Don’t blame the poorest Jamie, for wanting what everyone else can afford

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 1 September 2013 

With apologies for the delay in posting

Jamie Oliver

It seems hard to disagree on face value with Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver’s controversial remarks designed to promote his upcoming series Jamie’s Money Saving Meals. 

Speaking in an interview to the Radio Times, Oliver says, “but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

To many it seems that Oliver has a good point, it’s difficult to keep a straight face when discussing poverty levels in the UK, when many of those who are portrayed as facing dire financial circumstances would appear to be in possession of luxury or frivolous items, such as the ubiquitous flatscreen TV or expensive smartphone. Can people whose diets consist mainly of expensive and unhealthy take-away food really be justified as being poor?

One of the things that Pope Francis seems to be continually attempting to do is to shake the faithful out of our attitude to complacency to the poor. We therefore should not buy into this easy stereotype of a feckless and undeserving class who are unable to effectively budget or prioritize, spending their money on the wrong things.

Food spend in the UK has rapidly shrunk over the past few decades to eight per cent of total household income, across all social classes, which when considers it, is staggeringly low, for something that is absolutely vital to our health and wellbeing. Food prices have risen 12% in real terms over the past five years, combined with median income which has fallen by 12% for households in the lowest decile. Fruit and vegetables are now 22% more expensive in the UK, than the EU average and have risen by 25% in the past five years.

 Low income households are buying fewer fresh meat products, fewer fruit and vegetables, fewer fish and instead more flour products, but are not able to trade down to cheaper brands as they were already buying the cheapest available. Furthermore the lowest 10% of earners have increased the proportion of their expenditure spent on food. As we face the beginning of a new academic year, reports are coming of squeezed parents having to spend hundreds of pounds on new school uniforms. Incomes are already on a knife-edge, often convenience or low quality foods are packaged under value brands to appear cheaper.

 Looked at in this light, it’s hard to maintain the idea that low income households are being more irresponsible than anyone else, it’s simply that the middle-classes have far more flexibility in terms of making choices. Those on lower incomes should not be lambasted for wanting the things such as TVs or take-away meals that others can more easily afford, but instead all of us should be looking to live more simply and less wastefully and consider do we really need the latest smartphone or gadget, despite its alluring glitter.

 Where Jamie Oliver is correct, is in his identification of healthier eating habits of other cultures, referencing a Sicilian street cleaner who “has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and packet of spaghetti and knocks up the most amazing pasta for 60 pence”. This is precisely the mentality that we need to cultivate across the whole of society, encouraging people to cook high quality cheap meals from scratch as an everyday habit, for the good of our health and the economy, instead of relying on cheap over-processed nutritionally empty junk.

 One of the factors has to be a reintroduction of good old-fashioned home economics lessons in schools. As the person in charge of the culinary department in our household, I know all too well how difficult it is to feed a growing family of six, a wholesome and enjoyable diet on a low budget. It’s a skill I’ve had to learn from necessity; coming from an affluent family of two, my dessert making skills are second to none, but a mean lemon meringue pie or pavlova won’t really cut it.

 Cooking should not be thought of as a middle-class hobby but a basic life skill with which everyone should be equipped. But teaching people to source healthy ingredients and cook is only part of the picture. We need to change shopping habits and end the reliance on supermarkets, who bear a massive responsibility in terms of how their profit margins make items such as fresh fruit unaffordable to so many. I recently switched to my local greengrocer whose produce is not only vastly superior but also significantly cheaper. But the government is actually encouraging supermarket dependence as it is only the big chains who will accept the government-issued vouchers specifically for fruit, vegetables and milk for those with children on low incomes. There needs to be more support and funding if necessary for other means of getting good-quality, affordable food to more people, via markets or local food co-operatives, an initiative that was often promoted by Pope Benedict XVI as an alternative to rampant capitalism and a solution to world hunger.

 Instead of blaming people for making bad choices, the government needs to support and enable people to make better ones.



First Trimester Taboo – why keeping mum is a bad idea

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 25 August 2013

(Since this piece was written, I’ve lost well over half a stone in weight and my nutritional intake consists solely of sips of flat coke, water and bites of white bread, further reinforcing the original view.  At times I’ve been almost bedridden and barely able to leave the house, thank goodness for a supportive husband who is carrying the majority of the load during his holiday, whilst I languish like some gothic Victorian heroine. How women are supposed to function normally let alone make rational decisions in this condition is beyond me. Once again I am reminded why abortion must seem like an attractive option to those who may already be overburdened and find the crippling nausea and fatigue almost too much to deal with). 

My Catherine Earnshaw moments are rather less glamourous!

Much to our delight, we discovered a few weeks ago that we are expecting our fifth child who is expected to put in an appearance some time in March.

The response, even from Catholic quarters has been interesting and is one from which lessons can be drawn. Many people have questioned whether or not I am correct to announce things at this relatively early stage in the first trimester. “Do people tend to go public before 12 weeks, I thought it had to be top secret” asked one colleague in good faith , which made me realise that a taboo pervades when it comes to the subject of early pregnancy.

I’ve therefore decided, perhaps rather foolishly, to lead by example and announce the happy news to the world at large. This pressure to keep mum about being mum, seems to me to be doing women a major disservice under a misguided notion of compassion.

