Letters: Abortion and parents

Abortion: parents have a duty of support, not a 'right to know'
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Sir: I am a doctor working in contraception and sexual health and inevitably see many young people whom I advise on all aspects of sexual health. I spend a considerable part of my lengthy consultations with them, particularly those under 16, talking about their family relationships and encouraging them, often very successfully, to talk to their parents, whose response is very often much more positive and supportive than they would have imagined.

However, it is as a parent myself that I write today concerning the current court action about a parent's "right to know". We parents do not have any automatic "right to know" or indeed any other rights over our children. It is our children who have the rights. They have the right to parenting which supports, encourages and leads by example. They have the right to live in a society which nurtures rather than seeks to control them.

Ms Axon and the rest of us would do better to concentrate our time and energy, not to mention the vast sums of money spent on the current High Court action and similar initiatives, on thinking about how we can create a more honest and open culture regarding sex in this country. The very questionable parental "right to know" then would be an obsolete debate because our children, like young people in Holland, would be happy to confide in us and would find the question "Would you talk to your parents about sex?" a rather strange one to ask - because it would not be something they ever considered not doing.



Sir: Parents are right to be concerned about their children's health and the decisions they make ("Mother challenges 'secret' abortion and contraceptive advice for children", 9 November) .

The loss of a pregnancy is a tragedy, and the dilemma of choosing to face such a deliberate act alone is traumatic. Yet to choose not to involve a parent speaks of great fear and shame, and these feelings can rarely be transformed by compulsion. Rather, it is the gentle exploration of concerns by a sympathetic doctor that enables many frightened teenagers to involve their parents.

The greater shame would be if a rightful concern for a child's welfare perversely resulted in more unwanted pregnancies and lost educational opportunities, rather than fewer pregnancies and terminations.



Terror vote foils Blair attack on Parliament

Sir: Paul Gillions (Letters, 12 November) raises an interesting point. Our present form of government is supposedly a "liberal parliamentary democracy". The word "liberal" seems a misnomer nowadays - "mass democracy" or "popular democracy" would seem to be more appropriate. Now Tony Blair seems to be doing away with the "parliamentary" part of the definition by appealing to the "will of the people" above that of Parliament.

My old father used to say that when the country was governed by the opinions of the "man in the street" on every issue, it would be the end of everything. This sort of view is ridiculed nowadays, when the "consumer" is supposedly king, but there is a lot of truth in it. The point is not that public opinion is unimportant, but the man in the street cannot understand the pros and cons of every issue, and that is why we have MPs to examine the facts and arguments and come to their own decisions. Too often nowadays this all goes by the board in the interests of "party discipline", and that is why it is so refreshing when, as happened recently, our MPs vote for what they really believe.



Sir: Steve Richards says that the Prime Minister's warnings before the election about terrorism were dismissed as spin and that "Since then, he has been tragically vindicated" (Opinion, 11 November).

Not at all: when Blair said those things, it was spin since he never mentioned British terrorists, suicide bombers or simultaneous attacks on four points of the London transport network. They were statements that he knew could only ever be vindicated and never refuted.

I could just as easily say that there will be a murder in west London within the foreseeable future. And I could all the more easily say it if I knew that some action of mine two years ago might provoke it.



Sir: Your letters pages are full of self-congratulation that Blair's proposal to lock people up for 90 days has failed. Hold on a minute. Parliament did not throw out the Bill: they merely changed the time the police can incarcerate innocent people from 90 days to 28 days. This is still 21 days longer than they could legally detain IRA suspects in the 1970s - and look what happened to the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six. A credit to democracy? I think not.



Sir: The Government's latest form of arm-twisting ("When the police turn to lobbying Parliament", 14 November) is all the more outrageous when you recall that police advice was ignored when the unenforceable hunting ban was pushed through.



Wrong to sue NHS over cancer drug

Sir: As the son of a parent with incurable breast cancer I fully understand why Elaine Barber has fought to receive Herceptin on the NHS, and I truly hope that it works for her ("Health trust reverses breast cancer ruling", 10 November). However, as a qualified nurse with 10 years experience in oncology, I do admit to being very angry that Ms Barber was intending to take legal action against her primary care trust.

On a day where many NHS trusts have announced that they cannot afford to take on newly qualified staff nurses, the threat of someone taking more money from the NHS because of not receiving a drug which remains "experimental" is scandalous.

There are many things wrong with today's NHS and the some parts of the media are very quick to splash these failings on the front page. What certainly does not help the service are the lawsuits taken against individual NHS trusts by people whose expectations of a free service have escalated way beyond its ability to meet them.



The real benefits of coursework

Sir: Johann Hari's sensationalist article on coursework (4 November) was dismal in its cavalier willingness to impugn the integrity of teachers and parents alike. Equally depressing have been the letters you have since published, which seem to imply that the case against is proven. The impression is given that coursework marks hugely distort the picture of students' final achievement, when 25 per cent is actually the typical proportion of marks awarded for this component in examination subjects.

There is one feature of Hari's article with which I am in full agreement. I have been a senior GCSE English coursework moderator for some 20 years and can confirm that, in the days of 100 per cent English coursework, cheating was minimal. This was partly because such a large number of the assignments were creative and therefore less susceptible to undetected plagiarism, and partly because education was less politicised: students developed their skills free from the tyranny of league tables.

There are many benefits of coursework ignored in the recent debate. In addition to relieving some of the intense pressure that students experience in the build-up to final examinations, coursework offers students opportunities to refine their work, independently, but with the guidance of teachers - who are actually paid to help students do better - using judiciously some of the "scaffolding" techniques derided by Hari, especially with the less able and less advantaged students he is apparently so keen to support.

Coursework assessment in skills-based subjects, such as art, is far more appropriate than timed examinations. David Humphrey's view (Letter, 9 November) is simplistic. I would be worried if the surgeon operating on me had no more than examination qualifications demonstrating the ability to identify parts of my body correctly: I would also like to be reassured that he/she had observed experienced surgeons and been supervised and guided over a suitable period of time. Real life requires skills as well as knowledge.



No illegal use of phosphorus by US

Sir: Your paper on November 8 and 9 published stories alleging that US forces were using chemical weapons in Iraq. These reports are not true. Had your correspondents acted responsibly by checking these assertions with either the US Embassy or with the Department of Defense, they would have learned the truth. Although over 100 journalists were embedded with the Marine Expeditionary Forces in Fallujah, only one media outlet, RAI, aired this story, and it did so a year after the event in question. That alone should have raised some red flags about the accuracy of your report.

US forces participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to use appropriate lawful, conventional weapons against legitimate targets. US forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons.

Suggestions that US forces targeted civilians with white phosphorus in Operation Al Fajr are simply wrong. US forces use white phosphorus as obscurants or smoke screens and for target marking. White phosphorus is not banned by any convention when used in this manner.

The Mk 77 firebomb is not napalm, and it is not illegal. US forces did not use Mk 77 firebombs during Operation Al Fajr. The only instance of Mk 77 use during Operation Iraqi Freedom occurred during March-April 2003, when US Marines employed several bombs against legitimate military targets. Mk 77's chemical composition is different from that of napalm; the US destroyed its last remaining stocks of napalm in 2001.

Coalition forces in Iraq go to extreme lengths to avoid loss of innocent life, despite the insurgents' practice of deliberately targeting non-combatants. This is the real story, reported by journalists from all over the world.



Misconceptions about Narnia

Sir: I greatly enjoyed Boyd Tonkin's informative article on C S Lewis, (11 November). Mr Tonkin corrected several misconceptions relating to the creator of the Chronicles of Narnia: he may have given credence to a more recent error.

Mention was made of Philip Pullman's "disgust at the exclusion of one of the four Pevensie children, Susan, from paradise at the end of the stories". Lewis stands accused of excluding her from paradise simply because she has begun to grow up.

The charge is false. Salvation does not elude Susan simply because she enjoys "nylons and lipstick", but because she has placed such things above the values represented by Aslan. In fact, Susan is not refused paradise: she has chosen to move away from it.



Meyer's revelation

Sir: There is one reason why the establishment heavyweights have come out against Sir Christopher Meyer. Ministers want to preserve the myth that they are important and successful. Books like this one reveal that they are ordinary people who do their jobs well, badly or indifferently, just like the rest of us. The same goes for the cream of the Civil Service. We, the people who pay for it all, have every right to know these facts. Three cheers for Sir Christopher!



Dawkins the believer

Sir: John Lyons (Letter, 12 November) comments that Richard Dawkins is also believer, in that he believes that all living creatures are descended from a common ancestor. The word "belief" is used in a number of different contexts. In this context, Dawkins believes the above, because there is a great body of evidence to support it. It is not a belief in the religious sense, which is a belief that is held with no verifiable evidence. In fact, some insist that the only worthwhile religious belief is one which is backed up by no physical evidence at all.



Sir: Tristan Cooper writes that Richard Dawkins "is far too good a scientist to believe any such thing"(Letter, 14 November), that thing being that Professor Dawkins believes that all living things are descended from a single common ancestor. Richard Dawkins in an article in the 17 September issue of the New Scientist wrote this: "All this diversity stems from successive branchings, starting from a single bacterium-like ancestor, which lived between three and four billion years ago."



Kind way to bag a fox

Sir: Angela Elliott is totally wrong to argue that shooting is the only alternative to fox-hunting. Nowadays local councils and others use modern, humane "live cage" fox traps. They are extremely efficient. This avoids any cruelty. Fox-hunting is now both illegal and obsolete.



University lottery

Sir: I am left shocked and saddened, now that Dr Steven McGuire has exposed the truth about university admissions in the 1960s (Letters, 10 November). I believed I was offered a place on the basis of good examination results and a day being interviewed and tested by a succession of lecturers. Now it turns out that this procedure was a façade, and in fact I was just one of the "fortunate few" whose numbers had come up.



Singularly upsetting

Sir: Your article about the white truffle (14 November) provides a fine illustration of, perhaps, the king of edible fungi. You spoil it by describing it as a "tartufo bianchi". Tartufo is singular, whereas bianchi is plural. You showed a tartufo bianco; had you shown more than one, you would have shown some tartufi bianchi. I would have expected better of you - quite spoiled my appetite!