"Cruel and unethical" was the reaction of the British Medical Association to a decision by the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, to allow GPs to prescribe the anti-impotence drug Viagra only to men suffering from specific medical conditions. The BMA is advising doctors to go on prescribing the drug on the NHS to all impotent men who seek their help, in defiance of the guidelines, during the six-week consultation period before the restrictions come into force. "When I hear people talk against prescribing Viagra, I think they are probably not having to sit in a surgery and explain to a patient who is in desperate need," said Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the BMA.
Desperate need? I do not much like the idea of drug rationing. I am sorry for men who, for whatever reason, have erectile problems. But if anyone seriously doubts that we continue to live in a phallocentric culture, let me cite in evidence Friday's newspapers, where the Viagra-rationing story was on the front pages of the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Express. In the Sun, an anonymous journalist - I do hope it was not my new friend, Mr Yelland - identified himself as a Viagra user and denounced the decision to limit prescriptions as "arrogant, cruel and unfair".
It is hard to imagine anyone making a comparable fuss if someone invented a female orgasm pill and the NHS declined to make it freely available to every adult woman in this country who would like to improve her sex life, (Multiple orgasms, doctor? Yes please.) When the idea of such a drug was mooted a couple of years ago, there was a brief flurry of interest in the media, followed by total silence. Friends of mine have been speculating, for some months, about whether Viagra works for women - there seems to be no logical reason why it should not stimulate the clitoris as well as the penis - but would any GP prescribe it to a female patient who wanted a livelier time in bed? I don't think we need waste much time on that little conundrum.
There is an obvious parallel here with recreational drugs such as cannabis. I am in favour of the legalisation of soft drugs but I have never heard anyone argue that they should be available on the NHS, except to sufferers from illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. This, as it happens, is one of the conditions for which Viagra will continue to be available on prescription, along with diabetes and spinal cord injuries. My only criticism of Mr Dobson is that he has not deregulated Viagra altogether, allowing it to be sold in handy little packs from dispensers in men's lavatories, like the ones which currently disgorge condoms. Or women's lavatories, come to that. Now that orgasms have been established as an inalienable human right, to be prescribed by rebel GPs at taxpayers' expense, we can hardly expect disappointed women just to lie back and think of England.
IN FAIRY TALES, children run away and hide in forests, where they narrowly escape being eaten by wolves and other malign fates. Along with the conviction that they are adopted - that their "real" parents live somewhere else - running away must be one of the most popular fantasies among pre-pubescent children, especially when something goes even slightly wrong at home or at school. Their capacity to distinguish between fantasy and reality is less fully developed than it is in adults, or so one tends to assume.
And then last week, as if intent on disproving this theory, the Spice Girls decided to intervene in the hunt for two missing schoolgirls, Lisa Hoodless and Charlene Lunnon. "Please call home," band members told the Daily Star, while the aptly-named Baby Spice, Emma Bunton, added: "We're all so worried about your safety." This gruesome publicity stunt assumed that the missing 10-year-olds, who turned up safely on Friday morning, were doing normal things such as buying tabloid newspapers and watching TV - perhaps from the hotel room they had booked into without arousing anyone's suspicions.
Of course the police had to appeal for help in finding the children, but the way the media handled the story, conducting emotional interviews with people quite peripheral to the incident and assuming the worst possible outcome when few of the facts were known, says more about current perceptions of danger than the world as it really is.