Bodily independence

Ariel and I went to Slimbridge today on a whim and saw ducklings hatching!

We went into the duckling room first thing to admire the ducklings and there were two eggs in the hatchery (a little warm box where it is a little drier than the egg incubator, to help the ducklings dry out once hatched, where the eggs are moved once there are signs of life). They were apricot silver calling ducks, I think. They looked very much like the one pictured, although a bit less wet and straggly!

The two eggs were both intermittently rocking a little and one had a crack where the duckling had started chipping at the shell from the inside. Duckling Woman told us that it can take many hours, even a couple of days, for an egg to hatch and that they were in the early stages, but that if we checked back later we might see a little hole in the egg rather than just a slight crack. Apparently it takes a lot of effort to break an egg with a miniscule little “egg tooth” (not a tooth, just a sort of bump really) so they often have a few little sleeps while in the process of hatching out.

When we went back an hour or so later there was a third egg which had been brought in and it already had a hole in it! We could see movement through the hole, the little beak chipping away, and feathers, and we could even see the movement of the ducking breathing. Apparently, the little air sac inside the egg gets bigger as the duckling uses up all the nutrients in the egg. When the littl’un is ready to hatch, it starts by breaking into the air sac at which point it begins to breathe! From that moment, even before it is hatched, the duckling begins to cheep. We couldn’t hear any cheeping as the 5-day-old Laysan Teal ducklings (rarest duck on earth) on the other side of the room were very noisy. But apparently they cheep to one another as they are all hatching together and this encourages them, hearing one another, and maybe it also lets mummy duck know what is going on. Anyway, it was really cool and we watched it for a while, the two original eggs had both progressed a little – the one that previously just had a little crack, had chipped almost all the way around while the other which was just rocking before had got some cracks.

A drink and a snack in the cafe later and we decided to go back and see the ducklings on our way out. All the eggs had progressed a little bit and the “middle egg” was catching up, with a visible hole although not such a big hole as the third egg. We went over to see the ducklings and just as we were looking at them and talking to Duckling Woman, someone cried out “oh look it’s come out!” and we rushed over to see the duckling hatch. It was the middle egg which had obviously got a wiggle on and overtaken its more advanced clutch-mate. It had its head out but not its feet and we saw it wiggling around and coming out – very ungainly, but just amazing to watch.

There is a little yellow sac thing that comes with it – like a placenta?? – but otherwise the egg is empty. The duckling, once unfurled, was huge compared to the egg! We got to have a look at it later on and inside the egg you could see the blood veins which had nourished the littl’un before it hatched. Duckling Woman had told us to expect that the duckling would just collapse in a heap and snooze after the mammoth effort of hatching itself, but it seemed to have plenty of energy left – maybe because the “birth” was so unexpectedly quick and easy – and spent a while just crawling around and trying to get onto its feet, rolling its fellow-eggs around and trying to cosy up to its own broken egg (return to the womb??) It was fab!

After that Duck Man came in and had a look. The third duckling – the one everyone thought would hatch first because it was ahead of the others – by now was trying desperately to push out of the egg even though it hadn’t chipped all the way around the edge yet. It was just pushing and pushing. I think (in my anthropomorphic way) that it was annoyed at having been overtaken, and encouraged by the now much louder cheeps of its clutch-mate, and possibly annoyed at the fact that the duckling was rolling the egg around as it tried to get on its feet – no wonder it wanted to get out fast!

Anyway Duck Man came in and decided to “help” by breaking the shell open a little (impatient obstetrician! episiotomy now!) I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing for the chick, and it didn’t feel right, to my wholly inexpert eyes, for him to interfere – however it had the unexpected advantage for we onlookers that we got to see the second duckling hatch as well. It came out within less than a minute of being “helped” and it too was completely amazing. It came out in one go, not head first and legs after like the first one – or legs first and head later like the cartoons…

Oh it was amazing! (Amazing!) I’ve gone on and on about this – I felt while watching it, so privileged and awed.

I kept relating it back to what I know about childbirth in terms of the length of the labour, the experience of the hatching bird / birthing child, the need for time and rest, and this probably coloured my reaction to Duck Man’s intervention. It was a thoroughly absorbing natural process and it was tainted somewhat by the intervention. But still.

What a surpisingly and wonderfully powerful experience: I was walking on air for a long time afterwards – it was a little moment of Joy.

The other day I came across a report produced by the Advertising Standards Agency recently. They have done a survey of advertising compliance in the cosmetics industry and discovered that 93% of the adverts surveyed complied with the law. That may sound good – 93%! – but then even gambling adverts have a 99% compliance rate while food and drink advertising is at 99.2% – and both of these industries are held to special higher standards with tighter controls than is the case in the general law. There are seven times more non-compliant beauty ads than either gambling or food and drink ads. Skin cream adverts were the worst offenders with a 19% breach rate.

It interested me, so I share it.

I could go on a bit – I could refer back to The Beauty Myth and body fascism and talk about how horribly the cosmetics industry perpetuates and exploits women’s socially created insecurities, trying and too often succeeding at making us all feel inadequate and unacceptable for not being supermodels, blah blah blah. I could relate it to the woman and her two male friends who thought it was OK yesterday to make loud remarks (from a safe place on the other side of a high fence) about how unacceptable my tits are, my tits which do not even try to be “acceptable” and yet which still felt humiliation at having their inadequacy pointed out so loudly, pointedly, rudely, aggressively. Poor boobs. Lovely boobs. Stuff’em.

