TECHNOFILE: PRO LIFE, PRO CHOICE

You get plenty of icons, fly-throughs, landscapes and imaginary buildings in multimedia, but you very rarely get human interest. A dramatic exception was Steve Hart's A Bronx Family, whose subjects generated more human interest than any family could bear. With the subtitle "The Impact of Aids", it could hardly be otherwise, though. No such expectations are raised by a disc produced by a group of academics at Carnegie Mellon University, and weightily entitled The Issue of Abortion in America (Routledge, Windows and Macintosh, pounds 40). But in its simple video testimonies, from 10 women who had to make decisions about continuing pregnancies or terminating them, it embraces more human life than a whole season of Winfrey or Springer.

Before hearing the stories, users pass through a section in which they are requested to mark points on a series of scales, indicating the kind of circumstances, if any, in which they think abortion is acceptable. A background section contains accounts of abortion from different perspectives: historical, religious, philosophical, medical and legal. The women themselves are at the centre, both structurally and dramatically.

Two of them, and their partners, faced the prospect of raising a child with Down's syndrome. One woman felt abortion was utterly wrong, yet neither she nor her husband wished to impose that conviction upon anybody else. The other woman chose termination. "Life is tough enough as it is" without serious handicap, she said.

Four became pregnant as teenagers. Carol, a young black woman, saw herself following in the footsteps of her mother, who conceived her at the age of 16. This was reason enough for Carol to rule out adoption. She remembered the instability of a fostered childhood, and the bitterness her mother showed when she eventually took Carol under her roof, before leaving her again. Carol feared a life on welfare and in the projects; she chose an abortion. She affirms that she did the right thing, through her tears.

Another young black woman, middle-class and college-educated in her way of talking, was raped in an alley. It did not occur to Tina to report the rape at the hospital where she was treated for her physical injuries, and she did not discover she was pregnant for six months. Her health was equivocal, and it was a heavily medicalised pregnancy. Although her notes said that the pregnancy had resulted from rape, the ultrasound technician would blithely ask her if she wanted photographs. Antenatal staff can be obtusely pro- life sometimes.

Tina was going to give the child away for adoption, but changed her mind. Her decision was not rooted in any invincible bond between mother and daughter, though. It took two years for her to grow to love her child, and to name her, after herself.

All the women faced difficult choices which they made at personal cost. But none of the younger women faced anything like the horror that began for Sherrie on the night in 1954 that she was attacked while walking home from her waitressing job, raped, cut up and beaten. Her strength of character is evidented not just in the direct way that she tells her story, but in one detail: she told her husband that she would seek to end the pregnancy. In 1954, she asserted a woman's right to choose what happens to her body, at a time when such a choice was a criminal act that could very well kill her. After trying "home remedies" and throwing herself downstairs, she went to the local abortionist. "For the $1,000 I got two aspirins and a dirty knife," she recalls. Afterwards, he offered her a $20 discount if she would perform a sexual act for him. She declined, and went home to haemorrhage, too terrified to seek medical help.

The drama is entirely intentional. This disc is part of Project THEORIA, Testing Hypotheses in Ethics: Observation, Reason, Imagination and Affect. Its creators, Robert Cavalier, Preston Covey, Liz Style and Andrew Thompson, want to produce multimedia works which reach out to the emotions, while providing a framework for rational reflection. In other words, they are aiming for something which is like a film and a book at the same time. They take their inspiration from the "Golden Age" of Greece, in which theatre was a vehicle for theory. Both words come from the Greek "theorein", meaning to see. THEORIA is founded on the belief that one must see ethical issues within all the complexity of human life, rather than merely in the abstract.

Cavalier and Covey were previously involved in making A Right To Die? The Dax Cowart Case. That study examined the issues arising from the wish of an individual to discontinue his life in the face of terrible injuries. It was a successful CD-ROM piece, but was based on clips taken from a video documentary, rather than being an entirely original project. In the light of The Issue of Abortion, it looks like a practice run. Project THEORIA has now brought forth an exceptionally accomplished title of real moral value, helping people to engage with an acutely difficult social and personal issue. It also affirms that where there is human life, there is life in CD-ROMs yet.

THE SKILL BENEATH

The Investigating the Renaissance site is a guide to the techniques used to examine paintings. A portrait attributed to Antwerp's Master of the 1540s appears below in visible light, then under X-ray; ultra-violet; infra-red; and from behind - the back of a picture can offer useful clues.

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