Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Josie Cunningham and the challenge to prochoicers...

Here is a hypothetical for all prochoice people...

Miranda is a single mother of two kids. She worked hard at law school and she is a newly qualified solicitor with great prospects. It hasn't always been easy but now she is looking forward to earning enough money to support herself and her kids. But she has an unplanned third pregnancy and she is not sure who the father is. The father might be Mike, a man she has been casually dating but it's not particularly serious. Or it might be Colin, a client at the law firm where she is working as a junior. They had a one night stand. Whoever the father is, Miranda doesn't look at either man as a long-term prospect and her boss would not be delighted if he found out about Colin. On top of all this, her boss just offered her a promotion - it will involve more work but also more money. The timing of this third pregnancy is terrible. She will be heavily pregnant just as she will be making her debut in court with an important case and her childcare arrangements are already expensive and cumbersome with two children. She has an abortion.

Prochoicers, are you OK with Miranda's choice?

But are you also one of the many prochoicers who howled with derision at Josie Cunningham? Josie Cunningham, a mother of two works as a glamour model and an escort. She is currently 18 weeks pregnant - so within the legal limits for an elective abortion in England - and the father is either a Premier League footballer or an escort agency client. Over the weekend, she caused an outcry after telling the Sunday Mirror newspaper that she might have an abortion because being pregnant could interfere with an opportunity to earn wads of cash appearing on reality TV show Big Brother.

The latest media reports on this story suggest she won't be appearing on Big Brother because of the ethical minefield it has created for the producers (and nobody would be surprised if conservative advertisers got cold feet over the whole situation and threatened to take their money elsewhere). And, as far as we know, Josie is still pregnant.

But if she does have an abortion, that really is her choice. It's no different to the hypothetical Miranda's situation apart from the occupation of the pregnant woman. A swathe of women have exposed themselves as snobs - Josie is mostly famous for having a breast enlargement on the NHS - she was born without breast tissue -it was after this operation that she took up a career as a glamour model. This, along with being an escort, is how she earns her living. Just like being a junior at a law firm, it is still work.

Here's the thing about being prochoice - it means you support women's choices, even if they are not choices you'd make for yourself. It's a bit like supporting free speech - it means you support all speech, not just the bits you like.

Perhaps Channel 5 could have let Josie appear on Big Brother while pregnant. After all, there are probably more stressful environments for a pregnant woman than lolling about in a house on the telly. Channel 5 would have a duty of care to allow her access to a doctor. Just as the hypothetical Miranda panicked about juggling her career and a third pregnancy, the real Josie is also in a situation where she feels she has to choose between carrying to term and working. And it is the nature of her work that has caused people to get all outraged. It is not a common work-versus-motherhood situation but Josie has clearly played up to the controversy with talk of being able to afford a pink Range Rover if she puts her career first. She has trolled everyone brilliantly and the mass pearl-clutching has been hysterical to watch.

We are living in a world where "reality TV star" is seen as a valid career choice by many, a path to easy riches, so this situation was inevitable. Josie, I am quite sure, knew she'd create a fauxrage. She knew she'd get attention and, even if Channel 5 runs a mile at the prospect of her appearing in the Big Brother house, other media outlets will want a piece of her. Hell, Channel 5's owner Richard Desmond also owns OK! magazine - I wouldn't bat an eyelid if he did a deal with her if she has the baby. It could be easily packaged as a good news story, a prolife triumph to keep conservative advertisers happy.

By telling the Sunday Mirror her story, Josie has exposed a rich vein of class-based hypocrisy among British prochoicers. If she has an abortion, that's her choice. But this whole spectacle becomes ammunition for the likes of Nadine Dorries, Jeremy Hunt and Frank Field to limit access to abortion in the UK. Josie's story feeds into the myth that abortion clinics are full of women who are close to 24 weeks pregnant having abortions on a whim. And as soon as hitherto prochoice people jump on the bandwagon to call her a slut, it makes sweeping changes to abortion laws more acceptable. Think before you declare: "I am prochoice but...".

Picture courtesy of the National Science Foundation

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

It's open season on parents

Judging parents, in particular mothers, has become a global sport. And the way we pour scorn on celebrity mothers is merely a pitiful reflection of the way we judge mothers we come across in our own lives.*

Lily Allen caused significant horror when she admitted that she got bored with staying home with her children and that's why she made another album. She didn't say she hates her kids, as far as we know she doesn't starve or beat her kids, and they seem to be perfectly healthy. But she was honest enough to admit that being a mother wasn't 100% fulfilling and, as such, she wanted to do other things with her life.

If a mother goes back to work after having a baby and she is looking forward to it, good for her. While economic necessity is a big reason for many women to return to work after having a baby, for many others, the reasons include spending time with grown-ups, taking on challenges that are not related to being a mother, relieving the cabin fever of staying at home with the kid, and simply reminding herself that she is not solely defined by her offspring. How any of this is anyone else's damn business is a mystery to me.

Meanwhile, the Duchess of Cambridge was criticised for the way she carried her baby off a plane and for taking a kid-free holiday with her husband when the baby was seven months old. It's not as if Prince George would have been left chained to a radiator for a week. Good Lord! Personally, I am no fan of any monarchy but equally I don't think the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are terrible parents either.

Among the parents I know, there are massive variations in the age of their kids when they decided to take a holiday without them - or even leave them overnight with a babysitter. What works for one family might not work for another. Again, how any of this is anyone else's damn business is a mystery to me.

Then ex-Neighbours star Jane Hall felt the need to tell her listeners on Sydney radio that model Miranda Kerr "repulsed" her for having the temerity to talk about sex in an interview with GQ magazine. According to Hall, Kerr talking about sex was repulsive because she is "a young girl" (er, she's 30...) and "someone's mother" (which one can only assume happened because of sex). Clearly, Kerr never got the memo about how women must shut off their sexuality like a light switch the instant they give birth.

Given that I have friends with more than one child, I am pretty sure that despite the inevitable tiredness and time pressures of parenthood, it is not the death knell for sex either. And while I don't monitor my friends' bedroom activities, I can confirm that parents do still talk about sex, often in explicit detail.

Neither Allen, the Duchess or Kerr are bad parents. Obviously, having wealth and privilege helps make their lives easier, despite Gwyneth Paltrow's moronic comments about how simple life is for mothers who work in offices rather than on film sets. But I wouldn't even describe her as a bad mother, just a daft one with no idea what it's like outside her organic lentil bubble. And there is no law against daftness.

But the culture of judging parents has created a maelstrom of loud voices calling for such things as making drinking alcohol in pregnancy a criminal offence (absurd when there is no medical consensus on alcohol consumption in pregnancy), banning smoking in cars with children (which is surely commonsense - not even the most committed smoker I know would smoke in a car with kids and, as a bonus, it's hard to police) and now the Cinderella Law that will be mentioned in the Queen's speech at the next opening of Parliament.This would make emotional cruelty towards children a criminal offence.

We really need a lot more detail on definitions for the Cinderella Law before we can form a clear view. While there are certainly horrific cases of children being damaged by neglectful parents, the law's main cheerleader, Robert Buckland, a Conservative MP, made this sweeping statement about it on BBC Radio 5 Live: "You can look at a range of behaviours from ignoring a child's presence, failing to stimulate a child, right through to acts of in fact terrorising a child where the child is frightened to disclose what is happening to them."

It's not hard to see how such a law could be open to abuse and time-wasting false reports. Is the mother who needs to take a moment in the garden to compose herself because her kids are behaving horribly an emotional abuser? What about when a parent is tired and plonks a child in front of the TV for a couple of hours just to get some peace and quiet or the washing done? How about when a child is older and savvier - but still legally a child - and tries to criminalise his or her own parents in a fit of teenage vengeance? If you think an adolescent would never do that to a parent, you haven't met many adolescents. After all, we are living in an era where childhood is longer than ever.

Will there be some sort of state-sanctioned quota on hugs and kisses that will mean a child is being loved enough? What if there are too many hugs and kisses and the pendulum swings from neglect to sexual abuse?

As things currently stand, too many kids do slip through the net and end up abused and, equally, there are ridiculous cases of false accusations given a life of their own by over-zealous social workers. A commonsense-driven balance between parental responsibility and state intervention when required needs to be struck.

Whether more laws are required or just better application of existing laws, I am not sure. But I am sure we are living in an era of extreme judgement of parents. Eleanor Roosevelt nailed it when she said: "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people." Perhaps we could all benefit from less talk about the scandalous mother who got bored by her kids/took a holiday/talked about sex. We could do with more talk about how we can create a society where we deal effectively with genuine abusers while accepting that parenting is not a one-size-fits-all occupation where there is only one way to do it right.

* Disclaimer: It is perfectly acceptable to judge parents who don't vaccinate their kids. They do not understand science or herd immunity and their actions harm others.