Monday, 24 March 2008

The Embryo Bill and the hypocrisy of the "pro-life" movement

It is a brutal irony that Easter, the time of the spring equinox and the "rebirth" of the world, has coincided with the so-called "Pro-Life" movement's - led by the Catholic Church - latest assault on advances that could save lives and improve the quality of life of millions of people.

During the last couple of weeks, nobody living in the UK can have failed to notice the furore over the Embryo Bill, ignited by Gordon Brown's good-intentioned but foolhardy decision to impose a three-line whip in an attempt to pass the Bill, and stoked by the hysteria of the Religious Right and of reactionary tabloids such as the Daily Mail.

Whatever the democratic implications of the three-line whip on MPs' votes, the implications for democracy of unaccountable, unelected religious leaders being able to lobby MPs more directly, and with more success, than any of their constituents ever could is far more worrying. Whilst the Bishops wax lyrical about freedom of conscience and a free vote, what they really stand for is an enforcement of Church orthodoxy. And, of course, it is not just MPs and members of the public who belong to the church who must conform to that orthodoxy but also, far more worryingly, the entire country and legislature. And, as usual with religious moralising, it is not just the ideals of democracy and secularism that will suffer if they win the argument, but some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, among others, are debilitating diseases that drastically reduce the quality of life for the sufferers and lead to little more than a slow and painful death. Stem-cell research, and particularly embryo research, is the best hope that these people have for a cure. Yet this is one of the most-contended items of the bill, with the religious ignorantly speaking of "Frankenstein science" and a "monstrous" diminishing of what it means to be human. None of these objections hold weight. The embryos - microscopic clusters of cells and nothing more - would never be implanted into a woman and could only be used for life-saving research. Scientists have already proven, through tests on mice, that the research has incredible potential. To call the objections "consciencious" or "moral" is nothing short of a knowing lie, and to put ancient dogma above improving the quality of life for millions, even going so far as to call such a drive "selfish" as some commentators have, is truly monstrous and immoral.

Even the other proposals on the bill, all of them sensible and progressive, have come under fire from the fundamentalists. The bill scraps the archaic requirment that clinics consider the need for a father when considering fertility treatment, ending discrimination against gay and lesbian couples and single parents. It gives both parties in a gay couple the legal status of parents.

Opposition to these measures derives from a couple of verses in the illiberal Dark Ages tome known as the Book of Leviticus and from an archaic notion that only children raised by a married, heterosexual couple turn out well.

In reality, homosexual couples and single parents can raise children just as well, contrary to Christian propaganda, and all the child requires is to be raised in a loving and caring environment. Having a mother and a father is no protection against child abuse or neglect, as such a broad prejudice fails to take the qualities of the individual parents into account. And if a lesbian concieves through IVF, it is only sensible that her partner also gains the legal status of parent, and the same applies for gay men. It is far better that the law considers those raising a child as its parents than some far away individual who doesn't necessarily have any interest in them.

The science behind the bill has been largely proven to work, and more evidence emerges daily to validate this, whilst the morality behind it is only flawed to a religious mind more concerned with scripture and dogma than practical experience. In a world where an overwhelming majority are atheists or non-religious, and an even greater majority are secularists, it is important that the views of the superstitious minority do not dominate discourse and determine policy. Especially in areas so crucial to the advancment of society and improving our way of life.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The cruelty and xenophobia that govern the UK's asylum system

Today, yet another case has emerged to illustrate how inhumane and out of touch with reality the UK Asylum System really is.

Mehdi Kazemi is a gay Iranian teenager who came to Britain to study and gain qualifications before returning to his own country to put them into use. However, in a phone call with his father in Tehran in 2006, he learned that his boyfriend had been arrested on charges of sodomy and publicly executed. Before being killed, he revealed under duress that Kazemi was his partner. Thus, knowing that if he returned he would suffer the same fate, Kazemi appealed for asylum in Britain.

However, the teenager's case was rejected late last year and he fled to Holland in fear for his life. He is currently being detained by Dutch authorities who are considering whether, under the Dublin Treaty, they should send him back to Britain. If they do, he will almost certainly be deported to Iran to face persecution, torture, and death.

