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A N Wilson: Why I believe again

A N Wilson writes on how his conversion to atheism may have been similar to a road to Damascus experience but his return to faith has been slow and doubting.

 

By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a "conversion experience" 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character - the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers. For my conversion experience was to atheism. There were several moments of epiphany, actually, but one of the most dramatic occurred in the pulpit of a church.

At St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London, there are two pulpits, and for some decades they have been used for lunchtime dialogues. I had just published a biography of C S Lewis, and the rector of St Mary-le-Bow, Victor Stock, asked me to participate in one such exchange of views.

Memory edits, and perhaps distorts, the highlights of the discussion. Memory says that while Father Stock was asking me about Lewis, I began to "testify", denouncing Lewis's muscular defence of religious belief. Much more to my taste, I said, had been the approach of the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, whose biography I had just read.

A young priest had been to see him in great distress, saying that he had lost his faith in God. Ramsey's reply was a long silence followed by a repetition of the mantra "It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter". He told the priest to continue to worship Jesus in the Sacraments and that faith would return. "But!" exclaimed Father Stock. "That priest was me!"

Like many things said by this amusing man, it brought the house down. But something had taken a grip of me, and I was thinking (did I say it out loud?): "It bloody well does matter. Just struggling on like Lord Tennyson ('and faintly trust the larger hope') is no good at all . . ."

I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis's Mere Christianity made me a non-believer - not just in Lewis's version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me - the sense of God's presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the Sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

It was such a relief to discard it all that, for months, I walked on air. At about this time, the Independent on Sunday sent me to interview Dr Billy Graham, who was conducting a mission in Syracuse, New York State, prior to making one of his journeys to England. The pattern of these meetings was always the same. The old matinee idol spoke. The gospel choir sang some suitably affecting ditty, and then the converted made their way down the aisles to commit themselves to the new faith. Part of the glow was, surely, the knowledge that they were now part of a great fellowship of believers.

As a hesitant, doubting, religious man I'd never known how they felt. But, as a born-again atheist, I now knew exactly what satisfactions were on offer. For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse. If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. "So - absolutely no God?" "Nope," I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. "No future life, nothing 'out there'?" "No," I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world - that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that "this is all there is" (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself - go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad.

My doubting temperament, however, made me a very unconvincing atheist. And unconvinced. My hilarious Camden Town neighbour Colin Haycraft, the boss of Duckworth and husband of Alice Thomas Ellis, used to say, "I do wish Freddie [Ayer] wouldn't go round calling himself an atheist. It implies he takes religion seriously."

This creed that religion can be despatched in a few brisk arguments (outlined in David Hume's masterly Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) and then laughed off kept me going for some years. When I found myself wavering, I would return to Hume in order to pull myself together, rather as a Catholic having doubts might return to the shrine of a particular saint to sustain them while the springs of faith ran dry.

But religion, once the glow of conversion had worn off, was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer's Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi's own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate. Of course, there are arguments that might make you doubt the love of God. But a life like Gandhi's, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist. It is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense. Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?

Watching a whole cluster of friends, and my own mother, die over quite a short space of time convinced me that purely materialist "explanations" for our mysterious human existence simply won't do - on an intellectual level. The phenomenon of language alone should give us pause. A materialist Darwinian was having dinner with me a few years ago and we laughingly alluded to how, as years go by, one forgets names. Eager, as committed Darwinians often are, to testify on any occasion, my friend asserted: "It is because when we were simply anthropoid apes, there was no need to distinguish between one another by giving names."

This credal confession struck me as just as superstitious as believing in the historicity of Noah's Ark. More so, really.

Do materialists really think that language just "evolved", like finches' beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where's the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena - of which love and music are the two strongest - which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

For a few years, I resisted the admission that my atheist-conversion experience had been a bit of middle-aged madness. I do not find it easy to articulate thoughts about religion. I remain the sort of person who turns off Thought for the Day when it comes on the radio. I am shy to admit that I have followed the advice given all those years ago by a wise archbishop to a bewildered young man: that moments of unbelief "don't matter", that if you return to a practice of the faith, faith will return.

