Why everyone should support abortion access

This post was prompted by the controversy over the extent to which self-described “feminist pro-life” groups were made welcome at the Women’s March on Washington.

First, about me – because when it comes to reproductive rights, the personal is absolutely political. I have a Mirena. It’s marketed as the most effective form of reversible contraception ever invented. Also, I’ve only had unprotected sex twice in my life. Not a particularly remarkable fact, except I have two kids. Yeah. That can happen to people! I don’t mention it often out of respect for the feelings of friends who have had difficulty conceiving, but it’s important in the context of this conversation to remember that for many of us, conceiving babies comes easily – and sometimes too easily.

So I think of the Mirena as a wonderful contraceptive device for the rest of my fertile years, but not everyone sees it like that. Some people call it a “tiny abortion machine”. As well as suppressing ovulation and providing a barrier for sperm, it can also prevent a fertilised egg from being implanted in the uterus. It’s kind of like three forms of contraception in one. Which is why it’s so effective. Some people think it should be illegal though, because of their views about the moral status of a fertilised egg. Not even a fetus! A fertilised egg that might not even implant anyway!

Implantation is usually considered to be the moment a woman becomes pregnant. Within a week after implantation, hormone levels can be high enough to detect in a home pregnancy test. And here’s an interesting fact: some women can feel the moment of implantation. I did, both times. A sharp sudden cramping that lasted about five minutes. It’s kinda awesome that it can be felt, kinda amazing that I can think of that moment and look at the kids I have now, the older one who talks a mile a minute; the baby who’s just starting to pull himself up on furniture and learnt to wave last week. I don’t want to be pregnant again; no; but I’m very glad that I have been able to carry two babies. What unfathomable power of my body, to create this new life. Day by day, second by second, growing, forming, becoming. How miraculous to feel the first movements, a flutter, then only weeks later they become more definite, and by the final few weeks it’s clearly a little person in there, kicking away, digging a heel into the side of my belly.

(Meanwhile, the lumbering awkwardness to the body, the varicose veins, the heartburn, the hip and back pain, the inability to get comfortable, the constant need to pee, the disturbed sleep. It’s not roses, that’s for sure).

Then finally, ah, when the baby is born. To look down at that tiny being and think “I made you! I made you! You are literally created out of my body! This is incredible!”

Ugh but the first trimester! For me, weeks 6 – 8 were like some terrible terrible illness. The sickest I’ve ever felt. Unable to get out of bed. Ravenously hungry but also gutchurningly nauseous. The second time I knew it would be over soon, hopefully. The first time I didn’t know and was terrified it might last the whole nine months. Vomiting in the shower, vomiting in a laundry basket, vomiting again because the smell of vomit is so sickening. Burning through all my sick leave and really really grateful to  have sick leave because working would have been impossible. The thought of requiring people to wait more than a couple of days for an abortion went from “oh, that must be annoying” to “WHAT THE HELL, THAT IS TORTURE, HOW CAN WE TOLERATE THAT?!”

Childbirth was the biggest revelation though. Before childbirth, I didn’t feel personally insulted by the views of those who want to restrict abortion access. I disagreed, but I could deal with it a bit impartially. We could talk, y’know? But then the birth of my first. It was bad. It wasn’t the worst a birth can be, but it was bad. I try and look on the positive – hey, we both survived! The baby only needed to stay in NICU for half a day. I only needed one night in hospital. Shame about the prolapsed vagina, shame about the sense of being blindsided with a horrific experience where the only silver lining is remembering that people used to die and at least my baby was ok, thanks to immediate oxygen, thanks to the high-tech unit in the hospital.

Since having that experience, the idea of restricting access to abortion – forcing women to bear and birth children – leaves me recoiling. It’s a visceral shudder at the idea of being forced to be pregnant, forced to go through a birth for an unwanted child. The cruelty of it. To go into that process knowing that you want the baby, but unaware that it can have such a high cost, is bad enough. To go into it not even wanting the baby. Oh fuck. You can’t do that to someone. You can’t do that to someone and still think they’re a person. You just can’t.

It would be torture.

