The Urge to Scribble

October 25, 2007

Britain’s abortion debate lacks moral bravery

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On Sunday the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a comment piece for The Observer on abortion (Britain’s abortion debate lacks a moral dimension). Originally I thought the piece would make me angry, as so many articles on abortion do. Instead it left me sad and frustrated and ill at ease. In a truly Anglican style he did not come right out and argue for any particular point of view but if anything the implied opinions behind the argument made me more nervous.


My disagreements with the Archbishop began with his opening sentence. The Abortion Act apparently makes provision for ‘extreme and tragic situations’. The implication being that only extreme situations can be tragic, which is in no way the case. If he cannot conceive of a tragedy for women outside of rape or physical medical complications he shows a distinct lack of sympathetic imagination. And in arguing that those who voted for the 67 Abortion Act believed that these were the only situations in which the procedure would be used I believe he severely underestimates the intelligence of our legislators. The Act allows for abortion in cases of mental distress as well, it is clear from the terms of the Act that it allows abortion in cases beyond those outlined by the Archbishop and the availability of abortion in this country has long been recognised.


Throughout his article the Archbishop uses the scare mongering language familiar from the tabloid papers, while ostensibly speaking in reasonable terms. Statistics are ‘spiraling’, changes in behaviour show a ‘weakening of feeling’ and the history demonstrated by the 1967 Act is one of ‘slippage’ and ‘erosion’. He does not need to spell out that he is referring to moral slippage and the erosion of society that the reader should see abortion both contributing to and symbolising, a life time of extreme headlines in the newspapers has already filled in the gaps for us.


Despite the article insisting on abortion needing a moral perspective, when it comes to the matter of reducing the upper time limit for abortion he refers to technological developments, whereas this is one area of the debate where compassion should be uppermost. Again and again the argument has to be made that it is very few abortions that take place past 20 weeks and these are often the most desperate cases, or, in the Archbishop’s words, the most extreme and tragic. He makes no mention of the couples who discover the illness of their future child in 20 week tests or the teenage girl who has not realised she is pregnant, or was too scared to tell before. In a moral debate he would have science determine the course before he has the chance to loose.


Likewise the deliberately misunderstands, or refuses to consider, the moral intentions behind arguments made to allow women to administer the medicine required for a chemical abortion at home. Apparently this is to make abortion ‘simpler’, turning abortion into some kind of takeaway home-fix kit. This is both misleading and insulting. The initial stages of the abortion would still be carried out at a medical centre under supervision. Carrying out the final stages of an abortion in the privacy of one’s home does not mean that the decision is somehow taken lightly, it simply suggests that some of the medical service has the imagination to try to ease the pressure of a traumatic experience. It does not make the choice to do it easier but it might ease the pain. The Archbishop shows himself remarkably lacking in compassion in failing to consider this point.


As a religious leader it turns out that the Archbishop has a cowardly streak. In the article he skirts around the issues and points that he wants to make. A leader should provide guidance, especially a religious leader faced with what he believes to be a moral issue. Instead he is content to raise a controversial problem and leave it hanging, with only the small leads of what can be gleaned from his implied words as an indication of his wider meaning.


I have always argued that one of the strengths of the Church of England is its refusal to proscribe a moral or doctrinal position for its members so it is perhaps strange that I am berating the Archbishop of Canterbury for doing precisely that. My problem lies in the nature of the article. If he wished to provide a forum for a debate, or to begin one, then his article would surely have to be more generous in entertaining and bringing in all points of view. As it is, he does just enough in his language and through the points that he chooses to touch on to let his reader’s know of his disapproval of abortion without ever plainly stating it. He makes neither a strong moral case for his point of view nor creates a forum where debate can take place.


The end of the article reveals Rowen Williams’ intention to use a current debate on abortion to begin a wider analysis of moral decay in society. I would suggest that he is ill-advised to attempt such an analysis from such a beginning. Abortion is a very specific response to a very specific issue, the legislators who voted for the 1967 Abortion Act were brave in voting it through. They had the vision to recognise that what is good for society is not always harking back to an age where society magically functioned and the compassion to attempt to fight their way towards new moral choices in a difficult world. The Archbishop should not be afraid to join them.


October 14, 2007

Role models are for life, not just for primary school

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There has been a recurring cry recently for more male primary school teachers. In April the then Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson, made a speech to the Fabian Society where he launched a recruitment drive for male teachers to act as role models to young boys. The Training and Development Agency is running a campaign to persuade more men to teach. Last Sunday, an article in The Observer Magazine belated the lack of men choosing to go into Primary School teaching. Politicians, commentators and the Training and Development Agency are all working themselves up into a paranoia that the children of today are growing up without appropriate male role models. To hear their opinions expressed you could easily believe that if the person teaching boys (and girls) their reading, writing and arithmetic did not have the correct chromosomes then they would all be running wild, re-enacting the preliminary stages of the Lord of the Flies.


Male primary school teachers are an unusual species. The Observer article sets the figure at one in eight – apparently exactly the same proportion as at the beginning of the last century. But these male teachers are taken to be an unquestionably good thing. Boys, it seems, will ‘work harder and behave better when it is a man towering above them at the blackboard.’ Surely the automatic response to this is not just to put more men into schools but to look at why the boys behave better for the men. Boys will, after all, have to work with women throughout their life. Is it not better then, that they should learn to respect and work with them as early as possible?


The problem is also posed as an entirely contemporary one, whereas, as we have already said, the proportion of male to female primary school teachers is exactly the same as it was one hundred years ago. It seems fair to point out that the male of the species have hardly suffered in terms of achievement in the past century despite the overwhelming feminine influence dominating their early years.


What is infuriating is the unthinking assumption that only men can communicate with boys. It reflects a wider assumption, currently fashionable, that communication between men and women is difficult, to the extent that they speak different “languages”. If this is the case, it seems amazing that we function at all, every day life relying pretty much on members of the population speaking to each other and working together. Given the many things we expect of our children and the many things we expect them to achieve, it astounds me that we don’t expect them to continue to strive for basic attainment in social interaction.


Graham Holley, chief executive of the TDA has a more balanced view of what education needs. “It’s not that we think that men make better teachers,” he says.”What we’re saying is that education is about more than academic achievement: it’s about preparation for adulthood. Society is diverse, so the teaching profession should be as well.” That seems to be a sentiment worth agreeing with. Teaching is, after all a worthwhile profession, which should not be seen to be closed to a person because of their gender. As much as attempts are made to encourage women to be engineers and physicists then we should work to encourage men to be teachers and nurses and any other traditionally female dominated profession. But there is a limit.


According to the Observer article: ‘A TDA study has found that while women spend time and effort putting together a strong application, men tend to make much less effort. They fill in the forms badly, hand them in late, and are less likely to spend time volunteering in schools to gain experience.’ In the article this was painted as a problem that the bodies receiving applications had to face. Surely it is a problem that the applicants have to face. They cannot expect to get a job if they do not put in the time and effort to filling in a form and getting some basic work experience. It is the same in any profession. Teaching should not be any different. A teacher needs perseverance and dedication to the job, if that cannot even be dredged up for the application then that is probably a sign of the candidates unsuitably, whatever the sex.


Maybe I am just frustrated on the part of the girls whose well-being seems to play no part in the panicked calls for male role-models. Following the general assumptions that men benefit the boys it is assumed that the girls perform better with a female teacher. So I could be frustrated that they have to suffer for the good of their male counterparts. But it is more frustration that no one thinks to argue that male teachers might be of benefit to the girls as well. As much as the boys will have to learn to work with women throughout their life so the girls will have to work with men, to not see them as a foreign species with which they have no interaction.


Graham Holley is right, school is about more than getting grades, it is a preparation for a wider world, for all the students who go there. Lets not panic about whether the person at the front of the class has a penis or not. Any potentially talented teachers should be encouraged as much as possible, but not simply for matters of social engineering to fit around prejudices that should have been combated long ago. Lets just work on getting the best teachers to produce a generation of well-rounded children who have the imagination to look to role models whoever they may be, regardless of their sex.

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