Women, like men, can help acting on impulse

Behaving badly in Basildon

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"It's not like dealing with a hardened criminal," a member of the Essex Constabulary was reported as saying as news broke of the arrest of Denise Giddings over the abduction from a Basildon hospital of new- born Karli Hawthorne.

Well, no, it's not, especially since under English law suspects are still (just about) merely that and are not guilty - and hence to be considered criminal - until a court of law finds them so.

But we get the officer's point. This is one of those cases where even the bench's hard men have to admit "responsibility" is not a straightforward matter. Here is a tale of a simulated pregnancy, a cot and toys bought in advance. But by accepting the pathos do we open the door to accepting there is such a thing as crime passionnel or, in its latter-day variants, hormonal or Darwinian crime - a class of offences in which the perpetrator can honestly plead, "it wasn't me, guv"?

Child abduction touches nerve-ends deep in the cultural cortex. This is the ultimate community crime, the one which defined Jewish sin (in Christian eyes) in the Middle Ages. History's stock of myth and folk tales is riddled with child stealing and substitution, from the banks of the Nile (Moses) to those of the Weser (class action by Hamelin's piper, touching the even deeper parental fear that children might actually want to leave).

Fear persists into the neon-lit late 20th century. Most of those who have waited in hospital corridors for a birth have entertained horror fantasies about mis-identification and loss - it is only when your son starts to walk like his grandfather you have complete genetic confirmation.

This is why the Basildon story makes such good copy - which Karli's father, the unimaginative (at least in the names department) Karl Hawthorne promptly realised as he opened the sealed bids from the papers for his account of events. And of course behind it all may lie a phenomenon which is still pretty much a medical also-ran, miscarriage.

Despite the propagandising efforts of such specialists as Lesley Regan at St Mary's Hospital and a couple of indefatigable interest groups, the physiological causes of spontaneous abortion are little known, let alone its psychological dimension - why, for example, some women hate the association of that word, abortion, and its implication of choice, with the randomness and wastefulness of what has happened inside them.

Miscarriage's Cinderella status is odd since it is a mass phenomenon. A fifth of all putative pregnancies that go to term end prematurely; it is an accident famous actresses are unashamed to acknowledge. Yet women's reactions to miscarriage are richly diverse. For some, feelings of loss and bereavement are real; for others, it registers no more heavily than 100 other physical passages. In a small number of women, reaction does seem to take extreme forms. For a handful, it seems a wish to replace the dead child is fulfilled by the theft of some other's living offspring.

But here we need to tread very carefully. Society - men, many women, too - is hopelessly confused in the way it models women's "nature". Sex machines one minute, breeding machines the next and in between corporate high-achievers all.

It is not just the facile generalisation that says "all women are ...", for example, Mandy Allwoods at heart. It is the anthropological arrogance that says there is an identifiable structure to women's behaviour. History is littered with examples of priests and politicians and paediatricians who believe they know what nature's programme is for women, and it generally involves a fair degree of standing around in nurseries and kitchens.

Perhaps it was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. This autumn we seem to have heard a lot about a meteorological or tidal model of female nature: women are oceanic spaces through which course great waves ... of emotion, of chemicals, of connectivity. It is a model which feeds off the new irrationalism - that strain of post-modern thought, increasingly common at the century's end - that condemns the Enlightenment and all its work, especially reason.

Women - opines Steven Pinker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the latest neo-Darwinian to hit the bookstalls - know not what they do. They are culturally programmed - for example, sometimes to leave their own new-born children to die. Such women are not mad or bad. They are obeying "unconscious" primitive instincts; only as children age do mothers recognise the increasing "biological value" of a child.

Women - conventional wisdom was busy with this interpretation yesterday - sometimes cannot help acting as they do because Nature/their genes/hormones/maternal destiny requires them to do things.

The obvious response to all this is that if genes determine women's behaviour why do they not equally cause men to behave as they do. And down that road lies the excuse Martin Clunes and his ilk are just longing for: it is a recipe for barbarism. Of course behaviour is shaped and limited by physiology and genetic endowment and of course there are gender differences in both. But to leap from there to causation and start saying women and men have no choice is to toboggan down a philosophical Cresta Run.

We have to hope Denise Giddings gets a fair trial. That must mean one in which it is recognised that all our lives are a series of balances and compromises between biology, will and culture. But the greatest of the three has to be will, the capacity to choose.

A women who miscarries may suffer badly. She may need and deserve a lot more support than she may get from partner or family and especially from GPs whose training in dealing with women is still so inadequate. None the less the fact of her pain and loss can never be allowed to deny she had a choice in how she then behaved.

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