Or maybe I could go in another direction. I could get into an ASA groove and relate an adjudication I read about today on four TV ads for a gambling website, which featured the (self-)humiliation of a number of people with dwarfism. The adjudication considered at great length to consider whether or not the ads were juvenile and therefore likely to appeal to young people and encourage them to gamble. They were also careful to refer to the characters in the adverts as “persons of restricted growth” or “persons of short stature”. Which is all very sensitive – yet why is the horribly offensive nature of the advert – which features little people participating in stunts designed to belittle them, to humiliate them, to make them look silly, to use their bodies as entertainment, as entertaining (so reminiscent of the freak shows and the dwarf tossing of days gone by) – why is this overlooked entirely? I’m not sure to be frank whether to call this kind of advert “ableist” as it may depend on whether you consider dwarfism to be a disability… but surely, whatever you call it, it isn’t acceptable in a just society?

Well I could go on and on and on, following these little avenues or maybe some other avenue or – like – whatever.

The trouble is, I’ve been deep inside a place at the centre of me, looking out, pondering, looking in, allowing slow thoughts to come clear. Digging, thinking, working things out. Planting seeds and allowing them to germinate in their own good time. Gardening starts to teach you patience, starts to make you think, a little, of the long view. This is all jumbled up because it is that time when jumbling happens, when clear thoughts emerge from soup. Have patience. The seeds are here.

What I’m saying is that – in the scheme of things – skin cream? Skin cream?

People are dying out there. Women are dying. They are under boots and behind doors and inside the Woman’s Room. We are being beaten and tortured and imprisoned and starved and raped and ignored. All over everywhere. And I put on my boots and I dig in the soil and I look forward to harvesting – what? That sneaky “we”, it isn’t “we” at all… And I can talk about this guy, or this woman, or this company, or whatever and – it all comes back to – the woman looking in a soul mirror, a woman looking in her mirror and seeing blood. But not her own. Not my own.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

That oath. It was sworn long before me, long before my babe who lies safe, safely sleeping – yet both of us have the blood on our hands, our innocent hands. The oath sworn, before either of us, nevertheless binds us both, just as surely as it binds every woman and every man on this entire planet. I am not afraid of blood, but whose blood is it? And what can I do to heal the wound it came from, to unwind the oath and save the babe? Whose babe? Not mine, for she is safe asleep, with blood on her hands too.

Oh, and I want milk. I want milk.
But whose babe will go without?
And how much of this is menstrual poetry?
And how much of it is real?

I saw this poster on the bus today. In case you can’t make it out, there is an image of a punchbag set in a dishevelled kitchen, and the caption says:”A domestic violence victim will be beaten 20 times in the next year, unless a friend stops it sooner” with a line at the bottom saying “Enough. Call the National Domestic Violence Helpline for support.”

I did think for a horrified moment that this might be a campaign sponsored by Women’s Aid and/or Refuge, who I think run the helpline. It’s not. Surprise! It’s the Home Office.

There’s another similar poster where the image and main caption are the same, but the sub-caption reads: “If your friend is being hit, she’s probably too scared to do anything to stop it. So her beatings will just go on and on. Help her take the first step, call the National Domestic Violence Helpline for support.”

(Link to the similar poster – PDF)

Just who is doing the beating here?
These women – sorry, not “women”, “domestic violence victims” – are magically getting beaten by – who?
As usual in the case of crimes against women, the perpetrator drops out of the limelight.

I do get that a campaign encouraging friends to support those who are being abused has a place. I do get that perpetrators often seek to isolate their partners, to cut them off from the friends who may help them to escape – that encouraging friends to see through what is going on, encouraging friends to take an active role in helping victims is, on the whole, a good thing.


Why do we have a campaign telling a woman’s friends that they are responsible for “stopping” the violence when they can do nothing to stop the violence and can only offer support to the victim who might otherwise feel or actually be unable to escape? And why don’t we have a campaign targeted at men to just stop hitting and abusing women? And why don’t we have a campaign targeted at men to stop their friends from hitting and abusing women? And why is it always the women (and her friends) who get the spotlight, when the people who actually can stop the violence, or influence the perpetrator to stop the violence, are offstage somewhere, overlooked?

Is it that we feel these men are so far beyond the pale, so monstrously twisted, so clearly unhinged that no campaign or well-meaning friend could possibly influence them to modify their behaviour? Because that aint so. Men who beat and abuse their partners are human beings, just like us. Human beings, not monsters. Maybe when we search our souls for solutions to the problem of domestic violence we should ask ourselves fewer questions about how we can help women to escape and a great deal more about why these men commit this violence and what can be done to make them stop.

To make them stop.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me

What is the consequence of giving Woman to Man?

What is the consequence of placing an individual at the head of a closed family, of giving him authority to rule and guide his family, the family that is his?

What is the consequence of giving Woman in submission to Man? Of placing children, his children under his absolute care and control as the head of his household?

What is the consequence of empowering Man and, as a corollary, disempowering his family, his woman, his children? Allowing him to rule and guide through the mechanisms of submission, obedience – control.

Is it, sometime, abuse? Could we, perhaps, expect that abuse will happen almost inevitably as a result of such a family structure?

So should we be surprised if, sometimes, the consequence is that a man in control of his disempowered family can lock up a daughter in a place where nobody can hear her scream or see her bleed? That he can keep her there, utterly dependent on him for survival, a prisoner for twenty-four years, twenty-four years, as he rapes her and rapes her and rapes her. Repeated sexual abuse my arse. He raped and raped and raped his own daughter. Should we be surprised that he could impregnate her repeatedly, and keep her imprisoned, alone through her pregnancies and labours, imprisoning her children with her, the children of his rapes and rapes and rapes – should we be surprised that this happened? Horrified, yes, of course horrified. But can we really be surprised that this happens?

Should we be surprised that a man capable of such systematic, long term abuse, such cleverly designed, coldly planned cruelty can keep his abuse a secret? From neighbours, friends, associates. From his own family, his own wife, the people living in his house, with him and his imprisoned daughter and his imprisoned (grand)children, the fruit of his shocking, incestuous rapes… is it really so surprising that a man who can do this to his daughter and his (grand)children can control his other family members to the extent that they also knew nothing of what he did in the basement.

