Abortion and euthanasia: was Virginia Ironside right?
Virginia Ironside woke the country up with a start on Sunday morning, when she appeared to be suggesting euthanasia for sick children. She told the BBC's rather bloodless spiritualism-lite programme that if she had a child who was in terrible pain, she would hold a pillow over its head, as she would for any living creature that was suffering. Her fellow guest, (famous for attempting to prosecute a doctor who carried out a late abortion for "unlawful killing" in 2001), normally keeps a very calm demeanour, but her face shot open like a startled fish. A GP from the , Peter Evans, commented: "Well, this just reveals her views, the extent of her views regarding suffering and regarding children." As if she were now so transparently wrong that simply noting that she'd spoken was as good as an argument.
Ironside was unruffled (at this stage, only the disability campaigner Clair Lewis had called her a eugenicist. This accusation gathered proponents as the day went on, particularly on the BBC complaints website). And this, by the way, is what Ironside said exactly: "If I were the mother of a suffering child – I mean a deeply suffering child – I would be the first to want to put a pillow over its face . . . If it was a child I really loved, who was in agony, I think any good mother would." I agree in principle, though it is not the most compelling hypothesis you can imagine, since it doesn't have a realistic ring. (You are reasoning without modern analgesia: so you are either talking about the dark ages, or you are talking about a dystopian future when pain relief, for some reason, doesn't exist.)
But that wasn't where her argument had begun; she had started off arguing that abortion could be a moral choice. The decision is always portrayed as being inherently irresponsible and destructive – Ironside argued that, if it prevented an unwanted child or a child being born profoundly disabled, then it was a good decision that a woman could be proud of. It wasn't the most tactful pro-choice argument you've ever heard (at one point, she alludes to "fatherless" children in the same bracket as the unwanted: that will enrage a few single mothers), but it wasn't a radical new shift in pro-choice thinking.
The reason it's controversial is twofold: first, pro-choicers have totally backed out of the abortion conversation, which has in consequence become dominated by anti-abortionists; second, because Ironside collapses "disabled" and "unwanted" into the same category. This is pretty insulting to disabled people, as Clair Lewis articulated heatedly on the programme: "The problem that disabled people face will not be fixed by killing off unborn children, or killing us off at the end of life." Which, of course, is true: but there is a problem in this conversation, just as there is in the euthanasia debate.
There have been a number of important, laudable changes to the way we talk about disability: it has taken decades, but the "social model" – which argued that the impairment itself wasn't the problem, but rather, the failure of society to accommodate impairment – has had a huge impact, to the point where it is outrageous, now, to suggest that one's quality of life would be worse in some physical conditions than in others. To say anything negative about disability is an insult to all disabled people. And yet, at the same time, it is absolutely self-evident that some people, with very little function and a lot of pain, have a poor quality of life.
There is an understanding that a massive element of any conversation on the topic will remain unspoken, for reasons (essentially) of good taste and tact. But you cannot create a taboo, even one that's well meant, without an attendant shame: so even though a good number of people do abort foetuses that are diagnosed with a serious disability, the fact that nobody will talk about that as a moral choice means that the act becomes more and more shameful, as the silence reinforces itself.
This came about because of a bit of rhetorical extremism, where if you say, "I don't want a child with Down's syndrome" (for instance), then you are denigrating everybody who does have the condition, wishing them out of existence. It's not totally irrational, but it's so reductive that it may as well be. Those of us who are pro- choice could make an argument just as reductive – that the body will usually miscarry a foetus that is damaged, for instance, so in cases where it doesn't you are just helping it along by having an abortion. But that sounds pretty flippant, not a good thing if you are feeling on the moral low ground.
And this is where Ironside has done something crucial: somebody has to assert the moral dimension of being pro-choice, that it's not all convenience and heartlessness. The self-proclaimed moral superiority of the anti-abortionists is predicated on the idea of a human life springing into being at the moment sperm meets egg. But if you don't believe that, then the argument has no moral weight at all.
I think, in another tacit but pervasive move, when the pro-choice movement won the legislative argument, it ceded the moral high ground as a consolation prize to the anti-abortionists. And rational people, of course, stepped out of the argument altogether, since once your rights are in place, who cares what a couple of reverends say on morning telly?
In tandem, somebody has to say that being pro-abortion isn't the same as being prejudiced against disabled people, any more than being anti-abortion is the same as doing anything beneficial for disabled people. There is a furious lobby that attaches a eugenicist tag to anybody who is pro-choice or euthanasia, but it silences its opponents in an underhand way by accusing them of hostility towards the disabled.
Of course Ironside is not waging a war against the disabled: she simply said "life isn't a gift per se". There are plenty of circumstances that make it more burdensome than joyful. The fact that Ironside ruffled any feathers at all illustrates how important it is not to take this as tacit, but to say it out loud.