Truth is the real moral casualty

A doctor's distortion of the facts has clouded the abortion issue, writes Paul Vallely
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." Each episode of the Fifties police television series Dragnet began with this warning. We have come a long way since those days. Today it is not only the names that are changed.

The debate on human fertility and moral responsibility rumbles on. Yesterday we were told of a woman who has been recommended for IVF treatment after her previous three children were adopted, following allegations of sexual abuse. An opinion poll claimed that a majority of people now want the abortion law reviewed. And, of course, there was more from Mandy "I want all eight babies" Allwood who, the News of the World informed us, has developed a craving for ice pops and has had a scan that shows all eight foetuses are alive.

But as the debate moves on there is one significant area that appears to have been passed over.

No doubt Professor Phillip Bennett acted from the best of motives when he began to tinker with the facts when he first told the Sunday Express of the case of the woman who wanted to abort one of her twins. No doubt he could not have predicted the turmoil that was to follow from his revelation of what he is said to describe as the greatest moral dilemma of his career. Much has been written about the ethics of the abortion, but what has been largely neglected is a discussion of the ethics of altering facts.

And how the facts were altered. Miss B was 28, a single mother with a child already who lived in straitened circumstances, and now she was 16 weeks pregnant with twins and was awaiting an abortion having decided to rid herself of one of the foetuses because she could not cope with twins.

Or so we were told. In truth the woman's name does not begin with B. She is not 28. She is not a single mother. She was not 16 weeks pregnant when the abortion took place. She has not one existing child but two. She does not live in straitened circumstances. Rather, she is a professional woman who lives in a fashionable part of London who is married to a company director who is the father of her children. Does any of this matter? It more than matters. It might be crucial.

Bennett may be, as one of his obstetrician colleagues put it, "a brilliant molecular biologist". He may also be a compassionate doctor. But his expertise in media management is sorely deficient. And far more significantly, he has revealed how distinctly underdeveloped his thinking is on ethics.

It was brave of him to have raised in his original newspaper interview the dilemma he and his colleagues have faced since research by one of his colleagues showed that 24-week-old foetuses respond to painful stimuli and thus may be capable of feeling pain. But his vocabulary was disconcerting. He talked like a pro-lifer:

"A needle is stuck into the baby to kill it," he said of the operation to kill one of a pair of foetuses. And describing the dilation and evacuation technique used in pregnancies over eight weeks, he said: "I dismember the foetus, pull it apart limb by limb and remove it piece by piece. I don't find it pleasant but I'm of sufficiently tough constitution to do it." It was extraordinary language for a man who has performed 3,000 abortions - almost as many as the number of live births he has assisted - and who insisted that two hours after each abortion he had forgotten them.

Most arguments against abortion proceed from this syllogism: to kill a human being is wrong; a foetus is a human being; to kill a foetus is wrong.

Those in favour of abortion usually dispute the second premise. Bennett seems to accept the second but to deny the first. Yet, given his language, he offers no indication of how he has discovered an ethical consistency in this position.

Facts alter cases. This is especially true in the abortion debate. For most people, except for those who are triumphalist pro-choicers or pro- life zealots, abortion is not an absolutist issue. Circumstances affect judgements. To say that seems crassly self-evident and yet it was not apparent to Bennett in his ham-fisted attempt to preserve doctor-patient confidentiality and protect the identity of the woman involved.

Pure moral truth is the business of the philosopher. Add personal details and things begin to change. To personify ethical dilemmas and explore inner psychological truths may be the job of the novelist but it should never be the work of the doctor. Omitting facts may make discussion of an ethical dilemma more difficult but at least it does not mislead.

Bennett's deception has done damage in a number of areas. It must have considerably added to the distress of the woman at the centre of the case. It has reinforced the stigmatisation of single mothers, confirming the backwoods stereotype of the lone parent as a feckless woman from a poor background incapable of facing up to the consequences of her own actions. Perhaps we should be thankful his strategy of fact-inversion did not extend to telling us the woman was black.

His prevarication also induced unnecessary distress among those who oppose adoption; leaving uncorrected the misapprehension that the abortion was yet to take place - when it had taken place months before - allowed the pro-life activists to raise the emotional temperature of the debate as they went around collecting pounds 80,000 in the hope of forestalling the operation. It also disturbed women who nurse ambivalence or regrets about their own abortions: "If that money had been available to me I would not have gone through with mine," said one, no doubt speaking for a number of others.

But more seriously, Bennett's economy with the truth has clouded rather than clarified some of the moral issues at the heart of the debate. His depiction of the social, financial and emotional circumstances of a straitened single mother afforded a sympathetic justification to the case in the eyes of many who might now feel differently about the reality of this abortion. In the end decisions about abortion must be made by individuals caught in an emotional and moral quandary that is deeply personal. But it is not helpful for that to happen in an atmosphere where the rest of us feel we have been cheated intellectually in our consideration of the issue.

No doubt some will blame the newspaper. But even if its journalists colluded in some of the misrepresentations, it was the doctor's distortions that were at the heart of the problem. To alter names may protect the innocent. But to alter facts strikes at the innocence of truth itself.