Apologetics Debates Dundee Ethics

Debates Don’t Change Anything? – Euthanasia Debate Abertay University – 7th March 2016

Catto debate

It was a difficult task made almost impossible.

cattoAbertay University had asked me to debate with Dr Graeme Catto on the question of euthanasia.  Among other things, Sir Graeme Catto was a member of the governments commission on assisted suicide and the chairman on assisted suicide.  He is very much part of the liberal establishment and knows what he is talking about.   An intelligent and compassionate man, he comes across well and makes a compelling case for his very moderate position.  So I knew it would be tough….and then it got tougher.

The motion had been –
Persons who wish to decide when to end their lives should be able to do so with the assistance of a registered physician’.  
At Dr Catto’s request the motion was changed to
‘The dying should have the right to a dignified death at the time and place of their choosing’.
Now my difficulties were multiplied.

At the beginning of the debate a vote was taken, in the packed lecture theatre. (Kudos to Abertay staff and students for such a well run, organised and popular debate).  80% were for Dr Catto’s motion, 10% against and 10% abstained.
And it got worse.  Dr Catto spoke and he spoke really well.  He was not for euthanasia, he was not for anyone being helped to die except those who were going to die within six months, were in pain and were mentally competent.
What could I do?   I had 15 minutes to deconstruct  a whole worldview, challenge the presuppositions of the motion and try to persuade young people whose whole culture and academic environment prejudices them against any kind of ‘religious’ involvement in moral issues.
I won’t give you an account of the whole debate – they may put it online at some point and I’ll link to it then when they do – but these were my main counters.  I just list them.
  1. We are all dying.
  2. Doctors cannot say whether someone will be dead in six months or not.
  3. We need to define what we mean by ‘dignity’.
  4. There will be economic pressures on dying people.
  5. There is emotional pressure on dying people.
  6. The majority of disability groups and medical groups oppose assisted suicide.
  7. Why six months?  It was an arbitrary limit.   And it would lead to further changes.
Dr Catto’s main points were:
  1. Human autonomy,
  2. The question of pain and dignity,
  3. The state of Oregon.

He specifically disavowed ‘Europe’ and euthanasia.  He also said that doctors could not be trusted on this and he put a great deal of faith in opinion polls.

There were excellent questions raised in the Q&A (again kudos to the Abertay students).  Of course, the issue of abortion and choice was brought up, as were the usual arguments.
Dr Catto finished his summary with an astonishing statement, “There are no risks involved.” My response was that, as a religious person, I was supposed to be the one making statements of ‘Faith,’ but that this was one of the most blind faith statements I had ever heard!
I was able to give many examples from my pastoral experience but my final statement was greatly helped by Dr Catto’s reliance on Oregon and his statement that he would not euthanise someone in a vegetative state (or with dementia) because that was, “The price we have to pay for living longer.”   I pointed out that the Oregon suicide rate was the 2nd highest in the USA; that I did not want the US health system (especially if I was poor and sick);  and that perhaps the small minority of people having “Painful deaths” might be the price we have to pay to protect society; especially, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the disabled.
Incidentally, as regards Oregon, Sir Graeme was a bit angry with me after the debate and showed me his phone.  You need to get your facts right, he said, Oregon isn’t even in the top 20.  I told him that I relied a great deal on the wonderful work of Dr Peter Saunders and the Christian Medical Fellowship.   He said that was ridiculous as they were biased and he advised me to check Google.  This somewhat amused me.  Firstly, the chairman of Dignity in Dying, an organisation seeking to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill adults, complaining about bias.  Secondly, that someone who has made this his life work, relying on Google.  By the way I have just ‘googled’ it – and guess what, it is the Oregon state health department who gave the figures showing that the Oregon suicide rate is 41% higher than the US average and has been increasing since assisted suicide was allowed!
We then came to the vote.
In my experience (and as I am often told) these kind of debates don’t change anything….maybe.  The vote at the end was 70% for Dr Catto’s motion, 21% against and 9% don’t know.   For me this was highly significant.   Here I was against one of the leaders of the assisted dying movement – a man with vast experience, intelligent, pleasant and a ‘Sir’.   I was in a somewhat hostile environment (I don’t mean in a nasty way – just in terms of the presuppositions being held) and with a skewed and biased motion.  Plus I admit that I could have prepared better.  And I don’t think I spoke all that well.  And yet, there was a significant shift (which the Daily Mail reporter picked up on).  Why?
Perhaps Jimi Hendrix was on to something -“all I’ve got is a red guitar, three cords and the truth’.   Or in my case ‘all I’ve got is a black bible, the triune God and the truth’!     Be encouraged…..even when the playing field is not level, when we get the chance the light of the Gospel will always shine through!
You can read the University’s official account of the debate Here


