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.
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.