Andrew Billen - Inside story

Television - Seeing isn't always believing in a poetic view of pregnancy. By Andrew Billen


The Pope could not have had a better send-off than this wonder-stricken, two-hour documentary on how a single cell becomes a human being. The devout nowadays rarely try to sell the proposition that there is life after death. They know that the new and winnable battle is, as the programme's title had it, over the concept of life before birth, a territory of far-from-academic debate whose borders will determine the future of abortion. For the first time in the history of ding-dongs between secularism and faith, religion has science on its side. This did not, however, prevent Life Before Birth (7 April, 9pm) adding its own propaganda to the cause.

Out of sight, out of mind, as they say - and certainly, while the foetus was unseen or, at best, a static snowstorm on a radar screen, it was much easier to downgrade its relationship to the full-term child that it became. Three-dimensional scans, however, or what they call "4D" scans (in which 3D images are shown in real time), make that consolatory fiction much harder to sustain. Ignorance, however blissful, is never defensible, but for a woman and her partner to see their future child looking like a child at ten weeks must make a miscarriage a few weeks later much less bearable and an abortion less tenable.

Seeing is believing, as they also say, but one of the frustrations of Life Before Birth was that we could not wholly believe what we were actually seeing. The sonic scans were remarkable, but they were introduced early in the programme's narrative, at the ten- to 14-week stage. You had to concentrate to notice that many of the images shown as illustrations - of babies smiling and pawing their noses - came from much later in a gestation, 30 or 32 weeks in. Still less rigorous was the way the director, Toby MacDonald, combined intrauterine photography with models ("by Arlem") and computer animation (credited to Mill TV). I am not at all sure how many real foetuses we saw - and how much modelling clay.

Fortunately, perhaps, the programme sabotaged itself with a half-baked poetic commentary from Roger McGough. I can see how the commission came about, as there is nothing so appealing as meeting the challenge of healing the rift between author and physicist C P Snow's two cultures. At the time of the moon landings, commentators asked why a poet could not be sent into space alongside the test pilots, a good point until you realised you'd more likely end up with McGough in orbit than W H Auden. Versifying in the first person as the foetus itself, McGough reminded me of Johnny Morris making the koalas talk on Animal Magic - except that his mini-me sounded as though he were hoping to grow up to be a Thought for the Day presenter. His tone was a blend of faux naivety, wordplay, half-hearted literary allusion and cute. It was set early on:

Am I always cast in stone?
Or can I break the mould?
Saint Francis of Assisi or Al Capone?
What will I be when I'm old?
My DNA has lots of presents waiting
And I'll find out on my birthday
what it brings
Secretly I am hoping for a nice pair of wings.

Oh dear. Later, he introduced a little Larkin to make us feel smart. After the science commentary had warned us that foetuses feel their mother's anxiety, came:

Mother, when you are stressed, I am too
You may not mean to but you do
Can't you keep anxiety to yourself?
Passed on it deepens like a coastal shelf.

To make matters worse, McGough's punning allusions to a "watchmaker" and a "Maker", although possibly a nod to Richard Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker, just helped bolster the programme's God-slot ethos.

Increasingly bored by this precocious foetus, I began to take an interest in the made-up couple who were having it, a pair presumably intended to represent Mr and Mrs Average C4 Viewer. He was a grey-haired trendy in his middle years, clearly on his second marriage. She was a younger blonde who looked like Samantha Janus and said things such as, "See ya lader, byeee." They drove an open-topped sports car and lived near sand dunes in a pine-floored house with a central workstation in the kitchen, where she chopped Waitrose chives. She took frequent swims in what looked like a private health club. My guess: he worked in advertising and she'd been his PA.

McGough's favourite chorus was a chant of "the point, the point" - what was the point when the brain fizzed alive, when a foetus felt pain, when it could survive outside the womb (which, as the prose commentator pointed out, was directly related to the upper limit we impose for abortions)? As Dawkins has repeatedly pointed out, life is not a series of points, but a continuum, yet McGough was not going to let go of such a useful homonym. What, he implied, was the "point" of life?

And the point of this programme? I am not sure, but the effect will be to help speed a change in abortion law. The reasoning behind a further restriction will be largely aesthetic, but no less inarguable for that. A sacrifice is about to be made by women on behalf of foetuses. The only consoling thought is that half of the beneficiaries will be female themselves.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

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