How he did it we can only speculate. Perhaps he ruled them with terror, perhaps with violence, perhaps with drugs or alcohol, perhaps he wore them away until they lost themselves and didn’t know even so much as the day of the week. We can only guess.

Why he did it is not guessable – we can say no more than that he did it because he could.
Why is it that he could?
See above.

Or, to put it another way: what about the wife, eh? The mother! How could she not have known what was going on in her own house? You can’t keep something like that secret from your wife! She must have known. It just seems so terrible, her own daughter. Mm. Hey, did you see O’Sullivan’s 147 last night?

Such things hollow a person out.

There’s no denying it: Ariel and I have begun our weaning journey in earnest.

This is a time I knew was coming but tried not to think about. I don’t know how to parent without breasts, without milk. I don’t know how to feel like a mother if milk is taken out of the equation. What’s the difference between a mother, then, and just some woman whose house you happen to share? Is there one? Does it matter?

I wrote some weeks ago that a night came when Ariel chose not to have MummyMo at bedtime. She chose CowMo instead. I think she had been impressed by some chance remark of mine that the reason Oliver Dunkley had CM at bedtime was because he was too big for MM. (Yes I know. It seemed like the easiest answer at the time.)

After that first night of abstention, the choice between CM and MM for bed-time milk went about evenly one way or the other, but mornings were still the undisputed territory of Teh Booby. One day maybe ten days later, Ariel overslept and completely missed out on on her morning MM (a very rare occurrence indeed – this is not a girl who oversleeps, never mind missing out on mo as a result) – but still decided to have CM at night. That was the first time she had ever gone 24 hours without mummy mo.

Last week she hurt her tongue. I think she managed to strain one of those little muscles or whatever at the root – ever done that? it hurts! – so that it really hurt her to use her tongue for suckling. She told me she couldn’t have any mummy mo, and had CM instead. She was upset, and I told her that if she felt better later on she could have some mummy mo then. She didn’t. In the morning:

ME: How does your tongue feel? Do you want some mo?
HER: I will try… (trying)… oh I can’t mummy.
ME: Poor old you. I’ll get you some CowMo and then we will try again tonight if your tongue is better at bedtime. I’m sure it will be.

For the next three days – the same, morning and night. She would go to latch on, and then pull back – it doesn’t work, mummy. I began to wonder if that was it.

Then on Saturday afternoon, she tried surreptitiously to lift up my T-shirt:
ME: Hey, what are you doing?
HER: I’m going to have some Mo now.
ME: At bedtime you can have some.
HER: Well I am too big for Mo now because I am three.

And at bedtime? She “tried” – but it doesn’t work anymore mummy.

I wondered whether she was putting it on. I couldn’t believe her tongue was still hurting and she wasn’t really complaining about that. Nor was she making much more than a show effort at latching on. Could she be pretending? Why would she?

I began to wonder if this is how it goes when children forget how to, or lose the ability to suck. Even though I also believe that this theory is probably nonsense (grown-ups, even those who haven’t sucked mo for years, could manage it – why not a little girl who had some only a couple of days ago?) and in any case three is too young given that everything I have read points to a natural weaning age of at least four… Anyway.

Fast forward through the night to Sunday morning. Ariel woke early. By 7am she had run out of ideas for amusing herself quietly and came back to bed, wanting Attention. Which I was not ready to give her. Do you want some Mo? I tried. (In the past this would have been sure-fire – this time I was less confident.) So she made her now familiar half-hearted attempt to latch on, complained that it didn’t work, and sat right back up. But you didn’t really try! Have another go, properly this time.

And she did. It was so nice.

After she’d had her fill (and I’d had a bit more dozing time) she said But mummy – I am too big for Mo. We cuddled. I told her that she wasn’t too big. I told her that she could have Mo if she wanted, that she could choose and that she was still quite small, that she could still have mo if she wanted, even if she was quite big as well.

[If it hadn't been for her obvious conflict, her conflict between wanting mo and wanting to be big (like Oliver Dunkley?), I would have been cautious about writing this. I would have felt like one of those women that feature in the minds of anti-breastfeeding Daily Mail readers, a woman who manipulates her child into breastfeeding for her own selfish purposes. I freely admit that I had selfish reasons on this occasion for wanting Ariel to have some milk, a good long milky cuddle - huh, I wanted to sleep! But also, my little girl had full agency in this. I wasn't manipulating her. I was giving her permission. I was telling her that she didn't have to grow up all at once, that she could be getting big and at the same time still be quite small. That it was OK to want and need her mummy. My words to her were not commands, not imperatives, but permission.]

She had a bit more.
In the afternoon, she tried the T-shirt-lifting trick again.
And at bed-time she chose CM…
…this morning MM, at bedtime just now, CM again.

So, yes, weaning is definitely on her mind. I think she knows that she isn’t quite ready yet, but she is starting to look towards the day when she will be ready. She realises that big people don’t have mummy mo, and she sees herself as someone who is getting bigger. She knows the time will come and she is trying to wrap her mind around the idea of living without Teh Booby. She is experimenting, practising. This is good, I guess. This gentle lead-up is giving me the chance to wrap my mind around this weaning idea, to experiment and practise breast-free parenting before she weans for real. She is weaning us both – gently…

I know I look so big to you,
Maybe I seem too big for the needs I have.
But no matter how big we get,
We still have needs that are important to us.
I know that our relationship is growing and changing,
But I still need you. I need your warmth and closeness,
Especially at the end of the day
When we snuggle up in bed.
Please don’t get too busy for us to nurse.
I know you think I can be patient,
Or find something to take the place of a nursing;
A book, a glass of something,
But nothing can take your place when I need you.
Sometimes just cuddling with you,
Having you near me is enough.
I guess I am growing and becoming independent,
But please be there.
This bond we have is so strong and so important to me,
Please don’t break it abruptly.
Wean me gently,
Because I am your mother,
And my heart is tender.

