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‘We could be seeing a return to eugenics’

Madeleine Teahan meets Baroness Hollins, the insightful psychiatrist, opponent of assisted suicide and mother of Abigail Witchalls

By on Friday, 17 August 2012

Baroness Hollins: ‘Passionate atheists believe they are right but can have no more certainty than people who do believe in a supernatural aspect to life’

Baroness Hollins: ‘Passionate atheists believe they are right but can have no more certainty than people who do believe in a supernatural aspect to life’

When Baroness Hollins returned home one evening with her children she was greeted by an agitated nanny.

“The goldfish has died,” she whispered to Baroness Hollins, “but don’t worry I’ve flushed it down the loo.”

She replied: “Go down to the pet shop and buy another one straight away. Next time one dies, please show the children the dead goldfish.”

Baroness Hollins calmly relays the anecdote as we sit together on the House of Lords terrace drinking tea in the afternoon sun. Her worldly frankness jars with the serenity of this removed and privileged setting: “Death is the one thing you and I have in common,” she tells me. “Isn’t that extraordinary?”

She continues: “That’s why we have pets. One of the reasons is that it’s an education for the children
to learn about life and death and they learn about how to manage their sadness and this is one way of helping them. That’s part of death education.”

As she talks, it is evident that she champions education at its most holistic. Copies of recent books from the “Books Beyond Words” series on communicating difficult messages to people with learning disabilities, including the topics of death and sex, remain on the table from a previous meeting. The books originated from her experiences with her son, who has a learning disability.

Above all, she values a critical approach to questions, especially those concerning faith and remains inspired by her mother, who converted to Catholicism when her daughter was aged nine.

“She certainly wasn’t going to accept anything blindly because someone had told her to,” she says. “She made her own decision to become a Catholic. But it wasn’t going to be swallowing every ritual and tradition blindly. She had a very thoughtful approach to it.”

It is clear, then, that from an early age Baroness Hollins possessed a natural resistance to arbitrary rules or authoritarianism. The nuns at her school told her that she would not pass her 11-plus unless she attended a pilgrimage to Lourdes. (Her mother consequently refused to send her.) They also expressed dismay that she did not wear a shamrock on St Patrick’s Day, given her Irish roots (her maiden name was Kelly.)

But she fondly recalls her headmistress Sister Monica: “She encouraged us to think about, ‘what if we’ve all been had? What if there is no God? Will I have wasted my life?’”

Few could argue that a 66-year-old woman who is former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, current president of the British Medical Association and a crossbench peer in the House of Lords has “wasted her life”. But despite this exceptional CV, she does not reek of cold ambition but serenity and humility.

Reflecting on the existence of God she asks me: “But how do we know? Of course we don’t know. I have space for mystery in my life. I don’t feel that I need to know exactly. If there’s a narrative which works and makes sense and I believe in it, I am not sure that I have to justify it.

“The trouble with some of the very passionate atheists who are scientists is that they believe very strongly that they are right but they can have no more certainty than people who do believe in a supernatural aspect to life. They only know what they know. They don’t know what they don’t know. That to me is the mystery of life and death.”

But the mystery of life and, more importantly, death, is one that as a society we are too afraid of in Baroness Hollins’s view.

She argues that pressure to legalise physician-assisted suicide betrays society’s trepidation concerning death. As a mother of two children with disabilities she also worries that legalisation would exacerbate society’s fear of disability. She seems reluctant to elaborate but eventually tells me: “I think it’s potentially a return to eugenics, really. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a strong eugenics movement and we’ve had it in different waves in history. The Nazi era was an example of eugenics at its worse. It’s not well known, but one of the things that the Nazi regime did was to eliminate people with learning disabilities.”

Baroness Hollins stresses that she is not suggesting that proponents of euthanasia want to see the lives of people with disability devalued, but she recalls a visit to a residential community in northern Germany. “They still had people living there who remembered their friends being rounded up and taken away to the gas chambers. They decided as a hospital to put a plaque up and there’s a chapel where they say prayers regularly for the people who were taken away to the gas chambers. But they also tell the visitors there so that they remember.”

Spend 10 minutes in the company of Baroness Hollins and you quickly grasp that she devotes her life to supporting the vulnerable in any way that she can. In February she accompanied abuse survivor Marie Collins to a Vatican symposium on clerical abuse which she describes as “ a very good event, which generated a lot of hope”.

