Mental Blocks

I had an interesting conversation with Caroline Criado-Perez the other day when I met her at the BBC’s 100 women conference.  More on that another time (or see this week’s Catholic Universe).

The other Caroline, has had a similar experience with regards to myself in terms of online trolling and obsessions, only her experience seems to have been far more intense, in that following the success of her campaign to get women represented on bank notes, she has been subject to some terrifying  threats of immediate violence to her person.

Though I regularly receive comments about my appearance and sex appeal (or lack thereof), these ones are easy to brush off.

“Iggy Pop, that’s you that is!”

What’s not been so easy to brush off however, is the sustained two year hate campaign, which I have regularly written about here and which, at time of writing seems to be still ongoing.

Some insanely vicious stuff has been written. I can’t actually quite process how people could be so spiteful towards a woman who is still physically and mentally dealing with the effects of losing a baby.

Displaying a gross misunderstanding of the human psyche, it is thought that because I am utilising social media, it is therefore open season on me again. In addition it is denied that I was unwell or vulnerable in my previous pregnancy (my daughter was born early at a low birth weight as a result of pre-eclampsia, the stress of a concerted campaign of online hatred being thought to be a determining factor), because I was using social media and because I made some appearances on TV. I suggest those people do some research into high blood pressure in pregnancy before jumping to ill-informed conclusions.

These sentiments are all very telling. According to this logic social media is a rough and ready place, that if one uses it, then one should be prepared to face all sorts of abuse and that a pregnant woman who wishes to avoid stress and who has become visibly very upset and distressed at the relentless spite and appalling insults chucked her way, is being reckless if she engages on social media in any way.

Anyone with an empathetic bone in their body should be able to understand why pregnancy is a vulnerable time for women, not least by dint of the extra hormones sloshing about, adding to natural anxieties that every woman experiences in pregnancy. It’s a time of increased physical and mental stress, which is why women are advised to take measures to take care of themselves.

It says much about contemporary attitudes to social media, if attempting to use Twitter, which many of us need to do not least for work purposes, is thought to be akin to masochism or reckless endangerment.

An extreme sport?
Is Twitter an extreme sport like riding dolphins?

I saw this in the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, who by her own admission had a mini mental-breakdown as a result of the pressure of relentless abuse. Basically she broke the golden rule, she displayed emotion and furiously shouted back at her critics. Which they revelled in, being able to label her as mad and unstable, in an attempt to grab the moral high ground, with patronising displays of faux pity towards her obvious mental distress, which they used to disenfranchise and silence her. “Poor dear, she’s obviously lost the plot, she really shouldn’t have been so abusive to her critics. If you react like that, then you shouldn’t be on here in the first place”.

Which says what? That social media should only be for the emotionally robust and those who are able to be able to brush off huge amounts of taunting and verbal abuse.  As Caroline says, she’s only human and she broke and frankly it’s not surprising after so much pressure.  Twitter provides social interaction for many who are otherwise isolated, should we condone disenfranchising the weak? Why is displaying emotion so much more taboo than verbal abuse and open campaigns of bitching, sniping and bullying?

I have enormous sympathy for Caroline. While the threats may be of a different nature, every day it is made extremely clear that my feed is being stalked and trolled. Innocuous comments are seized upon to see if they can be distorted or used as ammunition towards me. One wholly innocent  comment I made about those two subversive genius ‘The Two Ronnies’ was screenshotted and copied and pasted to Ruth Gledhill of the Times of all people, by someone who was blocked, in an attempt to stir up some kind of controversy!

Catholic speaker Caroline Farrow admits she enjoys the Two Ronnies, shocker!
Catholic speaker Caroline Farrow admits she enjoys the Two Ronnies, shocker!

It sounds laughable but it’s wearing. Every single day one woman uses my Twitter feed as her source of daily stimulation. Whatever I say, she makes a comment on, deliberately stating the opposite and trying to make issue of. The other thing she will do is spot who has interacted with me and then interact with them herself, although she’s got wise as to the repercussions of constantly using my handle.  On one level it’s laughable and doesn’t bother me. I’m obviously an extremely fascinating and compelling figure in what must be a dull grey and lonely life. She’s blocked so I don’t have to experience her madness. Where it gets tiring however is when she uses my handle and therefore incites other people to join in. One then receives a stream of replies with her copied in, meaning that you have to trace back to her original tweet to find out what on earth is being discussed. I had a private message this morning from a friend wondering why this woman who is blocked appeared to have favourited her tweets that mentioned me.

It’s a common tactic, one that was used by a Tweeter who has now fortunately been banned for prolonged spamming of other users. He would take a tweet one had made, take words out of context to distort and misrepresent one’s original point, meaning that you then received a string of outraged and angry responses. It was a technique designed to sap one’s time and energy as well as dent your reputation. The only response was to either reply to those furiously demanding why you had allegedly said xyz, and restate the original point, ensuring that you missed out the blocked protagonist, or to ignore altogether. But it was nonetheless infuriating, a constant irritant to be misrepresented on a daily basis.

