One of life's black comedies: The protagonists on either side of the abortion debate succeed only in obscuring big, basic issues of existence

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THERE is no middle ground on abortion. It brings out the worst in people. It is the issue on the edge, the debate overlooking the abyss. In America it has become the most potent of all the harsh polarities that divide that society. In politically correct circles, to be pro-life is to be damned and banned. Amid the anti-abortion alliance of Catholics, evangelicals and fundamentalists, to be pro-choice is to be, well, really damned.

Yesterday's episode in London had begun as an attempt by the American pro-lifers to export their campaign. It is a frightening campaign. A Florida doctor was gunned down earlier this month for his work as an abortionist. And the Americans had come to Regent's Park because here they had found a focus of evil.

'This is where the head of the serpent is located,' said Larry Donlan from Omaha, Nebraska, gesturing at the International Planned Parenthood Federation offices. He should know. He belonged to Rescue the Heartland and has just finished a five- month jail sentence in Omaha for a 'rescue' operation conducted against an abortion clinic. I asked him what he meant. 'There is a serpent,' he explained, 'and this is its head.'

But a set-piece confrontation with pro-abortionists never happened. Before Larry and his friends arrived, the police, in a sudden, violent episode, had dispersed and arrested at least half of the group of pro-abortion demonstrators outside the IPPF. They had wanted to prevent a clash with the American pro-lifers, who were said to have got lost on the Tube. The pro-lifers had, in any case, been held up by the need to picket Hammersmith police station where their leader, Don Treshman, was being held.

The pro-abortionists were basically jeans, leather and bad hair. Most of their banners advertised Socialist Worker, with the slogan for the day felt-tipped underneath: 'No Return to Butchered Back-Street Abortions'. Living Marxism was also on sale, as was Workers Vanguard, the US equivalent of Socialist Worker. The Vanguard group held banners that read like violent, ill-translated, subtly ambiguous haiku: 'Penalty-Racist, Anti-Abortion, Murderer'. They were just all- purpose angry types. And they were, in any case, vastly outnumbered by journalists and camera crews and by the police who mopped them up in minutes.

Then the Americans began to trickle in, still baffled by London geography. It immediately became clear that the police had failed to mop up one particularly virulent English pro- choicer: a cross, spiritually anguished, leather-jacketed type from a Scorsese movie. 'I'm surprised you can show your face in Britain, you nasty little American Herbert.'

He was addressing Raymond O'Connor, an amiable, retired New York fireman clad in a turquoise Ralph Lauren windcheater and carrying a role of prints of Our Lady of Guadelupe - 'the protectress of the unborn' - under his arm. Mr O'Connor ignored him, so the little man sidled up to threaten another elderly American - 'I hope you've got a taste for hospitals.'

The police had asked the Americans not to wave the Our Lady prints, it would be a provocation. So an English pro-lifer took us to one side and pulled a crumpled postcard out of his Barbour pocket - 'I want you to see this.' It showed a bloody, aborted foetus, fully formed and very late, apparently lying on a skip. 'The doctor who did this ought to be in prison, not being protected by the police.'

Both sides go for the badged look: a picture of the Pope, another foetus, with the caption 'Freedom of Choice?', the yellow Anti-Nazi League button, 'Life, liberty and justice for all, born and unborn' with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and so on. Both sides think the others are Fascists/Nazis and everybody thinks everybody else is implicated in a global conspiracy: the pro-choicers go for repressive capitalism and the pro-lifers for covert eugenics. And the bad guys are all murderers: the pro-choicers kill babies and the pro-lifers kill doctors and terrorise anguished women.

The pro-life press conference outside IPPF was a media fest, a wild huddle that thickened to a dense crush as the pro-life star Katharine O'Keefe read out her elaborate eugenics-conspiracy accusations against IPPF.

Fierce American absolutism had arrived to galvanise unthinking British relativism. Certainly abortion is an issue here, but it scarcely crawls off the inside pages. OK, we say, the Catholics are against it, but they would be, they're Catholics. The trick for the pro-lifers was to brush aside the shrugged shoulders and reach the brothers and sisters beyond. So Ms O'Keefe and her missionaries politely faced out the tide of British hacks, knowing that at the other end of their cables and notebooks there were souls to be won.

It was a black comedy: comic because of the awful intellectual ineptitude of both sides and black because big, basic issues of human life and death were being horribly trivialised. The badges and banners advertised not an argument but minds closed by a need to belong. They were as much fashion accessories as the Ralph Lauren and the leather. Inept as any of them, the Catholic church has allowed itself to be enlisted by these vulgar rhetoricians. The real debate, and the one the Catholics might start to win if they could look over the heads of their flock to the world outside, concerns the simple matter of the drawing of lines.

Nobody, unless they are several sandwiches short of the human picnic, likes abortions. They are nasty and sad. The pro-choice line is simply that it may be the lesser evil; population and poverty may be better contained if the choice can be made and, in any case, the foetus remains part of the woman's body and she retains the right to choose. Their line is drawn at birth, when the organism in question becomes something different.

'It's not a baby,' howled one pro-choicer at Regent's Park, 'it's a foetus.' The word alone was thought to work the necessary magic. But it should be clear that this line is drawn not from conviction or from any sense of the irreducibility of human life. It is drawn for convenience. The foetus is permitted to become an absolute only when it has been called a baby because, in essence, it makes life simpler.

The anti-abortion line is drawn at conception on principle. It is an inconvenient, messy line but it is drawn on the basis that, if we are to have any absolute, then human life must be it. This is as much an argument from Enlightenment secularism as from Catholic theology. Indeed, it could logically appeal more to the atheist than the believer. He could accept this absolute precisely because there were no others; a good atheist should value line-drawing more than the best Christian.

This is the issue that the badges, banners, comedies and conspiracies disguise. The pro-choicers are so obsessed with their illiterate conception of freedom that they cannot bring themselves to discuss the limits that define it. The pro-lifers are so crazed with their need for a Holy War that they cannot take on the complexities of the liberal society, they wish only to simplify it into conspiracies of bad guys.

Me? I'm anti-abortion, but with friends like these . . .

(Photograph omitted)

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