For a mother to lose her baby when giving birth is surely one of the saddest things in the world. Charlotte Bronte, creator of the passionate and long-suffering Jane Eyre, once wrote of stillbirth, so common in her day:
“There is, I am convinced, no picture that conveys in all its dreadfulness, a vision of sorrow, despairing, remediless, supreme. If I could paint such a picture, the canvas would show only a woman looking down at her empty arms.”
Often enough in the mid-19th century the mother herself would die in childbirth, and Charlotte also died tragically together with her unborn child, though during pregnancy and possibly from the effects of severe morning sickness.
Her “vision of sorrow” comment is quoted in today’s lead article by Priscilla Coleman applauding an effort by The Lancet medical journal to address the burden of stillbirth on mothers, families and nations. As many as 6 million babies are lost this way each year. At the same time Dr Coleman wonders when leading scientists and journals will acknowledge the even greater burden represented by some 40 million induced abortions a year. (Imagine how horrified Charlotte Bronte would have been by that!)
Dr Coleman is an academic who has published a number of research papers on the psychological effects of abortion – research which typically meets with denial from her professional peers. Her superb article, however, shows that there is solid evidence to support what seems all too obvious to a reasonable person – that women do suffer serious consequences from terminating the life of their child.
There’s a well-worn saying about statistics that suggests we should put very little faith in them. Yet in the big controversies of the day, numbers really count, even when the people using them apparently cannot.
That is the gist of today’s article by sociologist Walter Schumm on the fraught subject of same-sex parenting. It summarises part of a much longer journal article dealing with other controversial topics as well, and illustrates how scientists can count and weigh the same things differently depending, it appears, on the results they want.
Researchers on both sides of the gay parenting debate have been accused of this, but only those with negative findings have been pilloried in the press. Read Dr Schumm’s piece and see what the other side have been up to.
How can a country with 1.35 billion people have too few of them? The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are scratching their heads over this puzzle as the country's working-age population shrinks for the second year in a row.
As Marcus Roberts points out below, years of draconian enforcement of a one-child policy are bearing fruit. The proportion of young people is contracting while the proportion of their elderly parents and grandparents is growing. That's not a unique problem, but in a country which is still poor on a per-capita basis, it could be a disaster. The Chinese may find that they are growing old before they grow rich.
Sorry, but there won't be a newsletter tomorrow, as we are celebrating Australia Day Down Under. Normally that means barbecues, backyard cricket and beaches, but all that looks unlikely in Sydney as it is raining heavily at the moment.
Why January 26 -- a date we share with India's Republic Day? It is the day in 1788 when Governor Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships, arrived at Sydney Cove and raised the Union Jack over Great Britain's new colony.
It is an increasingly popular holiday, even though there are lively debates every year about the meaning of the celebration. There is also a shadow over it. The indigenous people who watched the First Fleet sail in were probably alarmed. They had a right to be. It wasn't long before disease and conflict had reduced their numbers and shattered their culture. As early as 1938 representatives began protesting Australia Day and declaring it "a day of mourning and protest".
So there is a serious side to tomorrow. But basically it is a good excuse to chill out. We will be taking advantage of it.
We cover some very weighty topics below, but my favourite today is Tamara El-Rahi's praise of childhood chores. They are "a proven predictor for a sense of mastery, self-reliance, responsibility, empathy and respect for others — and the sooner that the kids start, the better," she writes. And what's more, her advice comes with an ironclad guarantee that you won't be a slave driver or an evil parent. Check it out!
You can find heroism in the most unexpected places. Today we are running an article about a hero from Kenya who paid with his life to protect the people around him from al-Shabaab terrorists. That is noble enough, but he was a Muslim and his courage saved the lives of a number of Christians. See below.
Austen Ivereigh has written a splendid review of the new book by Pope Francis, The Name of God Is Mercy. (See below.) In it the Pope says, "We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers and sisters live.”That is a huge challenge, but undoubtedly true. In today’s society, living a normal life is a very special grace.
I was surprised to see that the New York Times may have been the first newspaper to review the book. The writer was impressed with its style and sincerity: “The ease with which the pope speaks to the concerns of ordinary people, as well as his humble lifestyle … is rooted in a heartfelt sense of humility.”
Social change is a bit like climate change. If you build a power generator belching clouds of dirty brown smoke, you're likely to defend it by saying, "what difference can one smokestack make? Look, it has been there for five years and the sky hasn't fallen in. What's the problem?" But with enough smokestacks, the weather changes.
Social change, too, works by year after year accumulation. Once upon a time, there were few divorces; now they have exploded, with drastic effects upon women and children, poverty rates and welfare rolls. But it took decades to get this bad.
So you cannot expect overnight change after the legalisation of same-sex marriage. However, once established, the pace will quicken. One of the first places its effects will be seen is in schools, as our two lead stories today illustrate.
Growing up I came to understand that Suffragettes were feisty British women who were prepared to chain themselves to the iron railings of government buildings, and be thrown into prison and force-fed in their fight for voting rights for women. I heard about the amazing deed of the firebrand Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 and was trampled to death. This scene, not surprisingly, features in the film, Suffragette, now in cinemas.
As I recall, it all seemed very necessary and heroic, though why they had to go to such extremes to gain something that suffrage campaigners in New Zealand, then a British colony, had gained for women here in 1893 by getting up a huge petition, was not at all clear to me. What I don’t remember hearing about was the campaign of destruction by British militants that is the focus of our lead article today. I mean, burning down bigwigs’ (empty) country houses and planting bombs in cathedrals… Steady on, ladies!
New Zealand, a tiny new country at the bottom of the world, was of course a different kettle of fish to Britain, with its entrenched social system and international role. A lot of British men didn’t have the vote either when they were sent off to war in 1914 to be blown to bits. Democracy (and revolution) were on the move in the old world and universal suffrage was going to happen anyway. Was Suffragette militancy really necessary?
Today’s articles range over pronoun wars, drug wars and Star Wars, the birth dearth in Europe and the ISIS-style suicide bombing in Jakarta. The most important in terms of urgency and human welfare is Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which is observed on Sunday.
The flow continues unabated -- more than 18,000 refugees have entered the European Union so far this year, compared to 5,550 in the whole of January last year. The scale has begun to frighten people and bad behaviour among some young male migrants has become an excuse to ramp up opposition to immigration in some places.
But the Pope is challenging us to be merciful, as God is merciful to us. And who among us, seeing the devastation of Syria nightly on television, could honestly tell people they ought to stay there? The revelation this week that a whole town has been kept hostage and people are literally starving to death underlines this in a shocking way. As long as political leaders are incapable of negotiating peace, we should receive the victims of war.