When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion - prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.

I haven't mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler's neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer's book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer's serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.

My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God "a category mistake". Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . 'The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life'." And then Coleridge adds: "'And man became a living soul.' Materialism will never explain those last words."

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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The unholy huddle

Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws are supported by politicians across the sectarian divide. Women are paying the price.

In June 2013 a 26-year-old administrative assistant named Sarah Ewart married her long-term boyfriend in Belfast. Soon she was pregnant. At 19 weeks, “for a bit of fun”, she and her husband, Jason, paid for a scan so that they could see the baby. Instead, the sonographer sent them straight to the Ulster Hospital, where a consultant told them that their baby – a girl – had anencephaly, meaning she had no skull or brain. She would die either in the womb or within minutes of being born, and it would be a difficult and dan­gerous birth.

The couple, both devout Christians, were distraught. After much anguish they decided to terminate the pregnancy. “I couldn’t go through nine months of pregnancy to come home with nothing and simply prepare for a funeral,” Ewart recalled tearfully as she sat in her neat home on the eastern fringe of the city one recent morning.

But the consultant told her that a termination was not possible in Northern Ireland. The province never adopted the Abortion Act 1967, which legalised abortion in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is still governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which makes it a crime, punishable by life imprisonment, to administer “any poison or other noxious thing” or to “use any instrument” to induce a miscarriage. The sole exceptions are when a woman’s life, or her long-term mental or physical health, is at risk.

Ewart’s only option was to travel to England for an abortion, as many hundreds of women from Northern Ireland do each year, but the doctors were constrained even from telling her where to go, for fear of prosecution. “I am not going to prison for anybody,” one doctor declared, banging her desk with a folder. Ewart consulted the Yellow Pages and then visited a family planning centre in central Belfast, which gave her the phone number of an advice centre outside Northern Ireland. As she left the building with her husband and mother, Ewart was accosted by anti-abortion protesters brandishing photographs of dismembered foetuses. “Don’t kill your baby!” they shouted, though they knew nothing about her case. “I was in floods of tears,” she said.

She and her mother, Jane Christie, emailed all 108 members of the Stormont assembly, Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament, begging for an exemption so she would not have to travel to England. Only two bothered to reply.

Christie took out a £2,100 bank loan, because women from Northern Ireland are ineligible for free abortions on the NHS. On 6 October that year, they flew to England and checked in to a cheap hotel in Streatham, south London. At the abortion clinic Ewart joined what she described as a “conveyor belt” of girls waiting to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies.

“While I was grieving, they were talking about what bar they were heading to that night,” she said. The foetus was disposed of without her seeing it. “It was just horrendous. I just don’t know what I’d do if I had to go through that again.” She resolved to fight to change the law. Outraged by the indifference of members of the legislative assembly, she told her story that same month to Stephen Nolan, the host of a popular show on BBC Radio Ulster.

The interview had an enormous impact, igniting a controversy over Northern Ireland’s draconian and archaic abortion law that is still raging. Ewart’s story made it impossible for the religious fundamentalists – Protestant and Catholic – who supported the status quo to continue to claim the moral high ground. It undermined the notion that abortions were the fruit of sexual promiscuity. Ewart was clearly not some feckless teenager who had slept around. She was happily married. She had desperately wanted her baby. She was, moreover, a churchgoing Presbyterian who, like the rest of her family, always voted for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s biggest political party and a staunch defender of the existing abortion law. Far from demanding wholesale reform, moreover, Ewart was campaigning merely for the ban to be lifted in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities.

As David Ford, the leader of the centrist Alliance Party, told me: “The interview made a lot of people stop and think, ‘What if it was my wife or daughter?’”

“It really touched people,” Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director, agreed. “Until then, abortion had been seen in very black-and-white terms – pro-life v pro-choice, almost good v evil. Suddenly, here was a case that introduced grey areas, and real life.”

