Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why a strong, liberal voice is necessary, episode 1

I can't imagine many more traumatic experiences than the loss of a child at any age.

I don't think, though, that  people often understand how awful it is to lose a baby to miscarriage or stillbirth or in the first few days after birth.  It's such a hard and cruel thing to go through, physical and emotional agony combining to permeate every single part of your consciousness. For a very long time. And people expect you just to get over it. That just ain't going to happen. It may at some stage not hurt so much, but getting over the death of a child is not something we're programmed to do.

Imagine, then, in the depths of that grief, you're arrested and interrogated by the Police. And then maybe charged with murder. You face the rest of your life in prison.

Of course that wouldn't happen. Where could the law be used in that way?

Yes it could, in the Land of the Free itself.

Don't believe me? Well it's all in Friday's Guardian, which reported that as many as 300 women have been  arrested and accused of murdering their unborn babies. A tweet from Chris Took on Friday night in response to my tweet about that story led me to this account of how a woman who accidentally fell down the stairs and subsequently lost her baby was taken away and interrogated.  Apparently, because she'd considered terminating her pregnancy at the beginning, and decided against it, the nurse to whom she'd confided this took it upon herself to report her to the police. Strange idea of patient confidentiality there.

The persecution of women in these circumstances, some of whom will be women who through poverty or abuse may ended up with drug problems, is apparently a new and sinister  front in the increasingly bitter debate over abortion in the US.

The events described in the reports show what can happen if dogmatic belief and intolerance is allowed to reign unchecked.  You need a strong liberal presence to stand up to this sort of persecution of vulnerable, powerless women. If you start prosecuting women when they lose their babies, where will it stop? If they eat a bit of brie and get listeria? If they climb a ladder to do some decorating for the nursery and fall? If they choose to give birth at home? That would be the logical conclusion.

You might think that if people are worried about babies being born addicted to drugs, they might do something about the circumstances which lead to poverty and addiction instead of persecuting women when it's too late.

While I was thinking about this, I read the amazing Elephant's post about how sloth, intertia, is a real danger. Does it really take a real threat to our liberty to make us appreciate it?  Why can't we see the consequences of illiberal measures? When the Daily Fail complains about there being too many human rights around, nobody really has much of an idea about what the alternative would be like.  I am speechless with anger about the treatment of these women in the US. And, of course, these laws have not been used against many men who've violently abused their pregnant partners, causing them to lose their babies.

I think it's important to be aware of what's happening in other countries, where, as I've said, there isn't a strong liberal voice speaking up for justice and defending rights which have been fought over for decades.  Liberal in certain areas of the US is often used as a term of abuse.

Speaking up for the underdog,for those who can't defend themselves, against a state that tries to wield inappropriate power, calling out for fairness and justice are what we as liberals are for. In a Scottish context, when the First Minister talked about the recent Supreme Court judgements showing up where we fail to meet the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights as allowing the vilest people in society to claim money from the public purse, it made me shudder with horror.  If that's the SNP Government's attitude towards prisoners, you have to wonder if that's why Kenny MacAskill didn't prioritise the improvement of conditions at our only women's prison Cornton Vale after the first damning report, leading to a second inspection report which laid bare the lack of even basic facilities or access to medical treatment.

And then there's the anti sectarian bill - there are still serious issues of freedom of speech to be resolved with that.

In England we've seen the arguments over the cross examination of the Dowler family by their daughter's murderer's lawyer which most people will feel uneasy about. The more illiberal elements of the press are saying that there should be limits on the sorts of questions that can be asked. As David Allen Green points out in the New Statesman, there are limits on what Barristers can ask and they can face sanctions and complaint if they go too far and also the trial judge has a say. I tend to agree more with the comments of Lord MacDonald and Shami Chakrabarti on Andrew Marr this morning. They said it's important to ensure that people have the right to defend themselves, and that our justice system has to be seen to be open. Most of the time when I read the reports of a criminal trial and the subsequent verdict, it gives me confidence that the verdict reached was the correct one on the basis of the evidence. There are a tiny minority of cases when I haven't had that feeling - and, funnily enough, they are often the ones where it transpires there's an issue with the conviction. Justice carried out in secret is quite a worrying thing.

We have to evaluate our system to ensure that it is treating everyone within it fairly, and striking the right balance is not easy. A strong liberal voice in that process is essential. Without it, you might end up in a position where you find yourself looking at a long stretch in prison for a crime you didn't commit and without the ability to defend yourself fully - and once you're in prison, nobody to care about what happens to you.

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