A mum's right to know

28th May 2004 at 01:00
The counselling culture is out of control when a pregnant girl is encouraged to turn away from her family for help, says Stuart Waiton

Support the Gillick ruling allowing doctors to prescribe the pill to under-16s without parental consent. I also support full abortion rights for women. However, in the case of Maureen Smith and her 14-year-old daughter Melissa, who had a "chemical abortion" after advice from a health visitor, I find myself sympathising with the parent.

The difference between the Gillick case and that of Mrs Smith - at least in terms of the reporting of this story so far - is that the former ruling was based on the issue of doctor-patient confidentiality, where a doctor in discussion with a teenage girl, who has come asking for contraception, decides upon the maturity of the young woman to take control of her sex life.

In Melissa's case, a prior stage existed where advice and support was given by a health worker before doctors were consulted. In effect Claire Chapman, the health worker, acted as a surrogate parent to Melissa in helping her come to a decision.

That a case like this has not come to light before now is surprising, given the changing relationship between schools and pupils. What until recently would have been seen as the private affairs of children and parents are increasingly being seen as issues to be dealt with by professionals working in schools.

Sex education has become more of a priority for education departments north and south of the border, relationships between young people have now been incorporated into this "education", and the "emotional" literacy of pupils is a concern for educationists.

Mrs Smith has been condemned by various "liberal" commentators because her daughter decided to take counselling from a "stranger" rather than discuss her pregnancy with her mother. But isn't this exactly what today's advice culture would expect, where the most intimate aspects of your life - in both sex and relationships - are promoted as subjects to be discussed by "caring professionals"? The distinctions between the public and private world have been all but lost.

The apparent contradiction of the Government's talk of making parents responsible and yet denying them their right to responsibility has been raised by Mrs Smith. However, scratch the surface of any new Labour issue connected with responsibility and you find a weakened idea of what being responsible actually means.

Parents are no longer just parents but are involved in "parenting", a skill that needs to be taught; go for a divorce and the chances are you will be offered counselling to help you through the process, and even adults who want an abortion will similarly find that counsellors are on hand to help you make the "right" decision.

In the 1998 document Supporting Families, Jack Straw stated: "We want to change the culture so that seeking advice and help when it is needed is seen not as a failure but the action of concerned and responsible parents."

Being responsible today means being prepared to ask for advice and counselling from a professional. Melissa Smith was simply following the new norms and Claire Chapman was just doing her job.

Muriel Gray, writing on the case, denounced Mrs Smith and complained about the "blanket respect" given to the notion of the "parent". However, the reality is that home life has never been so problematised - seen as a site of potential child abuse and domestic violence where "inappropriate" discipline is meted out by adults lacking parenting skills.

If Mrs Smith is not to be expected to take responsibility for her child, then who is? One journalist tried to find out, speaking to the school, the primary care trust, two local councils, a private consultancy and two government departments and each time the buck was passed, eventually leading back to the school which had "no comment". Claire Chapman, who is employed as part of the Government's National Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, could not comment either, due to the "terms of my contract".

Thankfully parents don't have to draw up contracts with their children - at least not yet. Warts and all, they have to develop "real" loving relationships with them based on intimacy, something that the professionals can never do.

Stuart Waiton is a contributor to Teenage Sex: What should schools teach children? (published by Hodder and Stoughton).

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