She laments the lack of contrition and honesty on the part of some guilty priests – attributes essential for any reconciliation to take place between victim and abuser. She tells me that during the 1970s and 1980s too many institutions, including the Catholic Church, were slow to understand the pathology behind child abusers.

“I suspect there were also financial concerns. But I think that it’s better to be financially bankrupt but morally rich because you have done it right and you have been honest about it.”

And does celibacy lead to sexual abuse as argued by some critics of the Church? With her psychiatric knowledge perhaps Baroness Hollins is able, more than any of us, to see the human being or, indeed, the patient underneath the priestly garb.

“I think it’s much more likely that people who abuse are people who are vulnerable themselves,” she says, “perhaps because of something bad that happened to them during their development, something which they have not worked through and something which becomes part of their personality.

“The point here is not that someone who has been abused will abuse others. Rather, that someone who abuses others may well have been abused themselves. There is a real difference between the two statements.”

During a recent interview on Desert Island Discs Baroness Hollins defended her capacity to take on secular leadership despite her strong Catholic faith. Isn’t accepting the presidency of the British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors, inviting a crisis of conscience for any Catholic?

Baroness Hollins squints at this point, I suspect only partly due to the severe sun. “In a professional situation
if there is a majority view different to your own then you have to accept that. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to compromise your own values and principles.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t going to be difficult issues, but if one refuses to engage for fear that you might find yourself having to confront difficult issues then I think that would go against my conscience. We have a responsibility to contribute and I believe very strongly in the Catholic Church’s social teaching.

“If you’re Catholic and you have studied some of the Church’s teaching, of course that’s going to influence the way you think. But what’s wrong with that? Other people who have read material by atheist philosophers are also going to be influenced by what they have read.”

There are only a few moments left to raise the subject that intrigues so many about Baroness Hollins. Her daughter, Abigail Witchalls, was left paralysed after a random stabbing in 2005. Abigail was walking her baby son and pregnant at the time. Despite an initially grave prognosis, she survived and gave birth to the baby. What is striking about Abigail’s story is the hope she has publicly expressed based on a strong belief in the love of God.

So how do Catholics today cultivate this strong faith in their children?

“Golly,” replies Baroness Hollins before a long pause. “I don’t know really. I know that belonging to the lay community of St Benedict was a very important grounding for them in being young Catholics because it was a place they could ask questions. It was always a community where not everybody had a sense of certainty, a lot of people were there with a questioning faith.

“It was also an ecumenical community and so it was an accepting community in different kinds of ways. I think learning about Christian community was quite important, probably more important than anything they were taught at school or indeed as young people in Church.”

She continues after a further pause: “I don’t think dogmatism works.”

I ask her what dogmatism is exactly, given that it is has become an insult frequently hurled at the Catholic hierarchy with little elaboration.

“Being too rule-bound,” she replies. “I personally believe we all have to learn the skills to take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions and that sort of independent moral agency seems to me to be quite
critical.”

Although she is a wise and experienced professor in her 60s, Baroness Hollins still challenges her every thought before uttering her considered conclusion. “We are all on a journey and we are not going to get the answers right all the time,” she says. “We are going to make mistakes. Having the skills to be able to decide for ourselves and to accept responsibility for those decisions seems to me to be more important than simply obeying the rules.”

  • TreenonPoet

    Baroness Hollins: ‘Passionate atheists believe they are right but can have no more certainty than people who do believe in a supernatural aspect to life’

    Wrong. It is certain that no evidence for the existence of any deities has yet been validated. It is certain that there is no rational argument in favour of the existence of a deity for which there is no evidence. It is certain that there is no more reason to believe in the existence of one deity than in any of the infinite number of other feasible imaginable deities. It is therefore certain that there is no reason to behave as if a particular deity existed. It is certain that there is no supernatural aspect to life because if it affected life in any way, then it would not be supernatural.

    “Death is the one thing you and I have in common,” she tells me. “Isn’t that extraordinary?”

    It is an extraordinary thing to claim, given that it is not true.

    “She certainly wasn’t going to accept anything blindly because someone had told her to,”

    This is naive. There are other ways of instilling belief. I would be very surprised if her mother was not subjected to, for example, repeated compulsory worship. Once the irrationality is instilled, the mind is open to all sorts of lunacy, even while believing itself to be sceptical.