Today is a double celebration in that this post marks both International Women’s Day and, more or less, the anniversary of my moving this blog to WordPress.

Woo, as they say, hoo.

I’m unable to get excited about this year’s event. I guess it is just the sheer depressing fact that today, and all its excited preamble, merely reminds me that the other 364 days of the year (365 in the case of 2008) are International Men’s Days.

Anyhow, this blog is year-round woman-centred and often international – so where would be the fun in getting all excited over a woman-centred post especially for 8 March? Really? So, in satirical mood, I hereby declare 8 March 2008 as Touchingly Naive Men’s Day, my day to focus on da menz.

I struggled to think of anything much to celebrate about “how far men have come” and it wasn’t easy coming up with “issues men still face today”. But I am woman enough to acknowledge that men *do* have their problems and today I would like to focus on a very real area of specifically male oppression. Yep, I thought of one…


Beards. Who likes beards? I don’t. They are – beardie.

In my personal facial hair hall of fame/shame, I would rank men’s bearing choices as follows (most acceptable first):

  • Clean-shaven. Smooo-ooooth.
  • Full beard with moustache – as long as it’s not *too* bushy!
  • Then a few that tied for third place: just a mustache, no beard; stubble but not a full-grown beard; or a “lovely” sculpted goatee.
  • Great big bushy beard, complete with monster eyebrows… honestly, have these people never read The Twits?
  • And finally, least acceptable bearding choice of them all – a big, full-grown beard with no moustache. Seriously, this is the worst – the “hair that goes all the way around your face” look. What is this? You carefully shave your upper lip every day, but leave everything else to grow like topsy? Why?

I must admit that, since I am not in fact a manhater etc etc, I have been making some effort to overcome my beard prejudice. After all, if we castigate men who expect us to shave our body hair, surely we should bring a little consciousness to the party and stop judging men as acceptable or not based on their shaving choices…

…And this is much easier once you have decided that you are never actually going to snog a man ever again so there is no danger of stubble rash as a result… ;)

In the spirit of critical analysis, I have to wonder – why is it that we have a cultural preference for clean-shaven men? I know very few men with beards. I know several who have grown beards in the past, come under enormous pressure to debeard, and then received universal praise for their “new, younger” clean-shaven look once the beard finally goes. The pressure on da menz to shave their faces is just as intense as the pressure on women to shave their legs and armpits… Of course, the context is difference because men are not the sex class and are unlikely to face, say, actual disgust and job discrimination if they refuse to comply. But, still.

Why? Why do we expect men to be clean-shaven?

It isn’t just because we like to kiss / be kissed by clean-shaven men*, because since when did the sexual or romantic preferences of women get to dominate cultural norms? Since when did our ideals even get taken into account, let alone become an oppressive social requirement? Since never, is when.

[* Anyway, kissing someone with a proper beard can be just as nice a feeling - albeit a different one - as kissing the smoothest face there is. And at least with a decent beard you won't be caught unawares by stubble. Ouch. Maybe we like to kiss smooth men because we can close our eyes and imagine, subconsciously at least, that we are kissing women. Hehehe, evil laughter. Another possibility is that we like smooth men because they remind us of when we were girls kissing boys, and we like to pretend that we are still just a girl, just kissing a boy. That would make sense - the men win too if we believe we are girls kissing boys, that none of it is very grown up or meaningful; if we deep down understand kissing as a time when we are girls and they are boys, then we won''t act as full-grown women or make grown-up demands on the other person... Hm, stuff.]

So anyway – if the pressure to shave isn’t for snogging purposes, why is it?

Jacob was a smooth man; Esau was a hairy man.
And Esau, trusting Esau – got screwed.
No wonder our value system prioritises the smooth men – we have the bible to prove that hairy ones get screwed.

And it is probably no coincidence that, as noted above, shaving helps a person stay younger-looking, which is so the thing to be, right? Adolescents don’t have beards; nothing says “old man” like big ol’ beard.

In this regard, of course, men’s oppression is very different from women’s oppression in kind if not in form. We are expected to shave our body hair (all/most of it) so that we can be marked out as the infantilised and subjugated sex class, so that we can present as pre-pubescent and therefore as non-threatening – on pain of disgust, on pain of exclusion, on pain of hear and hate. The same does not apply to men because they are not infantilised, subjugated, unmanned or de-clawed by this pressure to shave.

Perhaps this stamp of youth helps men in patriarchy to prove their thrusting, virile status as members of the dominant class, to gain acceptance within patriarchy.

Or maybe – am I cynical enough yet? – it is quite simply a matter of marketing. How many razors, blades, gels, lotions and other assorted shaving paraphernalia would Gillette and their ilk sell, if we valued a hairy chin instead of a naked one?

The Guardian recently published an article, which I linked to and excerpted here, by George Monbiot claiming a clear link between sex education and contraception use (two of the things that Catholics say they hate) and a reduction in abortion rates (another thing that Catholics say they hate double extra bad), thereby arguing that the Catholic church in opposing contraception and sex education are directly contributing to increases in abortion rates.

Today, Michaela Aston (a spokesperson for Life) is given the opportunity to respond.

This is her first line of attack:

Monbiot is particularly misinformed when he quotes a study which reported that “Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence” – over 60% of women having abortions in Britain report that they had been using contraceptives. The journal Obstetrics and Gynecology recently published a meta-analysis of 23 research articles examining the impact of increased access to emergency birth control on unwanted pregnancy and abortions, concluding: “To date, no study has shown that increased access to this method reduces unintended pregnancy or abortion rates.”

What Monbiot actually said: “But, as a study published in the journal International Family Planning Perspectives shows, once the birth rate stabilises, contraceptive use continues to increase and the abortion rate falls. In this case one trend causes the other: ‘Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence.’ The rate of abortion falls once 80% of the population is using effective contraception.

