My Foetus – A Critique of Channel 4’s Documentary

Tuesday night TV can be pretty humdrum – some soaps, a few films, those inevitable makeovers, and a quiz or two. But Tuesday 20 April 2004 was different.  On that night, Channel 4 broadcast My Foetus, the much-vaunted documentary showing, for the first time ever on British TV, an abortion.  This was apparently going to be reality TV, con brio.  Or was it?

Hypocrisy, Tricks and Deception?
The programme was certainly different.  It was heralded by almost unprecedented publicity of the ‘taboo-breaking’ variety. It was preceded by warnings that the images might be ‘upsetting’.  It contained no adverts (well, the showing on S4C in Wales the next day did).  It was only 24 minutes long.  And it was watched by 1.5 million people, which evidently is an unusually high figure for such late-night TV.

Even before its broadcast, the programme had highlighted some notable irony, if not hypocrisy, on the part of Channel 4.  This was the very TV station that had, for the past seven years, resolutely refused to screen similar images of aborted babies as part of the ProLife Alliance’s party political broadcasts, on the grounds that they were ‘offensive to public feeling’.  What had changed?  Had Channel 4 discovered objectivity?  Or could it be that this programme was produced by a pro-abortionist, and therefore OK?

The very title was the first giveaway.  Was the My Foetus referring to Esme, the daughter of the film-maker, who was seen carrying her throughout the programme, proudly exposing her extended tummy, tenderly stroking her bump, and swimming like an enlarged mother dolphin?  If so, it was a trick because a mother always calls her unborn child, Baby, or some such endearing name, never Foetus – unless, of course, she wants an abortion.  Was this step one in dehumanising the issue?

The title was also a trick because the climax of the programme, the abortion itself, was performed on a women who was just four weeks pregnant.  This is unusually early for an abortion – many women are not even sure they are pregnant at that stage.  And if this was the rationale behind the title, then technically, at least, the programme should have been called My Embryo, because only after week 8 is the unborn known as a foetus.

Julia Black and Marie Stopes International
The film was written, narrated, produced and directed by Julia Black.  ‘I’m going to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds abortion and face the facts.  Will I still be able to be pro-choice if I confront the reality of abortion?’, she wondered at the top of the programme.  For those who cannot wait for the answer to that crucial question, it was a disappointing, but not unexpected, ‘Yes’.

Her pro-choice credentials, which she has said she would still ‘defend aggressively’, are impressive.  A staunch, lifelong supporter of abortion; daughter of Tim Black, the founder and current chief executive of Marie Stopes International, one of the world’s largest abortion agencies; and an abortion client herself at the age of 21.  From all this, we glimpsed something of Julia Black’s home environment – abortion is the family business, or as she put it, ‘I’ve grown up in the heart of the reproductive rights movement.’  Yet she admits that she barely questioned it.  Now, at 34, and heavily pregnant with her second child, she wanted to question her pro-choice stance – or, one wondered, was this going to be some kind of filmic therapy for post-abortion syndrome?

Would it be the promised balanced programme?  Would it present the pro-life case fairly?  Would Julia Black be open-minded about the issue?  We had our doubts from the outset.  Back in 1990, when Black was shown the scan of her first child, the nurse told her it was ‘a healthy 8-week old foetus’ – words that she has never forgotten.  ‘I was outraged at that time’, she recalled.  ‘I didn’t want to know.  So I blocked it out of my mind.’  Now does that sound like the reasoned response of a rational pregnant woman, or like a pro-abortionist, who is in denial and refuses to face the facts?  Not a good start.

Certainly the pro-abortion card was played right from the beginning.  The opening sequences included a Marie Stopes clinic, and film and still images of Dr Tim Black CBE.  Indeed, some have judged the programme to be like an extended advert for Marie Stopes International.

To be sure, the actual abortion was performed and filmed at one of its London clinics.  Marie Stopes clinics perform about 38,000 abortions each year in the UK.  Some years ago they became infamous as the pioneers of the ‘quickie’ lunchtime abortion.  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal of the time was appalled and stated, ‘This absurdly crude attitude toward a life and death decision is being pushed hard by Marie Stopes’ chief executive, Dr Tim Black, who considers the 10-minute, up to 12 week-old-fetus procedure as "a quantum leap in service delivery" and "the most important and positive development in abortion provision since the passage of the Abortion Act."’

But there is worse.  Marie Stopes abortion clinics seem to deserve the name of human abattoir.  In May 2000, Associated Newspapers carried an interview with a receptionist who had to sit with the girls while abortions were performed at a Marie Stopes clinic in London.  She said, ‘Frankly, I found it barbaric and cruel.  The girls would scream, and we would sometimes have to hold their hands and tell them to be brave.  The pain was so great that their nails would be digging into your arm.  When they come off the table, they are physically shaking and white.’  This, sadly, is the reality of abortion, not the sanitized spin that we were to be presented with in My Foetus.

