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Ann Bradley

I'm for Frankenstein's baby

A brain-dead pregnant woman placed on a life-support system until her child can be born alive has caused a political storm, which has united feminists and religious bigots and left anti-abortion groups not knowing which way to turn.

Marion Ploch, aged 18, was killed on her way to work in a car crash in October. Her death certificate has already been filled out. But the 13-week old fetus survived the crash unharmed and doctors at University clinic in Erlangen, Germany, are intending to keep Marion's corpse functioning artificially until it is sufficiently developed to survive outside the womb. At this point, expected to be next March, the baby will be born by Caesarian and its mother's life-support will be turned off.

It's not the first case where a woman has been kept alive to have a child, but it's the first time it's been tried from so early in the pregnancy. In Finland in 1984, Marko Ylitalo's mother was kept alive artificially for 10 weeks before he was born. In Britain, too, Deborah Bell was on a life support system for 5 weeks in 1986 before her daughter Nicola was born, but doctors avoided controversy by postponing tests to confirm that she was dead, so they could avoid the completion of a death certificate.

Doctors say it's technically not too difficult. As long as blood circulation through the womb is adequate, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels controlled and nutrients maintained, the pregnancy should progress - but until it's been tried, they'll never really know.

The case has provoked outrage, uniting opposition across the political and social spectrum. Nobody except the doctors seems to be in favour of the 'heroic intervention'. Opinion polls in the German yellow press showed that 80 per cent of readers thought that the life-support should be turned off. There have been abusive phone calls and letters to the clinic, accusing doctors of 'Nazi-style' experiments to produce 'Frankenstein's baby', and the clinic walls have been daubed with graffiti.

Senior figures in the Free Democrats, members of Germany's ruling coalition, have described the procedure as an 'intolerable perversion of humanity'. The president of the Catholic doctors' association in Germany has condemned the use of the woman as a 'breeding machine' and the Social Democrats have called for an emergency parliamentary debate on 'post-human motherhood'. Women's rights groups argue that the decision to sustain the pregnancy has reduced women to the status of mere 'baby machines', and that Marion's right to a dignified and peaceful death has been denied.

Personally, I'm on the side of the doctors. I'm sure critics are right when they claim that the doctors are motivated by a desire to experiment rather than by compassion - but so what? Medical science still has a lot to learn about fetal development, and if this can provide some answers that will be of benefit to pregnant women, so much the better. Marion is beyond caring what happens to her body.

My only reservation about the 'Erlangen Baby Case' is the consequences it may have for living pregnant women.

Professor Scheele, the responsible consultant, has justified his actions with the argument that the fetus, 'was life. We couldn't and simply shouldn't have pulled the plug'. It remains to be seen what consequences this approach will have, as the German parliament braces itself this month to review its abortion law yet again.

If it is accepted that Marion's baby has a right to life, then the argument that women have the right to end unwanted pregnancies will be severely dented.

Fortunately, perhaps, the anti-abortionists have been loath to take this approach. In both Germany and Britain, the supposedly absolute moral principles about the 'right to life of the unborn' are less than absolute when they conflict with other traditional values. Those who argue that abortion is unnatural, a sin against God and a medical aberration, are somewhat flummoxed by the fact that in this case the maintenance of fetal life depends on 'anti-natural' intervention.

It's a sign of the anti-abortion campaign's unease that in Britain the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC)--who never usually miss the chance of a headline - has declined to comment on Marion P. It seems rather sick that SPUC is so coy in this case, where everyone concerned wants the outcome to be a healthy child, when it has no compunction about trying to force pregnant women to have babies that they don't want.

I find no contradiction between supporting doctors striving to push back the frontiers of medical science, conceding to the desire of the prospective grandparents to raise their dead daughter's wanted child, and supporting the rights of living women to end unwanted pregnancies. Marion is dead and her body no longer has any rights. Her fetus will not acquire any rights until after it is born. No action in respect of either of them should be allowed to prejudice the situation of living women. But neither should mystical notions of what constitutes life and motherhood be permitted to interfere with potentially useful medical developments.

Male rape 'could happen to any man, any time' according to the Independent. I don't think so.

To read the papers over the past few months, you might imagine that London in general, and the Underground in particular, is full of rampant homosexual men, possibly riddled with HIV, forcing 'respectable' citizens into 'unnatural' acts at knife-point.

Perhaps it's a little cynical to imagine that the sudden concern about 'male rape' is a way of culling more funding for the Met. No doubt their new Male Sexual Abuse Project, training 26 officers to act as 'chaperons' to help male rape victims is motivated by genuine concern.

My genuine concern is that the impression left by the salacious reporting of this newly discovered crime leads the world to believe that a straight guy on the Underground has more to fear from sodomites than a gay man has to fear from queer-bashers.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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