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Faith & Reason: Sex in prison, and other seductive diversions

2000 July 1
by Paul Vallely

CONSIDER THREE events from this week’s news. First, a gynaecologist told the European Society of Human Reproduction in Bologna that too many young couples today are demanding, and getting, fertility treatment prematurely. Next, City analysts lamented the vote by shareholders in Standard Life not to demutualise the company and trouser a windfall of pounds 6,000 a head. And finally a murderer went to court because he wanted to father a child from gaol by artificial insemination.

The link? They all illustrate the spectacular ability a secular society has to ask the wrong questions. Let’s start with the murderer. Gavin Mellor, 29, was given a mandatory life sentence in January 1994 for the killing of George Sims, a 71-year-old grandfather who was attacked as he walked home from a working men’s club in Crewe. In prison he met Tracey McColl, 25, who was working as a clerk at the gaol. The couple managed to find various opportunities to have sex behind bars before Ms McColl resigned from the Prison Service so the couple could marry in 1997. But she didn’t get pregnant.

What was interesting about the court case was the language in which both sides couched the debate. Mellor’s QC argued that his client has a right to father a child from his cell; by contrast, the Home Office had no right to make a judgement that Mellor was unfit to bring a child into the world because of doubts that the marriage would remain stable once he was released. Mellor’s right was enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which guaranteed the right to found a family. Furthermore English law recognises that prisoners enjoy all civil rights except those removed expressly or by necessary implication. Mellor’s right to a child could not be included since no questions of prison security or prison order arose. Moreover it deprived Mrs Mellor, “who undoubtedly retains all of her civil rights”.

The Home Office fought back with similar weapons. Mellor had no right to facilities for artificial insemination. If he had, then so would other convicts and the Home Secretary would be obliged to provide similar facilities to other prisoners. Even those gaoled for abusing their own children would be able to demand the right to conceive more children.

The discourse of the case was conducted essentially in terms of competing rights. But it was not a sense of a “right” to have a child which lay behind the demand for fertility treatment among career couples who wanted children to fit in with their hectic schedules. Rather, said the Dutch gynaecologist, it was a sense of impatience generated by a culture of consumerism. Had they let nature take its course at least half of the women would soon be pregnant naturally, he said, but they wanted the event to a timetable.

Finally, we come to Standard Life, where carpetbaggers failed to get the 75 per cent majority they needed in a shareholders’ vote to force the insurance company to abandon its status as a mutual society and float on the stock market. City scribblers were alarmed at the voters’ short- sightedness. Not only were they “throwing away” windfalls averaging pounds 6,000 but mutuality was now an outdated concept, cramping operating style and the ability to raise large sums for future investment. The argument by the company’s board that policyholders have a moral responsibility to one another was “a novel and ridiculous doctrine”. Policyholders’ only responsibility was to get the best possible return for themselves and their family. Could they not see that mutuality was now economically inefficient?

It was, of course, the wrong question. Just as it was to ask whether the lack of a child violated a prisoner’s rights. And just as was, more subtly perhaps, the notion that using medical interventions on fertility for convenience rather than need crosses a line which divides service from consumption in the complex web of motivations which is parenthood.

All of these are outgrowths of our increasingly secular paradigms of thought. They are, in effect, three of the key talismans of a modern democratic capitalist society – rights, consumer choice, economic efficiency.

The perspective of transcendence which religion brings would have asked three very different questions – about respect, generosity, mutuality. These are, of course, not exclusively the province of faith. But it does seem that nowadays it is a religious outlook which more often refers back to such qualities – where secularism is prone to slip into what Pope John Paul II has called “the supremacy of the strong over the weak”, where individuals are judged not for what they are, but for what they have, do and produce.

The freedom and tolerance of liberal capitalist democracy are second- order virtues. They look increasingly shaky as qualities like trust, respect and decency are eroded by the fear and greed which are the motors of our age. But notions of stewardship, mutuality and the common good are not qualities we can afford to abandon in modern life – whether in bearing children, running an insurance company or deciding whether the human genome project should be used to allow insurers to enforce genetic testing. Religion has no monopoly on such virtues but it does constitute an alternative world view. And, often, it asks a better class of question.

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