I set up a private locked account in order to be able to interact with my friends without the hassle and to avoid the gaze of such people, who proceeded to vociferously complain and then troll and stalk my mentions column which still showed up as public (when you protect your account, your tweets are private but those who interact with you are still visible) publicly attacking anyone who was seen to be saying anything supportive to me. In the end I had to delete the account, a move which was deemed as wise, one person saying that they were too scared to be seen to be my personal friend as they knew that they would be targeted and attacked.

So far I have been to the police on three occasions, to complain about incidents such as my personal details being outed (someone would have needed to have paid the records office or done some serious digging as they are not available anywhere on the net) meaning that I needed to change password details, implied threats of blackmail and recently claims that I was not pregnant and that a miscarriage was ‘convenient’ and an ‘excuse’.

Despite several people, including serving policeman friends confirming that though these are serious breaches of the law, because no specific threat of violence is being made, I have to put up with it because there are inadequate resources to prosecute. The police don’t believe that prosecuting those who are using the internet and social media to drive someone to the brink of a nervous breakdown in a concerted campaign of intimidation, is in the public interest.

I recently posted a video of my daughter singing the Salve Regina to a sock puppet online, in attempt to laugh at some of the madness which has seen me being publicly accused of being an ex-pat who runs a blog about his donkey sanctuary in Spain!  My children always sing the Salve at bedtime, they also love playing with sock-puppets, it was an impromptu moment when I caught my daughter practising her ‘ventriloquism’ and so I caught it on camera and shared in an attempt to make people smile and share how we try to incorporate the faith into our daily lives.

This video has been touted as proof of my being sinister, evil, pathological and dangerous and sent to various professional colleagues in an attempt to have work assignments removed! Plus I’ve been criticised for sharing footage of my children, such is society’s pre-Victorian attitude to children which seeks to lock them up and keep them out of public view for fear that some sexual predator might gain some excitment from them. (Although there’s a whole other issue).

Like anyone I should be able to use the internet and social media on my own terms. I should be able to log on to Twitter, shoot the breeze, engage in some online discussion or apologetics, post some interesting links, do my stuff then click off. I dip in and out of Twitter on my phone when I get a free five or ten minutes. While all of us should be aware that we are in the public square and ought to act appropriately, especially if our profile denotes the company for whom we work or an organisation with which we are involved, a certain courtesy does not mean that we should be needing to look over our shoulder every five minutes.


If we want to make social media an universal safe space then one of the things that should happen is that Twitter should implement a block function that is similar to that of Facebook. If you block someone then Twitter should take steps to ensure that not only can you escape their rantings but also that they are blocked from being able to see your tweets or what people say to you.

For those who say that this is not in the original spirit of the thing which was originally an open platform for the free exchange of ideas, I think we have to accept that like all digital platforms, it needs to evolve and adapt. New users are automatically given an element of trust, but if a certain person invades our privacy, breaches our trust and makes us feel unsafe, rather than withdrawing from the platform itself (which in itself puts the responsibility and blame for the abuse on the abused) we should have the option to stop those from having access to us, for the sake of their mental health and ours.

With online abuse and cyber-bullying becoming an increasing problem, the police cannot be expected to prosecute for breakdown in relationships and all too often social media is wielded as a real weapon of attack able to do serious damage. There’s been a spate of teen suicides related to online abuse, this is going to be an increasing phenomenon, alongside us being taught how to keep ourselves safe and develop online strategies, the social media platforms need to play their part.

Blocking someone sends them a message, it says, look I don’t want contact with you, please leave me alone.  Using Twitter should not mean that you are held responsible for someone else’s fixation upon you. One of the thing that I have learnt through my experience of being online stalked is that very often the victim, the person being obsessed about, can become as obsessed as the perpetrator. It’s understandable because one is always looking over one’s shoulder, trying to pre-empt or anticipate what on earth the aggressor might do next and also a way of trying to gain control of the situation. It takes an immense amount of strength to emotionally detach and not care and when people are engaged in criminal acts of harassment, evidence needs to be garnered in able to put a stop to the situation. Especially when the medium of the internet allows for the rapid dissemination of information, for good or evil.

We know that internet and online addiction is becoming a issue in society. At present Twitter enables and feeds the obsessions which is not healthy for either party. I have become the target or obsession of a tiny cabal of people for some time now. It’s telling that whenever a fresh item of spite is served up, it’s always the same small group people serving up steaming dollops of nastiness and spewing new poison.  Being at the end of such vitriol is extremely trying and the extent of the campaign should not be underestimated. But at moments where I am driven to the depths of anger and despair, what pulls me up is imaging the hell and torment that these people must be experiencing to take such gleeful pleasure in attacking a woman, a mother of four young children and laughing at her visible torment when, to use the words of my husband, they urinate all over the grief of our dead baby.

If you tell someone that you wish for them not to contact you, even if it’s only for a brief period of time to give you some equilibrium, then they should respect that. If you tell someone that you wish them to leave you alone, then they should not claim that your existence gives them licence to continue pestering you.

Twitter needs to be able to help users to help themselves and each other, by respecting that a block button means that you want privacy. We shouldn’t need to lock our accounts which then hinders our interactions with the world at large, but we should be able to ban certain users from seeing what we are up to, if they abuse our trust. Most trolls are lazy, not bothering with creating multiple accounts. In addition most of the persistent abusers revel in their identity and obsession regardless of whether or not this is real or assumed.

Today my troll, with typical lack of self awareness, blustered “let’s hope for a drama free day on Twitter”. Amen sister. If you can’t stop yourself from spying on my feed, screen shotting it and generally making insulting, derogatory comments and lying about me, then Twitter should help you to help yourself. We all want an end to the drama. If you can’t stop feeding your unhealthy cycle of co-dependence then Twitter should do it for your own sake and all those of your ilk. That way a lot of heartache and drama can be avoided and we can all enjoy a healthier experience.

The internet is a new tool. No-one foresaw its addictive and self-destructive potential.

Singing of the hidden God: Blessed John Paul II and the mystical power of words

As today is the Optional Memorial of Blessed John Paul II, I have reproduced my feature from the Easter supplement of the Catholic Herald in 2011, celebrating the literary output of one of the greatest popes in modern times.


Pope John Paul II is lauded for his contributions to theology, human rights, religious freedoms and the renewal of Catholic spirituality. What is often forgotten, is that he was first of all a poet and playwright, his theatrical roots stretching back to his boyhood. He acted in his first play at the age of eight, and this literary and thespian bent gave his papacy its unique flavour. It was his grounding in and love for theatre that no doubt contributed to his reputation of being something of a showman.

Although he was not the first pope to have written poems and plays, John Paul II was unique in that, unlike with his predecessors, his ordination to the priesthood did not put an end to his literary output. He remained a poet and playwright throughout his entire ministry. His final poem, the Roman Triptych, was written in the 23rd year of his papacy and is considered by many to be his spiritual last testament, contemplating the beginning and end of his reign as pope.

Meditating upon the Michelangelo fresco of the Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, John Paul II notes:

so it was in August, and then in October,

of the memorable year of the two Conclaves,

and so it will be again, when the need arises after my death.

Michelangelos vision must then speak to them.

Poetry accompanied John Paul II his entire life. Poetry became his means of expressing his personal feelings and experiences, his relationship to God, to his fellow man and to the world as a whole. It documents his spiritual journey from school pupil to pope, revealing the process of his maturing spirituality and attempts at self-definition. His poetry deals with a whole range of issues from friendships to problems related to his pastoral duties and obligations as bishop – in short, everything that became part of his experience.

John Paul II’s poetic sentiments were formed under the looming shadow of war and invasion. He was influenced by the revival of Polish Romanticism, which held that history had a spiritual core and that the political collapse of Poland over the 18th and 19th centuries had been caused by the deterioration of traditional national virtues.

Echoing a familiar Christian theme, redemptive suffering as a personal spiritual discipline, the great Polish romantics believed that redemptive suffering was also the national destiny. Poland was a Messiah among nations, whose political misfortunes signified a time on Calvary that would redeem the world and give rise to spiritual renewal. It was under the influence of this tradition and following the Nazi occupation in 1939 that John Paul II began writing his first poems and plays. By the end of 1940, he had written a trilogy, David, Job and Jeremiah, which all re-told a biblical story in the context of a key moment in Polish history. These plays were both examinations of the human soul and acts of resistance towards the occupiers, all three having political undertones.

John Paul drew parallels between the fate of Poland, being punished for losing its Christian roots and the punishments of Israelites for breakingtheir covenant with God. In 1939, he wrote in a letter to a friend: “The nation has fallen like Israel because it did not recognise he messianic ideal, its own ideal. Our liberation lies at the gate of Christ”.

In his poetry of the same era, we see the emerging figure of a man of great prayer and devotion. Over This, Your White Grave is arguably one of his most touching poems, written at the age of 19 and dealing with the premature death of his mother, in which his monologue displaying his feelings of longing, sorrow and melancholy is transformed into a simple prayer for his mother which expresses his gratitude for love. “O Mother, extinguished love… give her eternal peace.”The poem evokes the image of the young poet kneeling in prayer at his mother’s grave, giving thanks for her life and reconciled with the prospect of death. The remainder of his poetry written in the war years is similarly contemplative, displaying a mysticism and a turning inwards to God.

John Paul II responded to the horror surrounding him with a sense of detachment, but that is not to say that he was unaffected by it. In one of the poems from his later period he draws upon the time that he was forced to work as a manual labourer in a quarry. But his early poetry shows that at a time when it must have seemed like the apocalypse was nigh – his beloved father died, his friends were taken to concentration camps and he was risking his life by remaining a member of an underground theatre company –his only refuge in the Lord.

His later poetry, becomes increasingly ambitious in terms of language, further blurring the boundaries between thought and prayer.

Perhaps one of John Paul II’s greatest achievements as a playwright was having one of his plays, The Jeweller’s Shop, written in 1960, under the pseudonym of Andrzej Jawien, turned into a Hollywood movie, starring Burt Lancaster and Olivia Hussey. The story focuses upon the contrast of human relationships, love, marriage and family, encapsulating John Paul’s favourite theme, namely that love is difficult but one must continue to hope as our futures depend upon it. The play explores the concepts that would be later worked out more fully in his famous cycle of teachings that would become the Theology of the Body.

Above all, in his poetry and plays John Paul II showed an awareness of the mystical power of words. The idea of the “living word” both on stage and in poetry could transform reality by summoning the audience to moral action. He saw a correlation between the poetic and theatrical word and the Divine Word by which God created the universe and by which bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Time and time again his work returned to the theme of the Eucharist, in the transformation of the bread and wine he saw the paradox of God continually both hiding and revealing himself.

“The Shores of Silence”, the first part of the poem, The Song of the Hidden God, loses none of its lyrical qualities in translation:

Learn from me, my dear ones, how to hide,

for where I am hidden I abide…

there is a Beauty more real

concealed in the living blood.

To use John Paul II’s own words, in a country wracked by occupation and war, his poetry really did sing of the hidden God, in a regime that recognised that the Catholic Church was the historic custodian of Polish national culture and identity and thus sought to destroy it.

In the New Evangelisation of the world called for by John Paul II, poets and playwrights, along with other artists had an important role to play. “Humanity in every age – and even today – looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny,” he once wrote. Artists were invited to follow his example and use their God-given gifts for the purposes of spiritual renewal, using their artistic quest for beauty, good and truth to transcend the physical and lead them back to their divine origins.

In his final poem, the Pope re-iterated his concept of the living word: that everything around us should proclaim God’s love, a love that was made as a promise before the dawn of time:

the sign of the Covenant

which the Eternal Word made with you

even before the world was created.

It is no surprise that his life ended with the most passionate and inspirational performance of all. He was no longer able to use the power of language but his death conveyed the drama of suffering and the mystery of love, beyond the power of the word to the Word itself.

Catholics and sex – business as usual

An unpleasant type of snobbery seems to be pervading certain parts of the internet at the moment, with bloggers such as Protect the Pope coming under fire for their continued and persistent promotion of life issues.

“Why can’t you widen your focus to include matters of social justice?” goes the refrain. Pope Francis’ recent interview having been interpreted by some quarters that Catholics need to stop focussing on issues arising from matters of human sexuality and instead concentrate their efforts on the poor.

Much ink has already been spilled over this, including my own in the Catholic Universe (apologies, recent events mean that I haven’t been up to date with posting my columns on the blog) but Francis has not said that we must abandon these issues, but that they must not be our only Gospel. Evangelisation does not begin with bashing another over the head for their shortcomings, or lecturing people solely on one area of doctrine while forgetting that the aim is to engender a love of Christ and a desire to focus on His message. Issues such as sexuality, abortion, poverty and hunger all flow holistically from the two main commandments of Christ, to love your God with all your heart and soul and then to love your neighbour as yourself.

This loving one’s neighbour as oneself means speaking the truth with charity. A love of one’s neighbour means attempting to stop them from falling into error, therefore we cannot ignore it when someone imperils their soul, we cannot validate sin by ignoring it, but rather act with love and compassion.

Figures such as Deacon Nick Donnelly and myself who have quite a strong pro-life bent to our output are not being urged to stop, or widen focus, but to remember what it is precisely that we are attempting to achieve. I can’t speak for Deacon Nick, but it’s something that I consider every single day and why at times, my writing can sometimes have a tortuous quality, in that I am trying to consider all angles and not alienate the very many non-Catholic onlookers who pop into the blog from time to time.

To those interlocutors who would urge me to concentrate on other matters of social justice, my riposte would be to “stick with what you are good at”. My particular vocation and charism when it comes to writing, blogging and speaking is that of issues surrounding the family, the unborn, human sexuality and the feminine vocation. In the spirit of Vatican II, if you perceive there to be a gap, then why not fill it yourself? If the wholesale killing of the unborn, the destruction of the family and the exploitation of the sick and elderly are not matters of social justice, then I don’t know what is?

I was someone who was brought up without any sort of understanding of what the Church taught regarding contraception. All I knew was that the Church said you couldn’t use the pill or condoms and not being the most intellectually curious of children, it didn’t occur to me to ask why. My mother used to tell me that the Church’s stance on condoms was wicked and it was a line I swallowed hook, line and sinker, even being so daring as to put it into an RE essay on one occasion, to which Mr Glynn smiled indulgently and said he thought that was a bit strong.

We had the mandatory SRE talk on contraception in what is now called Year 9 (third year in old money) and my thoughts were ‘oh wow, okay this is how it works, the pill seems like a jolly sensible thing, I might go and ask for it’ without any sort of guidance or comment, or even balancing biological information as to the downsides or risks. Of course in my day, the morning-after pill or long acting reversible contraceptives such as the implant were yet to be invented, but I’m sure that had they been, I would have thought them advisable and the Catholic church was just being silly and out of date. We were not even informed of the potential side-effects, contraception was ‘impartially’ presented as being an effective way to avoid pregnancy. There was no discussion about relationships whatsoever, aside from an unspoken sense that if you did have sex, be sure not to get caught.

Despite completing a GCSE in Religion with an ostensibly Catholic syllabus, the subject of contraception was never covered. Sister P once came out with the unforgettable statement that if you were having sex to round off the end of an enjoyable evening then you had no self-respect, a statement that never made any sense as an adolescent and needs further explanation. I would never insult any non-Catholics or leading feminist figures by claiming that a love of sex, or treating it as a recreational activity denotes a lack of self-respect. While I suspect that there are many women whose sexual behaviour does stem from a basic lack of self-respect, it cannot be said of everyone.

Culture encourages us to treat sex as a meaningless recreational activity at the same time as promoting the god of personal autonomy and self-respect. To have multiple sexual partners, to engage in outrageous sexual practices, does not automatically denote a lack of self-respect, rather the opposite. Indulging one’s own sexual proclivities, no matter how deviant or potentially physically and psychologically unhealthy is seen as a good.

So it makes no sense to be telling adolescents or adults that to succumb to their sexual appetites and cravings denotes a lack of self-respect and is not an affective or appealing argument without further exploration. It certainly didn’t chime with me.

But by not being taught about what we should aspire to, because no-one held chastity up to me as a goal or a good, because abortion was never explained in anything more than abstract philosophical terms, and never explored in any detail, I was profoundly hurt and damaged in my teens and twenties and subject to a lot of unnecessary heartbreak and mistakes.

Funnily enough once I embraced the church things turned good and fell into place, but not without forays into co-habitation and an attempt at marriage in which I lacked all understanding of what marriage actually was and what it meant, never having received any guidance or preparation.

A combination of parents’ embarassed silence on these issues and a school whose attitude was ambivalence, indifference and turning a blind eye to the obvious sexual escapades of their pupils, (unless they were caught when sanctions had to be seen to be applied) meant that I was extremely susceptible to the influence of women’s lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan, whose dissonant message has not changed over the past 30 years. Have as much sex as you want, with whomsoever you want, here are some tips to make it spicy, if you’re not swinging from the chandeliers or not wanting to swing from the chandeliers, you are doing something wrong and in all likelihood sexually repressed, besides which you need to make sure you are good at it if you want him to call you again.

These two articles demonstrate the dissonance nicely – a Telegraph columnist deliberates on how soon one can call a relationship a relationship without scaring off a man, but unashamedly admitting that a long-term relationship is the goal, and this piece in the Daily Mail gives women tricks to please men the first time that they have sex, in order to please him and keep him interested. This is really the tip of the cultural iceberg, basically women are expected to sexually objectify themselves, there is an admission that sex makes us vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line, not to mention risking pregnancy and STDs and IF we do things right, look great, are not too emotionally clingy and are sexually pleasing and financially independent, then eventually we might find a man who might want to commit to us. Although be careful not to bore him, if he has an affair, it might well be your fault. Women are being sold a paradox of sexual self-objectification in the name of sexual empowerment with an admitted price tag of physical and emotional vulnerability. Getting naked and swapping intimate bodily fluids with someone does not give us license to claim any sort of romantic relationship or emotional attachment to them, until they deem it appropriate. Having sex no longer entails any sort of responsibility towards the other, an attitude underlined by contraception and the wholesale availability of abortion. Wanting a long term relationship as a result of having repeated sexual encounters with one person is perceived as a sign of weakness or dysfunction, unless the other person desires it too. Women who want to get married are an embarrassing anachronism.

