I don’t know whether it is still the case, but I seem to remember that Private Eye used to make much of the ‘shock horror!’ approach to investigative reporting: ‘Takeaway Kebab Content Shock Horror!’ — that sort of thing.
The point being made was that some things are neither shocking, nor horrible, but a weak story benefits from a few exclamation marks in the same way that a bad film can have a good trailer.
The sad truth, however, is that the story in today’s Daily Telegraph, which suggests that doctors will abort babies of the ‘wrong gender’ on demand (no questions asked) will probably not evoke the shock and horror it ought to require.
Certainly there will be a frisson of protest. It is said that Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, will mount an investigation.
But I doubt there will be a nationwide outbreak of penitence and grief over what we have become as a society. Abortion is too much part of what we do to risk asking tough questions about how we do it.
The reason I say this is that back in 1967 when the Abortion Act was passed, the reason for its introduction was the elimination of the scourge of ‘back street’ abortions. Better, it was said, to do this unfortunate procedure safely and openly, than see the deaths of some women and the blighting of the lives of others.
And there was doubtless a certain truth to this argument, but let us not forget that, whilst every premature death is a tragedy, the figures involved were not vast. Of course, given the illegality of most abortions in the UK before that date, actual figures are also hard to obtain (though coroners might be hard to fool). However, according to a briefing paper from the British MedicalAssociation, “In the three years from 1961 to 1963 the Department of Health reported that 160 women were recorded as dying as a result of abortions ...” (the corresponding figure from 1981-83 was 4).
The point is not that these deaths were acceptable, but rather the opposite — that though the figues were low compared with, say, deaths in the building industry or on the roads, they evoked sufficient public moral discomfort to persuade people that legalized abortion was a better alternative.
The case for abortion, however, was not that women should have a ‘choice’, much less that they should have ‘control over their own bodies’ (in the early 1960s that particular suggestion would have met with the robust retort that they ought perhaps in that case to control their sexual appetite).
Rather, it was a genuine shock and horror at the picture of seedy premises and tragic women evoked by the very term ‘backstreet’ abortion.
Unfortunately, the operation of the Abortion Act did not follow the principles behind its implementation. And from abortion being a last-resort measure aimed at preventing a greater evil, comparable to amputating a limb to save a life, it has become part of our lifestyle, pushed not so much into the backstreets of our cities as the backs of our minds. Like other stuff, it happens, but we don’t want to think about it too much.
Some people will doubtless object that abortion is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ by the woman concerned. And in most cases that will be true — though gender- based abortion sails pretty close to the wind in this regard. But every such woman is part of a social matrix, and it is that collective lifestyle which, in most cases, brings a particular individual to find themselves in the circumstances where, rather than give birth to a child, they consider having it aborted.
It is this wider context which we would find hard to confront. Hence, I suggest, the response to today’s news will not be an outbreak of national self-questioning, so much as a ‘tut tut’ at the proclivities of some cultures and the selfishness of a few individuals.
In the end, of course, abortion is not the problem. Our whole cultural approach to sex and sexuality is imploding under a variety of pressures. But then the human race has never, it seems, been able to handle its sexuality in an entirely satisfactory way. Such is the irony of what we are — rational beings, with far-from-rational compulsions.
Biologists may blame our genes. Christians may blame the Fall. We all live with the consequences. But if what was unthinkable fifty years ago is now happening in our clinics and surgeries, imagine what the next fifty may bring if we do not find some better way to live with ourselves.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: