Is there anyone else who is still feeling tender after watching Sally Phillips’s documentary last night? Anyone else who found themselves collaring friends at the school gates, saying ‘So did you watch it?’ hungry to chew it over? If that is you, let’s talk…
It’s not the most important aspect, I know, but can I just say how wonderful Sally Phillips was, as a presenter? A comic actress, best known as Tilly in Miranda, or Sharon from the Bridget Jones films, her onscreen persona is that of a posh, pretty clown. ‘Right now,’ she said, ‘I’m nine out of ten angry’, and then beamed a radiant smile. She listened politely to the woman who’d aborted her Downs baby, then when she heard about the injection to kill the foetus, she just smarted, ever so slightly, and it was like hearing a bomb go off, deep underground.
The film started with her own family, in which we met Olly, her own Downs Syndrome child, who seemed to have a sunny genius for inventing jokes, that were all the funnier, for making no sense (“Knock knock” “Who’s there?” “Chicken! Buck Buck!”) then moved on to interview the professor who’s making a more exact test to screen for Downs, the man who analysed the complete DNA of his foetus, as well as the woman who aborted (“It wasn’t the future I wanted for my child”).
They trotted out the usual arguments, by which people justify morally questionable actions –
“The science isn’t bad; it’s what people do with it that’s bad”
“I’m only doing what everyone will be doing, one day”
“It’s about giving more choice” (but it’s not; 100% of Icelandic people terminate prospective Downs babies) –
while the story was quietly told: people with Downs are quietly being screened out of society, at the same time that they are improving their reading, their gym skills, their terrible jokes. By the end of it, you’d feel, at the very least, you’d avoid taking that test. I’d rather – I thought as I turned it off – be screening out people with big feet, or who show a propensity for jet-skis. (I was just trying to make a joke, and was not sure I cracked it. I do hate jet-skiers, but I still wouldn’t want to abort them in utero).
The only problem was that the film so resoundingly quashed the opposing arguments, that you found yourself wanting to get away from the scientists, and fools with their subtly Nazi views: you wanted to meet more people with Downs. I know so little about it, beyond the usual clichés about cheery children with almond eyes. (“Oh I’m horrible!” Jerry Sadowitz used to say, “I’m the only person who can go into a room full of Downs Syndrome, and not get a hug!”) I know of a woman who routinely adopted Downs children. “They’re so happy,” she said. She made them seem like the Magic People. Are they? What are the day-to-day problems people are screening to avoid? Do Downs children take longer to potty train? Do they die painful deaths? If you know, please say.
I’ve still been thinking about it all this morning. I just went for a long walk, in which my head swirled with questions, and I felt very Sally Phillips-like: quashing a desire to cry, while still trying to finish that joke. (Who would we screen out? People who are good at Physics? Loud people? Nothing quite works does it?) By the end, I’d walked miles, and only stopped when I reached a field full of young bullocks, being fattened up for the mincer. As I stood, the bullocks shuffled curiously over. They stared with their big lovely eyes. I stared back, wanting, desperately to touch them. I wouldn’t screen out anyone, I decided, now yearning to give those bullocks a hug.
So that’s how the documentary left me: out of jokes, bursting with questions, and a throbbing tenderness towards all creatures. Is that how we were supposed to feel? How did it leave you?