I didn’t know, beforehand. Three years ago, I was expecting the approaching childbirth to be painful, sure, but not traumatic, not permanently damaging to my body. I knew the second time around, so I suppose that means I’d have done it anyway first time round, but – a third baby against my will? No. Please no. I feel euphoric at the thought I don’t have to do that again. It’s not about the baby at the other end so much. I wouldn’t mind mothering another baby, babies are quite nice. It’s the process of making the baby, I don’t think I can do that again, not with the lasting issues from the first birth, not with the risks for further damage. I’ve done my bit for the continuance of the species, I’ve made TWO WHOLE PEOPLE, from SCRATCH. Over and out, that’s enough from me thanks. 

And so, well, this whole thing around the “can you be pro-life and a feminist?” debate – just no. I just want to write screeds about how wrong that framing is. The question, people, the question, if you’re listening, is:

Can you support abortion access even if you feel that a fetus deserves equal moral consideration to a person outside the womb?

THAT IS THE QUESTION.

Because the answer to the otherquestion is… no. Like, uh, we kind of need abortion to be legal because of how the alternative is really scary and horrific to a big proportion of the people with wombs?

And here are some reasons why the answer is a RESOUNDING YES to the big bold question. Here are some reasons why you can and in fact must support legal, safe, and funded abortion access despite your views on the morality of abortion.

1. Abortions happen anyway

If I wanted an abortion and it was illegal, I’d fly to a country where it was legal. Shit option, but better than the alternative for someone in the same predicament with less money: an untrained provider, an attempt to do things at home without proper medical information, black-market pills that might not work. It doesn’t bear thinking about. When abortion is illegal, women seek them anyway, at great risk, and some die.

2. Reasonable people disagree on the moral status of a fetus

I’m a vegetarian. I know what it’s like to think that a group of vulnerable being shouldn’t be killed, but to live in a society where lots of people think it’s fine to kill them. I get it that you care about the fetus and maybe you think it’s weird that other people don’t care so much. That’s fine. No-one is asking you not to care! We’re just asking you to accommodate the views of others. If you think it’s a genuine moral disagreement, then you should be in favour of abortion access. Really. Because if it’s a genuine moral disagreement, you shouldn’t presume to restrict other people’s moral choices. In a liberal society, the coercive power of the state should be kept to a minimum. It doesn’t mean you have to stay silent on abortion, but please recognise that even if we agree with your premise about the value of a fetus, this is an area with significant competing rights. You can tell people that you think abortion is wrong, whatever, but when it comes to a legislative response to the issue, it needs to be legal. When reasonable people disagree, we err in favour of not criminalising behaviour that some people think is essential to the health of half the population. That’s fundamental to democracy.

So… maybe try limiting your scope of political action to issues where there are no human rights arguments on the other side? If you care about the sanctity of life, have you considered throwing all your efforts at the Syrian refugee crisis?

3. Pregnancy and childbirth are major major things to go through

Worldwide, more people die in childbirth and from complications than from armed conflict. Most of those deaths would be prevented in developed countries, but not all of them. In contrast, the risks of abortion are vanishingly low. Childbirth has always been a major risk to a woman’s life, and holy fuck am I glad to live right now rather than at any other point in history. But the process has inherent risks, and there is inherent and significant loss of bodily autonomy for the pregnant person. Just the whole concept of it, sharing your body, the nutrients being leeched from your very bones, someone else using your blood. If anyone who wasn’t a fetus tried to do that, we’d be justified in making them stop however we could. The anti-abortion lobby trivialises pregnancy and childbirth, because minimising what it involves helps their argument. This is a lie that causes enormous damage to women, and undermines the very causes that would help support women to choose to keep an unplanned but welcome pregnancy.

4. Babies will be born to women who don’t want to care for them

Some of those babies will be neglected. Some will be abandoned. Not to mention the mental and emotional suffering of the mothers. What a horrific cost.

5. Humility

I’m not super duper religious but I’m religious enough that it gets to me when people try and use religion to enact laws that will cause suffering (as restricting abortion definitely would). I’m religious enough that I think it’s important to critically examine our religious views. And I’m religious enough that I love the story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg having this quote on the wall of her chambers:

And what does the Lord require of thee? To do justice, to seek mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

Walk humbly with thy God, ah, those are some great words. Whoever your God is. Whether your God is the God of that book or another book, the God of mysticism or of scientific rationalism, whether your God is the God of the free market or the socialist utopia; walk humbly. Do justice. Seek mercy. In the quest to do justice, be sure that you temper judgement with mercy and humility. Examine your own behaviour first, before condemning others. That is what is required of us. Mercy and humility alongside our moral missions. If you want to make sure that abortion isn’t the default option for unplanned pregnancy you can absolutely be a feminist. If you want to critique normalisation of abortion for disabled groups, please do so. But remember that you need to approach the issue with mercy and humility. Not with a campaign to decide things for other people through criminal sanctions that strip them of fundamental bodily autonomy. If you’re able to say that you disagree with abortion, but will defend someone’s right to act otherwise; if you’re willing to fight for a woman’s right to sit in judgement on her own life, then welcome, come walk with us.

Transitions are hard

D in 20 years, maybe to a therapist:

“All through my childhood every weekday morning we porridge, and a cooked breakfast on weekends, pancakes or eggs or French toast. Mum was big on breakfasts. She’d sit with us and we’d tell stories and talk about the plan for the day. But when my parents were stressed and extra busy or going through a patch of shifting into a new routine it all went out the window. Then we had rice bubbles or toast. To this day I feel anxious and rushed at the sound of rice bubbles and yearn for the comfort of porridge.”

One day

When I am old and my children are grown, I might be sitting down in the evening and hear a sound that makes me spring up.

Which one was it? Who was that cry? Which one needs me?

And I’ll listen again and realise, there is no noise.

And I’ll ache for a small warm body to hold. Their little heads, the soft downy baby hair, or the mussy toddler mane. The tilted neck in the crook of my arm. The open mouth, the pink lips, the feeling of their breath on my skin. The light baby arm resting on my chest, or the heavier toddler arm wrapped around my neck pinning me to the bed. Stay here with me, you should stay here with me because you are my mummy. 

I will think of the way I used to kiss their foreheads and nuzzle them as they fell asleep. I will think of whispered lullabies, of the peace bestowed in having me close. 

I will think of how I used to look at them with a layered love, loving the future child emerging and the baby fading away just as much as I love the child before me, mesmerised by the impermanence of being. 

One day, they will be memories, and they don’t even know it.

Me and my boys

I always imagined I would have a daughter. She would have curly hair like me, and she would be a little bit bookish and a little bit wild. I would read to her, all my old favourites, and we would go on long walks together at the beach. We would do crafty activities and bake and climb to the top of hills to take in the view. I imagined more or less a new iteration of my childhood relationship with my mother.  

I wanted a boy too though. My husband and I always thought we’d have three kids, and hoped for two boys and a girl. 

We’ve got the two boys, but I don’t think we’ll have any more kids. The thought of never being pregnant again is so wonderful, so appealing. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I don’t think so. 

When I was pregnant with my first baby I had a strong and surprising sense it was going to be a boy. When I was pregnant with my second, just a few weeks along, I dreamt it was another boy – he even had a name, and it was the Hebrew word for son. It’s nice for a boy to have a brother, I thought. 

I grew up around boys. Family camping holidays were my five male cousins, my brother, and me. We mostly liked the same games, mud fights in the estuary, jumping off the wharf and floating down in the tide, collecting shells to turn into wind chimes. Endless card games. Tramping with our dads, making damper filled to oozing with jam, marching along with competitive camaraderie.

One year we found a baby sparrow and all other activities stopped. We took shifts guarding the ice cream tub we made into a nest, feeding it by hand. It died and we dug a grave, had a little burial ceremony, laid down some pebbles. Its name was Chirpy. 

Insulated by the equal footing with my cousins and by the sisterliness of my all-girls school, it wasn’t until university that I realised sexism was still an issue among men of my generation. But the young guy I met in the first week of lectures was pretty cool. It’s strange thinking of him as he was then, almost still a boy himself, the tender goofy lad who didn’t know yet how to respond to a world that saw him as a man, with all those assumptions about emotional detachment and so on. For all the many privileges of being a man, there is this enormous price.

