I’ve always been a fan of Sally Phillips. I loved her as the chain-smoking feminist Shazza in Bridget Jones, of course, as well as the nightmare girlfriend from the past in Green Wing. But mainly I loved her for the 90s feminist sketch show Smack the Pony. Some women experience their feminist awakening when they read The Female Eunuch or Andrea Dworkin. For me, it came from Nora Ephron and Smack the Pony, in which Phillips, along with Fiona Allen and Doon Mackichan, gloriously satirised the rigid expectations placed on women, often by other women.
Which brings me to Phillips’ documentary, A World Without Down’s Syndrome?, which screened on Wednesday night on BBC2. There has been an enormous amount of publicity for this documentary, with praise for Phillips’ clearly heartfelt intentions. The actor has an adorable young son, Olly, who has Down’s syndrome, and one of her aims is to provide a counterbalance to the almost entirely negative depiction of Down’s syndrome in both society and the media. For this, she should be loudly applauded. True, her wholly positive depiction of her life with a child with Down’s syndrome is as partial as the wholly negative ones, not least because her son is relatively high-functioning and Phillips and her husband are able to afford help. Still, as I said, it’s a much-needed corrective, and hats off to her.
But that is not all Phillips and her film are arguing for. Rather, the documentary was pegged to the imminent availability of non-invasive prenatal testing on the NHS, which is a safe and more accurate method of screening for Down’s syndrome than the form currently available, and with no risk of miscarriage. This, according to Phillips, is “sad, it’s just horrible, really”. Later, she describes herself as “really quite angry” about it.
Phillips makes no bones that she is coming at this subject from a deeply personal perspective, one that is occasionally blurred with tears during her film. This perhaps explains why such a bright woman repeatedly and determinedly conflated equipping pregnant women with knowledge about their unborn baby – that is, being screened – and the advice they are then given about it. No doubt some medical professionals have advised women to have terminations after receiving a positive test; there absolutely should be campaigning about how this kind of information is imparted to expectant women and mothers who have just given birth.
This, however, does not mean that women should be denied available information about their unborn baby’s health, and instead be unnecessarily surprised at birth with a situation for which they may be entirely unprepared. Phillips is right: rates of Down’s syndrome probably will decrease with the rise of easier, more accurate screening. But she is wrong to then draw the conclusion that women should therefore not be informed about the health of their in utero baby.
Phillips did not know Olly had Down’s syndrome until he was born. But this, she says, was a good thing, because by having no choice she was compelled to see how much Olly benefits her family. “That made me wonder whether choice is always the wonderful thing it’s cracked up to be,” she says, a statement which casts something of a shadow on her description of herself as “pro-choice”. But while not having a choice has worked out wonderfully for her family, no consideration is given to women who do not have Phillips’ aforementioned privileges. A single mother with two jobs and three kids, for example, might not find similar benefits from a lack of choice. It is very difficult to see how compelling women who genuinely feel they cannot care for a child with special needs to give birth helps anyone, least of all people with Down’s syndrome.
To argue for screening – and for women to have the freedom to make their own choice with the information – is not to argue, as Phillips suggests, that people with Down’s syndrome don’t have a right to life, or should never have been born. The point is it’s the woman’s choice about what’s best for her and her family, whatever the situation. Early in the film Phillips meets Prof Sue Buckley, who works at Down’s Syndrome Education. “We don’t believe that a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome should be a reason for termination,” Buckley says to a solemn Phillips.
And therein lies the rub: the idea that women should only have terminations for reasons someone else finds acceptable. How about if a woman feels too young to have a baby, or too poor, or doesn’t want to be tied to the man she conceived with for the rest of her life, or she doesn’t want a third baby, or any baby at all – are these permissible reasons for a termination? They are all pretty common ones. Or is it just a Down’s syndrome diagnosis that is deemed an unacceptable cause for an abortion? In more controversial areas, such as sex-selection abortion, the correct approach is to tackle the attitudes behind it, not ban abortion per se. Similarly, with Down’s syndrome screening what needs examining is the image around the syndrome and the way doctors discuss it, not the screening itself. It’s the attitudes, not the science, that’s the problem. Science is what gives women the choice. Which brings me to the nub of Phillips’ documentary.
Phillips, a committed Christian (which was not mentioned in the documentary), and her many online supporters insist that they’re not anti-choice – they just want women to make “informed” choices. The lie of this was revealed when Phillips met Kate, a woman who terminated her pregnancy after she was told her baby would have Down’s syndrome. Kate talked about how she read blogs, positive (“loads”) and negative, by parents of children with Down’s syndrome. She felt “informed”, and she then opted for a termination. Phillips says afterwards to the camera that she felt Kate was wrong: “Kate didn’t want a child like mine. That was difficult to hear.”
So it’s not choices that are “uninformed” that are the problem, it’s choices Phillips and others of her mindset don’t agree with. It is human for Phillips to relate these stories so closely to herself, but it is also astonishingly solipsistic and, given that she is doing so on such a public platform, potentially destructive. I am not generally given to making hand-wringing proclamations about what the BBC should and should not show, but it is genuinely shocking that BBC2 decided to screen a documentary with such a blatantly anti-choice message.
Phillips opened her documentary with the following questions: “What kind of society do we want to live in and who should be allowed to live in it?” The answer to the latter is, of course, everyone, which is the status quo – and more screening would not change that.
Phillips’ inference that screening will lead to babies with Down’s syndrome not “being allowed” to live in this society is dishonest. Anything that gives women more objective scientific information about their pregnancy is good.
The question of what kind of society we want to live in is, to my mind, even more simple: one in which women are not dismissed as “uninformed” or “wrong” on national TV – or anywhere – for making a choice about their pregnancy, and that goes equally for women who decide to carry their Down’s syndrome baby to term, or women who opt for a termination. Feeling is not fact, and being pro-choice means supporting all women’s choices, not just the ones you agree with. I’m pretty sure Smack the Pony once taught me that.