The state’s erosion of childhood makes me shiver

Last week a young relative of mine, who has just turned 12, had to have some teeth extracted under general anaesthetic as part her orthodontic treatment. At the pre-op she was made to undergo a pregnancy test. Hearing this left me reeling. That, I suppose to be fair, is because I know her and know how utterly inappropriate and disproportionate such a risk assessment was. I tried to be as dispassionate as I could about how intrusive this felt for her and her family. I found myself saying things like, “I suppose I have to accept that she’s no longer a little girl.” And then I reflected that this is exactly what she is. She likes to play with dolls still. She is innocent and lovingly protected.

Is there, I wonder, a crisis of anthropology and indeed care in a health service in which the physical changes of puberty themselves are an objective indication that you are at risk of being pregnant, but not, apparently, that you might be at risk of being a girl if you don’t want to be; where familial, social and cultural constructs are judged powerful enough to have imposed the “wrong” gender on your body, but are not strong enough to prevent you from going out and getting pregnant the minute your reproductive organs became functional.

In the first case, the body is an irrelevance; in the second, a definitive indicator. Most sinister was the phrase in the information given explaining to parents that if your daughter is pregnant she will be invited to discuss this first with the medical team and only then will you be informed. In other words, the state, in the person of its employees, is now in the front line of caring for your child. Parenting is too expert and serious a business to be left to parents. Such an ideology, however well intentioned one may believe it to be, must be resisted. It undermines a fundamental Catholic principle that the family is the basic cell of society.

I think that the same mistaken tendency to usurp familial and parental rights lies behind the drive for ever more explicit and intrusive sex education by state-sponsored experts. I listened with horror to a radio feature in which a breezy headteacher discussed the “Pants” programme. This acronym gives its name to an initiative intended to give children an awareness of their sexuality which will make them less vulnerable to abuse. According to the headteacher: “We all know pants are funny; pants make us laugh.” Even if one shared her pubescent sense of humour as a rationale for the name I thought this was, at best, pedagogically dubious. (Anyone who makes you laugh about your pants is to be trusted?) Her soundbite was followed by lisping children as young as three being coached in how to pronounce anatomically correct names for their genitalia. “Yes, it’s embarrassing,” the head admitted, “but you just have to say the name out loud to yourself over and over again until you can do so without laughing.”

She was referring not to the children, but to the teachers required to “deliver” (sic) the lessons. Might this not itself suggest that an “appropriate” (as the jargon has it) degree of embarrassment and even shame can attach to sex in the same way that it attaches to shoplifting, in order to keep us safe? Could not the embarrassment be to do with the fact that such intensely personal things as sexuality (most especially if you are so young) are not best dealt with in this quasi-public setting? Secrecy around it may be undesirable, but so too is the idea that sexuality belongs to the realm of the communal. Could it be that the nervous laughter is due to some residual intuition that we are actually dealing with something far more complex and spiritual than the merely biological? If so, this is clearly not the best forum or approach for it. Surely the definition of corruption is that I know what something is, what it can do and how it may be exploited, without knowing what it is for, how to direct it towards its proper finality so as to realise its value?

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