Experience has taught me to avoid certain subjects whenever possible because passionate advocates on both sides of the argument sincerely believe it’s very simple: that we all face a binary choice between good and evil.
Israel/Palestine is one such topic, abortion is another. The internet hums with righteous certainties where most of us see shades of grey.
But abortion won’t go away in 2012, when it has been England’s turn to get excited in the wake of the Daily Telegraph’s 22 February revelations that some doctors (duly filmed) are nodding through abortions on the grounds of “family balance” as the abortion of girls is euphemistically known.
I’m not sure that pro-lifers should regard that as morally worse than regular abortion or those done via pre-signed consent forms, the claim that triggered Andrew Lansley’s request (“instruction”, cry pro-choice campaigners) to the Care Quality Commission to stage those 300 urgent, unannounced inspections in late March.
But race and gender are hyper-sensitive, so it prompted the Easter row. Hardly surprising? We live in morally muddled times so that this health secretary is fiercely interventionist against smoking (and corner-cutting abortions), more ambiguous on booze and positively permissive on unhealthy food. New Labour was just as muddled.
What Lansley emphatically denies in the abortion row is wooing Tory activists, what Labour’s Andy Burnham called “chasing headlines” after the bruising NHS reform row.
Burnham asked for civil service advice to be published on the CQC decision this week because he suspected there wasn’t any, thus “proving” it was political.
“The idea that he’d stir up this sensitive subject just to provoke a backlash is ridiculous,” counters the Lansley camp. “But where there is perceived illegality he has a duty to uphold the law.”
After the initial Telegraph disclosures Lansley asked the CQC for a view and it revealed its own concerns about pre-signing. So Lansley requested (not ordered!) that they do a quickie set of inspections, about which the CQC chair, Dame Jo Williams, later protested that it had cost £1m and consumed the equivalent of 1,100 inspection days.
Partisans on both sides won’t change their minds; it’s that sort of issue. Lansley is routinely berated for being soft on abortion, but also of leading a campaign against it by the likes of Diane Abbott, Labour’s public health spokeswoman. She resigned from the abortion advice review because she suspects he wants anti-abortion types to be allowed to counsel women in an “unobjective” way. The ironies abound.
Lansley’s voting record includes one for a 22-week limit to abortion (24 weeks was retained) in 2008 but also some on the “progressive” side of the embryo research debate. As a student politician at Exeter he was “broad left”. So what I think we’ve seen here is a glimpse of the culture wars which disfigure US politics. Lansley pre-briefed the BBC as well as the Torygraph on the CQC findings. The Telegraph probably liked the findings while progressive BBC types didn’t.
So the Beeb made an FOI request for the Williams protest letter and got it in a suspiciously fast 24 hours. That suggests both the CQC and DH may be as divided on abortion rights as everyone else - tempted to play politics. Or that it’s the usual cock-up.
The real victim may be the already battered CQC, criticised as ineffectual by the Commons public accounts committee, its arm’s-length quasi-independence undermined by Lansley’s intervention just when it is poised to advertise for a new chief executive. Cynthia Bower is getting out just in time.