12 September 2005

A Report on the 'Law, Religion and Secularism' Conference

This is a necessarily short note on a four-hour conference. Suleiman Nagdi spoke of the difficulties of meeting the requirements of Muslim customs particularly in the case of deaths in hospital, where burial within 24 hours may not be possible, due to post mortem delays. He also indicated that autopsy procedures might be seen as violation of modesty. In the question and answer session he indicated that the views of Muslims on transplants were divided; those from the Indian subcontinent tending to be against, and most other areas in favour.

By far the most impressive talk was given by Peter Veitch, Consultant Transplant Surgeon, on his experience with kidney patients. He made quite clear the ethical dilemmas faced by such surgeons. He would never in practice use a kidney from a deceased patient without permission of the coroner and the patient's family, even if the patient had signed a donor card. Jean McHale described the legal position as regards the opt-in or opt-out alternatives; in various countries the patient's family may have no say. Deborah Baker described the practical problems of race relations in the Leicester hospitals, such as providing an interpreter when 85 different languages are spoken in the city.

In the second half of the programme, Ibrahim Mogra (bearded and turbaned but very young looking and speaking excellent English) supported the proposals to introduce a law against incitement to hatred on religious grounds, and the idea of extending the blasphemy laws to protect other religions. He also seemed to indicate that he would like these laws to cover cases of ridicule, since no-one likes to have their cherished views laughed at, even secularists. (As a secularist I'm all for being ridiculed by anyone. It's good for us.)

Andrew Copson presented the Humanist case very well, though I thought he was unnecessarily apologetic in thanking the organisers for inviting a humanist speaker. He emphasised the role of human rights legislation, and there being no privileged position for any belief system, to resolve conflicts in a multicultural society. Mr Sandhu spoke as a Sikh, and about such activities as the introduction of prayer rooms in hospitals (and at police HQ!), and in setting Home Office guidelines on forced marriage. I found the final speech, by Hazel Baird on the work of the Commission for Racial Equality, almost impossible to follow, since it seemed to be entirely composed of vague generalities and platitudes, like a PR brochure.

Chris Eyre, the Deputy Chief Constable, spoke only in the final question and answer session. There was a session at the end of each part. One speaker, originally from Kenya, expressed the view that he would not be willing to make kidney donation on religious grounds. A Somali speaker, new to Leicester, sought clarification of the powers of the coroner. Secular views were well articulated and given a fair hearing. I made the mistake of sitting next to Tom Morris who, after a long trip to get to the conference, made good contributions in both sessions. (I hope he will pass on his impressions in comments to this post.) There was also a good exchange between Andrew Wyngate for the Church of England and Allan Hayes for Humanism. (Again I hope one or both will provide comments.)


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