    Reflecting on the existence of God she asks me: “But how do we know? Of course we don’t know. I have space for mystery in my life. I don’t feel that I need to know exactly. If there’s a narrative which works and makes sense and I believe in it, I am not sure that I have to justify it.

    But the narrative does not make sense. Mystery is no basis for decisions. Legislators should very much be prepared to justify their decisions, and it is a major failing in the UK that many are not.

    She argues that pressure to legalise physician-assisted suicide betrays society’s trepidation concerning death

    It would have been interesting to read how she argues this because it seems, on the face of it, to be a contradiction.

    she also worries that legalisation would exacerbate society’s fear of disability

    How would it?

    “I think it’s potentially a return to eugenics, really. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a strong eugenics movement and we’ve had it in different waves in history. The Nazi era was an example of eugenics at its worse. It’s not well known, but one of the things that the Nazi regime did was to eliminate people with learning disabilities.”

    Who, in all the attempts to legalise assisted dying, is suggesting that we elliminate people with learning difficulties? Should people be kept alive in agony just in case the the UK legislators are a bunch of Nazis?

    In February she accompanied abuse survivor Marie Collins to a Vatican symposium on clerical abuse which she describes as “ a very good event, which generated a lot of hope”

    What will it take for legislators to act rather than just hope? The degree of religious deference in the face of all the evils driven by religion is astounding.

    In a professional situation
    if there is a majority view different to your own then you have to accept that. That doesn’t mean to say that you have to compromise your own values and principles.

    Reason should trump democracy.

    “If you’re Catholic and you have studied some of the Church’s teaching, of course that’s going to influence the way you think. But what’s wrong with that? Other people who have read material by atheist philosophers are also going to be influenced by what they have read.”

    What is wrong with that is that the Church’s teaching is irrational, yet given weight as a result of childhood indoctrination and other influences. All works of philosophy should be open to rational criticism (and not protected from it by such devices as blasphemy laws or their modern equivalents, nor banned on the same premise).

    “I personally believe we all have to learn the skills to take responsibility for ourselves and our decisions and that sort of independent moral agency seems to me to be quite critical.”

    Agreed, but this is what religious intitutions vigourously oppose.

    Having the skills to be able to decide for ourselves and to accept responsibility for those decisions seems to me to be more important than simply obeying the rules.”

    Amen.

  • Joe

    So, what’s ‘too rule bound”. This religion IS about rules and dogmas. Remove any one of them, and you are not really a Catholic. Man, these religious scientists want to have it both ways. Always question but always obey (at least officially). 

  • JabbaPapa

    Remove any one of them, and you are not really a Catholic.

    Wrong

  • JabbaPapa

     sigh

    Was really kind of hoping somebody else would have attacked this shopping list of biased gibberish by now…

    Oh well, if next time I take a look nobody else has, I’ll take my usual genre of stab at this man’s tedious atheistic views.

  • Jonathan West

    It’s interesting that you talk of attacking rather than debating. From that (and other similar comments) anybody would think you were more interested in promoting your own ideas than in an honest debate aimed at discerning the truth.

  • Acleron

    Just going out to get the popcorn. There is something gruesomely fascinating about watching a train wreck.

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s a gallicism.

    Besides, the position taken is abysmally vomitous.

  • JabbaPapa

     Good old Mr Acleron a priori and not much else besides, eh ?

  • Acleron

    No, just observation of history. You have yet to successfully debate any argument that I have seen. But I have to consider that my sampling may be biased, after all I only observe those threads where the level of argument is generally above infant insults.

  • Jonathan West

    That tells us something about your opinion, but nothing at all about what is supposedly wrong with TreenonPoet’s comment.

  • JabbaPapa

    It’s not your sampling that’s biased, it’s your cognition.

  • JabbaPapa

    Correct, but I am struggling with health issues, or I’d already have composed and posted my comments.

  • Kevin

    Wrong. It is certain that no evidence for the existence of any deities has yet been validated. It is certain that there is no rational argument in favour of the existence of a deity for which there is no evidence. It is certain that there is no more reason to believe in the existence of one deity than in any of the infinite number of other feasible imaginable deities. It is therefore certain that there is no reason to behave as if a particular deity existed. It is certain that there is no supernatural aspect to life because if it affected life in any way, then it would not be supernatural.

