MPs would ban all that harms—except boxing

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 09 November 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1168

In a pre-election frenzy Britain's party leaders are bidding in a political auction for the moral high ground. No sooner had John Major and Tony Blair set out their Christian credentials than Mr Blair came under fire from the Catholic hierarchy for his stance on abortion. Mr Major in turn rebuked his education secretary for advocating corporal punishment in schools. Some MPs even called for action against war toys in the run up to Christmas, lest boys are brutalised.

Meanwhile, the last session of the present parliament will be dominated by a trial of political strength to demonstrate who goes furthest to ban handguns and combat knives, as used in the Dunblane shootings and the murder of a headmaster. Moreover, in the heat of the Commons debate a deal was done across the floor for emergency legislation against paedophiles and stalkers. Add to this the mass slaughter of livestock to allay public scares about beef, and a panic over dangerous dogs, and the indications are that Westminster is in the grip of a political neurosis.

A jumpy parliament prepared to ban anything that hurts might seem like the right background for a timely campaign against boxing. Last week the BMA produced an antiboxing cartoon film. The animation is of a game of conkers which in the end turn into brains (p 1165). The film is being shown in cinemas, but its message needs to reach MPs in their new mood to sanitise society.

It would be quite consistent to argue that in a country which outlaws dogfighting, boxing is an equally uncivilised activity that should be stopped. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the new political morality covers boxing. Five private members' bills to ban it have failed in the past 15 years. True, recent bills were rejected on narrowing majorities of seven, three, and one in the House of Lords.

In the more combative Commons, however, the verdict is quite decisively in favour of boxing. A token antiboxing bill was crushed last year by an overwhelming majority of MPs. And that would seem to rule out the possibility of legislation for some time to come, whichever party is in power. Both front benches are hostile to a ban. The revulsion after each new death from boxing is rapidly overcome by promises to make the sport safer.

Sam Galbraith, the consultant neurosurgeon turned Labour MP, while supporting a ban, says that he accepts the political reality: “We are not going to get it banned at the moment. There has to be more research. We have to examine exactly what is the extent of damage and risk; when does it occur; how quickly do you recover; and can it be predicted in any way.”

Last year the boxing authorities introduced extra precautions of stricter medical supervision and longer lay offs after knockouts. Magnetic resonance imaging replaced the less sensitive computed tomography to detect brain damage. Objections remain that these procedures address problems of acute injury rather than chronic and cumulative damage. The latest suggestion is of a blood protein test to screen individuals who may be especially susceptible to head injury. Plans are also in hand for an extensive neurological research programme.

It remains to be seen whether scientific evidence against boxing will prevail over the graphic account, as deployed 35 years ago by Dr Edith Summerskill, who said: “The advice of the experts is to ‘Let him have it hard on the point of the jaw.’ Unconsciousness supervenes more quickly after this particular blow than after any other. Then you hit the groggy man quickly on the body. In consequence his hands, which should be protecting his head, go down to defend his body. Then is the time to give the already damaged brain another blow in order to concuss it and induce complete unconsciousness.” Parliament is no more listening today than it was then.—JOHN WARDEN, parliamentary correspondent, BMJ

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