Now, since becoming a father, though he’s worn with exhaustion, it also seems like he’s more and more comfortable in his own skin, with these two little cuddle buddles to pour love into. And despite the inevitable relationship strains of the early years, I have complete faith in him as a role model for gentle care for our sons. 

Ah, my boys, I feel so protective of their big hearts in a world where strangers sometimes say “boys will be boys” when the older one is rough; or “you don’t need to cry, you’re a big boy” when he falls down. It’s still seems like some people think men should be half-formed humans, all rough edges, with nothing mellow or smooth to round them out. 

But the boys themselves! When you see how much a two year old boy loves and needs cuddles, it’s immediately heartbreaking that most adult men aren’t big on displays of affection with their dude friends. I’m really conscious with the little dude of making time to pause and give him a hug when he wants one, even when I’m trying to do other things, that physical connection is so important to him. 

Of course, I’d hug my daughter a lot too – of course! But there’s no worry about shielding a girl from a message that hugs are not for her.

With any child, there would be that duality  of sameness  and difference – this child is of me, but other. The balance might skew differently depending on the child, and gender  is only  one of myriad factors  in that mix. I see much of myself in the little dude, with his will of iron and cheeky wit, a renegade adventurer sometimes, thoughtful and focused other times. The more I see his personality unfold, the more I feel like this is the child I was always meant to be entrusted with. This is the child I can help flourish.

At nine months, bub is still in that lovely genderless space. We all start like that, blissfully unaware of anything limiting who we might be. At almost three, the little dude is really alert to gender. In the car, we were listening to one of his CDs, and there’s a song with a male and female singer taking different parts – the man doing the animals with the low sounds and the woman doing the animals with the high sounds. The little dude was singing along and then he said “it’s the daddy’s turn when it’s the bear noise and the mummy’s turn when it’s the birdie noise”. Huh. Yeah, suppose so.

A few weeks ago I told him that it’s my job to decide when we have treats; then to placate him when this didn’t go down well I said it’s his job to decide when we have crackers. The following day he told me that girls decide when it’s treats and boys decide when it’s crackers. Hilarious! The adult/child distinction didn’t seem more obvious to you kid? No?

It gives me pause for thought. If I had a little girl, I would be confident that she’d absorb my example, that I’d be her model for adulthood. But a little boy… is it slightly different? It must be, because if good role-modelling from female caregivers was enough by itself to create emotionally mature men, the world would surely look fairly different.

In particular, I wonder about the potential for unintended messages from female-dominated caregiving. Like how a lot of guys never seem to get the message that people who love you back still have personal space boundaries you need to uphold. Or men who think it’s ok to wheedle for things they want from women. Or men who expect someone to clean up after them. This list could really go on and on and on, eeesh. I wonder whether some of that starts with mothers and our little boys, who don’t see men taking on caring roles.

Kids are so eager to figure out social codes. We make it hard for them when we send mixed messages. How is a two year old meant to figure out whether there are different rules and expectations based on gender when the adults have no consensus? What are kids meant to think when they see their mothers do significantly more household labour, while also complaining about it, and their fathers sort of acknowledging it but not really changing?

I try and get the little dude involved with chores, figuring it’s harder now but will pay dividends later. It’s the opposite to those fridge magnets that say “let the chores wait, if they need you now give them that time”. Fuck those magnets. All mothers I know spend a lot of effort figuring out how to do the chores without detracting from parenting, and it’s a genuinely very difficult, and someone has to cook the bloody dinner, huh?!

Anyway, he loves being involved, having his own little tasks, when I can be bothered including him. He looks so proud at the supermarket when he trots off to get the bag of porridge oats and flings them in the trolley by himself. Surveys of mothers suggest that the assistant household manager dynamic is more common for daughters; but I think it’s more important that we do this for sons. If I had a girl and I didn’t teach her how to run a house, I’d be fairly confident that the combination of peer-pressure and general socialisation would fill the gap. I’m not sure that’s true for a son. I feel more responsible for ensuring he gets those skills.

I would probably have wanted to keep up a career regardless, but this too I think is more pronounced as a mother of boys. I don’t want to give myself over to them completely, because I don’t trust that they will respect me any more for it than if I maintain a life of my own. And I want to be able to earn money so my husband can cut back his hours and take more of a role with the kids – for his sake as well as theirs.

