Monthly Archives: May 2015

Whose Body? Whose Life? Whose Rights?

May 2015 Pulse

Ms Emily Letts, an abortion counsellor, did a video on her first-trimester abortion that was undertaken at the clinic where she works. “I feel super good about the abortion,” the 25-year-old Emily told Philadephia Magazine. “Women and men have been thirsting for something like this. You don’t have to be guilty.”

The video went viral.

Emily’s jubilant account of her experience exudes Promethean pride. “I could have taken a pill,” she says, “but I wanted to do the one that women were most afraid of. I wanted to show it wasn’t scary – and that there is such a thing as a positive abortion story. It’s my story.” The exhilarated Emily exclaimed that she was in awe of the fact that she could make a baby, and that she could make a life.

Of course, what Emily can make, she can also destroy. And she had no qualms about aborting her child simply because it felt right to her. “I knew what I was going to do was right, ‘cause it was right for me and no one else.”

Emily’s story gives flesh to what pro-choice advocates have been arguing all along! In fact, the convoluted arguments of feminist scholars like Beverely Wildung boil down to two simple axioms. The first has to do with the woman’s right to her own body, and the second is autonomy, which is upheld as sacrosanct.

This central dogma, which says that the woman has the right to choose abortion, is often accompanied by what Allan Bevere calls emotivism. This refers to the idea that all moral decisions are nothing more than expressions of preference or feeling. Furthermore, for pro- choice advocates, what is important is having the choice, not what choice is being made.

The ability to choose is liberating because it signals the control that a woman has over her life and her body. She has the right to decide on what commitments she wants to make and what lifestyle she wants to pursue. Again, Emily exemplifies this. “Once I caught my breath,” she says in the video, “I knew immediately I was going to have an abortion. I knew I wasn’t ready to take care of a child.”

Closely connected to reproductive autonomy is a person’s right to privacy. The woman’s body is her private property, it is argued. Therefore, just as no one has the right to intrude into a person’s private property, so no one can interfere with what a woman does with her own body. The woman must be left to decide on her own. A Christian ethicist has helpfully summarised the assumptions of the modern libertarian view thus: “A right to abortion is integral to a woman’s adult, mature responsibility and autonomy.”

Such arguments, however, gravely and quite tragically miss a most important consideration: Can the foetus be seen as something whose death can be lawfully and morally chosen by anyone, even its mother? The rhetoric of procreative choice cannot dismiss as arbitrary the questions raised by Christians and others concerning the moral status of the foetus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church poignantly states that “Human Life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognised as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” The Christian who believes that life begins at conception must also insist that the foetus is a human being worthy of value, respect and protection.

In focusing on the rights of the woman, pro-choice advocates have dismissed as irrelevant that of the unborn child. They have consequently violated the rights of an innocent human being who is unable to voice its protests and who is powerless in protecting itself. They have failed to accord dignity to the unborn child, whose life is as precious as its mother’s, and therefore must be valued and protected.

For the Christian, the intentional killing of an innocent human person made in God’s image is always an intrinsically evil act. But the Christian must surely regard abortion – the intentional killing of innocent and defenceless unborn human children – as having a unique kind of moral gravity.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.

The Postmodern Turn

May 2015 Pulse

‘Postmodern’ is a word that seems to appear very frequently in both print and conversation these days. This dreadful coinage can be traced to the 1930s, but it was probably not until the 1970s that it began to receive wide and serious attention in academia and popular culture.

Postmodernism is a complex idea because it refers not only to cultural sensibilities but also to the way we have come to look at reality itself. It points to a sentiment as well as to a philosophy. Postmodernism in fact signifies a monumental shift in outlook that has affected every aspect of contemporary culture, including science and the arts.

In addition, the prefix does not indicate a peaceful and quiet departure from modernity. Rather it is iconoclastic: it points to the radical demolition and rubbishing of everything that modernity purports to cherish. As David Harvey puts it, postmodernism represents ‘for the most part … a wilful and rather chaotic movement to overcome all the supposed ills of modernism’.

However, this view of postmodernism – as a virulent crusader against modernism – sometimes obscures the fact that despite its loud protestations the former is in some profound ways parasitic to the latter. As Ihab Hassan has so perceptively pointed out in The Dismemberment of Orpheus, ‘The postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism … It is not really a matter of chronology: Sade, Jarry, Breton, Kafka acknowledge that spirit’.

Christian theologians have in some measure welcomed the postmodern critique of what may be broadly described as the ‘Enlightenment Project’. For example, theologians concur with postmodernism’s rejection of the reductive rationalism of the Enlightenment that has excluded important human experiences such as religion. In similar vein, theologians have also endorsed postmodernism’s critique of scientism, the exaggerated estimate of the competence of science that is so pervasive in western cultures.

