Event report: October 19th meeting with Dr. Antony Lempert

What is lost? Wide-ranging talk about the influence of religion across the world

In this event report, our newsletter editor Frances Lloyd summarises the excellent talk given by Dr. Antony Lempert at the first in-person meeting of the Ludlow and Marches Humanists for over a year.

Dr. Antony Lempert is a GP practicing in Knighton and is Chair of the Secular Medical Forum (SMF) of the National Secular Society (NSS). He is President of the Shropshire division of the British Medical Association (BMA) and, as a BMA representative since 2009, he has engaged in frequent debate about secular and other issues at the BMA’s annual representatives meeting. The SMF provides expert and professional advice and opinion to the NSS and the BMA. It also contributes to consultations on issues related to healthcare. Antony was a founder member of our Humanist group.

This was an excellent and wide-ranging talk about the influence of religion across the world and Antony examined what humanity has lost as a result. Religious behaviours are accepted and lauded as normal in many societies and countries. In others there is religious persecution e.g. the Uighur Muslims in China. Some people and regimes see secularism as a threat and those with non-religious views as inferior. Secularism is often misinterpreted.

Religion restrains our actions and medicine can be distorted by having to take it into account because religion takes precedence. The principles of medical ethics are autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice but these can be compromised by religion. The thorny issues in medicine are contraception, abortion, homosexuality, sex and relationship education, genital cutting and celibacy.

All people have basic human rights but Antony gave examples where these rights are compromised by religion. He talked about Ireland where, although there have recently been improvements, the history of abuse by the Catholic Church is stark with much evidence of abuse of children by priests. Children were fed a diet of obedience and sin etc. There are four preconditions for this abuse – motivation, overcoming internal and external inhibitors and overcoming the resistance of the child. When this abuse came to light the punishment for the priests was relocation to a different area having often been labelled as ‘misguided’. There was also the scandal in Ireland of the Magdalene laundries where unmarried mothers were forced to work and their babies given away to ‘upright’ Catholic couples for a financial contribution. All this in the name of religion.

Where does this leave free thinkers and the secular? In the UK religious worship is compulsory in schools. In the House of Lords there are 26 Bishops who are given seats solely because of their position in the Church. When he was Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that the UK is a ‘religious country’ in spite of evidence to the contrary. Why do we have a religious landscape when it does so much harm? We have probably lost some of the most important people in history who have been silenced or even tortured or killed because of religion. Malala Yousafzi was shot by religious zealots who accused her of preaching secularism by asking for the right of girls to attend school. In some countries the penalty for blasphemy is death. In the UK it was a crime until 2008 and still is in Ireland. Some religions take offence when they are challenged. In Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia for example the few that challenge religion are isolated and others are cowed.

Antony gave some examples of cases relating to medicine in the UK where religion has played a part. In 2014 a 13-year-old boy needed a blood products transfusion. He was in favour of it but his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, was opposed. The judge ruled in favour of the transfusion. In 2012 a midwife in Oldham was arrested when a 4-week-old baby bled to death following circumcision. There was an almost identical case in London when the procedure was carried out by a rabbi but no action was taken.

80% of people in the UK are in favour of assisted dying yet it remains illegal. SMF supports patient autonomy and works to protect patients from the imposition of other people’s personal religious views. In a parliamentary debate in 2006 religious people waxed lyrical about the sanctity of life. The BMA has been opposed to assisted dying for years but has now voted by a tiny majority to have a neutral view.

On abortion SMF strongly supports a woman’s right to have safe and legal abortions. The BMA voted in favour of safe abortions in Northern Ireland. It became law in 2019.

On pharmacy regulations the SMF submitted responses during the consultation about some pharmacists refusing to give emergency contraception. New guidance followed which shifted the balance in favour of the patient.

On the practice of cutting genitals SFM strongly believes that all children have rights over what is done to their bodies. Some adults believe they are doing the right thing by the child based on their religious beliefs. Although FGM is illegal in the UK and is regarded as child abuse it still takes place and British girls are taken abroad to undergo the procedure. There is a mandatory requirement to report FGM if discovered but there has only been one prosecution. Unknown numbers of circumcision take place in the UK with many taking place in synagogues and private homes. It is common practice amongst Jews and Muslims. No records or follow-ups are required. It usually takes place on an 8-day old infant. The SMF believe that in most cases there is no medical benefit to the procedure and it is wrong that the child has no say in what is done to their body.

Antony concluded by saying there is confirmation bias in religions which often ignores inconsistent information. Jews listen to other Jews for example. People are branded at birth. We need a change of mindset so that individual’s rights take precedence over religion instead of the other way round which is the current position.