At time of writing, I am engaged in a twitter exchange with the political editor of the Daily Mail and the social media editor of the Wall Street Journal, the latter of whom thinks that sexting amongst teens should not be considered shocking as ‘it’s no longer 1998’. Sexting encourages already vulnerable teens to open themselves up to abuse, harassment and coercion. We should not be normalising it as a harmless adult practice. But by speaking out, one risks being written off as a joyless puritan.

We are marinading in a toxic cultural sewer and unless we have an alternative vision to aspire to, a healthy culture of sex and sexuality, a better vision of equality, based on sound moral principles, then it can hardly be a surprise that so many people sink into the squelchy immoral morass that masquerades as healthy adult behaviour and suffer as a result. I should know, I was one of them. if we stop talking about these things then there is nothing to counter the very powerful lobbies that seek to entrench and profit from a culture of sexual libertinism.

Through the grace of God I managed to turn my life around and I can testify to the joy and fulfilment of living out a female Catholic vocation. Those of us who have been hurt and let down as a direct consequence of not having been passed on the beauty of the church’s teaching in all her fullness and glory, feel a duty to continue to speak out in order that no-one else should have to learn the hard way and it’s precisely love for one’s neighbour as propounded by the Gospel, which motivates us to do so.

Formed and fully human

I based a previous post about Sarah Ewart based on a misconception of the severity of her baby’s condition which had been misreported in the press, with even Melanie McDonagh stating that the baby ‘had no head’. While I did not quite believe this to be true, my visualisation of the condition was something infinitely more graphic and gruesome than the reality.

Peter Saunders has sensitively and scientifically outlined the reality here, in a must-read piece for anyone wanting to know the reality of the condition. Had the case been as I believed, I still don’t believe that would have been a good enough reason to abort the baby, but I would not have been rushing to demand prosecution of someone who assisted her and would have wanted some compromise found, which did not implicitly endorse abortion, but also would offer some relief for the mother if necessary, such as early delivery at point of viability.

I still believe that pro-lifers need to exercise due care and compassion nonetheless in these situations, rushing to quote the Catechism, which is couched in philosophical and theological language at a frightened mother, who may or may not be a Catholic, is not the most pastoral, compassionate or necessarily convincing approach.

If we are to change society’s consciousness on this, then we need to reach out beyond our own religious circle. One isn’t going to convince a pagan or committed atheist as to the compelling philosophy, logic and science that supports a pro-life mindset by referencing the Bible, the Didache or Magisterium, although my experience is that very often the pro-life cause is what attracts people to re-examine, revert or convert to Catholicism as they begin to explore why it is that we are so uncompromising on this.

LIFE charity are currently running an extremely effective ‘not blinkered’ campaign, which de-bunks the whole ‘religious nut jobs on the right’ stereotype very nicely. While we cannot divert from Catholic principles, a recourse to theism is not a necessary when it comes to explaining why the most vulnerable, from the unborn, to the disabled, terminally ill and elderly should be protected from abortion, assisted dying and euthanasia.

When I discovered that our unborn baby had died, I chose to undergo a procedure similar to a medical abortion in order to deliver our baby after waiting to see whether or not matters would resolve naturally. It was one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to face and even though we knew that the baby had died, there was still some guilt in taking action that would literally force the baby out of the womb. Despite having had the diagnosis confirmed by 3 separate doctors I still needed confirmation that no heartbeat was present, before I allowed intervention to proceed.

Ending a pregnancy is a traumatic and violent affair, regardless of the method one chooses even armed with the knowledge that there is little other choice,  as there was in our situation. For a while I was too physically battered by what had taken place to begin the process of grieving and it was only yesterday, following the burial of Rafael’s remains that the loss really ‘hit’ the pair of us.

I cannot imagine the trauma  experienced by grieving parents who have felt compelled by a baby’s disability to take steps to end their life. Several priests have recounted heartbreaking tales of parents bringing their aborted children for funeral services, their grief compounded and complicated by the dissonant knowledge that they terminated their babies lives, often due to medical coercion, themselves.

It has not been definitively confirmed, but upon talking to the doctors and sonographers involved, the cause of death was likely to have been Downs Syndrome as many markers were present. People come out with the most ridiculous platitudes, implying that your baby’s death was ‘for the best’, ‘a blessing in disguise’ and it was probably ‘just as well’.

Downs Syndrome has an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth or neo-natal death, though not as great as anencephaly, but as we laid our baby to rest yesterday (fully formed with limbs, fingers and toes) had we experienced stillbirth or a neo-natal death, both of us would have given anything to be able to have held our baby, even just for a short while. Which is what convinces me that Peter Saunders is right.

