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Public ethical issues

One of our Aims is to promote humanist views on public ethical issues. We focus on those issues that are either important to humanists in particular or have high social importance, especially where others are actively promoting views opposed to humanist values or the humanist voice is excluded or weak. Humanists have always been at the forefront of promoting a rational, secular approach to ethical issues in public policy. We are focused on developing and promoting expert and nuanced critique of issues including abortion and assisted dying, and on emerging contemporary issues, such as the state funding of homeopathy and the shortage of organs available for donation.

In depth

Humanists form their views on the often-conflicting ideas and unpredictable consequences arising from, for example, new developments in medical science, using reason, evidence and compassion and putting human wellbeing and the wellbeing of other sentient animals at the centre of their thinking. We base our responses on the humanist principle that individuals should have the right to live by their own personal values and the freedom to make decisions about their own lives, as long as these do not result in harm to others or to the general aim of minimising suffering and advancing human happiness.

We do recognise that some values are not shared by everyone. Humanists do not share the attitudes to ‘interfering with nature’ or ‘playing God’ or the same definitions of personhood held by some religious believers. We respect the right not to participate in some procedures of those holding religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and the limits of medical intervention. Equally, we deny them the right to impose their beliefs directly or indirectly on others.

With that said, in practice we work on the following ethical issues:

There are a number of other campaigns we work on that are ethical in nature but that we classify as falling elsewhere in our campaigns work, for instance our work around same-sex and humanist marriage and on conscientious objection.

What we’re doing

We are the only organisation to intervene in support of Tony and Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb’s challenges to the illegality of assisted dying in the UK, and have also worked with other individuals such as Simon Binner and Jeffrey Spector to highlight their plight.

With respect to abortion rights, we are currently supporting the Back Off campaign, which aims to change the law to make it possible to establish protest-free zones around abortion clinics; and are part of the We Trust Women coalition, which seeks to take abortion out of criminal law. Both campaigns are being coordinated by BPAS. We are also campaigning for a liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland to match the rest of the UK.

We helped shape the new ‘soft opt-out’ system of organ donation in Wales when it was introduced, giving oral evidence to the Welsh Assembly Government Committee Inquiry that led to the change. We have been campaigning for similar changes elsewhere.

We gave oral evidence to the scoping phase of the European Commission’s recent review of labelling of meat from animals that were not stunned prior to slaughter. The subsequent report, published in 2015, found that 72% of respondents to the survey conducted supported labelling.

We have also worked, on a more ad hoc basis, on a number of other ethical issues in recent years – for instance, the reburial of historic human remains and on forced marriage. We are also a member of a number of campaigns that are ethical in nature, such as Make Poverty History, the Climate Coalition, End Child Poverty, and the Jubilee Debt Campaign. Campaigning in these areas is generally taken forward by Humanists UK-affiliated group Humanists for a Better World.

Get involved

Humanists UK consults with its members on scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our policy and campaigns.

You can also research and take up one of these issues with your MP and/or local authority, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.

If there is anything in these pages that you need more information or advice on, please contact our Campaigns Team.

You can also support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.

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