    Wrong. The evidence for the existence of God is existence itself. “God” is a synonym for existence, and “Existence exists” is a tautology. The alternative metaphysical proposition is that matter self-exists, which is a contingent proposition and therefore weaker than a tautology and in need of proof. The reason for believing that Christ is God is testimonial evidence (the event of the Resurrection being the demonstration of divine power). It is as reasonable to accept Christ’s divinity as it is to accept any claim to lawful authority based on history, such as the royal prerogative.

  • TreenonPoet

     There is a word that encapsulates what we mean by ‘existence’ and that word is ‘existence’. There is no need in the English language for another word to mean the same thing, but if one was to choose another word, one could do a lot better than to choose an existing word that is already heavily overloaded. However, I cannot stop you defining ‘God’ as “existence” for your own purposes. To then say, in the same context, that Christ is God would then mean that we have yet another word for ‘existence’, that word being ‘Christ’, but you go on to contradict yourself because you make it clear that the ‘Christ’ you are referring to is the character of that name from the Christian Bible.

    The Bible is clearly a work of fiction. For example, Earth is not really flat. If parts of the Bible are based on fact, that does not validate it, and does not constitute evidence that any of its contents are factual. It remains the case that there is no evidence for the existence of any deity.

    (Should any such evidence be forthcoming, you can be sure that the vindicated (ex-)religious institutions would either give it maximum publicity, or change the definition of their deity to one for which they remained the chosen mouthpiece.)

  • hadrasteia

    what are you doing in a catholic forum? it seems that your only objective to post here is not to find truth either but to spread your poisonous negative thinking. If you don’t believe in God, that’s fine, leave people that believe alone and join one of the many atheistic forums out there. People that can not build anything are concerned only about destroying.

  • hadrasteia

    Not sure why my post was deleted. All I said is that this poster seems to aim only at discrediting all organized religion, whatever his motives. There are many different ways to be an irrational fanatic, you don’t need to be religious. Some people hold some things sacred others don’t see anything as such, that’s their choice, but they have no right to impose their view on others. All arguments are circular and can be used to support one thing or the other. There is a difference between a culture of life and a culture of death and they are not compatible.

  • TreenonPoet

     I agree that there are many different ways to be an irrational fanatic, and I do sometimes tackle those that might not be considered religious (homeopathy being an example), but my main focus (global overpopulation) draws me to the Catholic Herald site because the Catholic Church is a major obstacle to population reduction.

    It is nonsense to say that all arguments are circular. For example, if the premises of an argument are true by definition, then those premises are in no way dependent on the conclusion of the argument. And that example is itself an non-circular argument since I have disproved your assertion by supplying a single contradiction, not by assuming that non-circular arguments exist.

    I am not sure what you mean by ‘culture of life’ and ‘culture of death’. I think we should aim to improve the quality of life. This entails, amongst other things, aiming for population levels to be within optimal ranges, and giving people the expectation that if, in the future, they need assistance to die, then that may be legally possible. Many Catholics seem to put the emphasis on quantity of life, whatever the consequent suffering, seem morbidly concerned about an after-life for which there is zero evidence, and seem to delight in the prospect of eternal torture for non-believers. Thus, I would distinguish between a culture of happiness and a culture of misery.

  • hadrasteia

    Catholic countries have usually a very low birth rate. If you want to attack Catholicism, you will need to find another argument.

  • TreenonPoet

     Only about 1 in 4 Catholic countries have populations below the sustainable level. This compares with about 1 in 3 overall, so in terms of numbers of countries, ones with a Catholic majority fare slightly worse on average. But numbers of countries is not a good metric.

    And I am not looking to “attack Catholicism”. This is a popular sort of response. When the Catholic Church is criticised on a particular point, the critic is often dismissed evasively as anti-Catholic, even on matters as grave as child abuse. (The same goes for other religions. Jonathan Sacks recently played the anti-Jewish card when Richard Dawkins was actually criticising the character of God as described in the Old Testament.)

  • hadrasteia

    You said it yourself. And if you care about child abuse, demand more punishment for the guilty of it, Catholic or not. Unfortunately most of it happens outside the Churches. About your comparison, they are two completely different things. You can critize the God of the OT in an anti-Jewish way or not in an anti-Jewish way, as with everything else. If you don’t like Catholicism, what is your goal/agenda for posting in this site?