There are really only three main reasons why a woman may wish to keep her pregnancy news to herself. Firstly, she is concerned about the risk of miscarriage, secondly she wants to be sure that the baby is healthy following her twelve week scan and thirdly, she might be undecided and not want to have to face the public stigma of abortion. Which goes to debunk the notion of choice, because surely if the unborn child is not really a person but a bundle of cells, if the decision is hers alone, to do whatever she likes with her body, then why the urge to keep silent? If pro-choicers are wishing to remove the stigma of abortion, to discuss it in terms of need, then why are they wishing to buy into the silence that surrounds early pregnancy?

Regardless of choice, there can be absolutely no doubt, that for most women, the first trimester is a physically and mentally exhausting time. Added to the worry about potential miscarriage, the majority of which take place in the first trimester, women, if they are anything like me, have to face the trauma of perpetual nausea and sickness, loss of appetite, food and scent aversions, (my children currently smell appalling much to my horror), crippling fatigue, periods of feeling faint, accompanying breathlessness along with headaches, with the skin and temperament of a moody adolescent as huge amounts of progesterone go crashing through your body.

In short, one is a wreck. It’s not surprising, as the first trimester is when all of the baby’s major development takes place. By 4 weeks, all of the baby’s major organs and body systems are in place and beginning to form. By 12 weeks all bodily organs and systems are fully-formed and ready to grow. It’s no wonder you’re shattered! There’s an incredible amount of building work taking place inside you, it’s only after 12 weeks that the placenta takes over in terms of supplying the baby with vital nutrients. Before then, it’s one’s body doing all the work in constructing this tiny human, which will naturally deplete your existing resources.

 It therefore seems crazy to keep this quiet when the first trimester is the time that a woman requires most support from her partner, family, friends and employer. You need people to exercise due care and understanding and even if one’s  symptoms are not all that severe, it is likely that at some point, a woman will need some leeway and understanding. To keep things quiet forces a woman to conform to the expectations and demands of others, whilst suppressing her own needs, which is not an ideal model of womanhood.

While it is understandable that a woman may not wish to publicly announce the loss of a child if she were to miscarry, it is far more likely that she will get the time off work and compassion she needs from others, if she has previously made them aware of her pregnancy. By suppressing the news, a woman inherently buys into the prevailing zeitgeist which holds that a child is only a child if it is wanted and once it has reached a certain stage in development, whereas biology tells us that a life is formed from the moment of conception.

Why should women be forced to suffer the grief, pain and loss of a child in early pregnancy alone and unsupported? Friends of mine who have experienced the tragedy of multiple  early miscarriages have testified to experiencing enormous stigma for wishing to mourn the loss of their little ones, because an abortive mentality tells us that this is not really a child or person.

To keep news of a pregnancy silent until one finds out whether or not the baby may have any abnormalities, heaps further pressure on the disabled who live in our society and upon the parents who may be faced with some very difficult news. The silence serving as a shroud with many parents not feeling able to discuss their news with anyone who might be able to give them a more positive vision than a gloomy clinical prognosis, which talks only in terms of pathologies.

A woman who is undecided needs even more compassion in a society which endorses abortion as an acceptable and even responsible option. If she is struggling with a terrible dilemma whilst in the throes of feeling absolutely dire, how does a conspiracy of silence help her to be able to talk through her options with someone other than the worker at the abortion clinic, who will in all probability consolidate her doubts and offer a swift concrete solution.

 In 2012, 91% of abortions were carried out in first trimester, compared to 57% in 2002. It’s no wonder the abortion industry want to keep early pregnancy hidden and behind closed doors. Pregnant women should not feel silenced.

Humanae Vitae gave us a roadmap to mankind’s failures

This week’s Catholic Universe column – 18 August 2013

Pope Paul VI
A man ahead of his time.

This summer has marked the 45th anniversary of one of the most important Church documents of the twentieth century, namely the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, that re-affirmed traditional Church doctrine regarding sexuality and marriage and controversially rejected all forms of contraception as being a moral evil.

It was a teaching that proved very hard to swallow by certain members of the Catholic faithful, published when the sexual revolution was in full swing, going against the the tide of both public opinion and views held by many theologians in academe – 600 of whom dissented, signing their names in a public statement, but many of whom later recanted.

Pope Paul VI’s words have nonetheless proved eerily prophetic, as he made four major predictions about what would happen to individuals, families and nations if the widespread use of artificial contraception was allowed.

The first being, “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” 

If anyone were in any doubt about this, according to the latest statistics from the ONS,  it is estimated that 42% of all marriages in England and Wales, are expected to end in divorce. 22% of marriages that took place in 1970 had ended by their fifteenth anniversary whereas  33% of marriages in 1995 had ended after the same period, i.e. by 2010. Marriage figures are an at all-time low, with many couples instead opting for cohabitation. The proportion of children born to unmarried mothers hit a record 47.5% in 2012, up from 11% in 1979 and it is predicted that by 2016, the majority of children will be born to unmarried parents. A study by the Marriage Foundation calculates that cohabiting couples who have children are twice as likely to split up as their married counterparts and that more than half of the children born today will have been through at least one family break-up by the time they are 16. The idea of being ‘unhappily married’ would appear to be a myth – 93% of couples whose relationship is still intact by the time their children are teenagers, are married. The increase  in family breakdown being disastrous for children’s prospects and society as a whole.

Pope Paul VI’s second prediction was as follows; “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” 

According to the charity Women’s Aid, 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, many of these on a number of occasions. One incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute. On average 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

The widespread acceptance of the use of pornography is further evidence as to how both men and women have been reduced to mere objects of sexual gratification, with young women forced to sexually objectify themselves to compete for male attention and increasing numbers of young men caught in the throes of a pornography addiction with devastating effects for their future wellbeing.

