Compassion, like everything, has a price

Friday, 13 August 1999

THE Chinese calendar stretches back over several millennia — almost as long as my ancestors measure theirs — and Chinese wisdom reflects this. One of their rules is that if you save someone's life, you become responsible for that life. Pull a man from the rushing waters of the Yangtzee in flood and you'd better be prepared to feed and clothe him.

It hasn't stopped me pig-headedly rushing in where I might be able to assist if lives are in danger, but it's advice that holds true. In 1982, I helped pull a man from the brink of a suicide leap. Two weeks later, he held a woman hostage at gunpoint in the gun room of a downtown Durban department store. She wasn't physically harmed — he flung her out of the way when the reaction unit moved in to pump his chest full of bullets while I stood by helplessly.

Given the same scenario, I would save his life again, and he would probably take her hostage again, and this time she might die.

I still stop to render first aid at road accidents.

A London Times story published in the Cape Times yesterday linked a drop in crime levels in the US in the 90s to the legalisation of abortion in the 1970s.

"They're the ones who are most likely to have been unloved by their mothers, to have faced intense poverty, to have had tough lives," said Steven Levitt, the researcher at the University of Chicago who conducted the study together with John Donahue of Stanford.

Abortion, he said, "provides a way for the mothers of those kids who are going to lead really tough lives to avoid bringing them into the world".

The report said the researchers are braced for an academic firestorm. In my book, they're more likely to be offed in the name of love by some god-fearing right-to-lifer bearing plastique in a diaper. But this got me thinking about Aids babies.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, while minister of health, was raked over the coals for not rushing out to provide AZT to HIV-positive pregnant mothers. If those mothers were given AZT, the well-meaning onlookers chorused, there was a greater chance that more of their babies would survive.

God help us. We mean so well, but we do not stop to think. We fall prey to that visceral belief that a foetus is a life and that life needs to be preserved and that therefore we should do everything we can to save that life.

And then what?

Children need more than to be smacked on the bum to force the fluid from their lungs and have their umbilical cords cut. Yes, they need food and warmth and shelter, but they also need love and affection and all of those things that in most cultures are provided by mothers.

And when there's a better than even chance that the mother will be dead before the child hits his formative years and grows up without the grounding in values and morality that he would have had had she been alive, why are we doing our damnedest to bring that child into the world in the first place?

We're out of our minds. Our first port of call should be to counsel the prospective mother and advise her to abort the child. Spend money on trying to save her life if need be. If the public health system can find funding for AZT, give it to her for her sake, not for a child that is likely to end up another glue-sniffing statistic on the streets a decade from now. Four hundred rands spent on AZT to save one baby's life will feed and clothe a rural family for a month and more. A full stomach allows a child to focus on learning. A child who learns becomes an asset to all of us.

On the other hand, those who feel strongly enough about this and want to save the lives of those children, should do as the Chinese advise — assume responsibility for their lives. Take them into your homes as your own and feed and clothe and nurture them to adulthood so that they can become full members of society, not consigned to the fringes by uninformed well-wishers.

Our world doesn't need more uncared-for babies. We need better care for the babies that we already have.