Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Tories attack abortion rights

So, the Tories are starting to mess around with abortion rights. Not content with screwing over women with spending cuts that impact worse on women and children, they now are fiddling with one of our most basic, essential rights: access to safe abortion.

Tory Nadine Dorries MP, who previously tried to get the time limit on abortion lowered from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, is on the anti-abortion warpath again. Sadly for us, her party are now in power.

The lowering of the time limit from 24 weeks to 20 would have meant trouble for the most vulnerable of women. Women, for example, who have had to come over from Ireland (often in secret), having saved up the money. Women who have gone for their 20 week scan, excited about seeing their baby on the ultra-sound screen, only to find there is something wrong with it. I’m not sure what would’ve happened to such women had the abortion limit been lowered to 20 weeks – would they have had to make a decision then and there about a termination, or miss their window? That is horrific to imagine – and surely would lead to many hurried decisions, and much psychological damage.

Which is ironic, really. Because the tack that Dorries is now tacking is that abortion ‘damages’ women psychologically and that we need to re-think the way we do terminations to counteract that. In other words, try to talk women out of it. To quote Dorries:

‘If girls and women were offered counselling and information regarding other options such as, wait for it, yes, adoption. As strange as it may seem, some find that an easier option than having to deal with the consequences of a medical procedure which, somewhere in their deepest thoughts, they regard as the ending of a life.’

If any argument makes me angry, it’s this one. The idea being that going through a pregnancy and childbirth, the biggest physical and emotional thing a lot of women will ever experience, is no big deal. So let’s see, that might well involve puking every day for months, back and pelvic pain, extreme tiredness, and your body changing beyond recognition. Oh yes, and possibly life-threatening conditions such as eclampsia. And then there’s childbirth, which as you might have heard is a bit on the painful side (made more so by the NHS being far from up to scratch when it comes to maternity services). But that’s okay, you can just hand the baby over (no breastfeeding, I guess…) and forget about it. NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN.

And that’s without even mentioning the affects being adopted will have on the child as it grows up. I’m sure that a lot of work goes into making the transition as easy as possible, but it’s never going to be trauma-free.

I remember when I was researching for my MA dissertation in Toronto. I was in the Thomas Fisher library, looking through a box of letters from Margaret Atwood to fellow writer Gwendolyn MacEwen. One of the letters was written in a much shakier hand than usual, and reading the content it transpired that Atwood was heavily pregnant with her daughter, Jess.

She wrote of how it was affecting her and signed off by saying that there was a word in the English language for being made to have sex against your will, but there was no word for being pregnant against your will. She said that there should be, because having been pregnant, she couldn’t begin to imagine how traumatic that would be.

I couldn’t agree more. Having been pregnant twice – once when I didn’t want to be, and once when I did, I know there’s a big difference. Women know. So please don’t patronise us, Dorries. For the women who need counselling, great, make it available, but please don’t let that ‘counselling’ take the form of pro-life bullying. We’re not stupid. We know what you’re up to, and it’s grim.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Stroud Green Community Cafe

Today a group of people started a 'Community Cafe' in the Mind Centre on Stapleton Hall Road, Stroud Green. The idea is that they make simple, healthy food from ingredients donated from local shops and supermarkets. Budgens in Crouch End are one of the shops contributing - as per usual - they're always generous when it comes to giving food to community events.

At the moment, the cafe is only open between 12 and 2 on a Friday, and the menu was today limited to one starter (carrot and parsnip soup: £1.00), one main (vegetable pasta bake: £2.50) and two puddings (apple pie or banana cake: £1.00). My daughter and I had a lovely lunch, and the other people there seemed to be enjoying theirs, too.

The kitchen is staffed by volunteers, and it's a non-profit making scheme. The idea, as one of the volunteers explained, was to offer people healthy and affordable food, and get people from the community involved with running the place. "It's an alternative to all of the fried chicken places!" she joked.

It was strange to see the hall usually used for Area Assemblies transformed into a little cafe, complete with wooden tables and flowers in jars. I hope it's an idea that takes off; knowing the number of people in Stroud Green who are community-minded, I'm pretty sure it will. I for one have promised a cake very soon!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Farewell, Child Benefit

When Child Benefit stops being paid to higher rate tax payers in 2013, my family, like 1.5m others, will lose out (my husband earns just over the threshold; I earn nothing).

We had been doing what a lot of people have probably been doing with their Child Benefit: putting it into our daughter's Child Trust Fund, with the hope that she will then have a lump sum to use when she's older - possibly for University.

With students today in debt to the tune of £20,000 or more by the time they graduate, goodness knows what state University education will be in by 2025, the year our daughter will be 18. The amount we may have been able to save up through Child Benefit probably wouldn't have touched the sides, but at least it would've been something.

Maybe she won't go to University. Already, the idea of a free University place, no tuition fees and readily-available grants - all of which was available just 11 years ago, when I graduated, seems like a thing of luxury in a time of plenty.

But it's not just the practical impact that the scrapping of Child Benefit for those 1.5m families will have; it's what receiving Child Benefit signifies. To me, it felt like a nod from the state that what we as parents are doing is somehow appreciated. Of course, raising a family is in many ways a joy, but a lot of the time it is bloody hard work - emotionally, physically, and yes, financially.