The third prediction was perhaps the most chilling, warning of what might happen should the power of preventing births, fall into the power of the state: “Careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. . . . Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” 

One only needs to think of the catastrophic effects of the draconian one-child policy in China which has led to forced abortions, sterilisations, increased rates of infanticide and accompanying child-trafficking. China is now facing a demographic timebomb. Lest we think that this is confined to areas outside of the Western World, it’s worth considering, the recent UK government proposals to cap child benefit for two children, a policy which if implemented ,will hit the poorest families.

The final prediction is obvious: ‘Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions   – limits, let it be said which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed . . . .” 

Our hubris has replace natural human reproduction with IVF, cloning, embryo experimentation, creation of hybrid organisms and most recently 3-parent embryos.

Humanae Vitae simply proclaims the messages of nature and the Gospel, that by going against the laws of nature and of God, we inflict almost irreparable damage upon ourselves and society at large. Speaking in 1988, one of the original dissenters, Dr William E. May, said this “I began to realise that the moral theology invented to justify contraception could be used to justify any kind of deed.”

The Church urges responsible parenthood, which means allowing families to prayerfully discern how many children they may be able to accommodate according to individual circumstances. Family Planning is not in itself a sin but Humanae Vitae urges us to find a way of achieving that which still respects our inherent human dignity as created children of God.

Internet trolling – lessons learned the hard way

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 11 August 2013

The subject of internet trolls is once again back in the news, following the vile and horrific abuse including threats of sexual violence, received by Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist campaigner who successfully lobbied the Bank of England for the re-inclusion of a female figure on the back of a banknote. Any high profile female MPs or journalists who supported Ms Criado-Perez or her campaign, such as the MP Stella Creasy or the historian Mary Beard, also found themselves at the receiving end of seemingly sexually motivated threats of violence and death.

In other, related news, Melissa Porter, a BBC TV presenter told of how internet trolls had maliciously misinterpreted a perfectly innocent advertisement she had appeared in with her son, leading to a social services investigation which could potentially have seen him removed from her care. She was wholly exonerated, what the social workers were unable to tell her was that they were almost certain that this was a vexatious report, but needed to check out given the gravity of the allegations.

The most tragic case was that of 14 year-old schoolgirl Hannah Smith who was found having hanged herself, by her 16 year-old sister, after months of taunts and abuse on the popular website There are now calls for the website to be shut down, Hannah’s death being the latest in a string of teenage suicides linked to online bullying from this source.

As a parent, these tragedies increase my desire never to let my children anywhere near social media until they are well over the age of 18 and have the emotional maturity to deal with online interaction. While perhaps the abuse that I have received in my capacity as a Catholic blogger and tweeter, hasn’t quite reached the stage of alleged bomb threats, I have encountered more than my fair share and even at my ripe old age, I still have difficulty coping with it and summoning up the correct response, so I cannot begin to imagine what this would be like for a vulnerable teen.

When pregnant with my third daughter, a particularly vicious pro-choice advocate expressed a wish that I might be struck down by God and hopefully at the hands of an abortionist with rusty scissors and in my fourth pregnancy, I was subject to a violent sexual threat at the hands of a gay ‘marriage’ campaigner, who justified his call for me to hunted down and sexually violated, on the grounds that it was clearly a ‘joke’. In addition, another woman claimed that I secretly wished my unborn baby to die in order that I might profit from the attention and gleefully told shocked onlookers that I ought to stop snivelling. Backed up by a motley group of pro-choice activists and gay rights sympathisers, along with some disaffected members of the faith, they proceeded to make my online life a total misery with a very nasty personalised and directed campaign, in which every single element of my life including my appearance, my children, my husband and my mental health was publicly derided and mocked.

I dealt with it no better than the average teenager, tearfully imploring the attackers to stop, appealing to their better nature and hoping that whatever their grievances, could they not see that I was pregnant and vulnerable. Our daughter was delivered early at a significantly lower birthweight than the others, due to pre-eclampsia, the stress of online abuse thought to be a contributory factor.

The extremely painful lesson I learnt was the old adage – do not feed the trolls, which is so much easier said than done and feels counter-intuitive. The other option was of course, to ditch social media, which can prove to be something of a time-sink, it certainly wasn’t proving a constructive or pleasant experience at times, but given my online activity tends to predominantly promote Catholicism and the pro-life cause, I was reluctant to let myself be silenced by the bullies.

Being the target of a prolonged campaign of cyber-bullying (which continues to this day) has given me a certain insight into the potentially destructive nature of the internet which also has tremendous capacity for good. Perhaps this is why it has its darker side – evil wants to distort and destroy all that is beautiful and true. We can see what a potent tool the internet can be in the cause of the New Evangelisation, it cannot be a surprise that human sin has the potential to undo the good work that can be done.

Social media makes ‘stalkers’ and ‘obsessives’ of us all, if we are not careful. Whereas in real life we know that people may be talking about us and remain blissfully ignorant of that fact, social media enables us to check up on what others may be saying. It takes an enormous amount of self-restraint not to look, when one knows one is being referred to and even more not to hit back. It is dreadful to see lies, abuse and calumny writ large against you, your heart starts beating faster, you can feel your blood pumping, your stomach feels as though you have been punched as the nausea and bile rises into your throat.

But to fight back, or even acknowledge the bullies, gives them a power that they do not deserve and validates their behaviour. Ultimately one has to accept that one is totally powerless, we have not yet got a grip on the internet, the police are often not inclined to help unless one is a high-profile celebrity victim and the bullies have developed very crafty mechanisms of hiding IP addresses and couching various threats in such a way that they skirt the line but don’t cross it.

We can fight for a politer more civilised discourse, we can encourage platforms like Twitter to clamp down on abuse and take swifter action against miscreants, but we have to accept that it is unlikely that we will be able to rid the internet of abusers. It is not the platforms  that are to blame, but the users themselves. We are all still getting used to the internet and thus codes of conduct and practice are still in their infancy but the best way of targeting abusers is to deny them of their power and platform.

The internet is an additional weapon in our enemies’ armory with which they can use to attack us. We cannot control the behaviour of others, but we all have the power to control our reactions. This is where true liberation from all calumny lies, whether it be online or in real-life. An invocatory psalm or two also helps. But better law enforcement in cases of serious and prolonged online harassment would certainly not go amiss either. And never forget Matthew 5: 11-16.

* Since the article was published, additional information has come to light about the case of Hannah Smith.

Francis is a pope for our times as he kick starts global Catholic revival

This week’s Catholic Universe Column – 4 August 2013

Pope greets bishops as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Rio's Cathedral of St. Sebastian

There has been much talk in the Catholic media this week of how Pope Francis’ visit to Rio for World Youth Day has de-toxified Catholicism; the witness of three million young people gathered together on Copacabana Beach will bust open the popular myth of an organisation that is out of touch with the young people, the world at large and consists of a bunch of evil hypocritical zealots who conspire to cover up child abuse.

It’s a testimony to the shallowness of today’s culture that Pope Francis is being heralded as a breath of fresh air, someone who will reinvigorate the Church, his papacy is being reported as a radical departure and yet he has said or done nothing that demonstrates any deviation from the Church doctrine that was so lucidly articulated by the Pope Emeritus. Francis is going down a storm, simply by virtue of the natural charisma that he possess in bucket-loads.

This is by no means a bad thing, although we Catholics are rather nonplussed at the rapturous reception our Holy Father is receiving in the press; the idea that the media might actually be willing to present Catholicism in a positive light is a novelty to say the least, however before we get too acclimatised to this new state of affairs, it’s worth remembering how human nature loves to build people up, before pulling the pedestal from beneath their feet. One of the joys of Pope Francis however, is that although he can see the wisdom of engaging with the press and does so in an impromptu and unscripted fashion, no doubt giving poor Fr Lombardi the Vatican’s press officer palpitations, he is also down to earth enough to not give two hoots for the fickleness of the world’s media. What we see with this Pope is what we get and Francis’ pronouncements are in great contrast to those of Pope Benedict, whose towering intellect meant that every public statement was carefully considered and full of theological nuance and depth.

That’s not to dismiss our former Pope whom, I hope history will remember with great affection, his was a gentle, thoughtful and cerebral papacy, it would take a lifetime to read and disseminate his great works of theology, the suggestions that he will one day be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church are well-founded, but Francis seems to have refreshed the parts that others failed to reach.

This week I found myself explaining the concept of indulgences on BBC radio in Northern Ireland and was incredulous to find myself defending the Church from accusations of cheapening itself by encouraging people to use social media in order to follow World Youth Day as part of the conditions of gaining a plenary indulgence. The presenter seemed to wish the Church to remain fusty and remote, as opposed to being actively involved in the activities of the world, which in this day and age, has to include the internet. “Tweet your way out of purgatory ?” spluttered the presenter indignantly. “If only” I thought, wistfully, my Twitter habit being one I wish I’d never acquired!

It is wholly appropriate that Pope Francis should encourage young people to use the internet to join their prayers with those of others around the world. This is, after all, what the Church actually is, not merely the Vatican City State, but actually the body of Christ, the family of believers from around the world. The granting of a plenary indulgence to those who joined in with World Youth Day on a spiritual level (subject to the usual conditions) was an ingenious and innovative notion. It was affirming the concept that the Church is one large global family of believers all praying for each other, the indulgence merely being the formal process in which the Church is showing that she is adding her powers to bind and loose, to invoke Christ and the Saints in order to speed her members passage to heaven.

The internet can be used to spiritually unite believers as never before and is used predominantly by the younger generations, it makes perfect sense to use it as a tool for the New Evangelisation. Speaking in his homily at the final Mass, Pope Francis reminded pilgrims of Christ’s commandment to make disciples of all nations. He urged the young, not to remain locked up in their lives or in small self-affirming communities, but instead to share their faith widely and passionately.

At a previous Mass he called upon the faithful to be bold, to be audacious. He has certainly proven that he possess those qualities in abundance, manifested right from the very beginning of his Papacy with his choice of name, a marked departure from previous tradition, but nonetheless entirely apt, a fusion of two great evangelisers, of the East and West, St Francis of Assisi and St Francis Xavier.

The visit has been overshadowed by the extraordinary extemporaneous press conference given on the flight back from Rio, in which Pope Francis reiterated Church teaching on homosexuality, reminding journalists that no-one should be marginalised on account of their sexuality and that the Church seeks an integrated society, one which fosters love for our brothers and sisters, rejecting the notions of ugly identity politics and factions competing for power.

