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Attenborough and Hawking should stop their ill-conceived pontificating about other people’s lives

As soon as you start using the ominous phrase “population control”, as Sir David does, you are in the world of Orwell’s 1984, however benignly you might dress it up

By on Friday, 20 September 2013

David Attenborough at a science campaign launch in January 2009

David Attenborough at a science campaign launch in January 2009

Earlier this week I said to my sister: “Life’s too short to iron handkerchiefs” (actually I don’t iron at all but that’s another story). In the same way, I had decided that life was too short to blog yet again about Sir David Attenborough’s very negative views on the human race – until I read his latest piece of wisdom in the Telegraph. This came straight after the widely publicised thoughts of Professor Stephen Hawking in a BBC interview, reported by Dr Peter Saunders on his Christian Medical Comment blog. I felt that two such anti-life comments by two eminent men at the pinnacle of the intellectual establishment in this country should not go unchallenged.

I don’t use the word “eminent” sarcastically: Attenborough is a highly knowledgeable zoologist and also a brilliant communicator in his field; aged 87 and still writing, travelling and making nature programmes, he is an inspiration to millions of elderly people who might otherwise think it is time to doze in their armchairs in their bedroom slippers. Hawking, now aged 71, has not let a crippling variation of motor neurone disease, with which he was diagnosed aged 21, and which has now almost totally paralysed him, prevent his extraordinary achievements in the field of cosmology. But just because they are famous in their areas of expertise does not mean we should listen to them when they stray outside them to make general statements about human beings that might adversely affect the lives of millions of people.

In the Telegraph interview with Sir David, interviewer Neil Midgley writes, “Attenborough is also strident about the need for human population control, saying: “we are heading for disaster unless we do something.” Sir David is quoted as saying: “To start with, it is the individual’s great privilege to have children. And who am I to say you shan’t have children? That’s one thing. The next thing is a religious one, in the sense that the Catholic Church doesn’t accept this – that you should control the population. And the most tricky of all, when you talk about world population, is the fact that the areas we are talking about are Africa and Asia. To have a European telling Africans they should have children is not the way to go about things.” He adds: “What are all those famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land…”

To be fair to Sir David, he is (at last?) aware that poor Asian people often love their children and that a rich white European preaching to Africans might not go down too well. But I note that in talking of famine in Third World countries, he doesn’t mention the civil wars, corrupt governments and sheer inefficiency that have often caused or exacerbated these natural disasters. And he simply doesn’t understand the nature of the Catholic Church – which he sees as a bogeyman, forcing poor people to have children they can’t feed. He needs to be reminded that the Church always starts from the position of individual human dignity: made in the image of God, human beings and their fertility do not need to be “controlled” as if they were animals to be spayed or culled, especially by patronising westerners who have no understanding of local cultures, traditions or beliefs.

The Church, to use the lovely word used by Pope Francis, especially when he is talking about those people he has known well in the slums of Buenos Aires, with all their very human problems, seeks to “accompany” people; that is, to live and work alongside them, to listen to their needs, hopes and fears, and to give practical aid as well as to educate them to regulate their family size in accordance with their marital dignity. As soon as you start using the ominous phrase “population control”, as Sir David does, you are in the world of Orwell’s 1984, however benignly you might dress it up.

Professor Hawking, looking at the end of life, advocates euthanasia for “those who have a terminal illness or are in great pain. [They] should have the right to end their lives and those who help them should be free from prosecution.” He adds, as advocates of euthanasia routinely do, that “there must be safeguards that the person concerned genuinely wants to end their life and they are not being pressured into it or have it done without their knowledge or consent…”

As Peter Saunders comments: “Ironically, he is living proof of the fact that doctors can be very wrong about prognoses and that one can live a worthwhile life, full of meaning and purpose, despite having a serious, progressive life-limiting disease.” Saunders also makes the critical point that “Subtle forms of coercion within families are extremely difficult to detect, even by skilled health professions.” The word “safeguards”, so seemingly reassuring here, is no more than a pious piece of blarney.

Attenborough and Hawking, great men of notable scientific achievements, should stop their ill-conceived pontificating about other people’s lives.