Ruled by bullies and barbarians

Christmas is approaching. We remember the story of a pregnant woman travelling far from home being turned away from shelter. We give thanks for the miracle of the safe arrival of the Christ-child, and all the wonderful things that have followed from that.

I can’t help but ponder the differences between that story and the one that has recently come to public attention involving Alessandra Pacchieri. Ms Pacchieri was also a pregnant woman travelling far from home – in her case, she came from her home in Italy to Stansted Airport, to attend a training course. She was heavily pregnant, and through an unfortunate sequence of events, fell foul of the local constabulary and social services. Because she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and was not maintaining her medication, she was ‘sectioned’ – meaning that she was detained in a psychiatric hospital. Her baby girl was removed by caesarean section and, after the first few days, she was forbidden to continue breast-feeding and the child was placed in foster-care. Some fifteen months on, her child is now being put up for adoption, and Ms Pacchieri is pursuing her case through the courts – quite simply, she seeks for her child to be returned to her. In this she is being supported by a number of people and institutions who share my horror at what Essex Social Services have done.

Now I am quite certain that a rational case can be developed to demonstrate that the actions of our Social Services were in line with the proper procedures and guidance that they have to follow. At each point someone with proper authority gave their advice or consent for the next step to be taken. It may be the case that there are details of this case that have not been made public, and that would shed a very different light upon what seems to be a frightening injustice. Yet, I also can’t help but believe that such information would itself have to be pretty staggering to do justice to what has happened. To enforce a caesarean section upon a woman without consent, and then to deny further contact between mother and child, and then to put the child up for adoption against the wishes of the wider family – clearly, this mother must be seen by our social services as one of the most evil mothers ever to walk the earth. For what else might justify their actions? If Ms Pacchieri is simply an averagely competent mother, the welfare of her daughter is greatly advanced by being kept with her mother. This basic truism is even enshrined in European Law, which in this case at least manages to coincide with common sense.

I shall be following the details of this case with great interest, and I pray for an outcome which minimises the trauma for the families involved. What I would like to tease out here, however, is the way in which Ms Pacchieri became subject to the choices of bureaucrats. Wittgenstein once remarked to a friend (who went on to become an eminent psychiatrist) that nothing would frighten him more than being misdiagnosed as mentally ill. Surely it is a fate similar to that of Ms Pacchieri that concerned him. After all, once the diagnosis had been made – once the system had taken control of her life – once ‘the Matrix has her’ – all of Ms Pacchieri’s rights were taken away. She was no longer a person, she was simply a unit, moved around and manipulated, operated on and directed by bureaucratic imperatives. Can there be a more fundamental breach of human rights than this?

We have inherited, in our justice system, a good number of checks and balances; things like trial by jury, habeas corpus, rights to do with free speech and free assembly and so on. These have evolved because of a recognition that the centralisation of power will inevitably lead to abuse. It is through a dispersal of power and, especially, an insistence upon bounds to the arbitrary exercise of power, that have enabled this country to enjoy a wealth of freedom through recent centuries. What the Pacchieri case says to me is that this historic settlement has been abandoned.

What, after all, did it mean to be diagnosed as ‘schizophrenic’ – which is the diagnosis given about Ms Pacchieri to justify her incarceration. There is no recognised aetiology for schizophrenia; the word is simply an umbrella term used to gather together a bundle of disparate symptoms – and those symptoms themselves essentially boil down to ‘behaviour which makes the wider society uncomfortable’. (For a thorough debunking of ‘schizophrenia’ as a concept – in other words, for the definitive argument as to why the word has no inherent meaning whatsoever – I would heartily recommend Mary Boyle’s ‘Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion’.)

What has happened is that a small group of people, following recognised ‘good practice’ and deploying all the powers available to the state – including those given to the recently developed ‘Courts of Protection’ (oh Kafka, if only you had lived to see this) – decided that Ms Pacchieri didn’t conform to their desired patterns of behaviour. As a consequence Ms Pacchieri has had her life turn into a real-life version of Rosemary’s Baby. She has been deprived of all agency and dignity and still the bureaucrats want to rend mother and child apart.

I feel ashamed to belong to a society that can allow such a thing to happen. We are ruled by barbarians and bullies. Two thousand years ago, a vulnerable young woman found shelter amongst the animals. Grace allowed amazing things to happen in consequence – in a place apart from polite society, apart from the realms of social acceptability. That is where God is – at the margins, with those who are broken, with the mad and maladjusted, the sinners and fools, those whom the system breaks and crucifies. Ms Pacchieri stands amongst them, and I pray that this Christmas time she might gain some small measure of comfort and support from knowing that.

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