But at least we have the knowledge that despite being denied the privilege of holding our child, we did whatever we could to look after them, both in life and death. We accorded our baby the dignity and respect that every unborn child deserves. It was not only the right thing to do, but is already a source of enormous comfort.  Being pro-life sometimes means needing to bear witness in death. Treating a baby as a human being from the moment of conception until moment of death is the compassionate, decent and humane response, for mother and baby alike.

Bishop hopes Synod will renew appreciation for marriage

The following is a press release from the Diocese of Portsmouth 

The Rt Rev Philip Egan, the Bishop of Portsmouth, has issued a message about the Extraordinary Synod called by Pope Francis, due to take place in October 2014. The Synod will examine “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation.”

Bishop Egan hopes that, among the fruits of the Synod, there will be new impetus to create comprehensive programmes for marriage preparation, that could lead towards a manual or directory on Marriage and Family Life, giving guidance for the family as “domestic Church”.

He would also hope that the Synod would “give renewed attention to the situation of those Catholics who find themselves in ‘irregular unions’, or are divorced and remarried. Is there some way of affording them mercy, help and reconciliation?”

In expressing his hopes for the Synod, Bishop Egan cited the decline in the numbers of Catholic marriages within his own diocese. While in 1962 there were 1319 marriages, in 2012, there were only 566, despite a 25% rise in the Catholic population.

He said that the Synod would “be a wonderful opportunity for us in the Diocese of Portsmouth to articulate once again the teaching of Jesus and his Church on marriage and family life, and to explore new ways of showing mercy to those in difficulty.”

Here is a full copy of the Bishop’s letter.

BoP Message about Extraordinary Synod (October 2013)

It would be great to see other dioceses follow suit. Well done to the Diocese of Portsmouth and Bishop Egan for being so pro-active and leading the way in the cause of the New Evangelisation

A tale of two tragedies

Two terrible pieces of news have emerged on the BBC News website today.

At London Zoo, a Sumatran tiger cub has been discovered dead at the edge of the pool in the tiger enclosure. It is thought that the cub accidentally ventured into the pool and drowned.

In a separate tragedy Edinburgh Zoo has announced that Tian Tian, their giant panda is no longer pregnant, she appears to have miscarried her cub in late pregnancy.

Animal-lovers such as myself will be saddened to hear of these events, especially as the animals concerned are both endangered species.

Perhaps that’s why this is considered headline news and of far more importance than the approximately 500 women in the UK who will today end the lives of their unborn children via abortion, because they feel that they have little other ‘choice’.

500 unborn babies or the plight of 500 women doesn’t quite have the same ‘aw factor’ or sense of urgency and importance as a dead baby tiger and panda cub.

And we wonder why the human race seems in trouble?

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The most popular stories on the BBC News website on 15 October

Hard cases and political footballs

This excellent piece by Melanie McDonagh in the Spectator about the perceived BBC bias with regards to Northern Ireland’s abortion law, alerted me to the tragic case of Sarah Ewart, who discovered at her 20-week scan that her unborn baby had the severest form of spina bifida and was anencephalic as a result, namely the baby did not have any skull bones. This meant that her baby would die following a traumatic birth in which labour would need to be induced, the lack of skull would mean that there would be no pressure to cause natural labour.

Sincere sympathies to Ms Ewart. Any pro-lifer who rushes in to condemn her as a result of her decision to travel to England for an abortion should hang their head in shame and reconsider whether or not they ought to be a part of the pro-life movement.

This is one of those cases that stretches all of us to our limits where the pro-life lobby needs to be exceptionally cautious before throwing around cold, hard, legalistic definitions of moral theology, which can seem lacking in empathy, in order to justify the best course of action in such a terrible situation.

While Melanie McDonagh is right to identify the underlying agenda of Jim Naughtie, her point that “most people would accept that a baby without a head is, to all intents and purposes, not a baby” requires further analysis.

Firstly the definition of personhood is not dependent on the presence of any one part of the body. A person who is missing a limb is no less of a person than an able-bodied person. In this distressing case, it is not that there is no head whatsoever, but that no bones have formed in the head. Without wishing to dwell upon the gruesome detail, there will be a brain and presumably a face, but no bone to support the mass. So it isn’t accurate to say that the baby was not a person, or not alive or even lacked a head, but that he or she would not have been able to live outside of the womb.

Personhood is not defined by location, or the eight inches of the birth canal. A person does not suddenly become more human or more alive, by virtue of their passage down the birth canal, or through the walls of the abdomen, in the case of a cesarian.  Location does not determine a human’s worth or value. The process of birth does not render a baby any more human or alive. Neither does mental capacity. A six week old baby is not less of a person because they lack mental reasoning skills,  in the same way that someone suffering from Alzheimer’s is no less of a person, nor someone in a temporary coma for example.

The law in Northern Ireland  rightly does not allow foetal abnormality as grounds for abortion, which should not be controversial. A civilised society should not approve the principle that people should be terminated on the grounds that they are not able-bodied and therefore their lives of lesser value.

Awful situations such as these are precisely where we must carefully apply principles of moral theology . We cannot commit an intrinsically  evil action in order to bring about a good.

The problem is that the abstract often seems cold, hard, unfeeling and dogmatic when applied to real people and real situations. We cannot forget that there is a real person involved at the centre of such suffering. It’s a difficult balance between not allowing sentiment or empathy to determine what is the correct course of action and yet abandoning all empathy in the process of applying a general principle. Hard cases do make bad law, the heartbreaking situation faced by Sarah Ewart does not justify killing humans in utero en masse as a result of their disability.  Cases such as those of Sarah Ewart are thankfully exceptionally rare, which is another reason, why the law should not be changed, especially not when one considers that a similar law in the UK allows for babies with completely correctable and reversible conditions such as cleft palate, to be aborted up until birth.

I would like to think that were in Sarah Ewart’s position, I would carry the baby to term, the key part of that sentence being “I would like to think that”. It’s a huge ask, even as someone who counts themselves an absolutist in pro-life terms, one of those hardcore extremist nutters, I would be lying if I tried to claim that continuing a pregnancy in such circumstances would be easy. No doubt there would be times that I would scream, rage and rail about the injustice and cruelty of it all and hand on heart I cannot state in any certainty that if I were in Sarah Ewart’s position and carrying the baby til term, I would not have a physical and nervous collapse. And that’s speaking from the position of a pro-lifer who knows that to take the life of an unborn baby is innately wrong and unjustifiable.

I would have the comfort of my faith and unlike many people, the support of a religious community to sustain me, alongside the innate knowledge that morally, I was doing the right thing. But it would not be, by any means easy. When my  unborn baby passed away in utero, I only had to live with that knowledge for ten days, which felt like an interminable and unbearable period of time. I cannot begin to image what it must be like for someone in Sarah Ewart’s position, I have previously posted the joyful and courageous  witness of the parents of an anencephalic baby, but even Colin did not suffer from the condition with such severity. We cannot forget the nature of the condition of the baby, would mean that the birth would be infinitely more traumatic than in other circumstances of stillbirth or neo-natal death due to disability.

Even for a pro-lifer there is a dichotomy between not taking direct action to kill one’s own unborn child and taking action to save one’s own health and sanity, which would in my case have an impact on my existing children.

Knowing that I would struggle, is it therefore fair to impose my moral values upon Sarah Ewart and dictate what her course of action should be?

No-one could or should blame Sarah Ewart for her decision to travel to England for an abortion and neither should the law be so lacking in compassion that any doctors who assisted her in abortion in this terribly rare and upsetting case be prosecuted, for wanting to spare her a horrific ordeal. We should not be ordering or compelling her to be brave, insisting that there is no way that the termination of her pregnancy should be tolerated.  This is a far cry from the situation we have in the UK whereby doctors pre-sign batches of forms authorising the abortion of babies on the grounds that they are female.

This is one of those genuinely hard cases and limited circumstances in which doctors should be able to use their discretion in terms of treating a mother without fear of consequences. Was there  really no way that the process of double effect, whereby action could be taken to treat the mother which would indirectly result in the death of the child, could be applied?  I suspect an easier solution may have been to have performed a cesarian at the point of viability, say 24 weeks, so that the baby could pass away naturally and swiftly and to spare her the ordeal of late-stage abortion and a traumatic birth experience, a decision which could well in time, have rendered the process of grieving easier.

That’s only my personal opinion however in the absence of more detailed medical evidence about this  particular case. It seems to me that what was at fault here was not the abortion law in Northern Ireland, but rather its application. One has to wonder why the medics involved in this case, could not bring themselves to be a little more creative and more compassionate in their interpretation of the law? Why could no-one be brave enough to put their neck on the line for a woman in terrible and desperate circumstances, caring more for a rigid interpretation of the law, that could then be exploited for political purposes,  than the overall welfare of Mrs Ewart. Or was it that abortion was not the only option in this case?

In any event, surely she deserved better than to be used as a political football and unfortunate poster-girl for a law that could potentially cause the deaths of those with wholly treatable conditions? Or are pro-choicers guilty of projection when they accuse the pro-life lobby of putting dogmatic belief before the best interests of the individual?

Whatever the answer, our thoughts, prayers and sympathies should be with Sarah Ewart and her child.


Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship has written a compelling, sensitive and scientific piece on the realities of an anencephalic baby. It puts an entirely new spin on events, detailing what an anencephalic baby would look like. Though I thought I had understood the condition, the way Mrs Ewart’s case was reported was incredibly misleading.

Had I been in possession of this information, then the post would have been written along similar lines to that of Dr Saunders. I guess there’s a lesson for us all in there somewhere.