RADIO / Child abuse

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The Independent Culture
'THE BABY's head has been ripped off . . . their bollocks have been cut off so that they bleed to death and thrown in the waste-bin for dogs to eat.' The scene: O'Connell Street, Dublin. The speaker: a young girl. The subject: abortion. As its title suggested, there was much hysteria and little hope of reconciliation between the two sides in The Clash of Absolutes, Conor Gearty's two-part series on the termination of pregnancy.

The first part, broadcast on Radio 4 on Thursday, was devoted to the bitter debate in Ireland, which made the front pages recently with the case of a 14-year-old girl who, having been raped, was prevented by law from going to Britain for an abortion. After a public outcry, she was allowed to leave, but as Gearty's admirably tough feature made clear, the cruel hypocrisies of church and criminal law are still in place.

Abortion remains, by popular demand, illegal in Ireland and is condemned from pulpit and soap- box. Newspaper ads and even basic health-care books on the subject are banned, forcing women to scan the 'backs of toilet doors' for information. Despite this, more than 70,000 Irish women have travelled to Britain seeking abortion since 1983, and the numbers, currently standing at 11 a day, are increasing.

Citing these figures in an interview with the Bishop of Mullingar, Gearty turned devil's advocate, wondering if it wasn't Britain's proximity and the easy availability of safe, legal abortion there, that made the church's stance possible, absolving it of the need to deal with the problem of back-street abortion. 'It sounds like you're saying abortion is a terrible wrong in my back-garden,' he said, 'but if it's happening across the street - freedom.'

The Bishop's response - that even if the law was subverted in practice, the principle should remain - seemed woefully inadequate. Having listened, earlier, to the sad tales told by the women at the receiving end of this principle - all of whom had asked to remain anonymous - you couldn't help thinking that the argument was about more than abortion.

By retreating behind the Fifth Commandment, the (all male) church and government voices appeared to be simply refusing to deal with the basic, modern realities of feminism and social change; hoping, in short, that the late 20th century would just go away. And this in a country that claims to be at the cutting edge of the new Europe. A depressing picture, and one that would do little to ease the terrible psychological damage inflicted on the 11 women a day who make that guilty trip across the Irish Sea.

No such worries in 'Fat Slags' (Thursday, Radio 5), Cult Heroes' feature on Viz comic's bouncing heroines. You might have thought opinion would be divided on San and Tracy too, but it seems the whole country is, er, rooting for them. 'They're a celebration of something that isn't normally celebrated - which is women who like sex and chips,' said Suzanne Moore. In fact, the only real worry was for the girls' home town of Newcastle: 'Between Viz and Gazza we haven't got a hope in hell,' lamented one Tynesider.