While not a departure from doctrine, let alone the radical one being lauded by the press, it says a great deal that this has received such overwhelmingly positive coverage. If the church has been contaminated by the appalling clerical abuse scandal, the doctrine regarding sexual relationships is further grist to the mill. If Pope Francis has managed to find a way of reconnecting a cynical secular society to the intention of caritas that lies behind church teaching, then he has already in a few short months, rendered the soil fertile for future growth, opening minds to listen and hearts to receive.

In a world where the distinction between public and private is becoming increasingly blurred, thanks in part to the proliferation of social media, Pope Francis’ has managed to embrace the spirit of the age without succumbing to it. He is, in short, a permanent good news story. We had better get ready, the Catholic revival has begun!

A beautiful royal baby – now we need equality for every unborn child

Taken from the Catholic Universe – 28 July 2013

Prince George

The nation is this week celebrating the birth of a healthy baby son to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – congratulations to this lovely young couple who are undoubtedly going to make wonderful parents.

My heart went out to Kate Middleton, having suffered identical ailments in pregnancy, from severe morning to sickness, to enduring sweltering summer temperatures in the final weeks before delivery. Kate may have many advantages, but chances are she isn’t going to enjoy the opportunity that most of us get to slob around the house in our dressing gowns in the post-natal blissful haze known as the babymoon! Watching the media furore over the past few days was a compelling reason for her to consider having any future births at home.

What was however both telling and heartening was that not once, even in the very early stages of the Duchess’s pregnancy was her son referred to as anything other than what he is, namely a baby. The absence of the word ‘foetus’ which we hear so often in relation to pregnant women, especially in the time before the baby becomes viable, was noticeable. Not once did any reporter or journalist refer to the Royal Baby as ‘the products of conception’, ‘a bunch of cells’, a ‘future potential person’ but for the entire duration of the pregnancy, his humanity and future destiny was explicit. The pregnancy even prompted a rushed change to the succession laws to ensure that the baby would automatically succeed to the throne regardless of their gender.

How many other unborn children have the privilege of being deemed so important that they necessitate a change to the country’s legislation? That’s not in any way to begrudge the status of the newborn, but instead of fighting for an unattainable equality of birth, (far better to concentrate our minds on the equality of death) surely we should all be fighting for the equality for every unborn child to be deemed a baby and thus accorded the opportunity of life?

Whilst we were all quite rightly desperately excited for the royal couple, I wish that some of the excitement and magic of pregnancy could be transferred elsewhere, to the frightened pregnant teen, to the single mother living in a run-down tower block, to the homeless drug addict whose baby will most probably be born with an addiction. Whilst the world was watching and waiting in breathless anticipation, I wondered how many other mothers would be labouring, perhaps alone, without the huge amount of support and well-wishers or loving family unit that the Duchess is fortunate to possess and was reminded of the gross inequality regarding how their pregnancies are viewed by society. Whereas the world would have reacted with horror had the Duchess suddenly decided to abort, proving that the whole notion of choice is a misnomer, had the teen mum or drug addict had an abortion, it would have been seen as the morally correct course of action, that these children would have been better off not born, due to their status and potential health problems.

Every child is born of equal dignity and worth in the eyes of the creator and so in one sense every birth is that of a Royal baby! Kate and William’s baby was never just a cluster of cells, but always a human being in the eyes of everyone, even the most avowed pro-choice commentators, by virtue of the fact that he was wanted. Compare the worldwide interest and concern for this baby’s welfare with that shown for the tragic victims of Kermit Gosnell, the American late-term abortionist who killed newborn babies at full term by snipping their necks. The media was on the whole disinterested and only began to report the distressing details following a widespread campaign on social media.

It’s certainly worth not only noting the dual standards applied by the mainstream media towards the Cambridge baby but also applying it to all children, refusing to allow the frame of clinical euphemism that only serves to dehumanise the unborn. Abortion providers rely upon the power of language to couch the unpalatable truth in terms of medical terminology. We never congratulate pregnant women on their embryos, foetuses, pluripotent cells or products of conception and this is why pro-life counselling groups cause such consternation in that they too are always keen to refer to the baby in purely factual terms. Political language is deliberately used, as in the words of George Orwell it is ‘designed to make lies sound more truthful, murder respectable and give the appearance of solidity to pure wind’.

All babies are deserving of a welcome fit for a prince and every single pregnancy an occasion of great joy as well as an opportunity of service, whether that be from the expectant mother carefully sustaining and providing for her child’s needs, or from those around her who should seek to provide her with every means of support in gratitude for her physical sacrifice. We should be daring to work for a society in which the bunting is hung out for every single baby.

 In the meantime we should keep the Duke and Duchess and their new prince in our prayers and hope that they continue to model a strong vision of marriage and family life for the nation. It would be wonderful if they could be generous enough to break the mold and produce a large family of Catholic-sized proportions.

Even better that the baby was born on the feast day of St Mary Magdalene, the icon of a repentant sinner turning back to Christ. Perhaps there’s a portent for the UK in there somewhere? Let’s hope so.

Abortion statistics 2013 – the underlying narratives

My column from the Catholic Universe – 21 July 2013

The abortion statistics for women living in England and Wales were released this week, with the picture looking decidedly mixed. A total of 185, 122 lives were lost to abortion in 2012, a drop of 2.5% from 2011, with a marked drop in the number of abortions performed upon the under-18 age group, in line with the reduced teenage pregnancy figures in this age cohort.

There is little to celebrate however, though more lives were spared than in previous years, the number of overall annual abortions equates to 185,000 women who felt that they lacked the ability, resources or desire to have a child and instead chose to terminate their baby’s life. That so many women felt that they had no option other than abortion indicates that something is seriously wrong in our society where so little value is placed both on the life of the unborn and motherhood itself. Moreover the raw data shows little improvement, around 16.4 per thousand women had an abortion in 2012, the same number of women as in 1997. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that the number of abortions jumped and then rose steadily since the Labour government came to power in 1997, but has begun to decline since the Coalition took power in 2010. Austerity does not seem to be causing any spikes in the abortion rate which feels counter-intuitive; the UK fertility rate is now one of the highest in Europe, thanks to an increase in immigration and changes in the timing of childbearing, maternity units across the country are bursting at the seams.

Another upsetting narrative to emerge was the sharp increase in the number of pregnancies aborted due to fetal abnormality, which had risen by 17% last year. Our pro-life attitude only extends so far as being able to cheer on our paralympians in a fit of self-indulgent patriotic and patronising bonhomie. We’ll happily wave flags and give a pat on the head to those who manage to overcome the odds and perform almost superhuman feats of courage and endurance, but not actually get our hands dirty and be prepared to do the dirty work of looking after a child with physically demanding special needs. Perhaps I’m being unfair, I know of many such generous families and I also accept that for many the decision to abort a disabled child is a tortuous and heartbreaking process, but it’s a tragic irony that the year which did so much to raise the profile and potential and prospects of those with disabilities, also saw such a marked increase in disabled babies being denied the opportunity to live.

But what the abortion statistics do highlight, as does Ann Furedi, Head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), is that contraception is not the failsafe panacea promoted by the various industries and agencies with vested interests. By far the largest group of women who presented for an abortion last year, were those in the 20-24 age bracket, of whom it cannot be argued do not know the birds and the bees! Either they are engaging in irresponsible sexual behaviour, or their contraception is failing and perhaps both.

If Ann Furedi is admitting that ‘abortion is a fact of life…women from all ages and all walks of life experience unplanned pregnancy’ then this should cause us to question whether women really do have the much vaunted sexual freedom and whether or not abortion, the taking the life of a child, should be seen as an inevitable and acceptable consequence of a sexually permissive society? Does sexual libertinism come at too high a price? Lord Steele, one of the original architects and proponents of the 1967 Abortion Act dramatically intervened prior to the publication of these figures, saying that ‘it was never the purpose’ that women would use abortion as a form of contraception.’ For all Ann Furedi’s denial that abortion is used for this purpose, her insistence that there is ‘no right number of abortions’ belies her stance. The rise in repeat abortion would also undermine that claim – 37% of all abortions carried our last year were repeat procedures. More than 4,500 women had had at least four.

No wonder Ireland’s pro-life movement which has just seen a bill passed allowing for termination of pregnancy right up until birth for women deemed to be suicidal, are looking at the UK with such dismay and horror. The bitter irony is that this will reverse the abortion traffic back across the Irish Sea as a UK woman unable to procure a late stage abortion here need only to jump on a ferry or plane and claim she is suicidal in order to access the procedure over there.

Meanwhile our cousins over the pond in Texas have had considerable success in passing a bill which bans abortion from 20 weeks onwards as well as having the effect of closing many state clinics who are unwilling and/or unable to meet tight medical and sanitary regulations to ensure the protection of women.

Reading the heated debates on the matter, my attention was drawn to a polemic written by an ernest young man, enjoining his brothers to fight for the abortion rights of his sisters and setting out the reasons why. Amongst them were these:

“This bill will force men into unplanned fatherhood…Your sex life is at stake…Don’t be surprised if casual sex outside relationships becomes far more difficult to come by.”

A great own goal for the pro-choice movement demonstrating that abortion encourages men to shirk responsibility, leaving women with little other choice.


Teen mothers are pro-life heroines

Taken from this week’s Catholic Universe – 14 July 2013

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, is currently under pressure from MPs such as Diane Abbot and Caroline Lucas to introduce compulsory Sex and Relationship education into the curriculum reforms that are currently being formulated. One of the factors behind such calls is the claim that compulsory sex education would have an impact upon Britain’s level of teenage pregnancy which is amongst the highest in Western Europe.

There is no evidence to suggest that policy interventions, including compulsory sex education are having any effect whatsoever upon the rate of teenage pregnancy. In 1999, Tony Blair pumped £280 million into the creation of the Teenage Pregnancy Unit which aimed to reduce the number of teen pregnancies by an eventual 50%, five years later, instead of the hoped-for reduction, there was instead a rise of 0.6%, leading the then Chancellor, Ed Balls, to pledge an additional £20 million to the project.

Professor David Paton, chair of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University pointed out in August 2012 that researchers have been unable to find a correlation between Local Authorities judged to have best Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) policies and those with the biggest decreases in the teen pregnancy rate, which has remained static, give or take the odd blip, over the past forty years, which has only decreased by a small amount over the past few years. Whilst the decrease is welcome, it should be noted that there has been an explosion in the teen STD rate over the same period, indicating that while fewer teens may be falling pregnant, many more of them are contracting diseases which could lead to future infertility. This is due to the large uptake of long-acting-reversible contraceptives such as the hormonal implant which will protect against pregnancy but not against diseases. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that despite being armed with the knowledge on how to protect themselves against pregnancy, teenagers are still indulging in as much if not more risky sex, as ever before.

What is required is behaviour change, which conventional wisdom tries to advocate is neither achievable nor necessarily desirable, but countries which boast the lowest rates of teen pregnancies are those whose teenagers become sexually active at a much later age and have fewer partners.

Teenage pregnancy is for the most part undesirable because in the majority of cases it is unplanned, leads to abortion and presents significant barriers to human flourishing, in a society that is neither mentally, socially or economically equipped to deal with young unmarried mothers. Nonetheless we have to ask ourselves tough questions as Catholics as to whether or not we need to re-think some of our attitudes and stop demonising young pregnant teenagers as a measure of all that’s wrong with the world, if we want to re-build a culture of life.

What the teenage pregnancy statistics demonstrate is that young people are being duped into believing that there is such a concept of safe sex devoid of all consequences. According to statistics the contraceptive pill is the method of choice for teenage girls, which has a typical use failure rate of around 9%, a rate that is often higher in inexperienced or unreliable users who are not aware of the contraindications or the importance of taking it at precisely the same time every day. There is a staggering 18-21% failure rate per year when condoms are used as the main method to avoid pregnancy according to the  CDC – the American public health agency.

We therefore have to accept that a certain proportion of teenage girls will always fall pregnant in a society that promotes teenage sex as inevitable and morally neutral and whilst not encouraging teen pregnancy as being a status to which one should aspire, we should do whatever is in our power to nurture, support and protect those young girls who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, while at the same time, working to change behavioural assumptions and expectations.

Obsessing over teen pregnancy statistics or the stigma of teen pregnancy does nothing to stem the tide of young girls knocking on the doors of the abortion clinic. To decide to continue with an unplanned pregnancy without a partner or spouse, without a reliable stable income and before one has finished one’s education is not reckless or irresponsible, but a brave act of heroism, of putting another’s life before yours in a culture that advocates abortion as being the only moral and acceptable solution for young girls. Being pregnant can be a terrifying and scary experience even when it is planned and is even more so for the fifteen or sixteen year old as she watches her life and her body spiral out of control.

Campaigns that aim to shame or stereotype young mothers such as the revolting ‘No Teen Pregnancy’ fronted by assorted teen American celebrities should have no place in any Christian institution or organisation. A child born to a young teenage mother is nothing more than a visible proof of a past sexual sin – something of which many of us are guilty of, only perhaps we have not been caught. I have been privileged to get to know many teen mums in the course of my life, all of whom have been an inspiration, not only in terms of how they have parented their child, the strong bond of mutual love has been a joy to witness, but who also went on to later success in terms of career and family lives. We should be supporting, thanking and asking what we can do to help these young women fulfill their potential as mothers, instead of pursing lips and writing them off.

Lest we forget, the mother of the greatest King of us all, was herself according to tradition, a young teenaged unmarried woman.

Three parent embryos – an unholy Trinity

A little late in posting this – taken from the Catholic Universe dated Sunday July 7


The news that the UK looks set to become the first country to allow the creation of babies using DNA from three people, has caused many of us to instinctively shudder with horror and not simply because of the obvious contravention to Catholic ethics.

The concerns about this new technology go way beyond the creation of human life in a laboratory, which infringes a child’s right to be ‘the fruit of the specific act of conjugal love of his parents’ (CC2378). The mooted technique aims to eliminate mitochondrial disease, an inherited genetic conditions that occurs due to mutations found in the mother’s DNA. Whereas most DNA is located inside the nucleus of a woman’s egg, mitochondria is found in the surrounding material, hence the therapy aims to transplant the healthy nucleus from the egg of a woman with mitochondrial abnormalities into that of a second woman who is unaffected, or alternatively transplant the nucleus of an already fertilised embryo, into another. In both cases, the existing nucleus will have been removed, but in the case of transplanting cells from fertilised embryos, it will entail the destruction of two human lives, in order to create a third.

This wholesale discarding of human life is an issue that is frequently overlooked when discussing IVF treatment. According to statistics released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in December 2012, 3.5 million embryos have been created in the UK over the past 21 years of which only 6% have resulted in pregnancies. A staggering 1.7 million embryos have been thrown away – it is no wonder that Lord Alton, a crossbench peer, describes this as the creation and destruction of life as being in ‘industrial numbers’.

The commodification and destruction of life is not the only human issue at stake. A substantial number of human eggs will be required to be harvested for this therapy, a process that is often painful and risky, also occasioning potential future psychological effects. It is likely that it will be vulnerable and desperate women who are cash-strapped, perhaps students struggling under a mountain of debt as well as those already experiencing infertility who will be lured into egg donation in return for a free cycle of IVF treatment.

 And that’s before we get to the core of the issue as to whether or not it is ethically acceptable to be genetically engineering human life and altering the genetic code of future generations? What will be the long-term physical and psychological impact upon those conceived by three parents? Attempts at cloning using nucleus transfer have proven unsuccessful in humans and highly dangerous in animals with a high proportion of spontaneous abortions and offspring born with abnormalities and limited life spans. Any unpredicted genetic problems would then be passed on to future generations. A baby born with three sets of DNA is still a human being of equal dignity and worth and yet will be treated and regarded as an anomaly or human guinea pig requiring lifelong monitoring.

When focusing upon the potential benefits of this technique, the geneticists involved have been very swift to point out the devastating consequences for those affected with mitochondrial disease with a succession of women who have tragically suffered multiple miscarriages or lost babies in infancy, being paraded in the press, who would avail themselves of the procedure were it to be available. It would take a heart of stone not to feel for these women or those individuals who are living with the daily consequences of mitochondrial disease, but genetic engineering is of scant comfort to existing sufferers. It does nothing to cure these illness or alleviate their symptoms. Researching treatments and supporting families of sufferers would be a more appropriate use of funds. The possibility of three parents embryo won’t help new parents who have just received a devastating diagnosis.

Given that it is estimated that around ten couples a year would use the procedure, it raises questions as to whether or not there is some other agenda at work here, as scientific pioneers are dependent upon being able to promote their work to those funding them, the public and decision makers, in order to obtain the regulatory changes and grants to continue and extend their work. The heart-rending cases that we are presented with as a justification are thankfully rare, but even if they were not, we should not allow disability to act as a barrier to being born, especially when it comes with such a high human price tag.

 In common with other life issues, we are being sold a treacherous slippery slope, one that opens up the possibility of genetically modifying pre-born human beings on the grounds that this will affect a tiny proportion of people and as being necessary on the grounds of compassion. How long before other genetic traits are able to be identified and modified before birth? We are not yet in Brave New World territory, but legislation to approve 3 parent embryos takes us another step towards it.

Ian Brady and the concept of forgiveness

Taken from this week’s column in the Catholic Universe dated 30 June

Ian Brady image

This week has seen the conclusion of a mental health tribunal during which Ian Brady, the notorious Moors murderer, has argued that he is no longer suffering from a mental illness and should therefore be transferred from Ashworth, a high security hospital, to a mainstream prison to serve the remainder of his life sentence.

The passage of time has done nothing to dim the overwhelming sense of repulsion and hatred felt by the general public towards Brady. There is no clamour or appetite for his release, despite his advancing age, or the fact that he has spent the last 46 years in custody, factors that could well have softened attitudes in different circumstances.

The case of Ian Brady continues to challenge and disturb in equal measure, calling into question issues of justice and compassion for both perpetrator and victims alike. For those who might bemoan the lack of capital punishment in the UK, it is very clear listening to Brady’s testimony, that substituting the hangman’s noose for life without parole, is no easy option. In a series of correspondence between himself and the journalist Eric Allison in 2006, Brady described how he hadn’t exercised in the open air since 1975; ‘walking from a matchbox into a shoebox of sunshine only reminded me of where I was and could be’, noting that this lack of sunshine coupled with a heavy smoking habit had done nothing to affect his health, ‘my luck has run out, I can’t even catch cancer…When you know from day one that you’ll die in prison you discard all past indulgences and draw from memory, having no present or future’.

It’s difficult not to feel just a modicum of pity, which of course is the desired affect. Brady is a certified narcissist with a severe personality disorder, entirely self-centred and manipulative. It is only when one remembers the precise nature of his horrific crimes, the deliberate pain and cruelty he inflicted not only upon the murdered children, but also their parents and all empathy vanishes, especially when Brady continues to refuse to show a speck of remorse for his actions, claiming at his tribunal that he was ‘little more than a petty criminal’.  Brady presents a dichotomy between insanity and evil, popular comment wishing to present him as either someone wildly out of control, or a man in full possession of all of his mental faculties, cold, cunning, wholly rational with no capacity for emotion or empathy.

The truth, as always, would appear to be somewhere in-between. Brady’s apparent lack of love for anyone but himself, would indicate that regardless of whether his original diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia is still correct, he is still in the grip of a mental disorder. Attitudes to mental health are beginning to develop so that most of us are aware of, and in all probability know someone, who whilst mentally ill is still able to function at a high level in society. Brady is evidently very unwell, despite his cognitive abilities, but this still does not preclude the uncomfortable possibility that he is also, undoubtedly evil. What other word could one use to describe a man who talks about the sadistic torture he inflicted upon children, as being ‘an experiment’ and who mentally tortured the mother of one of his victims, denying her the chance to give her son a Christian burial in a game of cat and mouse, right up until the day of her death?

But Ian Brady’s state of mind or capacity for evil, should not be taken into account when deciding upon appropriate punishment, treatment and whether or not he should be accorded the right to die.  A Christian response recognises that redemption and salvation is always available even for the most heinous of offenders, no matter unpalatable that may seem. This is where we see the necessity of a commandment to love, not just certain sinners but to all of them, Ian Brady included. Where there is life there is always hope.

Most pertinently, as a civilised society, we have to overcome our instincts to allow Brady to suffer in the name of revenge, or to allow him to quietly die in a manner of his choosing, so we no longer have to worry about him, remembering that justice must always allow for rehabilitation. Regardless of Brady’s crimes or state of mind, none of us have a right to precisely determine the manner and time of our death. The state must never aid or abet suicide, no matter how compelling the reasons. To grant Ian Brady the right to die denies the sanctity of life, validates his feelings of hopelessness and cedes him a sense of control that he has neither earned, nor is granted to those of us not in prison. Noone stands by and watches someone commit suicide without an attempt to intervene.

By making suicide an acceptable option for those faced with life imprisonment following dreadful crimes, we reintroduce the death penalty by stealth and rule out any possibility of spiritual reconciliation. We put vulnerable prisoners at risk and even under obligation and pressure from ruthless cellmates or society. One could argue this is a much crueller fate than the quick flick of the trapdoor switch.