I will not manage to talk about divorce with O'Connor, I tell the nice girl from the BBC finally, cannot be sure I'll be able to sit up long enough to do a microphone interview even. You see, I tell her, I have breast cancer, and while we are debating how much time post-divorce children should spend with each parent, there is something else going on in our society that is getting attention certainly, but not enough.
For all the purple paint in all the country chucked at all the major state institutions across our land could not highlight enough the effects of this transformation in our time. Mothers are being targeted by an illness, for the first time in our history, and families are losing their linchpins. We've had war, we've had plagues, but never before have we had an illness that has killed off the mothers. […] When I was growing up, the mothers weren't dying.
Reading that last sentence, I can only wonder where Rabinovtich grew up. Fairy-tale stepmothers are not the result of divorce, Henry VIII would not have had six wives had Jane Seymour lived, and neither Anne Eliot nor Emma Woodhouse’s having a mother alive was not a deeply unrealistic co-incidence and cheap artistic trick. When Lord Peter Wimsey worries about the risk of healthy, sturdy Harriet having babies, he is not, for once, being wholly paranoid (and we do not know why Harriet’s own mother died young). I know two women who nearly died as a result of childbirth in the early 1990s – my cousin of an infection, and a family friend of massive haemorrhage. Another twenty years previously and their chances of survival would have been even slimmer. Only two of my own friends have yet had babies - four children between them, but only two who are now living. Again, twenty years ago there might well have been only one child between them. My father’s sister-in-law is a mental and physical wreck forty years after the death at three days old of my cousin, of then untreatable complications of cystic fibrosis. Seventy years ago the child would still be dead, but my aunt might have been better off without the discovery of valium. Alternatively, she might be in an asylum.
This guarantee that one should live without a twinge to fifty-five after safely giving birth to healthy babies and watching them grow up is not a truth from time immemorial that is now being snatched from us – it is something new*. When my second cousin died of stomach cancer a couple of years ago at 26, the death of a young man was not a massive historical anomaly in addition to being a personal tragedy for his parents. Yes, cancer rates have risen and modern lifestyles and the environment are an element in that, but we are also dying of cancer and of dementia because something else isn’t getting us first, and one of the things that is not getting us is maternal death. I bet there aren’t many mothers dying in their 40s of breast cancer in Western Africa. By modern standards Dina Rabinovitch has been bitterly unlucky and I do not expect that when she contemplates her own situation she should think “Well, thank goodness I don’t live in 1807”. I do, however, think that any journalist has a duty to review the facts when making broad statements as part of a public discourse**. The so-called “obesity crisis”, after all, is better than children dying of malnutrition before they are five.
Finally, I have written a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is disingenuous. When he says that individual decisions on abortion should be made as a “major moral choice that should involve a sharing of perspective and judgment”, does one really believe that he imagines a scenario in which a woman is sat down by a sympathetic but firm nurse who says, “I understand that you want to have this baby, but frankly, if we share our perspective and judgement one can see that to do so would be dreadfully foolish and even wicked. Abortion is clearly the sensible option in your case”?
*I am reminded of letter-writers to the Times who make a comment about a Latin phrase and add "as once every schoolboy and schoolgirl knew". Not the schoolchildren in my family, chum.
**I won’t even start on the nature of her views about child custody and the different bonds children have with their mothers and fathers, although recalling past columns, she is dead right about Marks and Spencers machine-washable silk pyjamas,