The fear of getting pregnant has been an almost constant feature of my life since I became sexually active as a teenager. Hormonal contraception has never agreed with me so I’ve always been at the mercy of condoms. The brief period in my 30s when I was actively trying to conceive my children was a strange psychological reversal. Rather than praying for my period to come every month, I cried every time the familiar traces of blood appeared in my underwear. It was a novel and slightly unnerving time and I was conscious that I was now wishing dearly for something that had previously terrified me. Family now complete, I have reverted to breathing a huge sigh of relief every time my menstrual cycle begins again and I can relax once again in the knowledge that I am not pregnant.
Given my dependency on condoms, I feel very lucky never to have had an abortion. I am glad that I have never had to face the decision so many women make each year in the UK because it can’t be easy. I’ve seen the utter distress and total guilt some of my friends have experienced as a result and I’m relieved it’s never happened to me. I have taken the morning after pill twice though and been eternally grateful for the control I was able to exercise over my body. The first time I was a frightened teenager, convinced that one small mistake could cost me my future. Certain that having unprotected sex would have inevitably led to an unwanted pregnancy, I managed to get hold of the pills from a family planning clinic so my Mum wouldn’t find out. She heard me being sick in the morning and found out anyway.
The second time was recently as a grown woman of 38 with two kids of my own. I suffered hyperemesis gravidarum in both of my pregnancies and the idea of getting pregnant again is terrifying. I felt a bit embarrassed in the chemist that I’d had to resort to this method of contraception, but again, I was so relieved that I could. My last pregnancy with my daughter was so difficult that I contemplated a termination because my GP refused at first to prescribe me with any anti-sickness medication. 6 weeks of constant vomiting had left me feeling drained and depressed and I was struggling to cope with my toddler. I knew I had another 31 weeks of continual puking to go and I couldn’t face it. I don’t know what I would have done if my GP hadn’t relented and prescribed me some meds. When I went to see him at his surgery he told me I looked like I was facing a line of tanks which was about as astute an observation as he could have made. Many women facing hyperemesis are left with a difficult decision about whether to continue the pregnancy or not and some choose to terminate and I don’t blame them.
There are many more reasons that women choose to have abortions and none of them are straightforward. At one end of the spectrum we have women that are raped or at risk of serious physical health problems as a result of continuing a pregnancy and at the other we have the frightened teenager who made an error of judgement. Neither case is more deserving than the other and all women have a fundamental right to choose what happens to their own body. The fact that a woman in Northern Ireland has just been prosecuted for choosing to exercise her right to determine her own future is both alarming and disgustingly unfair. Her actions are not remarkable – she merely did what many young women choose to do and decided that she could not continue with an unwanted pregnancy. The fact that she has been criminalised as a result is a terrible indictment of the justice system.
It’s tempting to see the pro-life lobby as a bunch of crazy Americans who have little traction in the UK but demonstrations outside abortion clinics are on the rise, and as this recent case highlights, abortion is still anachronistically illegal in Northern Ireland. Women seeking a termination are increasingly being abused and harassed at an extremely vulnerable point in their lives. The objections to abortion seem to centre on a bizarre belief that foetuses deserve more rights than fully grown and functioning adult females. The fact that the pro-life camp is so powerful in the US, a country with a thriving pro-gun lobby and a police force that happily shoots and kills fully grown men on a regular basis without so much as a trial, strikes me as particularly ironic. From a philosophical point of view, how can it make sense to prioritise a life that has not even begun over the life of an adult human female?
The only answer to this is that women are not seen as responsible human beings with the right to choose what happens to their own bodies. From a religious point of view, I understand that this is because some people believe that God is ultimately in charge of whether someone conceives or not, but this should not form the basis of a secular justice system. The right to abortion should be recognised as a basic human right. The psychological damage caused by forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy is not acceptable and amounts to a kind of torture. The fact that Poland is now seeking to outlaw abortion will only mean that more women will place themselves into the hands of dangerous backstreet abortionists. This has no place in an equitable society.
The argument over whether abortion should be legal or not should have been done and dusted decades ago. It is particularly galling that as a result of inequality in the political system, it is largely male politicians who make and enforce legislation which ultimately decides whether women have a right to choose what happens to their own bodies. Women should not have to beg for a termination or ask permission from two separate doctors. That we seem to be moving backwards as a society on this important issue is both depressing and unjust.The fact that we are still talking about it speaks volumes. I may never have had to have a termination myself, but as a feminist, I will defend to the death your right to have one.