England: you can't mail that here

Posted: Jun 23, 2006 12:01 AM

In England, you can have an abortion for just about any reason. But one thing you evidently can't do is talk about what abortion is -- or at least show the bloody truth through images.

A 74-year-old man named Edward Atkinson recently spent four weeks in prison for sending an executive at Norfolk's Queen Elizabeth Hospital "very upsetting" images and literature (and they were) in an effort, Atkinson said, "to educate" her about the abortion procedures done at her facility. On the same day Atkinson was sentenced, a wheelchair-bound woman was convicted for sending similar pictures to pharmacies that stock the "morning-after pill."

Now, it's worth mentioning that I'm often the first person to cringe and discourage my fellow abortion opponents from marching with graphic images of dead children -- what Mr. Atkinson did, but in his case via the British postal service. No one wants to have look at pictures of death and destruction -- and on an issue that's already about as acidic and painful as political issues get, we might all get further with a little less vinegar. But whatever my own rhetorical preferences might be -- and whatever your position on abortion is -- it's a scandal that a man would be jailed for such an act of free speech. But sending offensive material through the mail is a crime in Merry Old England and so a judge deemed this old man's mail criminal. You don't have to think that abortion is an evil that we need to eradicate to think that that is an outrage.

And even if had he asked me, I would have advised Atkinson to approach matters -- and the hospital official -- differently. But I do know about the undeniable power of images. Anyone who is pregnant right now or has been pregnant in recent years knows, in an intimate way, the visual power of the miracle of life seen through "windows on the womb." And although I've made my general hesitance to opt for the show end of show-and-tell known when it comes to abortion, I would never want to see that option eliminated.

Take the partial-birth-abortion debate back home in the United States as one example why. Images here help. There's been much media dismissal of the description I just used -- "partial-birth abortion." But the National Right to Life Committee has a crystal-clear diagram on its Web site, and once you see it, you realize that "partial-birth abortion" really is the perfect wording for this barbaric procedure. (Unless you want to use the word "infanticide," as one prominent pro-choice Democratic senator did a few years ago; I certainly won't discourage you.) Not only should a citizen be free to show such disturbing images -- that illustrate a legal procedure offensive to our very humanity -- those images can be a public service.

That's why the United Kingdom's treatment of Mr. Atkinson has been so reprehensible. And it gets even worse. In writing -- not spur of the moment -- an official of Queen Elizabeth Hospital informed him that the hospital would no longer treat him for problems that are not life-threatening, "and as such you have been removed from our replacement hip waiting list." As a British taxpayer, Mr. Atkinson deserves better than that.

A judge told Atkinson that "it is clear that you intended to shock and I am certain your purpose was to cause distress and anxiety." Well, I for one am shocked, distressed and anxious -- not just because abortion is legal there, and here across the pond, but because of this apparent governmentally enforced conspiracy of silence. The Atkinson files reveal a real case of aborting free speech. Abortion defenders may not agree on the underlying issue -- but can't we all muster outrage over attempts to avoid discussing the details of the issue?