When Britain suffered from high unemployment - there was such a time - a debate ebbed and flowed about the right to work. Was unemployment a personal misfortune or did it reflect a failure of the state? And was there such a thing as the right to work anyway?
The ferocious argument about single women and fertility treatment, which sprang back on to the scene this week with a Commons debate on funding for in vitro fertilisation, reminds me very much of the exchanges about the "right to work". A similar gulf of understanding divides the two sides; there is a similar clash of high principles, and a similar streak of nastiness and resentment has infiltrated the exchanges.
The central issues in yesterday's debate were who qualifies for IVF treatment at all, and who should be treated on the National Health Service. Advance billing suggested that a coalition of MPs from all parties favoured dropping a statutory requirement on fertility clinics to "consider the need for a father" when assessing a woman for treatment. And it is easy to appreciate why.
In this age of complicated family arrangements, is it not unnecessarily rigid, not to say intrusive, to take into account the presence - or absence - of a father? If a woman wants a child so badly that she is prepared to submit herself to the risks and discomfort of fertility treatment, then surely to goodness she will make an excellent mother.
The real question posed by those who advocate IVF for all, however, has less to do with the presence or absence of a father than whether a single woman has the right to have a child. And not just to have a child, but to conceive, carry and bear one. It is the work question all over again: does a woman have an inalienable right to bear a child, just because she is a woman?
Amazingly, there is a whole constituency of the feminist movement out there which appears to believe precisely that. Because a woman is physically engineered for child-bearing, she should be helped to have a child, if that is what she wants, even if she cannot conceive one naturally. The wish must be mother to the deed. I find this vain, self-indulgent and foolish.
There are plenty of old-fashioned reasons for deploring single-motherhood, and most of them are wrong. It is not true that children brought up by single mothers necessarily turn out worse-adjusted than their contemporaries in conventional families. It is not true either, so far as is known, that children brought up by two women or two men suffer any ill effects. And there are plenty of women who conceive a child - by accident or design - and bear it and bring it up by themselves. They might have preferred parenthood as a long-term partner, but somehow it just did not happen that way.
All of which is fine and good and part of the varied texture of the times we live in. But there are surely enough children being brought up by single parents without using expensive technology to add a whole lot more.
If a woman has the money to fund her own treatment without drawing on NHS resources, and can bring up the child without state subsidy, then so be it. The father question - or, to be liberal about it, the partner question - need not enter the equation.
Adoption is a quite separate issue. If a single person wishes to adopt a child who would otherwise have no family, that is a courageous and admirable decision. Adoption should be made easier for anyone who wants to make that commitment.
But where medical intervention is required, its provision at state expense should be restricted. For all the money that has been poured into the NHS by this government, there is still rationing, whether by waiting list or price, for many treatments. IVF is an area where rationing - not by postcode, but by uniform criteria across the country - is surely more justifiable than most.
The criteria should include indicators of likely success: the age and health of the woman and - yes, why not? - whether she is in a stable relationship. If the state is to spend its sparse funds, it should spend them on those who have already made a commitment to family life. The choice for everyone else should be to pay or go without.
The lack of stigma attached to single-motherhood, celebrities with their "accessory" babies, and the availability of IVF are together making child-bearing even more of the norm for women than it always was. It is but a short step from here to the open condemnation of childless women for not making their due contribution to society.
The "right" to work is a conundrum that has never, and probably never will be, resolved. The "right" to a child is a pernicious idea that must be dispelled before it becomes the consensus.Reuse content