This Marie Stopes connection was again picked up when Julia Black questioned whether or not to show an actual abortion in her film.  She discusses it with her father.  ‘It is emotive.  It is grisly’, says Dr Black.  He continues, ‘There is a tendency to hide the realities.  Perhaps we should show how simple, how actually safe it is.  Three to four minutes in the first three months.  That’s all it takes.  Very simple, very basic and easy to do.’  Hmmm!

The Pro-life Case Undermined
Julia Black displayed her naďveté about the pro-life movement – she has admitted that it was based on, ‘… knowing doctors in America who have 24-hour security and bodyguards to protect them from the anti-abortion terrorisms …’  So Black dutifully went all the way to the US to interview a pro-life campaigner.  This old boy drives around in a truck with huge billboards displaying 10 and 11-week aborted foetuses on its sides.  He spoke with passion and clarity, but was he a typical pro-lifer, or was he one of the crankies from the militant ‘shock tactics’ wing of the pro-life movement, a caricature to support Black’s underlying pro-choice case?  Even so, Black was moved to admit, ‘It’s difficult to look at these images and not feel challenged.’

But could she not find a suitable pro-lifer in the UK?  To be sure there was an interview with Fiona Pinto, the Welsh pro-lifer, who was arrested in 2003 for publicly displaying a giant poster of the aftermath of abortion, which was deemed likely to cause ‘offence, alarm and distress’.  But what about members of LIFE, and the other organisations, who provide positive and caring alternatives for thousands of UK pregnant women?  Such women, who, day after day, care for other women, and for their unborn and born children, would have thrown a neat spanner into Black’s works.  Such women are anything but cranky.  But then they would have complicated Black’s simplistic and polarised arguments too much.

The Views of Two UK Doctors
Back in the UK, Black interviewed Dr John Parsons of King’s College Hospital, London.  He was portrayed as anything but cranky.  He was simply doing his job – after all, he was a doctor who was helping women at both ends of the reproductive spectrum – he did IVF and terminations.  But can there be anything more cranky, a greater medical oxymoron, than a doctor who kills his patients?  And moreover, one who is happy to appear on late-night TV to tell us all about his hideous trade.  Nevertheless, he acknowledged, ‘I think that people tend to disregard the rights of the child …’  My heart rose.  Then speaking of the late abortions he performed at 20 to 24 weeks, he maintained that, ‘It’s not the woman I do it for, it’s definitely for the baby …’  My heart sank, quickly.  What did he mean by such an idiotic remark?  To make matters worse he went on, ‘Doing the procedure is a bit unpleasant … it really is not very nice.’  And finally, ‘It’s for the best of both the mother and the baby.’  Dr Parsons is one mixed-up man.

Julia Black wanted to see what her 34-week-old unborn child looked like, so she visited Professor Stuart Campbell, a leading authority on 3-D and 4-D ultrasound scanning, at his private Create Health Clinic at a posh London W1 address.  She was forced to confess, ‘But if anything could persuade me that destroying a foetus is perhaps wrong, it is this technology.’  Together they look at 4-D scans of moving 12, 18 and 23-week olds.  As they watched the latter, Professor Campbell smiles, and with undisguised awe in his voice, says, ‘Look at this baby … you know … look at its fingers!’  Though Campbell remains pro-choice, such scanning technology has begun to change his views, and he now considers that the upper abortion limit should be reduced to an arbitrary 12 weeks – though why not 11 or 13, he was not asked, and we were not told.

The Actual Abortion
Was it necessary to show an actual abortion?  Or was this yet another opportunity for Channel 4 to engage in pre-screening hype?  Perhaps.  But there was something far more subtle, even sinister, going on here.

The truth is that the first televised abortion in the UK was performed on a 4-week-old embryo.  And frankly there was little to show.  So that was it?  That is all abortion involves – less than three minutes of vacuum suction and a little blood?  What’s all the fuss about?  Precisely!  That is sinister.  Until this TV programme was shown, the pro-lifer’s question, ‘If abortion is too horrifying to be looked at, should we be doing it?’ was pertinent.  Now, that is no longer true.  Now we have seen it – and because there was so little to see – we must surely all agree, 'We can, we must, continue aborting.'

