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Laurie Penny: William Hague’s decision to use his wife’s miscarriages to defend himself is unnecessary and offensive

No uterus is public property.

"Well, if you're not gay, why haven't you got that nice girl pregnant yet?" It's the sort of question one expects only from atrocious, senile grandparents and the British press in silly season.

Beset by trollish gossip about his relationship with his former aide Christopher Myers, the Foreign Secretary has felt obliged to make an extremely intimate public announcement about the state of his wife's uterus to satisfy the snarling attack-dogs of the sweltering summer media hiatus. Poor William Hague. Poor Chris Myers. And poor Ffion Hague, whose multiple miscarriages have now been offered to the world as evidence of her husband's integrity and virility.

If there is one lesson we've learned in the past week, amid the breathless coverage of David and Samantha Cameron's new arrival, it's that the reproductive organs of Tory wives are extremely important and deeply indicative of their husbands' capacity to exercise power responsibly and well. After all, if a man doesn't know and control what's going on in his lady's pants, how can he be expected to run a government department?

The link between Mrs Hague's repeated, tragic loss of pregnancy and Mr Hague's heterosexuality is not necessarily straightforward, but it's the closest one can come in a public forum to "I've definitely been sleeping with my wife".

Hague seems to have accepted the rather Orwellian narrative that regular, productive heterosexual intercourse within the confines of marriage is a man's duty to the Tory party, and the press has goaded him into an explicit statement that he's been doing his duty. Will that be enough uncomfortable personal revelation to satisfy the ravenous media machine?

Unfortunately, it's probably exactly what we wanted. The British press seems to nurse an interminable fascination with what Conservatives do in bed together, and the party is clearly anxious to avoid another series of sex scandals like those that beset the Back to Basics years. Only by diverting the media's attention with a highly personal story which nevertheless emphasises that the New Tories are moral, married, faithful and fertile -- not the kinky Conservatives of John Major's premiership -- could Hague and his handlers have hoped to defuse this scandal.

Would it matter if William Hague was a closeted homosexual or bisexual? Yes, it would, simply because it would raise serious questions about the hypocrisy of his previous defence of Section 28. In the light of his extremely revealing statement, however, and in the light of the rumours having originated from that paragon of mature, well-researched online commentary, Guido "Terribly Dangerous" Fawkes, I'd venture to suggest that Hague's claim never to have had a relationship with another man is probably grounded. Yet all this juicy chatter misses the point entirely.

Even if Hague is straighter than a die, it doesn't make his ugly defence of homophobic policies and policymakers one jot more justified. Furthermore, whatever the Foreign Secretary's sexual proclivities, Ffion Hague's miscarriages have no bearing on his ability to do his job responsibly -- the Hagues could be as fertile and faithful as a pair of Catholic rabbits and William Hague would still be a grim prospect in the Foreign Office. And -- most importantly -- no woman's uterus is public property. Not even if they've had the poor taste to marry a Tory minister.

Read Laurie Penny's weekly column in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage