So Claire Rayner, ex-nurse and agony aunt, is dead. May she rest in peace.
I have been scanning the obituaries with interest.
The Scotsman spoke of her “matronly manner” and described her as “cuddly” and “down to earth”. It referred to “this glorious lady… upfront and gloriously honest” and as someone who “was never judgmental”. The Herald of Scotland mentioned her “frank attitude to sex” and that she was “loved and respected”.
BBC News called her “determined but humorous” and a “maternal figure”. Indeed, she had become “part of the fabric of British public life and all because she loved people”.
The Guardian saw her as “an icon… outspoken, no-nonsense, sympathetic and generous” as well as “at the forefront of the 1987 safe sex campaign”, cheerily waving condoms over the cornflakes on breakfast television.
The Independent described her as “a stalwart campaigner”, “warm-hearted” and “untiring in her work on committees and commissions”.
The Telegraph obituary spoke of her “perpetual empathy”. Columnist Gillian Reynolds wrote that “her honesty was a beacon” and that “the world is a colder, less practical, less fun place without her”. Columnist Jemima Lewis added that she was “a human tonic for all our woes”.
Amid all these eulogies and panegyrics there is no mention of a much publicised dispute between Claire Rayner and editor and journalist Dominic Lawson in 1995. In that year his wife had given birth to a daughter, Domenica, who has Down’s Syndrome. Lawson, an atheist, had written memorably about his love for her and his hostility towards those in the medical profession who put pressure on pregnant women to take tests and then to abort babies found to have defects. He concluded, “When I look at Domenica I see someone with a vast joy in just being alive and I am indescribably happy that she is.”
Responding to this with an article in the Independent, the “warm-hearted” and “maternal” ex-agony aunt said in her usual “outspoken”, “down-to-earth” and “no-nonsense” fashion that the Lawsons had behaved selfishly in their decision because of the “misery” and cost to society of such children. Entitled “A Duty to Choose Unselfishly”, her response stated: “People who are not yet parents should ask if they have the right to inflict such burdens on others.” At the time she wrote this, Rayner was actually a patron of the Down’s Syndrome Association. Naturally enough, she was instantly asked to step down. This too was overlooked in the obituaries.
In a later article, “Have a Care, Cuddly Claire”, Lawson (of Jewish parentage like Rayner herself) pointed out to her that her hardline approach to the abortion of children with disabilities was nothing else but eugenics – and that this had been practised with deadly intent by the Nazis, even before the war, in their ‘life not worthy of life” euthanasia programme.
Perhaps it is because the Holy Father, like Dominic Lawson, has spoken out strongly in defence of life, including those persons least able to defend themselves, that almost the last public utterance Claire Rayner made, when she was already very ill, was the extraordinarily intemperate and ill-chosen comment: “I have no language with which to adequately describe Joseph Alois Ratzinger, aka the Pope. His views are so disgusting, so repellent and so hugely damaging to the rest of us, that the only thing to do is to get rid of him.”
It is an axiom that one should not speak ill of the dead, in the sense of bad-mouthing them. But one should also be truthful. Like Dominic Lawson, I have a daughter with Down’s Syndrome; like him I am indescribably happy that she is alive. I do not know if the world is a “less fun place” without Claire Rayner. My daughter and, I imagine, Domenica Lawson, still get a lot of pleasure out of it.