This case illustrates perfectly how the government is treating the lives of the most desperate and needy people who come to its door with callous contempt, in order to keep down the number of asylum seekers in the UK and appease the xenophobic mindset of the likes of The Sun and The Daily Mail.

The core of the anti-asylum lobby's argument is that we need to have tighter regulations regarding asylum in order to keep out the large number of bogus refugees they claim are swamping our shores. They claim that asylum seekers actively choose their destination, seeking a 'soft touch' with an easy to access system of benefits, and that a large majority of them are criminals. The facts, however, paint a different picture.

The 'bogus' asylum seeker is a myth of the xenophobic right. Refugees come from countries with appalling human rights records, war zones, or actively discriminate against certain groups. Consider the main sources of asylum seekers to Britain. Dafur is the centre of an ongoing civil war and ethnic cleansing. Iraq has been torn apart by terrorism and sectarian conflict since the war conducted by the US and Britain. Afghanistan has the same problems as Iraq, as well as a 'liberated' goverment that clings to the bigotted religious laws of the Taliban. Zimbabwe is falling apart under the disastrous dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. And Saudi Arabia and Iran are brutal, backward theocracies that crush free speech and oppress women and gays.

The large majority of asylum seekers do not choose their destination, but simply move until they find somewhere that they deem safe. Those that do have some limited choice seek out places where friends and family have already settled. And the large majority of refugees are taken in poor countries. Two thirds of the world's refugees live in camps in Africa and Asia.

The idea that Britain is a 'soft touch' that deals out luxurious benefits is the most pernicuous myth, however. It holds the imagination of the public and is so ingrained into the national psyche that it seems to clinch any argument on the subject. However, the fact remains that it is a myth.

Britain has one of the most rigid and complex asylum systems in the world, and those who enter it are first detained, in overcrowded prison camps, whilst their case is heard. Of these, most are rejected. The most glaring example is that 88% of Iraqis have been rejected at the initial stage, including a large number who have acted as scouts and informants for the British Army there and played a huge role in the war effort. Two thousand of those held each year are children, who do not have any protection from abuse under UK law. Those that do have their claims accepted are mostly given a maximum of five years leave, making it impossible to put down any solid roots.

As for the benefits system, state support for asylum seekers is just 70% of what is given on income support, and most claimants remain 33% below the official poverty line. Refugees are also unable to claim other benefits, such as disability allowance, and the idea that they get mobile phones or other such perks is an outright lie. As for the recent controversy over asylum seekers jumping the queue for social housing, they are in fact shipped into 'hard to let' properties that nobody else wants to live in and not supported by the local council. And this is just those who actually get benefits. The benefits system, complex enough to a native such as myself, is alien and unknown to most asylum seekers, many of whom end up working on the black market, exploited by unscrupulous employers and paid a pittance far below minimum wage.

Nearly every argument against asylum put forward by the right-wing has been debunked by facts and experience in the real world, yet they continue to put forward their arguments, deliberately confusing asylum with the separate issue of immigration for good measure. The worst part is that this flawed and morally bankrupt argument has far more outlets than the facts ever will. That is why New Labour has been even more callous to the refugees of the world than even the toughest Conservative government, striving constantly to appease a hateful consensus entirely manufactured by the media.

And so, whilst we might ponder how the media's artificial engineering of public opinion might affect our democracy, the real victims of this horrendous propaganda campaign are people like Mehdi Kazemi. He and others are being shipped off to face persecution, torture, and death because the British government panders so willingly to a hate campaign it will never appease and cracks down hard on those who most need our help.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Why this country needs good sex education from an early age

In the midst of all the palaver surrounding Harry Windsor's 'covert' service in Iraq and his subsequent return, a rather more important story has been sidelined and ignored.
A survey in the Times Educational Supplement has found that two-thirds of Primary School teachers want their students to recieve compulsory Sex Education, and 35% of Secondary School teachers have said that ten and eleven year olds should get lessons on Sex and Relationships. The survey comes as the Government reviews its policy on Sex Education, and Schools Minister Jim Knight has said that such education is currently "not up to scratch," and that this is "not acceptable."

Such an observation is long overdue, because British children's knowledge of sex, contraception, and diseases is, frankly, appaling.

