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The Right To Choose Must Not Be Put Up For Barter

13/06/2017 17:05
Zeljko Bozic via Getty Images

This article will begin with the true story of two women.

The first was fast approaching her nineteenth birthday in 1950's Ireland when she discovered, unhappily, that she was pregnant. Unmarried, she had grown up steeped in a religion that viewed abortion as a grave and unspeakable sin. Still, there was no possibility of her being able to raise the child; the social stigma waged against unmarried mothers would be too much to bear. And so she did what many Irish girls did at that time: she quietly gave her baby up for adoption, and tried to get on with life as best she could. I imagine she must have thought of her child every day. I imagine it was a great source of pain and sorrow. But I couldn't say for sure - my grandmother was always more of a drinker than a talker.

Some forty years later in England, a careless teenager became pregnant while in the middle of her A-levels. This young woman had dreams of going to university and the good fortune to live in a country that granted her the right to choose her own path. She would want children one day but knew now wasn't the time; she was too young, she had other plans. And so she attended a hospital with grounds full of buddleia, where she was treated with kindness and dignity, and where her pregnancy was terminated legally and safely. She didn't weep. Neither was she full of regret. But she was grateful that she did not have to suffer the same fate as her grandmother, forced to give birth against her will to a child she couldn't care for. To this day I remain grateful for that.

Women are human, therefore our rights are human rights. The right to abortion is basic, for women who cannot choose if and when to have children are not free people, and a country that outlaws abortion is, by extension, not a free country. Without reproductive freedom we are reduced to our biological function: a reproductive class with lives dominated by pregnancy and child rearing, that effectively exclude us from the public sphere and enforce our dependence on men. Women unable to plan their families are women unable to control their lives. This is, of course, the point.

But women will always become accidentally pregnant, because unintentional pregnancy is a fact of life, impossible to fully avoid. Contraception fails, we can be raped, and sometimes we are just a bit careless, much like the men who carelessly impregnate us. And yet it is women who must bear all the vitriol aimed at a decision to end an unplanned pregnancy, and women who must endlessly justify their claim to the same freedom men have always enjoyed: the choice not to parent.

And just as there will always be unwanted pregnancies, there will always be desperate women looking for ways to end them. Before we had safe and legal abortion, we had dangerous and illegal abortion. Teenage girls sat in scalding hot baths and drank entire bottles of vodka. Women in the 19th century consumed toxic substances such as turpentine and Tansy oil, which rotted their internal organs. We threw ourselves down the stairs, breaking bones and necks. And of course there were the dreaded coat hangers and knitting needles that resulted in punctures, infections, sterility, and haemorrhage, causing us to bleed to death.

So it was in horror that I read that the former Northern Ireland secretary and Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, had suggested on the Today programme the time limit for abortions may be offered up to a vote in exchange for DUP support for a Conservative minority government. Could it be possible that in a desperate attempt to cling to power Theresa May would be prepared to put the most basic women's rights up for debate? There will be many that argue a modest time reduction is reasonable; that in line with scientific advances it is a debate worth having, but make no mistake: if such a vote is used to cement together this unholy alliance, then the freedom of women will have been reduced to nothing but a bartering chip. We cannot remain passive as our rights to bodily autonomy are slowly whittled away. There are no concessions to be made. Boundaries nudged at the edges become boundaries easier to trample; the DUP would see abortion outlawed entirely and we must hold the line.

Just five years after having my abortion, I gave birth to my first child. Two more followed after that. Each positive pregnancy test saw me like a kid at Christmas: this time I wanted very much to be a mother. The youngest of those children - a girl - is now on the cusp of puberty, whip smart and full of ideas. I will not stand to see her potential thwarted by an attack on her right to choose. I will never stand to see any of us dragged backwards to the dark old days of dirty back alleys and no damn choice.

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