A woman's right to choose how anguished she feels

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Widespread dismay greeted the news this week of a significant jump in the number of abortions carried out in England and Wales last year, the first increase in the figures for five years. Government figures revealed that there were almost 180,000 terminations, an increase of 8.3 per cent on the previous year, with a dramatic rise in teenage abortions.

The rise was blamed, in part, on the disappearance of specialist family planning clinics. Nuala Scarisbrick, trustee of the anti-abortion organisation Life, attacked the government - somewhat bizarrely in the circumstances - for "pouring money into condom and abortion agencies". She added: "It's women who suffer as a result."

Three decades after abortion was legalised, the idea that women are damaged by having terminations has become something of a mantra with people who oppose abortion - and even some of those who support it. I'm forever being told that women regret having abortions, that they are haunted for years by thoughts of the children they didn't have, that the operation causes immense psychological damage. I'm sure there are women who feel like this. One or two of my friends wish their circumstances, particularly their financial positions, had allowed them to go ahead with pregnancies they felt they had to terminate. But the great taboo around abortion is not to do with regret. No one is supposed to say this, but the most common reaction among the women I know who have had abortions is relief.

They talk about the lifting of a great weight of anxiety, even despair, which is not to deny that some women experience remorse. Nor is it a justification of abortion as a first-line method of contraception, which is why funding for family planning clinics is vital. It is to insist, however, that we should take notice of what women actually feel about abortion.

What this week's figures underline is that women who discover they are pregnant do not always respond with joy. The news is often unwelcome and abortion presents itself, before and after the operation, as an unpleasant necessity. The pretence that every termination causes terrible trauma says more, in the end, about our distaste for the procedure than its real impact on women's lives.

ANOTHER story that caused angry reactions this week was the acquittal of a Reading University lecturer, Professor John Cottingham, on two charges of indecent assault. The reason for the outrage was that the two women students who accused Prof Cottingham benefited from anonymity, even when their accusations were dismissed as groundless. He did not.

The case was always going to arouse strong passions, venturing as it did into the emotive territory of sexual harassment. But one of the conclusions which has been widely drawn from the case - that the law should be changed so that the defendant remains anonymous - implies that it has exposed a terrible deficiency in our legal system.

Yet what the case shows is that the system works. What Prof Cottingham has got, instead of sniggering innuendo and Chinese whispers among his students about what he was charged with and the result, is a public declaration of his innocence. "Man acquitted: law must be changed!" strikes me as a strange rallying cry - unless you want to live in a totalitarian state where the outcome of every trial is known in advance.

SOME commentators, it transpired this week, would like women who make false allegations of rape to be punished by being publicly named at the end of the trial. Apart from the fact that this measure would almost certainly deter genuine victims from coming forward, I am dismayed by the enthusiasm it displays for public shaming, a device popular in countries where the sharia, or Islamic law, is in force. One thing we know about those regimes is that they almost always bear down more heavily on women than men.

For some time now I have been following, with relief, the military reverses suffered by the ruling Taliban militia in Afghanistan, where women are no longer allowed to work and have been forced to wear veils. This week, as they retreated to Kabul under the onslaught of opposition forces, the Taliban leadership still found time to address the important issue of high heels.

"Women are duty-bound to behave with dignity, to walk calmly and refrain from hitting their shoes on the ground, which makes noises," the Department for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice announced. Such a problem, don't you find, girls wearing noisy shoes? They'll be wanting to go to school next.

FOLLOWING my item last week on the correspondence between two women in Roman Britain which has just gone on display at the British Museum, I've been sent a translation of Claudia Severa's invitation to her friend Lepidina, dictated to a scribe but with a PS in her own handwriting. "I shall expect you, sister," she added affectionately. "Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper." No secret there, then, but Dr Hilary Cool, who kindly sent me the translation, adds that the next letter in the series contains a "tantalising hint" of some information which must be exchanged face to face rather than written down.

"Who could have guessed?" asks Dr Cool, "we'd ever have such a vivid picture of life on the frontier at the end of the 1st century?" Another writing tablet from the period, published at the end of last year, demonstrates that the discontents of army life do not change; it's from a junior officer at a British fort to his commander, demanding to know what he's supposed to be doing. They've also, he complains, run out of beer and would like some more pronto.

Finally, another erudite correspondent writes from Lincoln's Inn pointing out that no less a person than Goethe challenged the etymology of mentula, the most common Latin word for penis, which I mentioned last week. Far from being a diminutive of menta, the name of the spearmint plant, Goethe suggested in some rather elegant hexameters that it came from the word mente, which means "from behind". Does this imply, I wonder, that the Romans were unimpressed by what we call the missionary position?