The Choice, Radio 4

Never say 'mother' to a grumpy abortionist
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Michael Buerk is used to a reverential hush on The Choice, the muted tone of the confessional, the quiet determination of the unsung hero. So it was compelling to hear him discomfited by a grouchy abortionist from Colorado. It was a reminder of how words and phrases apparently rendered toothless by long use can turn round and bite your legs.

Thanks to murderous Christian fanatics, Dr Warren Hern lives a life of round-the-clock security, a gun by his bed and a family that wants him to give up. When he leaves his house, walks into his clinic or jogs in the park, he looks around him. "I have felt I wouldn't be able to live out my natural life," he told Buerk in a staggeringly offhand way.

The trouble came when Buerk asked about his first termination: "What was your attitude to the unborn child?" There was a slight pause, in which you could almost hear Hern's eyebrows arching. The rest of the programme was splattered with aural italics. "What unborn child? There was no unborn child involved. There was an embryo."

Buerk went straight back in, as if to suggest the doctor was splitting hairs. "What was your attitude to the embryo?" But Hern was off. "'Unborn child' is an anti-abortion propaganda term," he railed. "The woman was my patient, not the embryo ... the phrase in the question reveals certain contexts and frame of reference, which is really a problem." Buerk tried to damp down the fire. "They were not conscious in any way – I withdraw ..."

"That's exactly the point! People absorb that frame of reference without thinking about it." You could sense Buerk gathering himself and ploughing on. "You've told me how you felt about the mother," he said.

"The what? How I feel about the what?"

"The potential mother ..."

"Now wait a minute! This woman is not a mother until she's had a baby!"

Buerk got things back on track – until he queried the name of Hern's establishment, The Boulder Abortion Clinic. Wasn't it rather provocative? "I beg your pardon?" Hern spluttered. "That's what we were doing ... If someone decides to be provoked that's their problem."

You won't be surprised to hear the doctor entertained no moral doubts. "No. This is nonsense! For individual mothers it's a moral issue. It's not a moral issue for anyone else!"

He also wasn't having any of the "unsung hero" schtick. Buerk asked him how he'd like to be remembered.

"Don't care," he said curtly. "I shall go to richly deserved oblivion when I die."