Deborah Orr: So much for the abortion debate, but what about the women who have them?

Saturday 16 September 2006 00:00

It's pretty strange, this ever-growing enthusiasm for abortion in Britain, when one considers what a bloody awful ordeal it is for most of the women who experience it. Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Anna Glasier offers the grim news that the wider availability of the morning-after pill has prevented more than 66,500 abortions in England and Wales in 2004, but that there were, nevertheless, 185,400 terminations in the same year.

That's a crushing litany of stress and trauma for an awful lot of people, most of it entirely preventable. Why do we women put ourselves though it? Because, say a range of experts, we don't know enough about contraception.

Maybe there is a vast rump of Britons who don't know what a condom is, or who think that if you stand on your head after sex you don't get pregnant. After all, there does appear to be a huge number who don't know that urinating in the multi-storey car park isn't nice, or that salt is not a food.

But I'm beginning to think that at least part of the problem is actually that we don't know enough about abortion. The endlessly polarised debate which seeks on one side to romanticise abortion as an empowering women's right and on the other to demonise it as a form of mass murder, leaves little room for women to be honest about how miserable their experience made them feel.

There's not much that's sadder than a visit to an abortion clinic, whether you're going on your own account or just supporting a friend. These institutions are populated by wobbly, whey-sobbing girls and women, caught between relief and guilt, abject with physical and emotional exhaustion. They're often cowed, too, by the invasiveness of the process they've been through, from the time they first had to get that insulting "second medical opinion" to the point when they're told that it would be easier all round of they opted to have their foetus removed under local anaesthetic.

Say this though, and the pro-lifers pounce, unable to see that their own absolutist ambitions are such a huge part of the problem. The quiet, strung-out, muffled bleakness of abortion stays abstract. Women are almost encouraged not to think about what it's really like to have an abortion until they find they have to.

Even having been through it once, women sometimes end up being caught again, not just because they're irresponsible, but because the sheer enforced privacy of the experience ushers in denial and the feeling that the whole thing was unreal.

The difficulty of being pro-choice while, at the same time, being not too keen on the actual nitty-gritty, by no means explains fully the ever-rising predilection for abortion. Risky sexual and social behaviour is widespread, among adults and children, and debate around all of this is complex and highly partial. For some good reasons. Part of the problem with telling young women how crushing it is to have an abortion is that they may well fall pregnant anyway, and then decide to go ahead and have a child they're not equipped to care for.

Which brings us right back to the experts, and their touching faith in the power of contraceptive education. In this week that saw the middle-classes go bonkers because they perceived that they were being told that maybe their kids had too many violin lessons, it's sobering to understand that you really ought to keep your trap shut about abortion because it might put a child off having one. But it's certainly quite a testament to the intractability of some of the social problems we face.

Asking the killer questions

David Frost, eh? What kind of a monster did he create? Watching Peter Morgan's play this week about the young star's obsessive pursuit of Nixon only made me want to rush off and watch the lot, to see if everything except the celebrated Watergate sequence could possibly be as embarrassing a farrago as was portrayed on the stage.

Frost was staring at ruin, with hours and hours of turgid footage, vast, crippling personal bills, and no one willing to sponsor or broadcast his long slaved-over project. One iconic moment though, after a killer question literally fell into Frost's lap. and the hours of boredom fell away. What telly interviews need, above all, is for faces to crack.

So Kay Burley must be pleased for reducing the Chancellor to tears as she questioned him on the death of his newborn daughter, Jennifer Jane. Never mind that the death of a child is private, and in no way concomitant with a White House cover-up. Tears on a guy are always news, especially when he's a politician.

Yet Burley's probings are trivial compared to those of Nancy Grace, the US interviewer and former criminal prosecutor who questioned Melinda Duckett relentlessly about her missing baby son. The 21-year-old shot herself dead a few hours later.

Killer questions indeed.

* No one could claim that my passion for The Sopranos is half-hearted. To mark the final episode of the previous series I even attended a dinner party which featured food slavishly prepared using the Sopranos Cook Book and demanded that all in attendance dress up as their favourite character. (All the women went as Adrianna, natch.)

But I have to confess to feeling an impending sense of disappointment in this, the final series. The last two episodes have been turgid and confusing, and haven't even included much in the way of decent dialogue.

The one bright spot involves the group of Buddhist monks who are dogging shot-in-the-stomach Tony's comatose dreams. I've often heard it said that there's nobody more angry than an occidental Buddhist.

Which offers the delightful hope that Tony may soon be converting.

Cress should be commended ... but why now?

I've no doubt, as all of "Cress" Dick's friends are telling us, that she's fabulous. I admire, too, her work into tackling gun crime. But it's still astonishing that the Met decided this is the moment to promote her.

Commander Dick headed the operation that resulted in the shooting of 27-year-old Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, and it has already been decided that neither she nor any other individual officer will face trial. But the Met is due to lodge a plea in a few days, in response to its prosecution over de Menezes' death under the Health and Safety at Work Act. If the Met pleads guilty, it is hard to see how Cress will emerge unscathed, since she was in charge. So even at that level, the timing is appalling.

If the Met pleads not guilty, then the case will go to trial, but not till next spring. This will ensure that much information about that day will remain sub judice, so in turn there can be no publication of the Independent Police Complaints Commission's report until it is over. It seems amazing that the De Menezes family can be expected to wait so long to get half an idea of how their son died, but that Cress cannot be expected to wait that long until her career takes a fresh leap forward.

Above all, there is the question of how Commander Dick had not informed Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair that De Menezes was innocent until 24 hours after the shooting, when at least one senior officer is clear that he knew five hours later. The Met quite clearly has a problem with timing, along with its rather more worrying lack of respect for the due process of the law.

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