  • TreenonPoet

     If I have to give one overall reason for posting on this site then it has to be the abstract one of wanting to improve things.

    To illustrate by example: I hesitated over criticising Baroness Hollins because she does some praiseworthy things, but I thought that certain points needed to be challenged, and I also wanted to express my dissappointment in the way that the article had reported her views. I made my comment regarding the “hope” generated by the Vatican symposium on clerical abuse more as a criticism of the legislature in general than a specific criticism of the baroness. Most immoral action is rightly condemned by parliament, but where the perpetator is the Church, there seems to be an attitude of deferring to the Church’s presumed higher authority on matters of morality, and the facilitator in chief of child abuse, the Pope, not only remains uncritisised, but is lauded as if he were above criticism (while meekly ‘hoping’ that things will improve).

    When you write ”demand more punishment for the guilty of it, Catholic or not”, you ignore the special privileges that religious organisations have and the scope for preventing abuse. Schools are not merely allowed, but compelled, to give religion special status. The idea that priests and bishops are thoroughly moral beings guided by a perfect God is presented to trusting children through religious indoctrination. Furthermore, the peculiar behaviour of the clergy is normalised. There are a few ‘furthermores’ I could add; the outcome being the ridiculously skewed approach to religious immorality.

  • John Jackson

     “It is certain that there is no rational argument in favour of the existence of a deity for which there is no evidence.”

    This statement is patently false.  There are rational arguments for God’s existence, if that is what you are looking for.  I refer you to Alvin Plantinga’s works, perhaps his article on the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, his work, God and other Minds or others and Richard Swinburne’s works, perhaps look at his 1997 Aquinas lecture.

  • TreenonPoet

     The statement is not patently false; it is patently true because any rational argument in favour of the existence of a deity would constitute evidence for the existence of that deity. If there is no evidence, there is no such rational argument. That is why I class this as a certainty.

    If there is evidence (as you infer), then that is a different matter. But here is another certainty – that at least some of the arguments put forward by Aquinas and Alvin Plantinga as part of their so-called ‘reasoning’ that God exists are false. I am not familiar with Richard Swinburne’s arguments, but if he supports Aquinas then I am not encouraged to investigate. Perhaps you could identify a rational argument (for the existence of a deity) that is not flawed.

  • Lazylyn

    Interesting as a sixty something old woman she was educated by nuns but now cannot see ‘ how Catholics today cultivate this strong faith in their children.’ What about traditional nuns opening schools ?

  • John Jackson

     I was simply responding to your desire for rational argument.  Neither Plantinga’s nor Swinburne’s arguments are flawed that I know of.  They are brilliant as far as it goes and they are perfectly rational in light of the rules of constructing rational arguments go.  One may disagree with certain presuppositions they employ, but isn’t that the way of all rational arguments.  I do realise, certainly, that Aquinas is not everyone’s cup of tea, so fair enough on your disinclination to look at him.  I find him still very relevant, though, as a believer, I would, wouldn’t I.  And I realise that, Aquinas’s arguments, were not, as he assumed in his day (which was a reasonable thing to do at that time) coercive or ineluctable.  But as rational arguments go, some may not like them, but they certainly cannot be completely discounted.  For those, like Plantinga (himself an analytical philosopher and believer – something neither here nor there, but it is what he does for a living) they do provide some evidence and have contemporary application.  I’m assuming that you would agree that a philosopher who believes in God could arrive at a rational argument for his existence the same as a philosopher who believes that there is no God could arrive at a rational argument for the opposite proposition as well. If so, I suggest that you look at his “Two dozen or so proofs for the existence of God.”  and if you’re really interested Swinburne’s ‘Faith and Reason’ (2005) and ‘The Existence of God’ (2004), if this is really what you feel you need in terms of rational argument.
     
    However, having suggested these sources, it seems to me that few people I know of, though I’m sure they exist, have ever been convinced of God’s existence simply through rational argument alone, though it is certainly possible and is often something that helps confirm one’s faith or belief.  Your willingness to demand something you deem rational and persuasive is impressive.  If that is what you honestly feel you need, then by all means keep looking.  I really do hope you find what you are looking for. 

  • MACCABEUS

    Get a life.