Much of that burden falls on women, many of whom, like me, will put their careers on hold (possibly damaging them for good) and devote several years to childcare. Child Benefit somehow seemed a sign that we were doing a job which was worth doing well - the most important job that there is: raising children in the hope that they will become well-adjusted, kind, engaged citizens. So today, not surprisingly, I'm feeling not a little angry.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Apple Day - popular again!

This year's Apple Day at Hornsey Vale Community Centre was again a fantastic event, attended by a couple of hundred local people. Organised by Transition Crouch End, a group with whom I'm involved, the idea is to celebrate the humble apple, and in so doing highlight the many varieties available in the UK. Locally grown, seasonal, and above all, delicious.

There was an apple press, which children enjoyed operating, and which produced the sharpest and tastiest apple juice any of us had ever tasted. Apple poetry, information about transition towns, apple cakes...all of these were featured, along with the now legendary Apple Peeling Contest, run by local raconteur, Dave Pepper.

Chris, my husband, of course won the contest last year. I seem to recall he concentrated on the task so hard that he developed a rash on his neck...His apple peel came in at 1m 73cm last year, and he was keen to beat that this year.

When we arrived, word was already spreading of his peeling prowess, with the world's media (i.e. the local papers) ready to photograph his efforts. This added not a little to stress levels, and his first two attempts were not up to standard.

Then a woman known only as 'New York Sara' peeled an impressive 2m 3cm. Not to be outdone, Chris had a 3rd attempt. His peel came in at 2m 3.5cm - phew! A new record, and another victory! He is pictured receiving his prize from Dave Pepper - which he shared with 'New York Sara', since there was only half a centremetre in it.

We had a great time and I think the event really embodied the spirit of the transition movement: the community coming together to have fun and celebrate the season, learning and enjoying ourselves at the same time.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Economics of Breastfeeding

This afternoon saw seven members of the Haringey Breastfeeding Campaign, me included, having a meeting with Sheena Carr, senior public health strategist, and Claire Wright, head of children’s strategy for Haringey. The borough are currently seeking views and doing research on breastfeeding rates and support, with a view to presenting this to NHS Haringey in November.

One of our concerns as breastfeeding mums is that there is NO budget in the borough for breastfeeding. It’s not a case of defending the budget from cuts – there isn’t one to cut.

This is something I questioned at the meeting. Ayala Ochert (who infamously dared to bare her bosom in St Ann’s library, creating somewhat of a media storm a couple of weeks back) has been crunching the figures, and worked out how much the borough could save by supporting breastfeeding.

A recent study[1] in the United States found that if 90% of mothers followed the recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months then the country would save more than $13 billion per year and prevent more than 900 deaths.

If one were to extrapolate to this to the population of Haringey[2], then it would amount to a saving of more than $9.5 million per year (£6 million).

The study looked at 10 childhood diseases so in fact the savings and deaths prevented would actually be higher. It did not include deaths prevented from breast cancer, for example. If women in the UK breastfed for an extra 6 months on average then 1000 cases of breast cancer, and hundreds of deaths, could be prevented each year[3].

The US survey found that 13.6% of mothers were exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. Extrapolating to Haringey amount, this would amount to £78,534 per one percent increase in exclusive breastfeeding rates.

As I put it at the meeting, the borough therefore cannot afford NOT to fund breastfeeding – and the first thing our group would like to see the money for would be a midwife who specialised in breastfeeding. (You will recall, this is what the borough had until the post was cut…during national breastfeeding week).

I got the sense that Sheena Carr and Claire Wright ‘got it’; they know how important breastfeeding is but that they feel that their hands are tied. Also, because the PCT will soon cease to exist, and because GPs will be put in charge of commissioning, there is a real sense of ‘wait and see – we’re all in the dark.’

As one of the mothers at the meeting pointed out, however, that just isn’t good enough. Since the specialist midwife was cut in June, hundreds of mothers and babies will have fallen though the net when it comes to breastfeeding. Fact.

Some of the mothers recounted horror stories of being publicly humiliated by midwifes who were anti-breastfeeding. One recalled how her son had been fed formula, against her wishes, and that the baby ended up with constipation so bad that he bled when he finally managed to excrete.

Another woman told of how she had needed surgery when her daughter was still young, but had been told by the Whittington hospital that they couldn’t allow her daughter, who she was still breastfeeding, to come into hospital with her, and so she would either have to quit breastfeeding or delay surgery. She chose to delay surgery, causing her much physical pain. “That’s a struggle no one should have to go though,” she commented.

We discussed the Unicef ‘Baby-Friendly Status’ which the borough is starting to move towards (it will take about five years, incredibly). I asked how it would work seeing as there are no hospitals in Haringey, and the borough’s babies are largely born in Islington, Barnet or Camden (unless they're born at home - and we know how rare home births still are). The answer was pretty vague, and we are concerned that some elements of gaining ‘Baby-Friendly Status’ are simply box-ticking exercises. For example, the Whittington has now got a certificate to say that it is committed to going ‘Baby-Friendly’…yet the above experience of the breastfeeding mum shows that the hospital having a certificate to wave about didn’t improve her experience in any way. Other anecdotes, many of them shocking, seemed to back this up.

What will happen when the council takes over much of the work of the PCT, or the GPs decide what the priorities should be for local healthcare? My guess is that we have even more of a battle on our hands, but that despite being sleep-deprived, our group will not be giving up easily.

1. The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis, Bartick and Reinhold, Paediatrics 2010
2. Based on US population of 307,006,550 and Haringey population of 226,200
3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2136824.stm