These important agreements notwithstanding, there is also much in postmodernism that Christians must not only criticise but also roundly reject.

According to Jean-François Lyotard of the Institute Polytechnique de Philosophie of the Universite de Paris in Vicennes, France, postmodernism can be chiefly characterised as the incredulity toward metanarratives. By metanarratives, Lyotard refers to ‘any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working spirit, or the creation of wealth’.

In rejecting metanarratives, postmodern thinkers insist that no single worldview, ideology or vision of reality can claim universal assent. We find in postmodernism a kind of naïve egalitarianism, a ‘democratisation’ of worldviews that prohibits the privileging of one over the other.

According to postmodernism, Christians cannot insist on the universal significance of the Gospel because the narrative of the salvation of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ must be seen as just one religious account of reality among many others.

Closely related to the rejection of metanarratives is the postmodern aversion to the notion of objective truth. Just as there is no grand scheme within which reality must be understood, so there is also no objective truth, no truth-claim that can command universal allegiance.

Truth is relativised and inextricably tied to communities, ethnic groups, and other contingent factors. There is no such thing as Truth, only truths. There is no absolute dogma, but only a plurality of disparate, incommensurable and conflicting truth-claims.

Postmodern relativism extends beyond philosophy and epistemology to include morality as well. Walter Stace defines moral relativism thus: ‘Any ethical position which denies that there is a single moral standard which is applicable to all men at all times may be called a species of ethical relativism. There is not, the relativist asserts, merely one moral law, one code, one standard’. Underscoring the implications of this, Richard Brandt describes the moral relativist as someone for whom conflicting ethical opinions are all valid.

The postmodern rejection of objective truth also has implications in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. According to some postmodern philosophers, there is no inherent meaning in a text. Others would argue that even if there is one it cannot be gleaned by the reader, especially one that is historically removed from the text. Consequently, meaning is not supplied by the text but by its reader whose reading of the text is profoundly influenced by his own historical and cultural locations and existential questions from which he cannot extricate himself.

All this has profound implications for the Christian church – its gospel, Scriptures and doctrine.

Needless to say, Christians could neither affirm the postmodern rejection of objective truth nor its moral relativism. The Christian doctrine of revelation asserts that the Church’s truth-claims concerning God is objectively grounded in the divine self-disclosure. And while Christians concur that certain metanarratives like that of hegemonic secularism stemming from Enlightenment rationalism must be challenged, God’s plan for the world as disclosed in Scripture cannot be subjected to postmodern incredulity.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

A Good Death?

May 2015 Feature Article

Many reasons are being offered to support making euthanasia (meaning “good death”) and assisted suicide legal. Some arise from sensitivity to the suffering of terminally ill patients, who desire to end their sufferings by speeding up their death through medical intervention. On the surface, it seems the most compassionate action that society can take to allow this. However, there are serious problems that require careful consideration.

Firstly, there is the question of suicide. In assisted suicide, the patient voluntarily takes his life. Hence the term “suicide” is used, as it was by Singapore’s Minister of Health in 2008. In many societies, including Singapore, suicide is an offence. While social values may be changing, suicide is still prohibited by the law, and for good reasons. The underlying logic, whether legally, socially or religiously expressed, is that the right to life cannot be extrapolated to the right to die. Life is sacred and one does not have the freedom to take one’s own life, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. This was echoed in 2002 by the European Court of Human Rights in its interpretation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Proponents of euthanasia argue that patients have the absolute right to exercise autonomy. Even so, can a patient make a free and voluntary decision? In the first place, he depends on information regarding diagnosis and prognosis given to him by doctors whose knowledge is not perfect. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in his lecture to the Singapore Medical Association in 2013, rightly cited the case of Singapore lawyer Suzanne Chin who was diagnosed with brain stem death. Her husband was advised by doctors to “pull the plug” but against all odds she recovered completely and is well.

When doctors are involved in the decision making, there is potential conflict of interest. Patients may also depend on information from the internet which may be misleading. In addition, patients may make their decisions in a state of depression, and if treated, studies show that they may think differently. There is also potential pressure on the patient from family and care-givers, and society at large.

Secondly, there is the problem of murder. Physicians are asked to be involved in euthanasia and assisted suicide, an involvement that would contravene the nature, identity and ethics of the medical profession. For more than 2000 years, physicians have held to the principles of the Hippocratic Oath: the goal of medicine is to heal, care, and bring relief. Harming patients or killing them is strongly prohibited. The World Medical Association has, over the years, repeatedly stated that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are unethical and contrary to the practice of medicine. In its most recent statement in 2013, it reiterates the call for “physicians to refrain from participating in euthanasia, even if national law allows it or decriminalizes it under certain conditions.” The doctor-patient relationship which is based on trust would be adversely affected if physician-assisted suicide is allowed.

The medical profession will be under pressure to attend to patients who want assisted suicide. Though the involvement of doctors is voluntary, there is no guarantee that it will be strictly so, especially if there is pressure from superiors or from one’s institution. Dr Christoph Hufeland, Goethe’s doctor, articulated it well in 1806: “The physician should and may do nothing else but preserve life. Whether it is valuable or not, that is none of his business. If he once permits such considerations to influence his actions, the doctor will become the most dangerous man in the state.”

Some argue that the practice of euthanasia can be well-regulated to prevent abuse. But actual experience proves otherwise. Sundaresh Menon notes: “These concerns are not to be dismissed as patently fanciful. One study shows that whereas legal restrictions and safeguards have been enacted wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide has been legalised, these have been ‘regularly ignored and transgressed’ often without prosecution…”

Thirdly, allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide would have negative social consequences. There would be a widening of its application.

In Belgium, legislation was passed in early 2014 to extend euthanasia to children who can request for it if they are “in great pain” and no treatment is available. Not only is this open to abuse (for studies show that many doctors have been practising euthanasia without following the rules), but it will be a door to many more applications. In the Netherlands, one need not be terminally ill to be euthanized. That one cannot have a “livable life” is ground enough, as the Groningen Protocol (which allows infant euthanasia) shows.

Recently, a court in Belgium granted the request by a prisoner for assisted suicide. He is imprisoned for murder and rape and has pleaded to be put to death because of mental anguish caused by his violent impulses. It is significant that he is not suffering from terminal illness or physical pain but from mental anguish. Will this open the flood gates to those who are in a similar situation?

Terminally ill patients would not be able to escape pressure, either imposed by others or by themselves, to seek death and not trouble their loved ones and care givers or incur significant medical costs. In the longer term, legalising euthanasia would shape our society and affect the way we look at ourselves, and how we care for the vulnerable. It has been noted, for example, that hospices are not as well developed in the Netherlands (where euthanasia is legal) as in other European nations. A social mindset that has a “cure or kill” solution would have inadequate space to explore the responsibility to care for the dying and to help them die with dignity. It would affect private and public conscience and alter our society where utilitarianism will dominate and social responsibilities will diminish.

Some use pragmatic economic reasons to argue for euthanasia. However, economic concerns should not be used to support euthanasia. Patients’ lives should not be shortened simply because they occupy hospital beds or it costs money to care for them. We cannot reduce the value of human life to dollars and cents. If we do, we reduce human dignity and value and will think likewise about those who are considered a “burden” to society.

How, then, can we care for the dying? How can we help people dying painfully and feeling that their continuing suffering is pointless and meaningless? The solution of offering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide has many serious moral and practical problems, a situation where the medicine offered is worse than the malady. A study in Holland showed that in 10% of euthanasia and 30% of assisted suicide, untoward complications arose. They included patients who recovered from an induced coma, vomiting and fits, and technical problems with administering the lethal substance.

Our response to such patients should be one of compassion. There are two points that will help us enable people in such situations to receive compassion and care and die with dignity, without resorting to solutions that will end up with patients taking their own lives or physicians being asked to terminate their lives. It is humane to want to do something to help someone who is suffering. However, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as humane as they may seem. Pope John Paul II observed that in reality, “what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely seem to be senseless and inhumane”.

We should not seek to eliminate the sufferings of a person by eliminating him. There are better and more humane and ethical ways.

Firstly, we have the Advanced Medical Directive. This allows people to express their wish that should they be terminally ill, that “heroic” but futile medicine be excluded in their treatment so that their lives are not artificially and needlessly prolonged. This is different from speeding up death through suicide or homicide. It is a decision that can be rationally and carefully taken before the storm of pain and suffering that may mark terminal illness and cloud judgement.

Secondly, palliative medicine is being significantly improved and offers dying patients relief of pain and compassionate care that enables them to travel the last stage of their lives with dignity and in the company of caregivers. As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.

Palliative medicine must be mainlined to become part of the normal course of health care. As a medical science and art it must be further developed and offered to all who are dying, so that they can die comfortably and in dignity as recipients of compassionate care.

As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.


Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals and authored 20 books, including ‘The Race’, ‘The Conscience’, ‘The Enduring Word’, ‘The Virtuous Life’, ‘The Sermon of Jesus’ and ‘Apprenticed to Jesus’. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.