbelly of our communities we are told that we are providing ammunition for racists. For us it isn't a choice. We can't hide one evil to fight another.'

Anti-imperialism and force of resistance

Fundamentally, this Left's support of Islamism comes down to its affinity with Islamism, which it sees as a force of resistance against imperialism. If racism was its real concern, it wouldn't support the blatantly racist notion of different and lesser standards and rights for those deemed 'different'.

This Left is part of an anti-colonial movement whose perspectives coincide with that of the ruling classes in the so-called Third World. It is on the side of the 'colonies' no matter what goes on there. And their understanding of the 'colonies' is Eurocentric, patronising and even racist. To them the people in these countries (and the 'Muslim minority in the West') are one and the same with the Islamists they are struggling against. This is why StWC manhandles and expels anti-Iranian regime activists from its demonstrations and rejects resolutions that simultaneously opposes a war on Iran and the regime's attacks on the working class and population at large. It sees Islamism as a force for resistance whilst it is nothing more than a regressive force for repression. But an enemy's enemy is not necessarily an ally.

As Women Living Under Muslim Laws says:

Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project and to their project of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the 'untermensch' – the subhumans –, among them 'inferior races', gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women 'in their place', which as we know from experience ends up being a straight jacket…

What's most ironic is that Islamism is a force that came into existence as a far-Right, anti-Left movement, supported by Western powers. It's only after 9/11 that their relationship has changed and only to some extent. It's still a close ally in helping to manage revolutions and rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa.

This politics of betrayal supports a far-Right movement that has slaughtered an entire generation in a place like Iran, that just recently assassinated socialist leader Chokri Belaid in Tunisia, and that shot 15 year old Malala Yousefzai in Pakistan for wanting education for girls…

Clearly, the Pro-Islamist Left's politics of betrayal is just as inhuman as that of the far-Right. It's particularly dangerous given that unlike the far-Right it has managed to gain portrayal in mainstream discourse as 'progressive politics'.

Any principled position must oppose the far-Right of all varieties but also this pro-Islamist Left and rather side with universalism, equality for all, secularism as well as citizens and human beings, irrespective of beliefs.

This blog is taken from a postscript to the report "Siding with the Oppressor – the pro-Islamist Left" by John Miller and published by the One Law for All campaign

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NSS Speaks Out

NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans was widely quoted on the Girlguides promise change. He was quoted by the Telegraph, Times (subscription), Independent, Guardian, Daily Express, Huffington Post BBC News, Sky News, LBC and the Metro

The story was also picked up by the Associated Press and Stephen was quoted in newspapers internationally, including The Washington Post, USA Today, Vancouver Sun and the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Stephen also took part in a phone-in on BBC Radio Five Live and was also interviewed on Radio London, BBC Liverpool and BBC Hereford and Worcester while NSS President Terry Sanderson was interviewed on Radio Kent, Radio Lincoln and Radio Belfast.

Stephen also appeared on BBC London News discussing our legal challenge to Woking Council over discriminatory parking charges, and was also quoted in the TES on extremism in schools.

Scottish spokesperson Alistair McBay had two letters in the Scotsman concerningSt Margaret's Catholic adoption agency here and here.

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