Aston does nothing here to demonstrate that the study Monbiot cited was wrong. She does not examine or critique the study at all. She seems merely to claim that the statistics she cited contradict its conclusions. But they don’t!

First, “over 60% of women having abortions in Britain report that they had been using contraceptives” – but even taking that on trust*, it takes nothing away from the assertion made in Monbiot’s study. The fact that 60% of women who decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy ended up pregnant because of a contraceptive failure – perhaps due to ignorant or lazy or careless (rather than “effective”) use of contraception, which is a trap many of us have fallen into – doesn’t say anything at all about the validity of Monbiot’s assertion unless you also study the rates of effective contraception use in the population generally and the overall abortion rates – the manner in which women having abortions got pregnant has little to do with it.

(* And I don’t think we should. Women seeking to persuade a doctor that they “deserve” or “need” an abortion are quite likely to say that they were using contraception and that it failed, either out of simple shame / embarrassment, or in a deliberate attempt to seem like a more suitable candidate. I know I did, even though in reality the problem was that I used contraception carelessly, not that it failed. So even if 60% of women seeking an abortion do blame contraceptive failure, a massive grain of salt is needed.)

Second, “a meta-analysis of 23 research articles examining the impact of increased access to emergency birth control on unwanted pregnancy and abortions, [concluded]: ‘To date, no study has shown that increased access to this method reduces unintended pregnancy or abortion rates.'” And your point is? For one thing, without knowing whether any study was adequately designed to demonstrate the effect of increased access to this type of contraception, the fact that no study has shown any particular effect is fairly meaningless. In any case, Monbiot’s study was not making any claims about the effect of unspecified increases in access to a particular type of contraception* on abortion rates – the claim was that abortion rates decline when 80% of the population is using contraception effectively. That is a totally different claim and the evidence cited by Aston can have no bearing upon it.

(* And after-the-event contraception is probably the worst type to select as representative of contraception generally, since “effective contraception use” ordinarily involves effective use at the time of having sex, with morning-after pills being strictly for situations where this didn’t happen or where it becomes clear that the contraception used at the time failed, e.g. burst condom.)

The next criticism is this:

Monbiot claims there is “a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy”. There is not. Most papers (including the one in the British Medical Journal that Monbiot cites) find that sex education programmes have little or no impact on rates of teenage pregnancy or abortion. Sweden’s programmes in sex education, and promotion of contraceptives, have been an admired model – yet total abortion rates* there are now higher than ours.

(*Unfortunately Aston does not explain what she means by “total abortion rates” or where she gets her figures. More on this below.)

What Monbiot actually said: “There is also a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy. A report by the United Nations agency Unicef notes that in the Netherlands, which has the world’s lowest abortion rate, a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by ‘the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception’. By contrast, in the US and UK, which have the developed world’s highest teenage pregnancy rates, ‘contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a ‘closed’ atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy’.”

Sweden does appear to have a good programme of sex education which includes contraception. This appears to have a very beneficial effect comapred with the UK in terms of teenage pregnancies, although abortion rates are still more or less equivalent to ours. Some facts:

  • Sweden’s abortion rate for the last many years has been in the region of 30,000 to 35,000 or so in a population which has now just reached 9 million (as a total rate that is about 20-25% of total pregnancies, varying from year to year). (Source.)
  • At the same time abortions in England & Wales run at about 185,000 to 195,000 or so in a population of about 50-odd million – for 2006 that translated to 18.3 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 . (Source.)
  • According to my sums, the rate of abortion in Sweden is more or less the same as the rate in the UK. I couldn’t find any direct comparison, and Aston did not say what method of comparison she was using or provide a source. However, when calculating the crude abortion rate (abortions per capita), the results are consistently pretty similar, coming out either a little higher or a little lower depending on the approach I took.

It seems to follow from the above that, despite their better programme of sex education, the Swedish abortion rate is indeed still about the same. Why?

Well, let’s look at those teenage pregnancies that Aston chose to ignore. (Source.)

  • In the mid-1990s (and I suspect things haven’t changed significantly since then) Sweden had a teenage (aged 15 to 19) pregnancy rate of 25 per thousand leading to 17.2 abortions and 7.8 births per thousand.
  • Meanwhile, Great Britain had a teenage pregnancy rate of 46.7, leading to 18.4 abortions and 28.3 births per thousand.

Evidently, although the total number of teenage abortions in Sweden and Britain may have been similar, the total number of pregnancies and births for teenaged women was *much* higher in Britain. The programme of sex education is therefore leading to far fewer pregnancies (and therefore presumably far more effective contraceptive use) and the issue is merely that in Sweden 69% of teenage pregnancies led to abortion, while in the UK only 39% of teenage pregnancies ended in abortion.

My reading of this would therefore be not that widely available sex education makes no difference – my reading would be that widely available sex education leads to better contraceptive choices and fewer teenage pregnancies, so that even when a high proportion of teenage pregnancies end in abortion the overall rate is still comparable with other countries that have rubbish sex education. My reading of this would be that even more and even better sex education is needed to improve contraceptive practices (including abstention!) further, to reduce rates of unwanted pregnancy yet further. There is only so much higher that the proportion of unwanted pregnancies ending in abortion can climb, yet I would suggest that there is still even in Sweden plenty of scope for reduction in the number of teenaged women who become pregnant by mistake.

(In this regard, for US readers, it is worth noting that in the US only 35% of the 83.6 teenage pregnancies per thousand ended in abortion, although because of the higher rate of teenage pregnancy this still resulted in the highest overall rate of abortion at 29.2 abortions per thousand teenaged women.)

