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Hijacking of compassion; how real tragedies get overtaken

Charlie Gard's parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates speak to the media outside the High Court, London, after they ended their legal fight over treatment for the terminally-ill baby. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Political debate has become so entrenched and intractable that it has sucked in other, proxy issues

It started with Charlie Gard, though of course the point at which the world notices is quite far advanced from the real beginning. The desperately ill baby, at the final stages last July of mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, was reaching the end of what the doctors at Great Ormond Street hospital were prepared to do for him.

Not because they were penny-pinching and had no respect for the infinite preciousness of every human life; precisely because they recognised his rights as distinct from his parents’ right in loving him, and deemed his treatment to be an inhumane prolonging of his suffering. The baby’s parents, Chris Gard and Connie Yates, disputed the decision, in desperate circumstances it is impossible not to sympathise with and understand.

What was less easy to comprehend was the sudden involvement of the Reverend Patrick Mahoney, the pastor who flew over from America to stand vigil over the toddler’s bedside. What on earth was Donald Trump’s lawyer, Jay Sekulow, doing tweeting his intention to support the parents from his office in Strasbourg? (‘We must always fight for life’, Sekulow tweeted).

By the time Alfie Evans died, shortly before his second birthday, these bizarre interventions had worsened. Protestors were storming the doors of Alder Hey hospital, in a show of support for Evans’s parents who, at the height of this tragedy, were forced to issue a press release asking people to please leave the doctors alone.

Reasonable opinion landed pretty conclusively on the truth that, if your answer is to invade a building full of seriously ill children, you’re asking the wrong question. But the puzzlement had gone: nobody asked, if your interest is in always fighting for life, why focus your ire on lives that can’t be saved? Why not open a refugee charity? Because this time around, we knew the answer: these terminally ill babies were being used as a carrier issue.

Syrian babies, babies from Yemen, babies who are hungry the world over, could also be used as a carrier, but they would be carrying a different message.

The instrumentalism here was twofold but related: the cases attracted an anti-abortion contingent, and a body of people who disagreed with the NHS in principle, as an example of ‘socialised medicine’ and from there peddled their amorphous warnings of Big Government killing your baby (I call them two positions, but a Venn diagram between them would have looked a lot like a single circle). Liz Wheeler, an anchor on the One America News Network (her motto: ‘Thanks to God, He gave me stubbornness when I know I am right. – John Adams’) castigated the British government for forcing the ‘murder’ of Alfie Evans. A British barrister (going by the Twitter handle Secret Barrister) pointed out that the government was not involved at all in the decision; explained the difference between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary; showed that the decision was based solely on the assessment of Alfie’s best interests and that the medical evidence was overwhelming. This she took as proof that, as a nation, we were so blinded by socialism that we didn’t even know the NHS was run by the government.

You know something’s a carrier issue, first of all, by the fact that it doesn’t make sense: the language (universal right to life) doesn’t match the subject (who can talk of one’s ‘right’ not to have a genetic disorder?); second, by the disproportionality that dare not speak its name – you cannot ask a pastor why he cares about a baby thousands of miles from his parish, since you’ll just aerate his moral rectitude; but the third sign is the most distinctive.

The carrier issue is the one which sounds extremely complicated, and therefore should allow for some nuance, and yet is characterised by such trenchant, unwavering poles of certainty that you have to choose a side before you enter, you must go left or right. Each camp uses such distinctive language that the uninitiated can misstep with an accidental consonant. Unless you care very deeply about this situation you don’t yet understand, the wisest course is to steer well clear.

The trans debate is a classic carrier issue; it has become a question of who’s committing violence against whom? Trans women stand accused of assaulting feminists. Their opponents stand accused of denying trans people their identities, which is an act of social violence. This is another signature of a carrier issue, that it escalates very quickly into arguments not about its principles, but about which side has been most unpleasant in the prosecution of their arguments.

To return to the testing ground, it is the ‘all-women space’; nobody’s arguing, at least not explicitly, that trans people should be forced to exist in the bodies they were born with. They’re arguing that trans women shouldn’t be acknowledged, that is, allowed into spaces demarcated as women-only; toilets, domestic refuge centres; prisons (nunneries, for the most part, haven’t come up).

Toilets present as a practical problem – I want the person in the locked cubicle next to me to share my born gender – and yet are not one, because it never seems to be an issue when a brasserie’s loos go unisex. But the place where the reality really doesn’t match the language is in prisons, and I say this not from a rights-based perspective but from a prison service one. I’ve been a trustee for a long time of a very niche (and actually, I don’t think they’d mind me saying, quite conservative) prisons charity, The Butler Trust, which celebrates the work of prison officers, psychologists and through-the-gate volunteers.

I’ve spoken to psychologists working in one women’s prison in particular with (a very small number of) trans prisoners. You’re never allowed to write about it because the Ministry of Justice is so sensitive about publicity that could be spun by anyone in a negative way, a position which I understand but is vexing, since it means that the public servants working within it never get the recognition they deserve.

So all I can say is that these rare decisions are made with incredible sensitivity and expertise, and a deep awareness of competing emotional needs in volatile environments. The idea that a rapist in a men’s prison could merely talk his way into the much more civilised environment of a women’s prison by declaring himself female is fanciful.

The argument about prisons doesn’t relate at all to what happens in an actual prison. So what does it relate to? My best guess comes partly from the fact that trans men get none of this, and partly from a conversation with a friend, who was describing a group of trans activists surrounding a feminist (who they thought trans-exclusionary) and yelling at her in a very threatening way, ‘behaving,’ she said, ‘like men would. Women don’t behave like that.’

The unspoken proposition is that men can’t become women, not because they’ve got the wrong apparatus, but because they’re inherently more aggressive, more prone to violence, not as nice.

It can’t be spoken because it’s intractable: I personally think violence is created from humiliation, humiliation comes from power imbalance, and power imbalance comes (partly) from the patriarchy, so men are more likely to respond violently to humiliation in sexist societies, because women’s humiliation is already baked in. But I know other feminists who don’t think that, who think men are more innately violent. We’re never going to agree, any more than I’ll agree with an anti-abortionist, and it would be boring for both of us to try.

The carrier issue evolves when the actual argument has exhausted itself, reached a point at which the only two options are to obliterate each other or agree to disagree. That’s why it advances so fast into rage: because its wellspring has been raging for decades.

These arguments, so freighted with the unsaid, become identity-builders. The left is often criticised for ‘virtue signalling’, yet everyone with definable political opinions uses them a signal of the self, and these signals dovetail in mysterious ways.

So being pro-trans has become the position of the Labour left, and being anti-trans, the position of the centrist, even though all of us would say that we’d arrived at our view independently, and I sincerely believe that I just happen to be pro-trans and also (give or take a lot of whining) pro-Corbyn.

Naturally, the problem with the carrier issue is that it lands upon actual lives – terminally ill babies and their parents, people struggling with their identities and what that struggle means for their place in society (half of all young transgender people have attempted suicide), people leaving their homes with nothing (refugees are a huge carrier issue).

Either side could say, ‘that’s precisely the point, I’m fighting for the weak’. But everyone on every side knows which arguments they’ve made more in anger at their opponent than in compassion for the people they’re arguing about.

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