Christina Patterson: Give us drugs and babies – with no strings attached

You've waited for ever for little Chloe to burst forth, and some professor is pontificating about costs
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The Independent Online

On Monday, a friend of mine had a baby. Not the most momentous event in the world, you might think, except that this baby was beginning to feel as elusive as a stable economy, as elusive, in fact, as peace in the Middle East.

Like many attractive, successful women in a world which sometimes feels as though a generation of men has been accidentally wiped out (did God hit delete and forget to do control Z?), my friend found love late. Fecundity did not automatically follow. Like anyone who has longed for children almost more than life itself, she endured batteries of medical tests, soya milk, needles and herbs. For a long time, it seemed as though the more effort she made, the less likely that miraculous conjunction of egg and sperm became. Perhaps sperm, like male Manhattanites, need to be treated mean to keep 'em keen. Who knows? I don't, in fact, know whether this baby was meditated, nudged, doctored or prayed into existence, and I don't need to know. I only know that my friend is blissfully, ecstatically, deservedly happy.

One in seven couples in this country has difficulty in conceiving. Many of these seek medical help. Much of which, according to a new study, is useless. The study, reported in the British Medical Journal, showed that the fertility pill clomifene and IUI (intrauterine insemination) were no more effective at triggering human reproduction than the, er, traditional method. "These treatments are offered by virtually every district hospital up and down the country," said the professor who led the study, "so the total costs are tremendous."

Costs? You've waited for ever for little Chloe or Sam or Rosie to burst forth and give meaning to your life, and some professor is pontificating about "costs", like a prime minister trying to salvage his reputation by boring on about the price of food and fuel. Just as, a couple of days before, an advisory body which hides its iron fist in the velvet glove of its name (Nice? when it's just punched you in your collapsing kidneys?) declared that four new drugs for advanced kidney cancer were too expensive for the NHS to supply. Too "expensive"? We're not talking shoes, for God's sake; we're talking a human life.

When we're seriously ill, and when the warp and weft of our daily lives suddenly feel like the Bayeux tapestry, we'll do pretty much anything to cling on to what we've got. When I had cancer, I drank carrot juice. I even bought a book with the saddest title in the world: Vegan Cooking for One. (When I got the all-clear, of course, I went back to lamb shanks and wine.) We'll hack off body parts, blast ourselves with X-rays, flood our bodies with toxic chemicals and watch our hair fall out as we stagger to the nearest bathroom to throw up. All we ask is that the health service, which we've funded through our taxes all our lives, foots the bill.

And if we've waited for parenthood – not because we're ball-breaking harridans so fixated on career success that we "forgot" to have a family, but because it took a million bloody dates to find Mr Half-Decent – and have to watch the Shannon Matthewses of this world spewing out babies like half-eaten chocolate muffins, then we feel that we, who have worked, and saved, and prayed, should have all the help we need, all the help it takes.

Why? Because we're worth it. On the news, we watch footage of starving children in Ethiopia (again) and flood victims in Bangladesh (again) and then, perhaps, a poignant documentary about an "elephant man" in China, or about the "smallest people in the world" and we sigh, and perhaps we cry, at the lives of people who have next to nothing. But they are them and we, thank God, are us. And our life is precious beyond price.

In a "civilised" society, we say, it is obscene to deny a person drugs that would prolong a life, or give a life, or improve a life. And perhaps we point to a society that gives the drug we want (but not, of course, the one that doesn't). But we probably don't look too closely at how that society is structured and funded. If you want Scandinavian levels of healthcare, and equality, then you need Scandinavian levels of taxation. You pay your money, in other words, and you make your choice.

The problem, however, is that "choice" has become a magic mantra in what passes for our political debate, like a lovely smorgasbord in which we can pick pickled herring or gravadlax or meatballs, or perhaps all three, and everyone's too delicate to mention the bill. What do we want? Everything. When do we want it? Now. Health on demand, life on demand, babies on demand. Oh, and we'd quite like to be babies, too. No wonder our politicians treat us as if we are, and no wonder we oust them when they don't.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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