The first breath of a person

It would be a moral and intellectual relief to cling to a clean line of logic all the way from conception to birth, and argue that a fertilised human egg should be every bit as valuable to humanity as a newborn baby. But I don’t think it is, and not just because I cannot bring myself to condemn a woman who undergoes an early abortion for serious reasons, despite the lurch of sadness such news triggers.

A woman’s sense of loss at miscarrying after a few weeks – an event about which she might even be unaware – is quite different in scale from her grief at miscarrying at five months, and further again from the trauma of stillbirth. A foetus tends to accrue value from the moment of its conception, in line with the mother’s physical and emotional investment in its existence.

These are arguments in shades of grey, in messy territory, and at various points they make me uneasy, but that does not render them worthless. By the time a baby is born, it has the capacity to survive – with suitable care – away from the mother entirely: that surely gives it some greater claim to an independent right to life.

I had feelings for both of my children before they were born. I was protective of the very notion of them, and I examined their scans with pleasure. But something extraordinary happens at the moment of birth, when babies suddenly appear in the world in all their naked, elemental glory. At that moment, they assert themselves as human beings separate from their mother.

I do not know if Ms Minerva has children herself, but there is something about newborn babies that comes as a kind of joyful shock: their delicious ferocity in promoting their own survival. They might flaunt their vulnerability, with their silky skin and curiously heavy heads, but they still turn those heads to feed with a breathtakingly sharp and voracious instinct. They are bristling with the urge for life, although they might not be able to articulate it.

There is powerful meaning beyond logic, rooted in experience, instinct and love. And if you cannot understand that, perhaps you are still just a “potential person” yourself.

Where the wild things shouldn’t be

I usually find myself on the side of ancient traditions threatened by modern legislation, but when it was announced last week that the use of wild animals in circus performances will soon be stopped in Britain, my overwhelming feeling was one of relief.

Even in zoos, the trend is towards giving wild animals the maximum space possible: the sight of a big cat – a marvel of muscle and sinew – relentlessly pacing a small cage rightly depresses many onlookers. Circuses, by their very nature, impose tight physical restrictions on the accommodation of both their human and animal performers, but at least the humans are following their free will.

One of the saddest sights I ever saw was in Prague in the early 1990s: a Hungarian travelling circus, the star attraction of which was a rather threadbare brown bear, which performed its weary dance according to its trainer’s barked instructions. Something in the hard glint of the trainer’s eyes suggested that, whatever illusions I might have wished to cling to about the animal’s treatment, its existence had been a miserable one.

I love circuses, and have done ever since my elder sister took me to see the self-billed Smallest Circus in the World, which visited the outskirts of Belfast when I was a child. They have an intoxicating whiff of greasepaint and unpredictability, but it is the ingenuity and skill of humans that delights. Let’s leave the wild animals outside the Big Top.

I’m ready for my extra shot now

I was pleased to hear that Starbucks is adding an extra shot of espresso to all its coffees, having found drinks there rather tasteless in the past. Yet perhaps what it needs to do is not add coffee, but subtract milk. The company’s “venti” offering, which weighs in at a whopping 24 ounces, drowns any coffee element in its vast, creamy sea.

The health nuts’ fear that Britain is in the grip of an addictive “caffeine inflation”, however, is probably true. A long-term tea-drinker, I have recently taken to a coffee called a “flat white” – a short, punchy, double-shot beverage – which has the same temporarily invigorating effect on me as I imagine a line of cocaine might on those who flout the law.

I realised I was in trouble when I had gone to considerable trouble to obtain a coffee before a film screening, and the lady at reception attempted to take it away from me. I tried to give it up, and found my hand wouldn’t let me.

“I’m sorry,” I said, meaningfully, “but I really need this coffee.”

She looked at my slightly wild eyes, and gave in. I don’t think I growled. I really hope I didn’t.

Health Today

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