Part of this is due to the government's support for faith schools, which present the subject in a very skewed matter. The most recent example is the news, reported by the Independent, that Catholic schools have been urged to take a more fundamentalist approach in their classrooms, stopping safe sex lessons and removing support for charities that are pro-choice.

The other cause is the fact that the debate on Sex Education has for so long been dominated by social conservatives who want all children to be taught abstinence until marriage and for homosexuality, Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections, abortions, and safe sex to be remain off the curriculum.

This viewpoint is typified by the report in the Daily Mail on the subject, which began with the following line: "Ministers were yesterday accused of "brainwashing" schoolchildren by encouraging them to reject Christian values and have sex outside marriage." As always, the debate is put into an extremely partisan context meant to play on the fears of parents and snatch the arguments away from any progressive or reasonable response. What followed was nothing less than a dissection of the proposals by a selection of reactionary social conservatives. Here is a typical quote, from Norman Wells of Family and Youth Concern:
It's verging on brainwashing, the [sex education] forum is committed to promoting the view that there are no rights and wrongs when it comes to sexual relationships. The authors of this toolkit are clearly aiming to steer children away from a belief in moral absolutes and encouraging them to think everything is relative. The only truly safe and healthy choice is to follow a clear moral code that keeps sexual intimacy within the context of a faithful and lifelong marriage.
This organisation, and similar fringe groups, appear whenever a sensible debate on sexual health and education appears possible, their only goal being to derail such a much-needed dialogue. But their views need to be responded to and rebutted.
The social conservative's first response to the high teen pregnancy rates and STDs is always to blame it on children having too much knowledge of sex and then suggest abstinence as the solution. This is an absurd and dangerous fallacy that has proven over and again to be wrong.
The United States of America is the prime exemplar of a country where abstinence programs take precedence over genuine education. Here, religious abstinence movements such as the 'Silver Ring Thing' are given federal funding to tell children the following:
  • Sex outside marriage is wrong (a matter of opinion)
  • STDs are the result of sex outside wedlock (a deliberate obstruction of facts)
  • Condoms NEVER work (an outright lie)
The result? America is the only country in the developed world to have a higher teen pregnancy rate than the UK, and STDs and STIs are rife among a youth ignorant of contraception. One cause of the rise in diseases, which might be comical if it weren't so tragic, is a trend of teenagers sticking to their abstinence vow by doing other things, including (unprotected) anal sex.

The Global Gag Rule is such reactionary social conservatism writ large, and its consequences are horrendous. George Bush, with support from the Vatican, has enacted legislation to prevent US aid to the third world going to any organisation that even mentions abortion. Add to this the Pope's reiteration of the three fallacies listed above to a largely Christian African populace, and it is easy to see why the spread of AIDs has been so rapid and out of control in the region.

Meanwhile, let us look at the policies that Family and Youth Concern, calls "brainwashing" and insists is not "safe and healthy." The absolute best example of an informative, in-depth, and practical approach to sex education, covering everything from homosexuality and masturbation to contraception and abortion and even sexual pleasure, is the Netherlands.

There, children are taught about sex from the age of seven. Rather than being plunged into the topic in high school and blinded with clinical and biological lectures, they are introduced to it gradually. All of the issues surrounding sex, from natural urges and peer pressure to practical lessons in putting on condoms, are discussed in a rational and adult way. There is no censorship or moral bias and, most importantly, no patronisation. Unlike the ill-informed youth of Britain, they know that even one act of intercourse can lead to pregnancy and that unprotected sex is dangerous. The result? The lowest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in the world.

Thus, in practice, the results are obvious. A thourough and informed knowledge of sex from an early age is the best preparation we can give our children for the adult world. Abstinence programs leads, at least, to ignorance and, at the worst, is dangerous to their well-being.

Another important point is that about being patronising. Social conservatives worry that children are impressionable, and they are right. But children also hate being told what to do, especially without explanation. In a dangerous irony, such rigid moral absolutism as they propose puts children more at risk of being led astray. If we want kids to resist peer pressure and make their own decisions, we need to keep them as informed as possible, let them know that we are here to support them whatever decisions they make, and teach them facts rather than arhaic prejudices. Of course, kids will still have sex, but they will do that whatever moral objections the adults of the world may have.

The question is whether or not we will let our reservations keep them in an ignorance that is not only pitiable but potentially life-threatening.