The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 24th, 2004

Have you stopped beating your pregnant wife yet?

‘Does your husband beat you up?” Last week the government announced bold new plans to make doctors and midwives routinely ask all pregnant women whether their husbands or boyfriends are abusing them.

Imagine the scene. A newly pregnant woman happily goes for her first antenatal check-up, only to be asked, at this emotional moment, the most intrusive, manipulative, personal questions about her relationship with the father of her baby.

Imagine her outrage and distress. And these questions are intended not just to check whether he has, in fact, ever smacked her about, but whether she feels he might and whether he’s ever seemed threatening or upset her, or just been rather nasty.

Such questions can be couched in code; that might be intended to be tactful but it makes it easy to misunderstand them, and to misunderstand the answers too. There can’t be a couple in the land which has never had a single episode of rage and threats, of angry unhappiness. And if the poor woman’s answer, at such an emotional time, is remotely positive, what do you suppose the results will be? You can bet your family credit at your brand-new local casino that she will be put on a register of some sort. An at-risk list. And so necessarily will her baby and its unlucky father, especially if there are other children involved.

Indeed, a health worker who failed to make a note of her suspicions would surely be failing in her duty. Who knows what use such information — right or wrong, or simply misinterpreted — might be put to in future? This monstrous new initiative is a perfect example of what is wrong with the new Labour culture today. It is based on the old socialist assumption that one size does and should fit all. Just because a minority, sadly, needs paternalistic attention, everyone must be subjected to it; because of a few bad fathers, all good fathers must be suspect.

It shows Labour’s habitual, unthinking contempt for privacy, and for the relationship between doctor and patient. It displays the old left assumption that all state sector workers should turn state’s evidence, and state’s investigator. It shows a disrespect for doctors and nurses who would as a matter of course, if they are any good, be watching and listening for signs of trouble with all their patients anyway.

It also shows new Labour’s habitual folly in imagining that directives and form-filling and general micromanagement can turn an inadequate doctor or nurse into a good one. It shows the government’s usual indifference to the dangers of collecting and storing sensitive information. And, in this case, it is based on exaggerated assumptions and exaggerated statements.

Why does domestic violence, like paedophilia, I often wonder, attract exaggeration? Of course, both are truly horrifying, but exaggeration doesn’t help. Actually I think it just leads to outrage fatigue and to unhealthy scepticism. I have come to feel very sceptical myself.

At last week’s conference announcing the government’s new plans for health workers to quiz pregnant women, several Labour ministers used exaggerated alarmspeak; “one in four women will experience domestic violence in their life time”; 30% of domestic violence either starts or will intensify during pregnancy; “a major social problem”; “horrifying statistics”.

That does sound horrifying. But if you start to unravel the figures and the phrases, something different begins to emerge. First of all, “domestic violence” is not at all what you might suppose. It’s not pure Bill Sikes and Nancy; it’s not simply a brutal man raising his fist or his belt to a terrified woman.

According to the new Department of Health resource manual for care professionals, the term covers a multitude of sins, “a continuum of behaviour ranging from verbal abuse, through threats and intimidation, manipulative behaviour, physical and sexual assault and even homicide”. That doesn’t leave much out.

Section 2 of this manual repeats the claim that about one woman in four is likely to experience such abuse at some time in her life. Obviously. With a catch-all definition like that, the figure must be nearer 100%, especially as the definition is extended elsewhere to include “financial” abuse.

Later, the document rather confusingly states that exactly the same proportion of women (23%) are physically assaulted by their partners at some time in their lives (excluding sexual assault), which sounds very much worse. (The Home Office figure, from the British Crime Survey, is lower, at 18.6%). But, at the same time, only 4.2% of the female population say they have been physically assaulted within the past year — a hugely different proportion of women; from very common to uncommon.

Still, if you accept the higher figure, it does seem alarming that between 16 and 59, a quarter of all women may have suffered some sort of domestic physical abuse.

However, the figure involves one or more episodes; so it could mean just one, violent and bitter argument, never to be repeated, or a couple of shameful drunken lapses, much regretted. Or it could mean the sort of serious, repeated criminal assault from which women (and their children) need very careful protection. I feel the figures suggest that the majority fall into the first category, otherwise there’d be more than 4% each year.

And most importantly, the scary figure of 23% also means that the vast majority of women, more than 75%, have not suffered even the slightest incident of domestic violence.

Hurting a pregnant woman is perhaps the worst kind of domestic violence — hurting two or more people at once — and it seems to have a terrifying impetus of its own. The health minister, Melanie Johnson, stated that 30% of domestic violence either starts or will intensify during pregnancy. That sounds very bad, but I feel sceptical about the research cited; it appears both narrow and limited.

Nor could I get government figures for what proportion of women suffer a domestic physical assault during pregnancy: it seems that there aren’t any figures. However, if domestic physical assaults are happening to “only” around 4% of women a year, across the whole female population, one must infer that it is not high in pregnancy.

I am not trying to make light of serious domestic violence. It is a terrible crime. and it causes terrible misery from generation to generation because it affects not just the woman but her children and their health as well. However, (as with paedophilia) there seems to be a tendency for activists in this field, who are regularly confronted with its horrors, to imagine it exists where it doesn’t.

Indeed, activists claim the true figures of domestic violence against women are much higher than we imagine, because women are ashamed to admit to it.

Maybe so — though that is self-evidently a dangerous attitude to statistics — but it does not amount to a licence to cross-question and monitor every single pregnant woman in the country. That is, without exaggeration, an outrage and a very typically new Labour collectivist outrage.