***

For nearly three decades, from the late 1960s onwards, the Troubles trapped Northern Ireland in a time warp. The sectarian conflict dominated politics, to the exclusion of social issues. It reinforced religious identities and isolated the province from progressive outside influences.

In the late 1990s the Reverend Ian Paisley was still fulminating about “sodomites at Stormont” when Elton John gave a concert there, and hardline Protestants picketed a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Opera House in Belfast because they considered it blasphemous. Even today, gay marriage is not permitted. Emma Campbell, of the pressure group Alliance for Choice, characterises sex education in some faith-based schools in Northern Ireland as “cross your legs, hold hands and wait till you are married”.

When in 2012 a private Marie Stopes clinic offering a very limited – and entirely legal – abortion service opened opposite the Europa Hotel in Belfast, uproar ensued. There were furious demonstrations, staff and patients were abused, and John Larkin, the attorney general for Northern Ireland, tried unsuccessfully to shut it down. Larkin, a Roman Catholic, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in 2008 he likened abortion to “putting a bullet in the head of the child two days after it’s born”.

Edwin Poots, the DUP assembly member and health minister, weighed in by publishing draft guidelines for health-care professionals that threatened prosecution if they breached his extremely narrow interpretation of the abortion law. The guidelines said, for instance, that they had to report women who sought their help after using abortion pills, and that doctors should consult psychiatrists before determining that a woman’s long-term mental health was at risk.

“The chill and fear went through the corridors of every hospital and every individual,” Samina Dornan, a senior consultant at the Royal Maternity Hospital in Belfast, told me. The number of abortions carried out in the province fell from 51 in the year starting April 2012 to just 16 in 2014-15.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) felt compelled to advise its 1,250 members in Northern Ireland to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy if women came to them with complications that could have been caused by abortion pills. “It’s totally unacceptable that a piece of legislation dating back to 1861 is still current. It’s totally unfit for purpose, and protects neither women nor the staff caring for them,” said Breedagh Hughes, the RCM’s Northern Ireland director, when we met at her city-centre office.

The furore over the Marie Stopes clinic, closely followed by Sarah Ewart’s interview, prompted the Alliance Party leader Ford, who was then justice minister, to propose a very modest reform – that abortions should be permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

In February this year the assembly – four-fifths male – voted on that, and on another amendment that would allow abortions in cases of rape or incest. The first was defeated 59-40, the second 64-30, with the DUP and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party locked in an improbable alliance that for once transcended the province’s sectarian divide – what Ewart’s mother described to me as a “holy huddle”.

The votes flew in the face of polls suggesting that nearly 70 per cent of the public supported the amendments. They also defied a ruling three months earlier by a high court judge, Mr Justice Horner, that the abortion ban breached the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to allow exceptions for fatal foetal abnormalities and sex crimes (only the Republic of Ireland and Malta have more restrictive legislation).

“I was gutted,” said Ewart, who had joined various human rights organisations in seeking a judicial review of the law. “Winning that ruling was like winning the Lottery, only to find there was no money.”

Pro-choice activists were enraged. “Our not-in-my-backyard politicians know full well that abortions happen and are required, but as long as they’re exported, that’s OK,” said Kellie O’Dowd, who chairs Alliance for Choice. “They see any relaxation as encouragement to sexual immorality.” Breedagh Hughes said: “Our unionist politicians insist Belfast is as British as Bristol – except when it comes to this issue.”

***

Ian Paisley, the fire-and-brimstone preacher who died in 2014, created the DUP in 1971, and even today a third of its members and elected representatives are members of the small, fundamentalist and patriarchal Free Presbyterian Church, which he also founded. Followers of that Church take every word of the Bible literally, condemn drinking, smoking, homosexuality and miscegenation, and expect women to cover their head in church.

The DUP hierarchy refused to be interviewed for this article, but others who share their absolutist views were less reticent.

Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance, is a smooth-talking former barrister who recently masterminded the building of a £3m, thousand-seater evangelical megachurch in the northern town of Coleraine. As we sat in his office in Paisley’s old Belfast East stronghold, he told me he opposes abortions for fatal foetal abnormalities because they cannot be tightly defined, and for rape and incest, because proof of such crimes could not be obtained in the short time available. More importantly, he argued, destroying a life is wrong in any circumstances. A foetus is “either a human being, in which case no justification for abortion is adequate, or it’s not, in which case no justification is required. We say it is always a human being.”

Bernadette Smyth, a devout Catholic with four children, is the founder of a group called Precious Life and a self-styled “voice for the unborn child”. From a central Belfast office financed by the American anti-abortion organisation Stanton Healthcare of Boise, Idaho, she campaigns to close the Marie Stopes clinic, which she accuses of profiting from death.

Her “street counsellors” and “prayer partners” constantly picket the clinic, hanging graphic photographs of mutilated foetuses from lamp posts and accosting women going in and out, all of which has forced the clinic to offer its patients escorts equipped with body cameras and walkie-talkies. In December 2014 Smyth was found guilty of harassing Dawn Purvis, who was then the clinic’s director, and ordered to pay £2,000 compensation and to perform 100 hours of community service. Her conviction was later overturned for lack of evidence.

Smyth calls abortion “the killing of innocent, vulnerable, unborn children”. When we met at her office – all purples and greys, with the slogan “Live Laugh Love” inscribed on a wall – she showed me a framed sonogram of “David”, a 20-week-old foetus. David’s hard-pressed mother had wanted to abort him, Smyth said, until she was rescued by the Precious Life counsellors and given the financial and moral support she needed to persevere. “I’ve lost count of how many babies I’ve helped save,” she said.

Far from relaxing the law, Smyth wants even tighter restrictions on the province’s doctors. As an alternative to abortion, she and Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance want women to be given more counselling and support to shepherd them through crisis pregnancies: what Lynas calls a “comprehensive and tailored pathway to care”.

They deny that their views are extreme. “What’s extreme about loving and caring for vulnerable and innocent children?” Smyth asked. “There’s nothing extreme about loving women so much you want to provide and care for them throughout whatever crisis they are in. It’s not extreme to campaign against death.”

But their brand of compassion cuts little ice with Smyth’s old nemesis, Dawn Purvis.

Northern Ireland has long produced strong women. They held their communities together during the Troubles while their menfolk fought. Purvis led the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party for three years until she resigned over the failure of its ­paramilitary counterpart, the Ulster Volunteer Force, to disarm in 2010. She also founded the Marie Stopes clinic, and when we met at the headquarters of Alliance for Choice, an industrial unit overshadowed by the giant steel-and-wire-mesh “peace wall” that still divides the Falls Road from the Shankill, she told me harrowing stories of women who have sought its help.

One had been beaten and raped by her partner for 72 hours, during which he had knelt on top of her and cut a contraceptive implant from her arm with a Stanley knife. Another woman’s partner had removed her coil with a pair of pliers. A 12-year-old girl raped by a relative had been forced to travel to England for an abortion, with police officers accompanying her to retrieve the foetus as “evidence”. Each February, Purvis said, there is a surge in the number of women seeking help because they have been raped and abused by their partner over the Christmas period.

“When I hear our politicians ranting about their views, and I mean ranting, I wish they could sit in front of these women and tell them, ‘No, you’re not having an abortion. Continue with your pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption,’” she said. “They’ve no idea about the extremely frightening and complicated situations these women face. I think it’s immoral to refuse them abortions. It’s un-Christian.”

At the Alliance for Choice office I also met a 29-year-old woman who works in human resources in Craigavon, south-west of Belfast. “Judy” – she withheld her real name for fear of retribution from the anti-abortion lobby – became pregnant in late 2013, a year after marrying. Happy and excited, she and her husband went for her 20-week scan, only to learn that their baby had a form of dwarfism called thanatophoric dysplasia. Worse, its ribcage was so narrow that its lungs could not develop, and it would suffocate at birth even if it survived that long.

After much soul-searching the couple decided to terminate the pregnancy, not ­because the baby was deformed, but because it would be “born to die, and everyone knew it”. They wanted the abortion to be performed and to begin grieving, but were informed curtly by a doctor: “That’s not going to happen.”