This issue is of paramount importance.  The choice to show a 4-week abortion was a cynical trick.  Of the 185,000 abortions in the UK each year, 54% are performed at a gestational age between 0 and 9 weeks, while a further 28% occur in the 10 to 12-week range.  While there has been a trend towards earlier abortion, the official figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have recently obscured this effect.  ONS data used to be presented as ‘under 9 weeks’ and ‘9-12 weeks’, now, under a new regime, they are presented as ‘0-9’ and ‘10-12’.  This is not mere statistical pedantry.  Such figures are extremely susceptible to massaging.  If you want to show that more abortions are occurring early (and by inference, that such abortions are less gruesome and less morally challenging), then what can you do?  You can simply increase the lower boundary limits.  And this is exactly what the official statisticians have done.  Increasing the lower boundary from ‘under 9 weeks’ (in effect, 0-8 weeks) to ‘0-9’ weeks makes a huge difference to the so-called ‘early abortion’ figures, because a significant number of abortions are performed during week 9 – indeed, it is probably the most popular time for UK terminations.

There are no official figures recorded for 4-week abortions, despite the fact that the heart has been beating for a week or so.  But what is certain is that abortions at this early stage of gestation are not common.  When a 21-week abortion was discussed, Julia Black carefully pointed out, rightly, that such late abortions are relatively rare, yet, somehow, she forgot to point out that the 4-week abortion in her documentary was equally rare.  My Foetus could claim to ‘face the facts’ if it had shown an abortion at say, 9 weeks.   Moreover, and somewhat alarmingly, the abortion procedure used in My Foetus appeared to be contrary to the guidelines issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).  They clearly state that, 'Conventional suction termination should be avoided at gestations of <7 weeks.'  Will the RCOG have a stern word with Marie Stopes International?  What do you think?

By marketing the film as the first abortion on TV and then depicting abortion as a four-week operation, the programme was seriously misrepresenting the reality of UK abortion.  My Foetus was making abortion look simple and minor, and even good.  Or was that its deliberate intention?

Here is how that horrid scene was presented.  Dr Kate Worsley, an Australian abortionist, does the deed on an anonymous woman, under local anaesthetic.  It is all pump and suck.  ‘Count to ten’, says the doctor – the poor woman just groans.  Then, in less than three minutes, it is finished.  ‘All done.  How was that?  Not too bad?’, enquires the doctor hopefully, but there is no answer from the horizontal woman.  A more apposite question for the woman would be, ‘How do you feel now, a few months after the abortion?’  Probably sad and guilty, if she is like most other aborted women.

The abortionist continues to play down was has happened.  And because there were no recognisable human features, the inference is that ‘it’ cannot be human.  Of course a 4-week-old embryo does not look like a full-term baby, it looks like an embryonic human being, because that is exactly what it is – and you, and I, and Julia Black, once looked like that too.

So then Julia Black and the abortionist decide to peer into a glass dish containing the remnants of a seven-week abortion.  But still they can find little that is recognisable – no legs, or arms.  ‘No limb buds.  Nothing that resembles a foetus or an embryo’, says the doctor.  Well, what a relief!  The general public can, after all, be reassured that abortion removes only undifferentiated tissue.  What a lie!  Those who know the truth know that the vast majority of abortions are far more ugly, far more distressing.  The use of such atypical images in My Foetus can only be regarded as a deliberate attempt to reinforce the commonly-held notion that abortion gets rid of just ‘a little something and nothing’.

But that is a plain untruth.  Even at 4 weeks, the heart and the brain are well defined.  And at 7 weeks, the heart, the vertebral column, the eyes and the brain can be clearly seen and the individual fingers are just discernible.  For those who doubt these facts, check out the amazing pictures in the new edition of A Child is Born by Lennart Nilsson and Lars Hamberger (2003), Doubleday, London, [ISBN 0385-606-710].

Unfazed by such facts, Dr Worsley stated her position plainly.  ‘The thing not to forget is respect and compassion for this [pointing to the floating remains of the 7-week-old] and for the woman.  This is about the best you can do in that situation’, she unnervingly told us.  Talk about understatement and moral resignation!

Even so, it is doubtful if many viewers saw the abortion in quite the same dismissive terms as the doctor.  This was undoubtedly TV of a different kind.  Here, before our very eyes, into the comfort of our living rooms, came an anonymous woman, a doctor, a reporter and a TV crew, all committed to showing us how to terminate the life of an unborn child.  Now that was chilling.

An Overall Assessment of My Foetus
Many of us had hoped that My Foetus would inform and rekindle the abortion debate.  We wanted to hear the supporters of abortion defend their position.  Yet even they were not happy with this documentary.  Some claimed that Black had made a programme that confused women’s need for abortion (the public and political issue) with women’s experience of abortion (the personal and private issue).  Well, they would wouldn’t they?  And how they dislike ultrasound imagery.  They abhor the idea, as part of genuine informed consent, that a woman seeking an abortion should see ultrasound images of foetal development, perhaps even of her own.  They know that the US experience of scanning prior to abortion is that the majority of women change their minds once they ‘see’ what they are carrying.