    1. Actually – it was 9th – Dr Catto, as chairman of Dignitas said it was not even in the top 20. You would think he would know. Its this ignoring of facts which limits his audience (incidentally I don’t find my audience limited at all!) The figures I took were from the Oregon health department – http://www.oregon.gov/oha/amh/CSAC%20Meeting%20Shedule/Suicide-in-Oregon-report.pdf So I was not ignoring facts and am happy to have them corrected. What is astounding about the Oregon figures is that despite assisted suicide other suicides actually increased by over 6%.

      And I note you ignored the fact that people were actually persuaded to change their mind….in this day and age that is astonishing….you should try it sometime!

      1. Thank you for speaking up fro those who might be roller-coasted into a “more convenient” death.

  1. Well done indeed David. You had a very difficult brief especially with the altered motion. I reached the end of the above account open-mouthed in admiration of how unerringly you picked out all the key points!
    Though I should rather say, blessed be the God who by his Spirit gives us the right words to say at the time when we need them, just as he promised

  2. It seems you “done well”, David. I would not beat yourself up at all, and irrespective of the accuracy of your self-perceived defects, I am sure the Lord used you in that context.

    A couple of years back I attended a philosophy date on the proofs for God, between Dr. Peter S. Williams and his old Philosophy Prof (atheist) in Cardiff Uni. The atheist didn’t advance a single substantive argument in rebuttal of carefully-crafted arguments proposed by Peter, and instead resorted to what looked like a stream of consciousness reiteration of ad-hominems. He still defeated Peter’s motion by a wide margin, proving that the audience heard what they wanted to hear, and few of them were prepared to engage in rational argument.

    And here’s a Chicago Tribune article you may find useful:


  3. When one is in continual dialogue with athiests that show the same line of thinking of the new atheists you really wonder if they do have the ability to reason. Most of the time they don’t and allthough we have a robust faith because of Christ it can still be discouraging when dealing with such irrational thinking. Then comes a read like this that really does encourage. A wonderful refreshing read indeed. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ always

  4. The strength of your position is based on your oratory skill and the fact that your arguments are not only reasonable but mainly that they are secular. I suspect had you added that only God has the right to take a life and then had your opponent begin by deconstructing your worldview, the results may have been different.

    1. Doesn’t work Jon. Sir Graeme had oratory skill as well – he was a very good speaker. I did add that God only has the right to take life and I would have loved if people had tried to deconstruct my worldview – that is what I was aiming for! Interesting how you define secular!

  5. Well done, David – your points were all the ones Pete Saunders would have used, I’m sure – and the swing in “your” favour in the closing vote was very significant. Fantastic you’re getting these opportunities.

  6. As a fan of Jimi Hendrix, I like the quote about the guitar, 3 chords and the truth! I would also go with the trintiy of rock Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson Neal Peart, complex time signatures and 2112. To compliment that perhaps a little Animal Farm and 1984 along with prophetic vices in comedy.

    Yes to bible, the triune God, the truth. and shining the light of the Gospel.

    Remember also that Jesus said that you are the light of the world to, shine your light and not to worry about anything you might say when coming up against authorities because the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say.

    You say you could have prepared better and don’t thing you spoke that well? Sounds like you did a great job David! I’m impressed with the cognitive shift that you talk of with the the percentages.

    Though you can be forgiven for beating yourself up a little. You don’t get to hang around evangelicalism for decades without a bit of private Fraser doom and gloom *wink*.

  7. Carmelo: all reason and logic are of the God who is Truth, mustn’t that be so? Most atheists (in my experience) will boast loudly of their rationality, but in fact remain doggedly closed to it, preferring to take their cues from the father of lies.
    Some are truly open to reason, even though they still as yet remain atheists. Then I like to think that the Lord who has given them that first inkling of his glory will graciously follow it before the end by opening to them the whole Gospel. It has been known.

  8. The change in the motion was a difficult one and comes across as a bit deceiving to my mind. Doctors and nurses do currently try and discuss and plan ‘where’ and ‘at what stage to stop providing life prolonging treatment’ with terminally ill or ‘dying’ patients if they wish this (without needing euthanasia). Obviously nothing in medicine is fully under our control or can be predicted (and euthanasia wouldn’t necessarily solve this at all). You could almost agree with the 2nd motion and still be against euthanasia! While the 1st motion was a lot clearer statement of what was really being debated!

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