Gill Hornby: Bravo, Mrs Axon There's nothing like parenthood to bring out your inner Blimp

Is it so wrong for parents to show concern about their teenage children's sexual status


Last week, Susan Axon went to the High Court to argue that she, as a parent, had the right to know if her teenage daughter was seeking an abortion. It seems a pretty reasonable request on the face of it. As Mrs Axon points out, in the case of a headache no 15-year-old can be offered a dose of Calpol without parental consent. Yet, under government guidelines, a pregnancy and its possible termination will be decided by the teenager and her "healthcare professionals". And if she doesn't feel like reporting back, tough. Frankly, it's none of your business.

Mrs Axon appears to be an intelligent and admirable woman: sensible, rather feisty, sticking up for something she believes in. The case itself? Open and shut: of course parents should, wherever possible, be informed. The argument of the Health secretary Patricia Hewitt and the FPA - that confidentiality helps to reduce teenage pregnancies - is palpable nonsense. The truth is, of course, that if a child thinks it is going to be found out, it might think twice before it does something daft. The promise of getting off scot-free has never been a reliable deterrent for anything.

And how am I such a know-all, so firm in my views? Because I am a mother, of teenagers current and future. And hasn't it changed me? Looking at nice Mrs Axon on the television last week, I recalled the similar fight of 20 years ago, fought by Victoria Gillick, and felt a real twinge of guilt.

Mrs Gillick was the first person to raise this issue of parents' rights to know about their children's sex lives. She fought a long and hard battle to be informed if and when her teenage daughters were prescribed with the contraceptive pill. Her first attempt, in the High Court in 1983, was defeated. But she won her case on appeal and the "Gillick ruling" of 1984 - stating that parents should be kept in the dark only "in the most exceptional circumstances" - became law. And it remained so, until the introduction last year of the government guidelines that Mrs Axon is now trying to overturn.

Now that I am a mother myself I can see that what Mrs Gillick did was rather marvellous. Her campaign cost her a lot - in time, money and hideous intrusion into her family life. But, back then, for my generation, she came somewhere between a hate figure and a laughing stock. Of course, Mrs Gillick was, let's face it, a more extreme character than Mrs Axon. She had wild hair, 10 (yes, 10!) children and a religious fervour. She sobbed once or twice rather publicly in a regrettable way. She was, it was quite clear to all of us, the ultimate, toe-curling, Mother From Hell. Imagine! Your own mother! On the telly! Talking about you having sex! Eeeek! Plus, she was infringing that basic, unassailable human freedom: the right of the 15-year-old to do whatever she wants.

But there is nothing like parenthood to bring out one's inner Blimp. A conservative, the old joke goes, is a liberal who has just been mugged. Or, one could add, just given birth. Sexual liberation is put in a different context when it involves a teenage daughter staying out all night. The downgrading of cannabis may make perfect sense on paper, but is somehow unhelpful when applied to one's own offspring. It is easier to affect an indifference to the levels of taxation if there is just the one mouth to feed. And the crunch of course is education. It is all very well to hold the principle that all children should be educated at the nearest school; it means nothing until you have actually put your own children through it.

When Tony Crosland was given the job of restructuring our state school system, he could do whatever he liked. He had no children of his own to worry about. And, while we're at it, let's look back to the 1970s and his colleagues in the old Labour government. Most of its prominent die-hards, the ones who did not join the SDP or fade away - Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, Roy Hattersley - also had no children. As the historian Robert Conquest once said: "Everyone is a reactionary about subjects he understands."

Indeed. Just reading the FPA's arguments against Mrs Axon made me splutter with Blimpish rage. "If a child does not want parents to know it is impossible to say it is in her best interests for them to be told against her will," ran their defence. Because that "would completely ignore the autonomy of the child".

The what? Are we now to give our children complete "autonomy"? Of course, we must treat all young people as responsible individuals as much as possible, but they are not always going to behave like them. One does not have to study the teenage form for very long to realise that the basic instinct to go to school, sleep properly and eat the right things cannot always be relied upon. It is certainly not as strong as the instinct to stay in bed all day and live on a diet of hot chilli Doritos. Give them "autonomy" and God knows where we will be.

Mind you, now that Patricia Hew itt has suggested it, this opt in/opt out idea of parenthood is oddly attractive. How pleasant it would be to say to one's children: "Right, from now on, you can only count on me for the nice bits, the bits that we all agree on - Christmas morning, picnics on the beach, the new Wallace and Gromit ... Darling I'm there for you. All that guidance rubbish, though, you can forget it. I will no longer suggest you clean your teeth or eat a vegetable unless you invite me to do so. Those decisions are for you alone. Or you and your 'health care professionals'." A mother's approach to teenage pregnacy may also be considered tempting by the lazier parent. "Well, I did suspect thtat she was expecting and she wasn't any more. But I didn't want to interfere. I had her autonomy to worry about." But it is likely that, for most of us, this might provoke a slight sense of disquiet. Even with the crumb of comfort that one was helping New Labour reach its targets.

And there are many mixed messages to parents from the Government at play here. While it argues that it can pursue its "teenage pregnancy strategy" only by cutting parents out, it can improve schools, it seems, only by bringing parents in. We are constantly told that a child will perform better at school if we attend parents' evenings, check up on homework, show an interest. And if children don't go to school, it is the parents who get banged up in jail. But what if a child is using truancy as an expression of "autonomy"? It is all too confusing.

Things are not, on the whole, going well for the attentive parent. It's not just Patricia Hewitt and her "healthcare professionals" who are putting the boot in. The other week, a gang of academics gathered in Scotland to denounce the "helicopter mothers", for hovering over their children, not letting them make mistakes, failing to give them necessary freedoms and so on. Much of what they say is, of course, true. It is not possible for your child to learn by your mistakes; it has to make its own. On the other hand, you know that those mistakes bring with them pain. And that is hard. We hover, because we worry that they are going to crash and burn.

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who have managed to give birth without sliding gently to the right. The ones who - if not actually doling out the condoms, passing the joint and "respecting" the "autonomy" - are living according to the principles of their former life. Splendid. But it doesn't get them anywhere in the long run. It is not in the nature of any generation to see the virtue of the one that came before it. However young and groovy you think you might look and act, the eyes of the teenager who beholds you can only see a crusty old saddo, anyway. I think in future I shall model myself on that nice Mrs Gillick.

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