As Ireland's abortion rights referendum approaches, Nell Frizell reflects on the importance of a woman's human right to choose, no matter what the circumstances...
Nothing has ever made me more certain that access to free, safe and legal abortions is a human right than getting pregnant and having a baby.
That you could be forced to undergo pregnancy and labour, that you could be forced to bring a child into a world where it wasn’t wanted, simply because some men don’t believe all women should have power over their own bodies isn’t just cruel: it’s inhumane.
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Currently, in Northern Ireland, women are not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act (unlike the rest of Britain) making abortion in that country illegal in all but the most extreme circumstances, with the threat of possible life imprisonment for any woman desperate enough to seek an abortion and for anyone who assists her. In Ireland, a woman may not access a legal and safe abortion even if she has been raped or if the foetus will not survive life outside the womb. Despite the fact that the former has been deemed a systematic violation of women’s rights by the UN, despite the fact that it creates untold anguish and illness for those who can actually afford to leave the two countries to get the healthcare we had by law, despite the fact that we have been arguing this shit for decades, it seems that there are still some - notably older, white men who will never and can never know what it is to get pregnant, carry a child or give birth - who believe this is as it should be.
We shouldn’t have to reach for examples of rape, of foetuses that cannot survive, of threats to a woman’s health and very existence to argue our corner: the right to an abortion is a human right because, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we should all be born free and equal, not be discriminated against and be equal before the law. When half your population can be imprisoned or die because of the semen of the other half, those human rights are not being met.
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Now, let’s get personal: I have wanted a baby since I was about six years old, when my mother would have to physically wrestle me off any unguarded infant as I tried urgently to make them love me as my own. I begged my partner for a year to let us start trying for a baby. I wept the first month I got my period after taking out my coil. And yet, once I got pregnant, I suddenly understood precisely why we must allow all women, all over the world, to not be pregnant if they have even the slightest suspicion that they don’t want a baby.
I’ll tell you something right now: no man who has ever argued against abortion could handle having a baby. Not one of those pastry-pinch-faced assemblages of fear, misogyny and hatred could handle having their pelvis, muscle, skin and ribs torn apart by a child. Not one of them would undergo three months of daily vomiting and fatigue, followed by another six months of aching joints, decreased mobility and exhaustion. None of them would be able to stay up all night trying to breastfeed a crying baby whose nostrils are so full of snot they can’t breathe and feed at the same time, so are both starving and exhausted and rigid with anguish. Not one of them could give up their status, their ability to work, their financial security, their very freedom to go anywhere or do anything without first ensuring the safety, comfort and happiness of a non-verbal, unpredictable, vulnerable baby. None of them could rock a tired child to sleep for half an hour at 3am when they only got to sleep at midnight and have to be awake again at 5am. None of them could walk up and down a hallway in the dark singing to a crying baby as the infected stitches burn across their scrotum where they were cut open with a pair of scissors to allow a baby to be pulled out with forceps.
I liked being pregnant and love being a mother but it is undoubtedly one of the most gruelling physical, emotional, psychological, hormonal, financial, social and spiritual things that a human can undergo. Even when you want it, have spent months trying for it, have the money, the partner, the secure home needed for it, the prospect of having a baby can still be terrifying, wet with anxiety, heavy with fatigue, sour with nausea. Pregnancy is, of course, nothing compared to what comes next. I am one of the lucky ones, the incalculably lucky ones; I have an engaged, sympathetic, supportive and loving partner, I can afford my rent, I am physically fit, I have work, I have my own mother round the corner and I have a baby who is, so far at least, happy and healthy. But as I sit here, after a night of broken sleep that barely adds up to five hours, my eyes and mind thick with the steam of responsibility, unable to leave the house or ever have more than an hour on my own, the thought that I might be having to endure this against my will, with a baby I didn’t plan, without the financial, physical or mental means to survive, for at least another ten years makes me want to wash the world entirely away.
At 12 weeks pregnant I have lain on a blue leatherette bed and heard the heartbeat of my baby, watched it swim somersaults across my uterus, gasped at the beauty of its minute skeleton inside my body and watched the blood pump through my placenta. But if that baby had been created by sexual assault or rape, by a partner who was emotionally or physically abusing me, if that baby’s continued growth was going to threaten my own health, if I had been living on foodbank donations in an unheated house in terror of being made homeless, if I was suffering with an ongoing mental health condition that rendered me incapable of even self-care, if it had all just been an unexpected and stupid mistake, if I was pregnant for any of a thousand reasons that make a woman feel unable to become a mother, then I hope with my every bone and drop of blood in my body that I could have had the option of an abortion.
No-one has an abortion lightly. I have never in my life met a woman who hoped to one day have an abortion or enjoyed it when it came. But I have met hundreds of men, slept with several, who think absolutely nothing of ejaculating into a woman unprotected. They probably haven’t asked if she’s using any form of contraception. They haven’t bothered to buy, bring or use condoms. And yet, if she gets pregnant, we blame her, we make it her responsibility and, in too much of the world, we then deny her even the agency to flush out that pinprick of cells that would otherwise change her life entirely.
I love my son more than I ever knew possible and would lay down my life for his survival. But he is a five month old person; a giggling, chubby-thighed child. And I felt ready. When he was just a collection of cells, an unborn heartbeat, had things been different, then things would have been different.
I am never going to take seriously the thoughts on abortion from a man who has never changed a single one of his six children’s nappies (Jacob-Rees Mogg) let alone given birth; I am not going to apologise for taking the rights of a woman more seriously than those of an unconscious collection of cells; I am not ever going to tell another woman what she should or shouldn’t do with her body. But I am going to say that, as a mother, life is precious, babies are precious, women are precious too. We should treat them both with the respect that admits that a woman who does not feel able or willing to provide a good life for a child should not have to carry and deliver one. For the sake of the theoretical child and the very real life mother, pregnancy should be a woman’s choice.
It was for me, it should be for everyone.
Follow Nell on Twitter @NellFrizzell