So one thing that we can conclude from this analysis is that a simple look at sex education programmes compared with abortion rates is too simple. A comparison of the UK abortion rate with the rate in Sweden – where a very secular and no-nonsense approach to abortion, allowing abortion for free on request, means that it is a more popular and less stigmatised option – is unfair and decidedly does not show that sex education has little or no impact on abortion rates. There are too many confounding factors which, when explored, seem to suggest instead that Sweden are indeed on the right track – their programme has clearly been effective in reducing teenage pregnancies, even if the incidence of abortion has yet to follow suit. The point is that their programme as a whole is also effective in making abortion easily available, with the result that when accidental pregnancy does occur it is a significantly more popular choice there than here.

In any case, Monbiot points not to Sweden as his model but to the Netherlands, where the sex education programme is also extremely comprehensive. In the Netherlands in 2002, the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 was – compared with the UK rate for 2006 of 18.3 – a mere 8.7. In the same year, the rate of abortions as a percentage of all pregnancies was – compared with 20-25% in Sweden – just 12.7%. And, apparently, these figures include abortions performed on foreign women having an abortion in the Netherlands – we can reasonably speculate that the rate for Dutch women, who have been through the Dutch sex ed programme, is likely to be even lower. (Source.)

Clearly, sex education is working in the Netherlands even if, as we have seen, the picture is more complex in Sweden. It isn’t because the Netherlands has a more restrictive approach to abortion, because they don’t. Could it be that the Netherlands has better rates because it has even better sex education and even lower rates of unwanted pregnancy than Sweden has managed to date? This article states (according to Google’s extract – I don’t have access to the full article) that unwanted pregnancies are rare, although when they do happen they are (as in Sweden) likely to end in abortion; and that the rate of teenage pregnancy in the 1990s – when Sweden and the UK had respective rates of 25 and 46.3 pregnancies per 1000 teenaged women – the rate in the Netherlands was just 9.2. Can Aston answer that? She can’t.

Next, she tries this approach:

In contrast, there is clear evidence that even modest legal restrictions can help to cut abortion rates. Some US states now require parental notification before minors can get abortions. This has led to lower underage abortion rates without necessarily increasing underage births.

Firstly, this doesn’t in fact contrast with or even follow from the previous paragraph, where we weren’t actually talking about about whether legal restrictions affect underage abortion rates. However, Monbiot does talk about this, as it happens, and says: “Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion.”

Without more details of either piece of evidence it is difficult to comment further, but I can say a couple of things. Monbiot cites an actual academic paper showing that there is no relationship between legalisation and abortion rates. He might also have cited the WHO study referred to in this article, which reached the same conclusion. Meanwhile, Aston makes some vague claim that there is, somewhere, possibly, some evidence showing that fewer underage girls get abortions if they have to tell their parents about it, coupled with the vague assertion that this doesn’t necessarily (but, by implication, it may) result in more underage births. Again, reasoning from dubious evidence about one specific aspect of abortion to a general claim about abortion in the round. I know which I find more convincing.

What’s next?

Referring to a Lancet article, Monbiot says: “When the figures are broken down, it becomes clear that, apart from the former Soviet Union, abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies.” The big problem with Monbiot’s argument is that the abortion rates from more religious countries are generally based on conjectural estimates of illegal abortions, and there is a long history of pro-abortion groups deliberately inflating such estimates. The case of Mexico provides a good example. Monbiot cites an estimate of 25 abortions per 1,000 women for Central America. Applying this figure to Mexico suggests about three quarters of a million abortions each year. In fact we now have real data for this country – due to the legalisation of abortion in Mexico City last year – which makes it highly unlikely that there were more than 70,000 illegal abortions a year. This equates to 2.1 per 1,000 women – one tenth of that quoted by Monbiot and far less than in countries where abortion is legal.

In Ireland abortion is illegal and contraception has (at least until recently) been much harder to access than in the UK. Based on the numbers of Irish women having abortions in the UK, their abortion rate is about one third that of England, and there is no evidence of significant numbers of illegal abortions.

Aston is fair to point out that estimates of illegal abortions can only ever be estimates, and that the figures for illegal abortions are less reliable than the figures for legal abortions. It may also be fair to point out that some pro-choicers have in the past been guilty of inflating estimates to make things look worse than they are (at least, I have heard about examples of this) – just as some anti-choicers have been guilty of making unfair estimates or manipulating the available information in support of their own position. Indeed, I suspect that this is something Aston is in fact doing in this article when she discusses the cited rate of illegal abortion in Central America.

This comprehensive resource* published in International Family Planning Perspectives (link courtesy of the Guttmacher Institute) gives some statistics for Mexico, the particular country that Aston has chosen to highlight as a good example (presumably good in the sense that it best supports her own position). The figures given are total abortions of about 500,000 (tolerance 300,000 to 750,000) which works out at a rate of 25.1 abortions per 1000 women aged 15 to 44 or 17.1% of total pregnancies. This is clearly a perfectly plausible estimate – it is in very much the same ballpark as the figures for Sweden and the UK, discussed above.

(* Reliability. These figures are based on a “special study” given the acknowledged difficulties of collecting reliable data on illegal activities. Although there are copious footnotes I couldn’t be bothered to wade through them to get a specific cite for the methodology or authors of the study – and I’m actually quite happy to take the figures on trust as being from a reputable, peer-reviewed source and so likely to be at least half way reliable in the absence of any convincing evidence to the contrary.)

Aston suggests that applying the rate of 25 abortions per thousand women leads to about 750,000 abortions per year – that is the highest end of the estimates given in the resource cited above, but it is worth noting that the rate of 25.1 abortions per thousand was in fact based there on a total number closer to 500,000. So it looks like Aston has got her sums wrong on that one (let’s be charitable). In any case, mentioning a raw figure is fairly meaningless without noting the total population for the country. Mexico has a total population of over 100 million, so those figures are far from astonishing, given than Sweden has 30,000+ abortions for a population of under 10 million and we have around 200,000 abortions for a population of about 60 million.