I’ve just finished rereading Little Women. I’ve been chatting to my husband about it, trying to convince him to read it, and feeling like it’s really bizarre how much men miss out on because it’s presumed they won’t enjoy it, or don’t need it. There is a whole canon of books that are beautifully crafted and full of life and wisdom, seldom offered to boys because the central characters are girls and the subject matter is daily domestic life. My third-form English teacher told us she used to teach Little Women at a co-ed school but stopped because too many boys complained and their parents backed them up. I can’t see that going down the same if girls complained about Huckleberry Finn.

The worst of it is, not only are boys missing out on getting to know the girls in these books, they’re missing out on the boys! Bad enough they never meet Jo, but to miss out on Laurie too?! Such a shame.

If I had a little girl as well, I would be a mother of sons, but not exclusively. There are things I might have done predominantly with my daughter, which now, having no daughter, I will want to do with my boys. They might not want to join in. Which is fine, because all we can do as parents is offer to introduce them to our favourite things and then leave them to it; and that would be equally true if I had girls. But a daughter who was markedly different to me might feel more challenging to parent. I expect more of that difference with a boy, so similarities are more delightful.

Our family is still in the transition years, the relationship my husband and I had as a couple is moving and resettling. Like a peaceful cat newly disturbed by someone rearranging the couch cushions, it will shift about and then sink back down, equally comfortable but in a new position. We are not shaped as parents until we have our children. And we don’t know how much of our need and capacity to nurture will be fulfilled by our own children until they’re here, and how much will find an outlet in different relationships – the children of our friends, a niece, perhaps one day a grandchild.

If I had a girl, I would foremost want to buttress her against a world that might tear her down. With a boy, the same is true (because the desire to protect is innate to parenting?) but the threat is different. Patriarchal society limits everyone’s capacity for self-realisation, boxing boys in with toxic masculinity just as girls are boxed in with suffocating femininity. Hegelians might even argue that boys come out worse, as their very souls are damaged but they can’t see it, can’t visualise the better world for fear of losing power – the consolation prize to the debasement of which they are part.

And I will try to insulate my boys, their dear hearts, their fullness of joy, from this. (We’re lucky that it will be relatively easy in our community, with plenty of great male role-models among our family and friends, and living in an area where progressive views are fairly mainstream).

Ultimately, especially in light of my recent reading material, I’m thinking feminist parenting is one and the same as parenting for the development of character. Helping them develop self-awareness so they can work on becoming who they want to be, and find their own way to make the world a better place.

Things I hope our childless friends know about the first year of new baby

We’re really depleted right now and we know we’re grumpier and more annoying than we should be. 

We’re really tired all the time. 

We still want to hang out with you, but it’s hard finding time without the kids, and if they come too we don’t really get a chance to catch up.

It means such a lot to us when you stay in touch. Even if it’s just liking the baby photos we post online. 

We want to share our lives with you but we don’t want to bore you with minutae of child-raising. We don’t mind if you remind us of the boundaries!

Evening catch ups with both parents are really ridiculously hard, so are reserved for exceptionally special occasions. 

We still care about you and what’s going on in your life! 

We’re sorry for unanswered emails and cursory replies, our time and our heads are scattered –  basically we’re sorry for not being a better friend lately and we promise we’ll try harder when the kids are a bit bigger. 

Thank you so much for listening to us complain. The first year is a whirlwind and a sympathetic ear helps.

We miss our old life and the abundance of time we used to spend with you. Please wait for us. Babies grow up quickly and they won’t always need us this much.

We know that some of you only want what we have and we’re so so sorry for the times we forget to consider your feelings. We think of you often and hope for you. 

We appreciate your perspective on our lives. We’re so bogged down in our day-to-day, but you see something different. That the naughty behaviour is actually kinda funny. Or that our kids won’t judge us harshly for putting ourselves first sometimes. Or that we’re doing a good job and everyone makes mistakes. 

Thank you for everything. The messages, the visits, the gushing over squidgy photos, the presents. We love you and feel extremely lucky to have you in our lives, and in our children’s lives.