Fighting for life as Britain’s ‘death culture’ takes hold

Peter Saunders

Peter Saunders

(COMMENTARY) “The man with his finger in the dyke” is how culture warrior Peter Saunders is described by those fearful of what might come now that he’s stepped down as CEO of Britain’s leading anti-euthanasia charity.

And well may they fear.  Just one week after his departure from both Christian Medical Fellowship and its campaign wing Care not Killing six weeks ago, the once venerable Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Association published new guidelines permitting its members to remove food and fluids from brain-damaged patients without the need of a judge’s permission.

That’s “euthanasia by stealth,” Peter Saunders told the Guardian

“If people who are creating what’s perceived as an economic or social burden upon anyone can have their lives ended, where do you stop with that?” he asks. “Once you allow for this scenario where people can be dehydrated to death without recourse to the courts, you’re putting a dangerous temptation in front of healthcare professionals.”

A typically spirited response from the Kiwi former missionary surgeon whom the atheist media love to be rude to, but who proved indispensable for any balanced treatment of end-of-life issues.

“Have you got genuine concerns, or is it just some religious point you are making?” was one recent BBC jibe he fended off with good grace, as if Christianity had nothing whatsoever to do with the value our culture places on life.

But without Christianity, and the belief that humanity bears, and indeed is, the image of God, we would still be sacrificing children to Molloch and hanging criminals on gibbets at crossroads.

But that’s the point.  Western culture without Christ is a death culture, Pope Benedict said in 2006 in Rome. The noted Jewish intellectual Philip Rieff’s great trilogy My Life among the Deathworks dedicated to Susan Sontag in 2006, describes this culture as ‘anti-culture’, the first ever in history to dispense with the authority of the sacred – and the consequences are manifest. 

The Netherlands leads the way with euthanasia becoming “a common way to die” according to the Guardian.  7,000 died that way in 2017, a rise of 67% over the previous five years.

Peter Saunders sees the figures as inevitable, given other end-of-life facts.  There are between 40 and 50 million abortions around the world every year according to the World Health Organization (WHO) – compared with 57 million deaths from all causes including old age, war and famine.  In 2015 in the EU, there were 210 abortions for every 1,000 live births according to the WHO - a staggering figure.

“The generation that killed its children through abortion will be killed by its children through euthanasia,” he says.


Saunders built up two charities to tackle a problem he describes characteristically as “satanic”.

With a budget of just £150,000 when he joined it in 1992, and a staff of four including himself as the student worker, it now has a turnover of £1.4 million and 30 staff, providing fellowship and succor for Christians in the medical profession, and resources for the dilemmas and challenges they now face.

Intense, dogged and “unbelievably courageous” according to eminent ethicist and CMF Chair Professor John Wyatt, Saunders has allowed himself to be “damaged and broken” at times by the battles he’s fought.

Toughest of these was the Marris Bill in 2015 to legalize what the bill called “assisted dying” but was in fact assisted suicide: “A Bill to enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life; and for connected purposes.”  It was defeated by a two-thirds majority after a six-hour debate.

Part of the CMF campaign had been a strategic effort to improve awareness among parliamentarians of how the language of “compassion” and “autonomy” was being cynically inverted by the charity Dignity in Dying, sponsors of the Bill.  “Assisted dying” as Marris called it, would in fact render the disabled and demented who already might feel a burden, more vulnerable to pressure to end their lives, a decision over which they, and indeed society as a whole, would have less and less control. 

“Assisted dying” as Marris called it, would in fact render the disabled and demented who already might feel a burden, more vulnerable to pressure to end their lives, a decision over which they, and indeed society as a whole, would have less and less control. 

It was a huge victory for a campaigner who had only just seen off two other attempts to bring in bills weakening the laws on ending life: MSP Margo MacDonald’s Bill in Scotland in 2013, and former Chief Justice Lord Falconer’s Bill in 2015.

“When the Marris Bill was announced, he sagged,” said Steve Fouch, Head of Communication at CMF who watched him at work over 15 years.  “I just remember him being so weary and then seeing this.  But the thing was the next day he was back in the battle.  Even when he found it physically and spiritually exhausting, somehow there was always a reserve of energy.  He has a phenomenal work ethic.”


What sustained this 61-year-old family man, who sensed a calling to serve as a surgeon in Africa in his early twenties, is almost too poignant to bear.

He was a final year student at Auckland University in New Zealand when a baby with Downs Syndrome was born, needing a small operation to fix a gap between her oesophagus and gullet.  Her parents did not want the baby, so the consultant refused to undertake the operation.  She was put in a side room and given a lethal dose of morphine.

“I felt this was terribly wrong.  Why am I the only one who thinks it is wrong? Staff colluded in that.  I came out feeling I had failed. I went in and prayed for the baby quietly in the room and came out thinking I am never going to let that happen again.”

There have been other incidents that have galvanized his resolve: the 14-year old girl with the constant pain in her abdomen who couldn’t tell anyone her father had forced an abortion on her.  “I keep crying in class,” she finally confessed to Saunders.

And then his own grandfather with a terrible tumor on his spine, who was desperate for a lethal injection, but who came to faith in his last days.  “That wouldn’t have happened if assisted suicide were legal,” he says.

To talk of assisted suicide as “assisted dying” is an abuse of language, claims Saunders, since all end-of-life nursing assists the dying.  To talk of lethal poisons as “medicine” as the campaigning group Dignity in Dying does, is macabre.

Indeed, doctors are no longer required to take the Hippocratic Oath, which forbade administering poison, or enabling abortion.

Peter Saunders may have pulled his finger out of the British dyke, but that doesn’t mean the problems are solved.  In fact the dyke is so full of holes, his friends say he’s run out of fingers. 

As the West proselytizes its anti-culture around the world, he says: “It’s better for me to take up a more strategic role and raise up another generation to take on these battles elsewhere.” 

But, stepping into a new role as CEO of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association, he wonders:  “If I step out of CMF, will others step up?”