Stuart Reid Charterhouse
An editor of mine in Australia once called me into his office an asked me to stop writing nasty things about abortion. I sensed he wanted me to observe the ordinary decencies and courtesies of middle-class life. A newspaper column was not. after all, the place for aggressive controversy, far less for the sort of mean-spirited medieval insults I was in the habit of flinging about.
"Right-oh, Bruce," I said (for Bruce was my editor's name). "Gotcha."
"Good," said Bruce. Pause, then: "I mean, are you really against abortion?"
"Yes," I said.
"Even if you got a girl in the family way?" "Yes, Bruce. Even if I got a girl in the family way."
At about the same time, as I now recall, Bruce asked me to stop writing about an Italian restaurant I had invented called Mussolin's. It was not a very good joke, I admit, but Bruce was perhaps a little pofaced about it.
"After all," he told me, "Mussolini was a bit of a "So he was, Bruce," said I. "So he was."
Good old Bruce. He was a nice enough cove, but there was not much waywardness in him. and in his commonsensical, utilitarian way he clearly suspected me of humbug (and, in the case of Mussolin's, very probably of fascistic tendencies as well). Come on, mate, he was saying, you'd go for the procedure if your bird was up the duff, wouldn't you?
That was in about 1970, and that was the way we talked then. Now that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is before the House, it occurs to me that if the encounter had taken place 10 years earlier. maybe a bit less, Bruce would have had me bang to rights. In my late teens and early 20s I would very probably have been willing to procure an abortion.
In any case it is certainly not for me to point the finger. If ever a matter called for compassion, abortion surely is it, for it involves the weak, the vulnerable and the defenceless, outside the womb and inside it. In some quarters, however, there is perhaps too little compassion and too much grim logic.
I once asked an American friend what he thought about a case in Florida where a man was on trial for killing an abortionist.
My friend said: "The abortionist deserved to die because he was a killer. His killer deserves to hang because he is a murderer."
In other quarters the danger is sentimentality, or what sometimes looks remarkably like it. Amendments to the fertilisation and embryology Bill now before the House call for a reduction of the upper limit for most abortions from 24 weeks to 22 weeks, or 20, or even 16 remember that there is no upper limit in the case of, for example, disability and draw heavily on pictures of foetuses sucking their thumbs. Those pictures are good and true, but, in the language of grief counsellors. it is hard not to feel "conflicted" about them. The heart of the matter is that from the moment of conception life is sacred. Catholic teaching in this matter is absolutist. Time limits, however, stray into relativist territory. The most obvious thing about them is that they are arbitrary. How can it possibly be wrong to destroy a foetus at 24 weeks but not at 23? It can't be.
The likelihood must be that, cute pictures or no, attempts to lower the upper time limit to 16 or 20 weeks will fail, though there may be a reduction to 22 weeks. None of this will make much difference to unborn children. If anything tinkering with time limits makes matters worse. since it allows MPs to feel as though they have sorted the abortion problem. In such circumstances abortion becomes more acceptable, not less. We'll still have what amounts to abortion on demand, abortion as a means of contraception. And now well have human-animal hybrids as well.
Still, no finger-pointing, eh? Only men (and women) of sound mind and iron integrity can write honourably and convincingly about this subject, so it's time for me to move on. First, though, I'd like to give Polly Toynbee her due. In the Guardian on Friday, in her final homily before the fertilisation and embryology debate, she observed that the newspapers campaigning for a lowering of the upper time limit were the very ones that vilify single mothers girls who, by definition, did not have abortions and
call for the law to do something, preferably violent, when their bastard offspring turn into hoodie delinquents.
PoIly is wrong about abortion but right about rhetorical nastiness (some of it anyway: she has not yet complained about "keep your rosaries off our ovaries"). Life should be defended with love, not with rants. Our popular newspapers do not deserve to be taken seriously as guardians of Christian morality. They trade in hate, lust. fear, greed. envy and superstition.
Tess you live in a cave, you will by now be aware that this is Sex and the City week." Thus dear Joan Smith in Monday's Evening Standard.
You know what's corning next. I do not live in a cave. I live in a semi that needs a new roof, new windows back and front, a new heating system. a new bathroom. and, my wife insists, a kitchen extension. and which, according to local estate agents, has lost as much as 15 per cent of its value in the past six months and I had no idea at all that this was Sex and the City week.
Perhaps I am too busy worrying about builders and equity to keep up to speed with the really important developments. Whatever the case, here is everything you need to know about Sex and the City: it is not sexy, it is not funny, and Sarah Jessica Parker looks like a horse.
But Desperate Housewives is another matter. It can be funny, and I gather that one of London's most fashionable traditionalist priests is very fond of it. Going back a bit, Michael Davies, the great defender of the old rite, was mad about Kojak.
We should perhaps not be too sniffy about popular entertainment. The Channel 4 news is OK, taken in moderation, and so are Heroes. ER, Spooks. Lost, however, is not. A top surgeon with a Mao/Phalangist tattoo on his upper left arm? Not even in America.