Financial penalties must be selective

Roberts says suing the NHS for post-abortion trauma is a step too far for the
compensation culture.

unnamed woman is intending to sue the NHS for post-abortion trauma. She
recently told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that when she gave birth
to her son a year ago, feelings of regret, guilt and self- hatred over her
earlier abortion "flooded back".

Extensive research indicates that a minority
of women experience severe mental distress after a termination. Nevertheless,
this woman, backed by the anti-abortion organisation Life, wants the NHS to pay
for a decision she would not have taken, she argues, if counselling had been
given on the possible psychological effects of a termination.

Critics argue that we are in the grip of a
compensation culture gone mad, in which the tariff for suffering appears as
arbitrary as the grounds on which people make their claims.

Recently Paul James began proceedings (later
dropped) to win £400,000 in damages from Hammersmith and Fulham Council, in
west London. His lawyer argued that he had been left with a "profoundly
disturbed" personality that prevented him from holding down a job or
sustaining a relationship. This was the alleged consequence of the council
failing to provide him with "unchangeable and reliable parenting".
Instead, he had lived in a succession of foster families and children’s
institutions until the age of 18.

So, are we in the midst of a "poor
me" gold rush? Or can the levying of large sums of cash help not just the
individual but also expedite change in organisations, which, otherwise, may
show little desire to improve?

In the case of alleged post-abortion trauma,
it seems absurd to ask the NHS to fork out. As Dr Ellie Lee of the Pro-Choice
Forum points out, "Abortion provision takes place on the basisÉ that
reproductive decisions are private ones, best made by those who will bear the
consequences of them."

In the matter of organisations that are
sexist, racist or whose failure to manage effectively exacts a high cost not
just from one individual but from large numbers, nothing encourages change more
speedily than the imposition of a tough financial penalty. In the USA, in the
1970s, the communications giant AT&T was fined millions of dollars because
its discriminatory employment policies held back women and ethnic minorities.

The lesson was learned. Five years later, the
face of its white-collar work force had changed drastically with an influx of
those who had previously been marginalised. Local authorities that have
overhauled their policies, however, may still be landed with the bill for the
inadequacies of those who ran the shop years before. That’s rough, but it’s
still justice.

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