Last week the Law Lords considered whether a 17 year old girl with a mental handicap could be sterilised. Lynette Burrows (above) draws on her own experiences to challenge the assumptions behind the judgment
SOME years ago I was invited to attend a meeting organised by -social services to discuss, "The Sexual Needs of Handicapped Young People". Being secretary of our local Mencap at the time, I had to go along, although with a heavy heart. It was not only the title that gave me the willies, it was the insensitivity that lay behind two inherent assumptions it made. The first was that it did not matter how off-putting and repellent an image of the handicapped it presented to ordinary people. The second was that one was able to talk about handicapped people in this gross, inhuman way because they were so different from everyone else that the normal standards of dignity and privacy did not apply to them.
Can you imagine the reaction if teachers had the effrontary to announce seminars to discuss "Sexual Needs of Fifth Formers" or if job centres were to isolate sexual urges amongst apprentices as being of special concern? One would rightly suspect that someone was off his head to try and discuss any group as if they were animals
with an appetite for sex quite unconnected to other human emotions like love, responsibility and concern.
When I arrived at the meeting, it was all so predictable; the wan faces, the greasy, lank hair, the decrepit, untidy appearance — and these were the professionals. There was not one parent of a handicapped child there. The chairman apologised for this when he opened the meeting and said that parents obviously had problems in this area themselves and probably needed help. Ye gods! The very idea of being helped by them was enough to cause a relapse — and I felt quite well.
Yet they seemed possessed of the feeling that they knew what was best for the young people despite the fact that the parents had voted with their feet. They, who neither loved them nor had any long-term responsibility for them, actually believed that they knew best what was good for them and, indeed, should be given to them with or without their parents' consent.
The basis of their belief, these egregious misfits, was that sex
was such a simple and basic pleasure that even the mentally handicapped could enjoy it. Therefore they had a right to it; ergo — "society", that is they, had a duty to supply it. That accounted for their zeal; they were doing their solemn duty.
It is very difficult to deal with these zealous lunatics. They are not insincere they are not entirely uncaring. It is just that one does not want what they have to offer and has a strong instinct to protect the vulnerable from what they offer too.
My contribution to the meeting was considered negative. I referred to the possibility of them being considered social working pimps; procuring compliant girls who needed love and attention and matching them up with aggressive men who needed activity and challenge instead of endless television and health education. I suggested that they would run the risk of being considered lazy, voyeuristic perverts who only wanted to relieve themselves of the job of looking after young people properly by giving them an essentially static and exclusive
activity to occupy them; thereby leaving the "carers" free to get on with something else.
Some people, I hinted offensively, might say that it was typical of social workers to be well acquainted with every current perversion and vice and to be unwilling or incompetent to carry-out old-fashioned disciplines like working out a decent programme to occupy and fulfill the people in their care. It didn't, I said, matter whether the institutions were for the handicapped or the old, children or adults, the hall-mark of their misnamed "homes" was that they were civic black holes in which nothing happened but eating and watching television and where the inmates sat around the walls like monuments to their dead minders.
And when it did come into one of their unrecentiVe minds that just a little more effort might go into thinking what else could be done with human beings who — for one reason or another, were out of circulation and in their care — the only initiative that they had come up with in 20 years was to give them
I even took the trouble to point out to my stupid listeners that it was not as if sex had even been considered an easy thing — even for those perfectly sound in mind and body. It is uniquely capable of causing pain and upset. Probably most of the murders that have been committed in the world have been caused by it. It is a hot potato at the best of times, and not something that you urge on people who might otherwise be unaware of it, and who already have great problems that have, thankfully, not been caused by social workers but can be greatly aggravated by them.
But it was no good. I need an appreciative audience to carry on. They just looked at me in venomous silence and went on biting their nails. I left and was never contacted again about any other such workshops, if they had them. I feel sure they have, at least in other areas if not in ours. There are a couple of inches of sludge at the bottom of every social services think-tank where these new ideas crawl about, and sometimes they crawl out.
I think now as I thought then, that what handicapped people need when they are in any way institutionalised, is what anyone else would need whether old or young, orphaned or ill-treated. They need sanity, stability, humour and religion; an interest taken in them, activity, companionship, challenge, protection, affection. They need good-hearted people coming in to work with them and teach them things. They want to go out and make an effort to become known and accepted with their dignity and selfrespect intact.
What they do not want is to be got at and corrupted by perverse cranks into intense, contrived sexual relationsips which they cannot hope to handle even as well as most people do — and that is not very well. They should not be neglected and then' introduced to sex as a substitute for all the normal things they do not get.
One has the uneasy feeling that many social services departments are heading inexorably and predictably in the same direction. There is a horrible logic about it all. First they recruit boring and limited people to care for the institutionalised and, when they have succeeded in making the • service they provide as boring and sterile as themselves, they try to brighten up the scene with dirty talk and loveless sex. They want the corpse at least to look as though it is enjoying itself.
Then they find that even that solution is not perfect because the natural result of their unnatural meddling is that some of their charges suffer harm and become pregnant. Never mind about the harm, that won't show; but what to do about the pregnancy? That is the question and this week they came up with the answer. Of course! You sterilise the girls!
But have a care. You may depend upon it, they are not finished yet. This line of thought could well incline some of them to the same opinions as their learned colleagues in the medical profession. That the only way to ensure that the handicapped have a "life worth living" is to kill them.
Lynette Burrow's book Good Children is published by Corgi price £2.50.