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The battle over women’s wombs

Essay | 14 minute read
Nine reasons to leave women's bodies alone, and busting the myth that the womb is an 'animal within an animal'

1 The Soul

One of the issues at the heart of the abortion debate is that of when a person becomes a person. For thousands of years philosophers, theologians and scientists have wrestled with this concept. In Ancient Greece there were myriad theories about ‘ensoulment’ – the moment a body contains a soul. For the Pythagoreans, much like the current Religious Right, a human gets its soul at conception. Aristotle, believed a foetus in its early stages had the soul of a vegetable. However, for the Stoics, a person became a person with their first breath.

These philosophical ideas probe the essence of what it means to be human. But what one cannot forget is that these debates have traditionally taken place within the bounds of patriarchal societies and often within the realm of religion. It is therefore also a fair question to ask: In whose interest is it to confer upon a zygote the same human rights as those of a fully grown woman?

2 Referendum

The night before the Irish Republic voted on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment in May 2018, I sat in the Hawksmoor-designed church of St George’s in Bloomsbury where the Canadian writer Sheila Heti was in conversation with the Irish novelist Sally Rooney. The pews were filled with women, many wearing ‘Vote Yes’ badges, eager to hear Heti talk about her recently published book Motherhood. The title of Heti’s book and the fact that Rooney had written passionately in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment injected the evening with an extra shot of adrenaline. The timing of this event, to celebrate a book which is, among other things, about a woman’s decision to have or not have a child, was perfect.

3 The Value of a Life

In 2012, the discrepancy between the value of two lives – between someone who exists and someone who has not been born – took a tragic turn when a thirty-one-year-old dentist, Savita Halappanavar, admitted herself to University Hospital in Galway complaining of back pain in the seventeenth week of her pregnancy. Halappanavar’s foetal membrane was rupturing. In these circumstances there is a risk of sepsis, which can be deadly for both the mother and the unborn child. Once Halappanavar realised her baby would not survive, she requested a medical abortion, which would have been a safer, quicker and less painful option than letting the baby miscarry.

As the author and academic, Emer O’Toole, wrote in the Guardian at the time: ‘Halappanavar’s consultant . . . said that she met her patient’s request for an abortion with the explanation that a poor foetal prognosis does not provide legal grounds for termination in the Republic.’ So the care that could have saved Halappanavar’s life was withheld. The jury at her inquest unanimously ruled that Savita died as a result of medical misadventure.

Despite being a terrible tragedy for her family, Halappanavar’s death forced the lack of legal abortions in Ireland to the forefront of the news. The European Court of Human Rights urged Ireland to act. Protests broke out all over the country and Ireland’s struggling pro-choice movement gained momentum. The umbrella organisation, the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, grew to over 70 different organisations and collectively represented over a million people. Six years after Halappanavar’s untimely death, the May 2018 referendum came out loudly in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment.

Abortion Rights protest in Dublin 2018 (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

4 Overpopulation

Putting the health of women and children aside for a moment, the debates around abortion should also include the needs of our planet. We all know that our ever-increasing demands on limited resources contribute massively to the devastation of rainforests, the loss of habitats, the poisoning of oceans and fresh water from mining and drilling, the melting of the ice caps from our warming planet and the continual rise of deadly toxins in the environment from our increasing consumption. It’s very simple: more people are bad for the Earth.

The American biologist and Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich believes that, ‘population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.’ Ehrlich, whose 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb brought the subject of overpopulation into the mainstream, recommends making ‘modern contraception and back-up abortion available to all and give women full equal rights, pay and opportunities with men.’ The knock-on effect of allowing women to control their fertility could, in other words, have positive ecological consequences.

5 Extremism

To the Religious Right in the United States, people like Ehrlich are ‘evil’ – as are the doctors and medical staff who are willing to provide abortions. Pro-life lobbies at the moment are gaining funding and governmental support, yet the American Department of Justice still considers anti-abortion extremism as a domestic terrorist threat. There have been dozens of murders by anti-abortionists over the past few decades, along with assaults, death threats, vandalised premises, letter bombs and kidnappings.

A quick look at the profiles of these men who murder for the sake of ‘the babies’ reveals that they are usually devoutly Christian, deeply misogynistic and often have a history of abuse directed at women. I say ‘men’ because the ones who do the killing generally are. Although there are plenty of women behind the scenes, there has only been one case of a woman shooting an abortion provider. Shelley Shannon, who identifies as a Christian and member of the Army of God, stated that her attempted murder of Dr George Tiller was ‘the most holy, most righteous thing’ she’d ever done. Unfortunately another Army of God member carried on her work and fatally shot Dr Tiller in 2009.

It is impossible to disassociate the anti-abortion movement from its inherent misogyny and violence towards women. Monica Sjoo, the late radical eco-femimist felt that, ‘For women to be able to control their fertility questions the functions of the father-centred family and women’s past within it as a source of unpaid labour – and so ultimately it questions the entire structure of the society we live in.’ Giving women control over their bodies and their reproduction continues to be a radical idea. It threatens the traditional underpinnings of our society be they cultural or religious.

6 The Morning After

Like many women who stayed up into the wee hours following the Irish referendum, I also thought about my own choices. At times my womb has felt like a battleground, a place where life and death fought it out inside me while I cried and paced and wondered about what to do, about what I wanted or didn’t and what I was able to bear. Being a woman and having the ability to create a human being inside one’s body is a complicated affair.

In the early morning of 26 May, while still following the exit polls of the Irish referendum, I started reading Motherhood. Diving into Heti’s book was like navigating the dozens of internal dialogues I had been having on and off for the past twenty years about my choices around whether to have a child and what this means on a profoundly philosophical level. A dialogue that began with Rachel Cusk’s 1997 offering A Life’s Work and which reached its peak with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts eighteen years later. 2018 saw an explosion of smart books by women about their desires and fears around procreation: Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything and Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers. While Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood, Anna Prushinskaya’s A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother and Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From all came into the world in 2017.

Like many of these recent books, Heti’s is probing and honest on the subject of her decision-making process: ‘When I think about everything that could be or couldn’t be, I think I don’t want our flesh – my mother’s flesh, my grandmother’s flesh – to just be divided and replicated. I want their life to be counted.’ She wants to ‘make a creature that lives inside many bodies, not just one body’, and that creature is her writing. When one of Heti’s friends says she had a child as a ‘hedge against future regret’, the author asks, ‘But is it right to make someone live, so you might not feel some regret?’

Recently women are coming forward to admit that motherhood was not what they thought it would be, that they actually regret having their child. It feels like the final taboo and yet more and more people are speaking out about it. People like Corinne Maier in her 2008 book No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children. In Germany, Sarah Fischer’s recently published The Mother Bliss Lie: Regretting Motherhood deals with the double standard experienced by women the moment they become mothers. There is even a popular Facebook page called ‘I Regret Having Children’. Women should be trusted when it comes to knowing the limits of their love, the boundaries of their bodily abilities and their capacity for the job of motherhood. Women should be trusted to know what’s right – even if they sometimes get that wrong.

Sheila Heti (Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

7 Voices

I have often noticed that when minority voices gain in volume, the people with the power to quell them also become louder.

An example of this was played out in the nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, who was put forward to fill a vacant seat on the US Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, who is enthusiastically vocal on the subject of women and their access to contraception and abortion, is now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In 2015 he voted against employers including birth control as part of their employee’s health insurance on the grounds it would infringe their religious freedoms. More recently in his position as a federal judge, he ruled against a seventeen-year-old immigrant in federal custody who wanted to terminate a pregnancy. Luckily he lost and the teenager was transported to a nearby Texas abortion provider. Kavanaugh’s response to this was predictable: ‘The government has permissible interests in favouring foetal life, protecting the best interests of a minor, and refraining from facilitating abortion.’ His idea of protecting this young woman’s interests was to force her to have an unwanted child in jail.

Protestors turned up to the Kavanaugh hearings dressed in the crimson robes and white bonnets worn by the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. As the book was recently made into a TV series in the US, the visuals of these cloaked women, who in Atwood’s novel are stripped of their rights and forced to bear children for society’s elite, would be familiar to American audiences. Republicans and many media outlets labeled the protestors ‘hysterical’ for their belief that forcing women to seek illegal abortions would put lives at risk – even though the facts bear this out.

Photo by T chick McClure/Unsplash

8 Postpartum

When I was least expecting it, at the age of forty-one, I became pregnant. Giving birth was and remains one of the most interesting and fulfilling experiences of my life. However, I was not prepared for what came later. I didn’t tell the health visitor that I had visions of throwing my child against the wall and that I couldn’t sleep in the same room with her. The sound of her breathing sent me into a terrible abyss. It had something to do with life being so close to death. I had just defended my PhD and needed to resubmit my thesis with some changes. Those changes went undone. So did so much else. I had postpartum depression but wouldn’t call it that for fear my daughter would be taken into care.

I stopped breastfeeding when my daughter was a year old, and only then did I begin to get my ‘self’ back. The thought of having another child terrified me. The only thing scarier than postpartum depression was the idea that there are people out there who would force a woman to go through such an experience because of their personal and religious beliefs.

9 The Wandering Womb

I am dismayed that we are still having this conversation – but perhaps I shouldn’t be. From Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, to the Victorians, myriad mental and physical health problems have been put down to women’s wombs. Plato along with the Hippocratic writers believed that our wombs moved freely about our bodies leading to ‘every illness of the female sex’. In the second century AD, Aretaeus, a physician from Cappadocia, wrote that a woman’s womb closely resembled, ‘an animal; for it is moved of itself hither and thither . . . it is altogether erratic. It delights also in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it has an aversion to fetid smells, and flees from them; and, on the whole, the womb is like an animal within an animal.’

The theory of this wild, animal-like ‘wandering womb’ carried on for centuries. Our Medieval ancestors believed our wombs could migrate into our throats and choke us to death. The cure for this out of control organ was for it to be filled with semen. As long as your womb contained a growing baby, it was tame. It could not make you ill or crazy – it would only make you dependent. The metaphor here is loud and clear: women who were not bearing children were wild, a danger to society, a threat to the status quo and to religious structures. Women needed to be grounded by motherhood.

The womb, as Germaine Greer notes in The Female Eunuch, ‘has been associated with trouble’, leading to an ‘atavistic fear’ of women’s bodies since time immemorial. Well into the 1900s the womb was thought to be responsible for a whole litany of issues from sleeplessness to frigidity and depression to psychosis. These illnesses ended up under the umbrella of ‘hysteria’, a word stemming from the Greek hystera or ‘womb’. Greer mentions how one of her students collapsed during her final exams only to be given the official diagnosis of ‘hysteria’. This was in 1971. As we saw at the Kavanaugh hearings, women are still seen to be hysterical for challenging religious and cultural oppression.

Having a child makes you vulnerable. Your wages suffer, your body often suffers and sometimes there are life-long complications. Unless you are very lucky, you are simply out of the race for a while. It is in the interests of a misogynistic culture for women to be placed out of the reaches of power even if that includes sovereignty over their own bodies.

The days of the ‘wandering womb’ are over, and yet this organ still holds far too much sway in our political discourse and decision-making. Once those in power leave the fate of women’s wombs to the individual owners of those wombs, only then will we have achieved the equality we deserve.

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