Aston also suggests that post-legalisation figures for the rate of legal abortion in Mexico, at 70,000 rather than the “750,000” she quotes as the amount allegedly put forward by pro-choicers, show just how completely bonkers the estimates of illegal abortion really were. Firstly, of course, her inflation of the estimates of illegal abortion make the position seem more extreme than it really is. Moreover, her suggestion that 70,000 is a more realistic figure given the experience since legalisation is shockingly misleading. Abortion in Mexico has only been legal since April last year and even now it is only legal for the first three months for people who live in or can travel to Mexico City. There is no suggestion that abortion is to be subsidised by the state, so presumably it will still be out of reach for the majority of women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion. All this means that there are going to be many, many illegal abortions in Mexico even now – those who cannot afford to pay, those who cannot travel to Mexico City, and to a lesser extent those who require an abortion after the three month deadline. As such it is difficult to see how statistics on the rate of legal abortion in Mexico City in the months since legalisation could possibly give us any real indication of the total numbers of abortion throughout Mexico. If Aston’s offered estimates aren’t misleading, I don’t know what is! Monbiot’s figures are much more credible.

Finally, I just wanted to comment briefly on the comparison that Aston makes between Ireland and the UK. She guesstimates that the rate of abortion in Ireland is about a third the UK rate, based on the number of women who travel from Ireland to the UK for an abortion. I haven’t investigated that claim thoroughly, so I’m going to take her at her word (although I would like to ask her more about the rate of illegal abortions in Ireland or how many women travel to other countries for abortion).

But in any case there is one totally obvious reason why it doesn’t help her case even if her claim is more or less fair, that the rate of abortions in Ireland is actually lower. For that to be in some way relevant to the question whether legalisation affects abortion rates, she would also have to claim that “if legalisation made no difference, abortion rates would be the same in all countries irrespective of legal restrictions”. However, that is clearly not the case. Abortion rates are dependent on a huge number of variables including the rates of unwanted pregnancy, cultural attitudes to abortion and the availability of good sex education and affordable contraception. Nobody suggests that abortion rates do not vary between countries or that there is a consistent pattern whereby *all* countries were abortion is illegal have higher rates than *all* countries where abortion is legal. Indeed, Monbiot expressly points out that the UK is a blip with a much higher rate than those of its European neighbours who have legalised abortion. For these reasons, pointing out that Ireland, where abortion is illegal, may have a lower rate of abortions than the UK, where abortion is legal, is completely meaningless.

Moving on, Aston criticises Monbiot’s claim that women are “condemned to death” by the outlawing of abortion. This is where her distortion becomes actually laughable.

She says:

Monbiot claims that, with his stance against abortion, the Pope “condemns women to death”. In the same Lancet issue he referred to earlier, another article gives the latest estimates of maternal mortality rates. Ireland comes out best in the world with a rate of 1 death per 100,000, vastly superior to countries where abortion is legal such as the US (11 per 100,000) and the UK (8 per 100,000).

She suggests that because Ireland has better mortality rates for pregnant women than other developed countries, this puts the lie to Monbiot’s claim that criminalising abortion increases the use of unsafe illegal abortion and hence increases the risk of pregnant women dying, as a result of unsafe abortions. This is absurd, and here’s why.

Firstly, Monbiot specifically makes clear that the women who are “condemned to death” are not, in general, those in developed countries like Ireland. He says: “But the suffering [the Catholic] church causes in the rich nations doesn’t compare to the misery inflicted on the poor… Women with no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world’s abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications.” [My emphasis.]

Second, even if Monbiot had not said this then it should have been completely obvious to Aston that Ireland was not going to be a fair comparator. For one thing, she has already claimed that there is a relatively low rate of abortion generally among Irish women, and no evidence of significant illegal abortions in Ireland, since most women who need an abortion are able to travel to UK or elsewhere. On that basis alone it is hardly surprising if there are few or even no maternal deaths in Ireland as a result of illegal abortions. Secondly, even to the extent that there is illegal abortion in Ireland, is it really likely to involve the dangerous methods described by Monbiot? Ireland where women have access to health information, the internet, mail order abortion drugs, and quite possibly clandestine but nevertheless fairly hygienic abortion clinics is hardly the typical setting for dangerous illegal abortions, is it?

All in all, the fact that criminalisation makes no difference to maternal mortality in that particular jurisdiction (even if its small population didn’t make it a statistically less significant country in the first place) is, actually, very unsurprising. And that takes nothing away from the evidence of maternal mortality in other countries. Irish women are protected by the fact that they are part of a developed world that generally has a more liberal approach than their own country; not as Aston would like us to believe, by the very restrictions they face in their own country.

Oh, and in case you missed it the first time, I will repeat Monbiot’s cited statistics on maternal mortality: The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. In the face of those statistics, if the only way you can persuade yourself that illegal abortion is unproblematic is to look at one small country with a developed healthcare system and access to legal abortion in a neighbouring jurisdiction then, Aston, you have a problem.

You got that right, Mr Monbiot.

[Over the last couple of weeks we have seen the moon even in bright daytime - I'm talking about noon or 1pm with the sun shining. I've never seen it in the bright day before, only at night or the edges of the day. I have Ariel and her child's eyes to thank because she is the one who told me it was there. It's nice to see the moon in the light.]

George Monbiot writes in the Guardian today, arguing that the Catholic Church (these people) spreads “misery, disease and death” – by stigmatising contraception, sex education and legal/safe abortion, the real sex-negative / woman-negative brigade are contributing around the world to high levels of unprotected sex (and therefore of unwanted pregnancies and STIs) and to the horrors of unsafe/illegal abortion.

This evidence based piece is so useful I’m going to reproduce almost all of it (sorry George).

