Radio: Thou shalt not care for foetuses

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Recently, I met a wombat called Wilhelmina. Though undeniably appealing, she is, alas, not very bright. If anything threatens her she buries her head, on the principle that if you can't see danger, it isn't there. I don't know whether or not Dr John Parsons is physically attractive, but, in his refusal to acknowledge the existence of problems, he reminded me strongly of Wilhelmina.

This doctor doesn't mince his words. You won't catch him using expressions like "termination of the blastocyst" to describe his work, nor justifying it in terms of severe physical or mental stress. No, if a woman does not want to have a baby, he will perform an abortion. It's as simple as that: the woman's wishes are paramount. He doesn't actually like killing babies (his words) but is "very satisfied" with his work. He doesn't spend much time, he says, worrying about the point at which a human becomes a human, yet nor does he believe that there is a significant difference between a child just before or just after birth. Birth, for him, is a leg-al technicality.

Even Polly Toynbee sounded shaken by this complacency. She had invited the head of the Assisted Conception Unit and Abortion Service at King's College Hospital to help her define The New Commandments (R4). A survey has found that two-thirds of Anglican priests polled could not remember the original commandments, so it's time for new ones: parsons are found wanting and Parsons steps in. If this man represents our society's new moral imperatives, God help the world.

Toynbee suggested that there might be a dichotomy between his approach to abortion and his work on infertile women. Dichotomy? He saw no dichotomy. Yet, when it comes to assisted pregnancies, he is adamant. When wearing this hat, "I have no doubt that the child's interests come first" - even when there is as yet no child, nor even a fusion of cells. In practice, this means that he refuses to help patients to conceive if they have a history of injuring previous children, or of severe psychiatric disorders. Well, bully for him.

I've seldom heard anything that made me angrier. This is a man with extraordinary, unprecedented power over life and death, whose every decision is empiri- cal, informed by a glaring deficiency not only of morality but of logic. His arguments were riddled with inconsistencies and he saw no potential difficulties in clones and designer babies. "I don't have any nightmares about where it's all leading," he said, comfortably.

The coup de grace came when he was asked to name a "Moses" figure. He chose Clare Short. You see, his first child was conceived out of wedlock like hers, and at about the same time, but he chose to keep it. This, apparently, gives him a real empathy with her. "And," he added, with sublime insouciance, "then the Abortion Act came in." Why on earth didn't Polly Toynbee point out the consequences of what he was saying - that, had the timing been different, neither Clare Short's son, nor his own would exist? And just what did the oldest Parsons offspring make of that?

What a way to start a week. I turned to The Magazine (R5), but there was no escape. The 50-year-old woman who has just given (assisted) birth to triplets was being interviewed. She already has five children, but felt that she needed more with a new partner. They cost her pounds 4,500, but she'll be drawing her pension as well as her child benefit before they hit double figures. Heavens, she'll be pushing 70 as they hit adolescence. She may well have the experience to make a good job of such late motherhood, but where will she find the energy?

And then came the News, and we heard of an operation in which cells from an aborted foetus were being used in the treatment of maculardegeneration in an octogenarian. It was all too much and I switched off. Medical science has accelerated to the point where we are in urgent need of new rules, but who is going to write them? The heart sinks at the thought of what politicians might make of such a job. Perhaps the BBC could root out some wiser people than Dr Parsons (there must be millions) and commission a serious inquiry into the whole, desperately important subject: it would be a start.

On to happier things, which on the radio often means anniversaries. Schubert is 200 this year and last Sunday, from all over Europe, the EBU and R3 celebrated Schubert Day (see Michael White, above). It was utterly heavenly. Schubert, when asked how he achieved so much, is said to have replied: "When I finish something, I start something else"; luckily, he did this so often that the celebrations may well last all year.

And Johannes Ockeghem, whose name sounds like the beginnings of flu, died 500 years ago. Ockeghem (bless you) was the mysterious but prolific Composer of the Week (R3), his complex and seductive music imaginatively introduced by John Milsom: for me, a fascinating discovery.

Stephane Grapelli, approaching his 90th birthday, has spent 80 Years on the Fiddle (R2). What a life! From being dumped on Isadora Duncan at the start of the First World War, to accompanying Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue, to performing with Yehudi Menuhin on Parkinson, he seems to have relished every second of it, and he still plays as if his violin were an organic part of him, specially created to express the exuberance of his personality. His voice is pickled in Armagnac and lightly tossed in garlic, barbed wire and untipped Gauloises. Menuhin says that when he plays, it's as if he had control of a volcano of music: certainly Nigel Kennedy's ill-advised attempt to imitate him sounded like a Shetland pony attempting dressage.

Finally, a play to make the blood of any journalist run cold. Kate Rowland's subtly atmospheric production of Medea Media (R4) retold the gruesome myth in Rod Wooden's vigorous blank verse, with Jason as an expensive, faithless footballer and Medea his wronged Greek mistress. Geraldine James made a throaty, threatening Medea - unbowed, but very bloody.

Dubbed Mad Med by the tabloids, Medea is hounded and pursued by the gutter press, ruthlessly manipulated by her enemies until she wrests the initiative from them and, on live television, produces her grisly trophies in a luggage trolley. Yes, I'm sorry, we're back to killing babies.