The big interview
Peter Saunders is Chief Executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organisation with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members. His role includes leadership training, teaching evangelism and ethics, medical mission, writing, editing and media work. Peter took some time out to answer questions from Sheila Marshall.
SM Which TV drama series — Holby City, Casualty or ER?
PS Definitely ER. As a general surgeon I loved the challenge of assessing and treating critically ill patients. Holby City and Casualty are just too ‘soapy’ and too slow-moving for me.
SM What drives your work with CMF?
PS Luke the physician tells us that Jesus sent his followers out ‘to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick’ (Luke 9:2). This means, to attend to the spiritual and physical needs of a suffering world.
Christian doctors motivated by Jesus’ teaching and example have been profoundly influential in shaping healthcare’s history. A significant number of medicine’s pioneers were people of faith — Paré, Pasteur, Lister, Paget, Barnado, Jenner, Simpson, Sydenham, Osler, Skudder, Livingstone and many more.
The CMF exists to help doctors continue in the steps of Jesus, the Great Physician. What drives me is a desire to help doctors fully integrate their faith and practice, to be witnesses to the gospel, and instruments of God’s grace and compassion.
SM Why does CMF need to promote Christian values in the church?
PS CMF’s fourth aim (after evangelism, discipleship and healthcare mission) is ‘to promote Christian values, especially in bioethics and healthcare, among doctors and medical students, in the church and in society’.
As Christian doctors, rooted in Scripture and dealing daily with a host of physical, psychological and spiritual needs, we are uniquely placed to bring medicine and the Christian faith together.
Members are often asked by Christian friends for guidance on end-of-life care, abortion, infertility, contraception and a host of other lifestyle and healthcare issues. Many pastors feel they lack the expertise to apply the Bible to contemporary issues of healthcare and medical ethics. Christian doctors can help fill that gap.
We want to help Christians make wise decisions about their own healthcare and want to equip Christians to engage in the wider national debate on issues that have a significant effect on the most vulnerable people in our society.
SM Can Christian values be promoted in a secular society?
PS As Christians we are called to proclaim the gospel and live to honour Christ in every way. This involves bringing a Christian mind to the many issues that plague our society, and being salt and light.
As citizens of a democracy, we have a responsibility both to choose our political leaders and to do what we can to ensure that the laws in our statute books are just and fair. We have a special responsibility to stand up for those who have no voice, like those who are poor, marginalised, elderly, unborn, sick and disabled.
There is a growing hostility amongst some quarters of our country towards Christian faith and values. This needs to be challenged.
SM Are Christian values too expensive for our welfare system?
PS The current crisis in healthcare has complex causes. Much of the rising burden of disease is a consequence of poor lifestyle choices, such as people literally eating, smoking, drinking and drugging themselves to death. There is little money free to invest in care, because we are spending our financial resources on the wrong things or living way beyond our means.
This is compounded by the breakdown of the family. I believe that the root cause is that as a society we are increasingly turning our back on God, so the supports of family, church and community are no longer there.
Christian faith has huge benefits for health, because it has a huge impact on lifestyle choices; people are more likely to avoid or delay many of the diseases that are costly to our health service.
If more people in Britain lived according to Christian values, there would be less medical need and much more money available to care for the sick and dependent.
SM What issue did you take with Terry Prachett’s recent BBC documentary on assisted suicide?
PS The BBC has become something of a cheer-leader for assisted suicide. This was the fifth BBC documentary in three years that portrayed assisted suicide or euthanasia in a positive light. We are disturbed by the bias of our national broadcaster, which has an obligation to remain impartial.
The programme also breached both national and international guidelines on suicide portrayal and posed a great risk to vulnerable people by fuelling the well-documented phenomena of suicide contagion and copycat suicide.
SM How should the media approach this subject?
PS The BBC’s own editorial guidelines on portrayal of suicide are very clear. They call for, ‘great sensitivity’; ‘factual reporting and fictional portrayal of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm have the potential to make such actions appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable’.
The World Health Organisation’s guidance is equally unambiguous: ‘Don’t publish photographs or suicide notes. Don’t report specific details of the method used. Don’t give simplistic reasons. Don’t glorify or sensationalise suicide’.
SM Can you give examples?
PS Media stories about how people coped positively with suicidal feelings lead to a decrease in levels of suicide in the general population. Researchers have named this protective effect the ‘Papageno effect’, in honour of the character in Mozart’s opera The magic flute. When Papageno fears that he has lost his love, Papagena, he prepares to kill himself. But three boys save him at the last minute by helping him to find purpose in his suffering.
SM Are euthanasia, abortion and bioethics matters of conscience?
PS The Bible teaches us that human beings are made in the image of God and infinitely precious — meaning worthy of respect, protection, empathy and compassion. The sixth commandment ‘You shall not kill’ is based on this idea and forbids taking the lives of innocent human beings, even if they request us.
For centuries the laws of our country have been based on these biblical concepts. Moral issues are not simply matters of individual conscience.
It takes a huge amount of grace, courage and character to obey God in tough, costly decisions, but that doesn’t mean that it should not be clearly and unambiguously taught. That is why there is so much moral teaching throughout Scripture.
SM How can everyday believers make a difference?
PS God uses weak and ordinary people to do great things. The smallest step of faithful obedience by God’s grace can turn the course of history. God can use day-to-day decisions to advance his kingdom in and through us. Nothing done in his service is ever in vain and our job is to be faithful to him where he has placed us and trust the results to him.
SM What verses inspire you?
PS Too many to mention really, but here are just a few: Luke 4:18-19 — the Nazareth manifesto; 1 Corinthians 15:58 — never give up; 2 Corinthians 8:9 — Jesus our model; 2 Corinthians 12:9 — strength in weakness; Proverbs 31:8 -9 — speaking up for the weak.