Who carries the greatest responsibility for the deaths of unborn children in this country? I accuse the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor…

Murphy-O’Connor has denounced contraception and abortion many times. That’s what he is there for: the primary purpose of most religions is to control women. But while we may disagree with his position, we seldom question either its consistency or its results. It’s time we started.

The most effective means of preventing the deaths of unborn children is to promote contraception.

In the history of most countries that acquire access to modern medical technology, there is a period in which rates of contraception and abortion rise simultaneously. Christian fundamentalists suggest the trends are related, and attribute them to what the Pope calls “a secularist and relativist mentality”. In fact it’s a sign of demographic transition. As societies become more prosperous and women acquire better opportunities, they seek smaller families. In the early years of transition, contraceptives are often hard to obtain and poorly understood, so women will also use abortion to limit the number of children. But, as a study published in the journal International Family Planning Perspectives shows, once the birth rate stabilises, contraceptive use continues to increase and the abortion rate falls. In this case one trend causes the other: “Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence.” The rate of abortion falls once 80% of the population is using effective contraception.

A study published in the Lancet shows that between 1995 and 2003, the global rate of induced abortions fell from 35 per 1,000 women each year to 29. This period coincides with the rise of the “globalised secular culture” the Pope laments. When the figures are broken down, it becomes clear that, apart from the former Soviet Union, abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies. In largely secular western Europe, the average rate is 12 abortions per 1,000 women. In the more religious southern European countries, the average rate is 18. In the US, where church attendance is still higher, there are 23 abortions for every 1,000 women, the highest level in the rich world. In central and South America, where the Catholic church holds greatest sway, the rates are 25 and 33 respectively. In the very conservative societies of east Africa, it’s 39. One abnormal outlier is the UK: our rate is six points higher than that of our western European neighbours.

I am not suggesting a sole causal relationship: the figures also reflect changing demographies. But it’s clear that religious conviction does little to reduce abortion and plenty to increase it. The highest rates of all – 44 per 1,000 – occur in the former Soviet Union: under communism, contraceptives were almost impossible to obtain. But, thanks to better access to contraception, this is also where the decline is fastest: in 1995 the rate was twice as high. There has been a small rise in abortion in western Europe, attributed by the Guttmacher Institute in the US to “immigration of people with low levels of contraceptive awareness”. The explanation, in other words, is consistent: more contraception means less abortion.

There is also a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy. A report by the United Nations agency Unicef notes that in the Netherlands, which has the world’s lowest abortion rate, a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by “the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception”. By contrast, in the US and UK, which have the developed world’s highest teenage pregnancy rates, “contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a ‘closed’ atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy”.

A paper published by the British Medical Journal assessed four programmes seeking to persuade teenagers in the UK to abstain from sex. It found that they “were associated with an increase in the number of pregnancies among partners of young male participants”. This shouldn’t be surprising. Teenagers will have sex whatever grown-ups say, and the least familiar with contraception are the most likely to become pregnant. The more effectively religious leaders and conservative papers anathemise contraception, sex education and premarital sex, the higher abortion rates will go. The cardinal helps sustain our appalling level of unwanted pregnancies.

But the suffering his church causes in the rich nations doesn’t compare to the misery inflicted on the poor. Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion. Women with no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world’s abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. These effects, the organisation says, “are the visible consequences of restrictive legal codes”…

[Emphasis mine]

And that’s the end of Maia Does The News :)

Janice Turner, writing for the Times, argues that men must stop using prostitutes.

Even a single mother who was merely guilty of feeding her children cheap protein can be harangued on national television by an Eton-educated chef for supporting the abuse of domestic fowl. Crack-smoking hookers with their raddled complexions, tarty clobber and children in care are not as heart-breakingly cutesy as baby piggies peeping through crates, drowning polar bears, or even chickens. But surely we can find an ethical champion in the wake of the Ipswich murders to tell men not to spend their money on prostitutes?

Punters have doubled in a decade: now one in ten British men has visited a prostitute. And really why not, when even glossier men’s magazines give the message that vice is nice, advise how stag weekenders can buy firm young booty in Tallinn or Budapest, when lap-dancing clubs are mainstream fun – from “private dance” to upstairs shag being a blurry line – when omnipresent internet porn feeds a sense of male entitlement to every unfettered whim. Now the sex trade has rebranded itself a wing of the leisure industry, moral disapproval has evaporated and men can concentrate on getting value for money with websites like on hand to assist…

[W]e are told by those (mostly men) who fear a Swedish-style criminalisation of punters, that there are many prostitutes, neither coerced nor addicted, who relish their chosen profession. “Happy hookers”: that hoary old male fantasy of women who get pleasure, even multi-orgasmic joy if you believe the deluded fools on punternet, from being paid for sex is periodically fed by fictional callgirls, most recently Billie Piper in Belle de Jour, with her classy clients and La Perla undies.

But this horny imagining clashes with the reality of a trade that 89 per cent dream of escaping. And indeed schemes to assist prostitutes getting off the game – and the drugs – have many takers…

But men who use prostitutes need the happy hooker. Those with a semblance of a conscience seek reassurance that buying their jollies is hurting no one. The happy hooker, like the happy chicken, can be consumed without guilt…

While the Government is right to evaluate further whether the Swedish model leads to a true reduction of prostitution, or whether it is driven into deeper, more dangerous, places, one thing is certainly true: criminalising the buying of sex at least states categorically that it is not normal or acceptable, but, since it is incompatible with human dignity, morally wrong. And that is what we need to tell our young men but never do. Why are we hand-wringing moral relativists about women but not chickens? Why, at the very least, are punters not branded the most unethical consumers of all?

[Emphasis mine.]

Yep. Just keep your gagging goggles on for the comments.

PS – Yes, that’s a frog on a hat. Cute isn’t she? Tarty-clobbered crack-smoking hooker (complete with raddled complexion and child in care) to follow? Does anyone have a pattern?

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