Real Living: Debate

Should a paraplegic woman be allowed to keep the baby she can't care for alone? Two writers argue over the rights and wrongs

In 1995, Penny Roberts was severely injured in a paragliding accident, losing the use of her legs and retaining only limited use of her hands. She is now pregnant by a boyfriend who has abandoned her. Her local authority provide a team of carers to look after Roberts at home at a cost of pounds 500 a week; now they may apply for a court order to remove her child when it is born, claiming that the number of people needed to care for it may lead to a lack of personal 'investment' in its welfare. But is the real issue one of cost?

Children should stay with their natural parents, says Emma Rowe.

The first thing I'd like to do is quote from Scope's "guide to inclusion". "We believe that every individual has a right to control his or her own life and to share in the opportunities, enjoyments, challenges and responsibilities of everyday life. We believe that care and concern for each other and every person and respect for their human rights is central to any caring community. We believe that people with a disability are handicapped by the attitudes of others at home, in the community, at work and in national and local government."

Sadly, Penny Roberts is not a unique case. It is a real fear that lots of parents with disabilities have: that in asking for support they will be perceived as inadequate parents. In fact, parenting is not reliant on physical ability; it is all about love. Disabled people are equally able to provide a warm environment in which to bring up children. Disabled parents may need some physical help but in all other respects they are just as likely to succeed as the able-bodied.

Disability is non-discriminatory and can happen at any time. Any parent can suddenly find themselves disabled from a number of illnesses, and if you are a single parent - divorced, a widow or widower, separated or without an able-bodied partner to rely on - you can be particularly isolated. When my husband and I were married, 16 years ago, we were both fine. We have since both been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis - it's a chance in a million that we should both have it. But we had our children before we had MS.

After much discussion, our local authority in Pembrokeshire have worked very closely with us and been very imaginative. Our care package doesn't cost much money, but it maximises our independence as a family and helps us meet the challenges and responsibilities of family life. I don't think Bradford Council, which is considering Penny Roberts's case, is being imaginative. Care packages don't need to be huge and expensive; such packages can be cumbersome to the recipient. I believe that a package could be worked out that would involve a minimum amount of invasion in her life and enable her to be in control. I don't see how the baby could double her care costs and cost an extra pounds 500 a week - what sort of care are they bringing in?

The whole ethos of the Children's Act is that children should stay with their natural parents wherever possible. In most scenarios it's the social service's first priority. I think that what's really going on here is to do with community care legislation and budgets. The real issue is not child protection but enabling Penny Roberts as an individual person to have control over her own life and that of her child.

In 1994 we founded Connect, a local Pembrokeshire charity which offers independent advocacy to people with disabilities. We are inviting parents who are experiencing problems in this area to contact us with their stories, as we want to research the issue. We are aware of other parents in similar situations - for example, for some clients with life-threatening illnesses it has been suggested that the children should go into foster care. The fear that is felt by disabled parents that asking for support and help could mean losing their children is very real. When we first had children we never dreamed a time might come when we would have to ask for help in order for us to continue to be parents.

Emma Rowe is a trustee of Scope, the largest disability charity in the UK. She and her husband both have multiple sclerosis. They have two children, aged 14 and 10.

Connect: 01348 873884

Meg Henderson

We should think about the rights of the child, says .

In time to come we will be known as the generation that changed "I want" to "I have a right to". We are in an age when women have children without any thought of providing a father, simply because they want to, or because children have this habit of arriving as a result of sexual intercourse. Contraception is such a bore, after all. And now we have the ultimate single mother scenario, where the mother admits well in advance that she cannot physically or financially care for the child she is expecting, so she wants someone else to pick up both tabs.

Contrary to current thinking, having children is not an inalienable human right, or else it would be legally enforceable. Childlessness for those who want them is a great sadness, but it is not life-threatening, and once upon a time dealing with life's hard knocks was what produced mature adults. And being paralysed is no excuse for being irresponsible. It takes only the degree of maturity expected of an adult to look at your life and your circumstances and decide whether having a child is a viable proposition. Millions of people have to do this, male and female, for a variety of reasons, some medical, some not. Most have the sense to make the right decision for themselves and any possible child and society disapproves if they do not. I suspect that if it wasn't for this woman's condition, attitudes towards her ppredicament would be less clouded. But sympathy for her shouldn't blur concern for her child.

I have this view that parents of young children should not indulge in potentially dangerous pursuits. The time for enjoying risk taking is when you are free and have no dependants, and only when you have got it out of your system should you consider bringing children into the world. And that is what this woman did by all accounts, only her dangerous hobby left her permanently paralysed. And who could feel anything but sympathy for a blighted life, and wasn't it lucky she didn't have children who needed her?

Only now she has announced that she intends giving birth, keeping the child, then having its care funded by her local authority. Naturally there is a temptation to give her more sympathy. What has she to look forward to? Wouldn't a child add something special to her severely curtailed life? Except that we are concentrating on the wrong individual; the child has not been consulted about being a comfort object, a consolation prize for its mother missing out on a full life. If she were to apply to become a foster or adoptive parent she would be rejected, because the only life she can offer would be considered inadequate for someone's else's child. Why then should it be adequate for this child, just because she has produced it?

The local authority's decision, that instead of forking out another weekly pounds 500 for the child to be looked after, it will attempt to remove the baby at birth, is wrong in reason, but right in intention. If this unfortunate child is cared for alongside its mother it stands no chance of a normal life, and regardless of current protestations to the contrary, in a very short time the child will become the parent. Child carers are not paragons of virtue for becoming mother's little helper, neither are they naturally suited to that role by being amazingly mature for their years. Child carers are victims robbed of their childhood without prior knowledge and understanding, and therefore without their free and full consent.

This child has a genuine right to have its future needs considered before sentiment for the mother and her perceived rights.

Meg Henderson is an author and journalist. Her book, 'Finding Peggy', Corgi pounds 6.99, describes the family circumstances that led to her becoming a child carer.

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