TV UK, 22 April
Blood, guts and abortion.
After all the fuss made in advance of the programme, My Foetus (Channel 4 on Tuesday) turned out to be incredibly slight. The half hour seemed mostly to be made up of artistic shots of the filmmaker’s bump, the filmmaker and her bump going for walks or the filmmaker and her bump in a swimming pool, with a few interviews thrown in for good measure.
The main attraction of course, was the footage of an actual abortion in progress and the pictures of aborted fetuses. The premise was that this would force us all to confront the reality of abortion. ‘Now the debate can begin’, the filmmaker claimed rather self-importantly at the end of the programme. She was, of course, Julia Black, whose father Tim Black is chief executive of the abortion charity Marie Stopes, and who consequently grew up with pro-choice assumptions. Black said that her own pregnancy had made her think again about abortion, and, while seeming to maintain a pro-choice position, she clearly hopes to inspire similar soul-searching among other supporters of the right to abortion.
In part, this is just about the ‘yuk factor’, the gory nature of abortion, and late-term abortion in particular. Anti-abortionists argue that if people are unable to face the reality of abortion by looking at pictures, then it cannot be morally acceptable. But it doesn’t follow that because something is repulsive to watch, it is necessarily morally repugnant. (Most people are unconvinced when vegetarians make the same argument.) The recent BBC series Our Lives in Their Hands reminded us that many life-saving operations are pretty gruesome to watch; indeed when the first series of the programme was broadcast in the 1970s, some surgeons complained that it was putting patients off. That had nothing to do with the morality of a kidney operation.
The more profound point is that the pictures are supposed to show how like babies fetuses are. As has been argued elsewhere, this is unlikely to come as a major surprise, least of all to women who are planning abortions precisely because they don’t want to have babies. But the idea persists in the discussion around this programme and beyond that the image of a fetus sucking its thumb trumps any argument in favour of abortion.
That a documentary-maker can claim to be contributing to the debate simply by showing pictures not only illustrates the image fetishism that pervades television for obvious reasons, but it is testament to the fact that the argument about abortion has degenerated from a political struggle over the control of women’s bodies to the latterday equivalent of the debate over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The real argument about abortion is not about ‘when life begins’ but about what life means. No mere picture can answer that, and it will take more than a hand-wringing personal TV essay to generate a sensible debate about it.
A similarly impoverished philosophical premise underlay Superhuman, last weekend’s naff TV event (also Channel 4). Like the old ITV show The Krypton Factor, Superhuman put contestants through a series of mental and physical tests, but in keeping with the times it also included more psychological categories including ‘emotional intelligence’. What nobody noticed was that all 10 contestants failed the ‘are you a complete loser?’ test simply by applying to be on the show. (If fact, maybe Julia Black’s approach is correct: you can tell they’re losers just by looking at the pictures on the Superhuman website.) (1)
What really grates about programmes like this is the pseudo-scientific posturing, and determination to reduce the complexities of human life to a stupid gameshow. There is a world out there full of real human beings who matter. Let’s have it.
(1) See the contestants on the Superhuman website
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