What is more, there are signs here, and especially in the US, that the abortion debate is turning.  The feminist’s rhetoric of ‘a woman’s right to choose’ has largely had its day and, at last, some US feminists are beginning to admit that abortion does actually kill a real child.  Yet, absurdly, there is still a greater public outcry about the annual clubbing to death of baby seals.  What might kick-start the abortion debate here is a proper portrayal of abortion – something that Julia Black failed to show.

Ultimately her film was a disappointment.  My Foetus was an attempt at unveiling the secrecy surrounding abortion.  Some of it was shocking and harrowing.  But it failed.  It failed because it depicted abortion as simple, quick and safe.  Whatever her true motives, Julia Black succeeded in producing half a programme, or rather, a programme of half-truths.  Hypocrisy, tricks and deception were all too evident.

Great documentary it was not – it was muddled and confusing.  The commentary was continuously baffling.  For example, upon seeing the aftermath of a 21-week abortion, Black said it, ‘… makes me angry … it dehumanises the foetus.’  Whatever did this pro-abortionist mean by that?  On another occasion, out of almost nowhere, she declared, ‘Legislation is patronising and out-of-date.’  Was this some sort of sound bite, calling for an overhaul of the 1967 Abortion Act?

Was the programme just pro-abortion spin?  That might be too harsh a judgement.  Yet Julia Black remains a resolute supporter of abortion, so ultimately we cannot agree with her.  She may argue that the debate needs the 'balance' of her film, but there is no middle ground in abortion because it always takes a human life.  And hers was the case for the continuance of ‘reproductive choice’.  Women need abortion.  Concentrate on their rights.  Forget those of the unborn child’s.  These were the clear messages of this documentary.

Furthermore, hers was a thesis that split abortion into two false categories – early abortion/good, and late abortion/bad (though still necessary).  It focussed on early (atypical) abortions because later (typical) abortions produce remains that look too uncomfortably human.  The documentary thus became a subtle statement that abortions up to say, 12 weeks are OK, and should be the norm, and that women should be allowed access to abortion without the permission of two doctors – and that such measures should be incorporated into any amendment of the 1967 Abortion Act.  It was thus Marie Stopes’ (and all the other abortion agencies’) propaganda.  There was not a hint that abortion fails women, or that it might be a good idea to offer some alternatives.  But while that notion would be good for women and their unborn children, it would, of course, be bad for Marie Stopes and the others.

Nevertheless, it was somewhat heartening to learn that late abortions disturb those in the pro-choice camp.  They should do.  But for those in the pro-life camp, gestational age is a minor issue – the reality, as the renowned US feminist, Naomi Wolf discovered, is that ‘every abortion [early or late] stops a beating heart.’  By ‘late’, most people would mean when ‘it’ looks human.  This would perhaps be at about 8 weeks, when the fingers and toes are all countable.  But Black’s film missed that vital link, namely, the continuum of development between the early, of say 4 weeks, and the late, of say 21 weeks.  Moreover, if 21 weeks is objectionable, then what about 20 weeks and 6 days, or 20 weeks and 5 days?  There is a logic here that the pro-abortionists will not face up to.

The final muddle came as Julia Black drew her programme to a close. ‘So there are the facts – no more secrets.’  ‘So I now realise that it is possible to be opposed to what abortion actually is, and still be pro-choice’, she bewilderingly declared.  ‘So the battle for and against abortion can now really begin.  Which side of the fence you fall is up to you.’  Baffling, or what?

The Dangers of My Foetus
While it may be true that the majority of people in Britain currently support so-called ‘abortion on demand’, or ‘the free supply of abortion’, it is certainly also true that the majority have not thought much about the issue – in other words, they are lazy liberals.  They are either in ignorance or denial, simply because these are easier positions to hold – easier than having to confront the realities of the issue.  And we should know, because we were once among them!

Consequently, there is a huge danger in a programme like this.  Julia Black believed that she ‘would engage with the reality’, but instead she used her programme to deny that very reality.  Now that the British public has actually seen an abortion, there can be nothing more to see, or say, about the subject, can there?  But what really has happened is that the British public has seen only a version of abortion.

‘Woe to those who call evil good …’ [Isaiah 5: 20].  When wickedness is depicted as praiseworthy, we are in deep, deep trouble.  The frightening outcome is that we can be shocked one minute, and then anaesthetised to it the next.  Now we have all seen an actual abortion (and for many that will be memorably abhorrent), what now?  Where can reality TV go next?  It cannot be euthanasia, because that was shown on British TV in Death on Request, way back in 1995.  It will surely have to be infanticide, the killing of a newborn.

Yes, My Foetus probably did shock some viewers, but by now most of those pricked consciences will be seared (again) and will remain so.  Unless ….. unless we continue to speak up and argue the pro-life case … unless we present the truth, powerfully yet winsomely … unless we care for the would-be clients and victims of abortion … unless we seek to reawaken the consciences of those TV viewers, and all the other men and women who bear the imago Dei.

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