“In a split second she took away our light at the end of the tunnel,” Judy said. She was forced to carry the baby to term. For 15 weeks, as her bump grew, she endured the congratulations of strangers and people asking what sex it was. “It took every ounce of my strength to hold it together,” she said. Work colleagues who knew the truth avoided her, not knowing what to say. “I would just go home and sob.”

She had to mix with other pregnant women at prenatal clinics. She discovered that the baby was a girl, and had to discuss with her consultant whether she wanted her child resuscitated at birth, and how many times.

The baby was born dead, but Judy’s agony continued. People who remembered her pregnancy would ask how the baby was doing. When she told them it was stillborn they were mortified. A termination “would have diminished our suffering. Being forced to continue with this pregnancy merely added to the tragedy,” she recalled. “We’re a modern country, and not to allow women a medical procedure in their greatest time of need is ridiculous.”

***

Today both Judy and Sarah Ewart, whose radio interview ignited the debate, have healthy babies, but the controversy rages on. Officially 833 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2015, though the real number is probably double that. Most were aged between 20 and 35, and 62 per cent had partners, so few were the promiscuous teenagers of the politicians’ imagination.

Many people regard Northern Ireland’s wilful exporting of its problem as shameful. “We should look after our own women,” Professor Jim Dornan, one of the leading obstetricians in the province, said. But no political redress is imminent.

Although a more liberal assembly was elected in May, and though Sinn Fein – the second-biggest party – now favours a limited relaxation of the abortion law, the DUP retains what is in effect a veto over any change, thanks to a procedural device called a “petition of concern”, which was originally designed to safeguard minority rights in the power-sharing assembly. That is how the DUP thwarted a vote in favour of gay marriage last November.

Nor is any legal redress imminent. John Larkin, the attorney general, has appealed against Justice Horner’s ruling that the present law breaches human rights. Whatever the result of that appeal, the case is expected to go first to the Supreme Court in London, then to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Increasingly, however, the “abortion pill” offers women in Northern Ireland a way around the ban, especially for those too poor to go to England.

The pills, easily purchased online for as little as £50, are perfectly safe if administered properly, but not if taken secretly by women who may ignore the instructions, use them too late, have pre-existing medical conditions, or hesitate to seek help if they suffer complications for fear of prosecution. There is a danger of severe haemorrhaging, and if the foetal sac is incompletely discharged the remnants can become infected, leading to potentially fatal sepsis.

Though used worldwide, such pills are still illegal in Northern Ireland. In February an anonymous, 21-year-old woman was convicted and given a three-month suspended prison sentence after her Belfast flatmates reported her to the police for ­using them. Other prosecutions are pending.

But, like latter-day suffragettes, some women’s rights activists are starting to flout the law openly, defying the police to arrest them. Last year 215 women signed an open letter in which they said they had bought abortion pills, and invited prosecution. In May three others, hoping for a showcase trial, presented themselves at a police station in Derry and asked to be prosecuted for procuring the pills. In June pro-choice activists used a drone to fly abortion pills across the border from the republic to show that the law was absurd and unenforceable.

The activists argue that, by banning the pills, Northern Ireland’s politicians are merely driving abortion underground, with potentially fatal consequences of a sort that should belong to the past.

“Making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away. It makes it unsafe,” said a young woman called Cara, who once self-aborted in a Travelodge hotel room and now helps other women who need to have abortions. Over a drink at a pub in Belfast, she told me how, in her own caravan, she had helped a part-time shop assistant terminate her pregnancy. The woman couldn’t afford to go to England and was too ashamed to tell her family she was pregnant.

Health-care professionals are increasingly alarmed by the implications for women. “This is the modern equivalent of the backstreet abortion. It might not be coat hangers and knitting needles, but the outcome is the same,” said Breedagh Hughes, of the Royal College of Midwives. “My biggest worry is that women will be deterred from seeking the help they need, and that the old spectre of women dying from botched abortions will rear its ugly head again.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue