Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)
Blood and Babies
The day I found out, I was with my friend Hayley (laxative Hayley, not make-herself-sick Hayley) and we were walking from college to go and hang out in the Queen’s Theatre foyer like real actors. As we went down the hill I continued to talk about how in love I was with Colin. ‘Are you guys using condoms yet?’ she asked. We were about to cross the road, the car that’d stopped was beeping, it was Aunty Sandra! ‘Hello,’ we said. ‘Hello,’ said Aunty Sandra. She asked if we were okay or needed a lift and we were and we didn’t and she waved and drove off. ‘Condoms?’ Hayley repeated.
‘Not very often.’
I could tell Hayley the truth. She was very sensible about those kinds of things, yet tolerant of my irresponsibility. She knew Colin and I had loads of condoms, a massive box full. At the beginning when we’d got together we couldn’t afford any and Hayley had taken me to a clinic in Romford where they’d give you MILLIONS of extra-strong Durex in exchange for an hour of your life spent in the worst waiting room in the world. I explained to Hayley that we hardly ever used them, they were so stupid to put on and I couldn’t be bothered. And then every month when my period was due I’d regret it and hate myself. ‘What if this time I …?’ but I wouldn’t even finish the thought, I would just resolve that I definitely wouldn’t risk it next month, I wouldn’t put myself through this worry again. I would tell Colin we had to use something. I would go on the pill. I had tried a pill before but it made me feel sick and I’d kept forgetting to take it and then had mini periods every few days when I’d missed two pills again. And so I had stopped and now we were supposed to be using condoms except we weren’t. And I would count days in my diary and feel stupid and then TA-DA, it would arrive all over my underwear! Happy days, oh the relief of this womby pain, and it would be heavy and clotty and I would think, ‘Is this clot a tiny baby?’ ‘Am I miscarrying quintuplets?’ but I would be happy. I would swear to whatever god or ghost lives above the toilet bowl that I would not be so stupid again. I would be a wise and mature lady, in control of her fertility and destiny, not a pregnant teenager like my mother.
But when I had my period it was fine to have sex because I knew you couldn’t get pregnant then. The magazines I read said that you should still use condoms just in case, but I knew you definitely couldn’t conceive because the baby would fall out with all the blood. And the first couple of days after my period I’d think, ‘I should probably introduce the ol’ box of condoms sitting next to the bed,’ but there never seemed to be a good time. And I knew that those days were safe really because women ovulate in the middle of the month. And when it had been a week, well, it was awkward to bring up ‘We should probably put a condom on now’ so I didn’t. I always thought, ‘We can use a condom tomorrow,’ but then after a bit it is tomorrow, and it’s weird - when is a good time to bring up putting a condom on? At bedtime? When you’re kissing? When he’s been in for a bit but he hasn’t come yet? I would wonder all these thoughts, and those stages would pass me by and I would be mopping up with toilet paper and very in love and musing, ‘This time will be fine, but we’ll definitely use a condom next time.’
‘So do a pregnancy test,’ said Hayley. She says that stressing about your period being late makes your period late - ‘Find out you’re not and then you can relax!’ Hayley is wise.
I have always had a late period, or what I thought of as late. If I had met you two weeks ago and you’d asked about my menstrual cycle, which would have been a bit odd for a first meeting but I wouldn’t have minded, I would’ve answered, tutting, that I was always ‘about a week late’. I have just found out - while researching for this chapter - that women have different-length cycles. How did I not know that? With the deluge of ‘twenty-eight days’ and ‘four weeks’ in the literature I had missed the fact that this is a composite average, and that healthy women range anywhere between twenty- and sixty-day cycles. So if I met you this week and you asked - and please feel free to enquire - I have a reliable-ish thirty-five-day cycle. What’s yours?
Hayley and I went to a chemist in Hornchurch and looked at pregnancy tests for a bit. They were very expensive, I think £9 or £10. I currently earned £14 a week from my Saturday job at WHSmith. I told Hayley I would prefer to wait for my period to come or have a baby, it would be much cheaper. Hayley loaned me the money and I felt really grown up as we popped into a pub next door and Hayley bought a lemonade so they wouldn’t bother us. In the toilets she did her mascara and I did a piss on a bit of plastic and then we chatted through the door about a bitch from drama club who had recently started being nice to Hayley, so Hayley was sticking up for her and saying she wasn’t a bitch any more. But the bitch was still ignoring me so she was still a bitch, a bitch who looked like a combination of Bebop and Rocksteady from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I was about to say so when— The box had said ‘wait three minutes’ but it only took twenty seconds and the stripes came up. So I said, ‘Oh fuck,’ instead and Hayley said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘Oh fuck’ and then I read the box again and it repeated what it had told me earlier in the same ‘not judging you, just giving you the information’ tone. Two lines meant pregnant and I was pregnant and that meant—I laughed a jaded, been-around-the-world, seen-it-all-before cackle and opened the toilet door. ‘I’m only fucking up the duff, babe,’ I told Hayley. A woman who was washing her hands politely gave her congratulations and left.
At the time I didn’t know how pregnancy tests worked, what element of my urine was sending up that second stripe. If I’d had a guess I would’ve plumped for ‘extra oestrogen’ or something. I now know (because I recently Asked Jeeves) that the wee-on pregnancy tests react to a chemical called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). But let’s go back a bit and work out what had been going on inside me to get us there.
Ovulation begins in your brain, or just underneath, in the pituitary gland which releases a follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Follicle comes from a Latin word which means ‘little bag’ and in your ovaries there are tons of little bags with tiny clumps of cells we call ova or eggs inside them. The FSH travels from your brain to your ovaries in your bloodstream and causes your follicles to ripen and ripple, to ready themselves. Your ovaries are stimulated to produce and release oestrogen into your blood, and when that arrives at the pituitary gland, luteinising hormone (LH) is released. The luteinising hormone blocks the follicle-stimulating hormone; those follicles have been stimulated enough. When LH reaches the ovaries this prompts one follicle to open and release an ovum. It’s a tag team of hormones flowing back and forth which results in a tiny ripe ovum travelling towards the Fallopian tube. This hormonal interplay means that your body understands which ovary has released an egg, and, incredibly, the nearby Fallopian tube will reach out to it, stretching towards the ovum and easing its trajectory.
Meanwhile, the follicle that has released the egg luteinises (turns yellow) and starts to act as a gland. It begins secreting progesterone into the bloodstream. This progesterone is shouting instructions to your body; your brain knows that an egg is released and on its journey, and your womb responds by beginning to build a thickened lining ready to receive it. There are two possible outcomes at this point, depending on whether your egg meets a sperm and is fertilised, or reaches the womb unencumbered and flying solo. Your emotional response to either state will depend very much on you, and what you are looking for in your life at the moment.
The night I found out, after Hayley and I had soberly left the pub and continued with our plans, I kept forgetting and remembering. It felt very exciting, I was hyper on it. ‘This is really really properly it,’ I thought, ‘this is life, it has started.’ I knew I was making a mess, that I was hurting myself. But I also needed to, I needed life to be interesting. The experience felt vital. Or it did at this dramatic ‘oh my god I’m pregnant’ point. I don’t remember telling Colin, that bit can’t have been important. I can’t picture his face or whether I called him about it or told him face to face. But when I went home that night I was suddenly worried about telling my mum. The fun left. She was in the bath and I spoke through the door. ‘I need to tell you something.’ She let me in. I sat on the toilet seat as she lay back down in the water and said, ‘You’re pregnant’ - not a question. The witch could read my mind.
My aunty Sandra had phoned up after she’d seen me. She’d told my mum she thought I was pregnant, that she could see it in my eyes. I hadn’t done a test when she saw me so I hadn’t even known. It’s the oddest detail and I still think about it. What did she see? Softness? Fear? My mum had thought Sandra was being crazy until I knocked on the bathroom door and suddenly it was true. Mum said, ‘Have a think about what you want to do.’ I wanted a time machine. I went to sleep desperate to be undone.
Possible Outcome A) Fertilised
You’ll know loads about this process already. Men make millions of sperm and can ejaculate them inside a woman via sexual intercourse. Sperm travel pretty slowly, it takes them about ten minutes to cross the distance of a full stop. Luckily there is not much punctuation inside a woman, instead there is mucus which is impenetrable if she has not ovulated but much clearer, stringier and perfect for the sperm to travel through if she has. Mucus is so necessary, vital, for conception it’s unbelievable that it is not more respected and popular. Sperm can’t reach ova without it - we all have mucus to thank for our brilliant lives, yet when you hand out fliers for your Mucus Appreciation Society no one wants to join. #ungrateful
If/when sperm reach the egg, they press their heads on the outer layer, trying to burrow in. You’ll probably be familiar with this image. For ages I thought I could remember being in the womb. I would argue with people that I could recall every moment, the orangey light and the muffled sounds. I could even remember being a sperm racing towards the - and then I realised my ‘memory’ was the beginning of the film Look Who’s Talking, which you’re probably too young to remember. Ask your grandpa - it was very popular.
If a sperm breaks through the outer layer of the ovum into the inner layer (zona pellucida), an enzyme is released which acts as a barrier preventing any other sperm from following.
Someone has begun.
My morning sickness started the next day, as if once I consciously knew I was pregnant my body could stop hiding it from me. My mum recommended crisps and dry toast. I went into college when I felt a bit better, although I now felt nauseous all the time. I told my teachers I was pregnant and might miss morning classes. I told my football team I was pregnant before we practised. I fainted in Law and told everyone in the class. I kept telling people until a girl came up and said she didn’t believe me. I didn’t know her very well. ‘I just don’t believe you’ - she was shaking her head - ‘if it was true you wouldn’t be talking about it.’ I felt no reservation about letting people know I was pregnant because it was just a fact of life, just this thing that could happen to you, like getting the flu or having feet. I didn’t think people should keep these things secret. I was going to be open and unashamed. I was revolutionary. And a drama queen.
‘It’s a clump of cells,’ I told my mum, ‘like cancer. You wouldn’t be annoyed with me if I was having a tumour removed.’ She told me I wasn’t allowed to think of it that way, she gave me this unbearable lecture about how those cells made a person, about how I had once been such a clump of cells myself. She insisted that I might regret this forever. She suggested I should have the baby - ‘STOP CALLING IT A BABY’ - she offered to bring it up for me, do all of the work, all of the getting up in the night and the arse-wiping. ‘I’m not cleaning up anyone else’s bum,’ I’d insisted early on in our ‘going through the options’ talk. Mum explained that she had got pregnant very young and that I was the best thing that had ever happened to her. She told me of the love she felt as I grew inside her, of the tears when she held me for the first time. Mum said she’d been so happy when I was a tiny baby and that I had given her a love she’d never felt from her family or from a man and that it was complete and unconditional—
‘Oh fuck off Mum.’
I’d heard various versions of this. A few years earlier, when I was twelve or thirteen, the story of my creation had had some details added. My mum explained how my dad ‘didn’t even want you’. That when she’d told him she was pregnant he’d insisted that she ‘get rid of it’. The idea of my being aborted was quite traumatic for me at the time. But I am a wise older lady now and experience means I can make sense of that conversation. I understand the elements involved without feeling it as an act of aggression towards myself. It’s so common to have doubts. Most people who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant have a conversation along the lines of ‘What shall we do?’ or ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ but, and perhaps this is obvious to you, I believe the rule should be DON’T TELL YOUR ADOLESCENT CHILDREN ABOUT IT. The mere sniff of rejection is magnified to unbearable proportions at that age. It was metaphysical murder and I couldn’t conceive that it wasn’t personal. I asked my dad about it recently; we are very good friends and I’m sure he enjoys my foraging pain truffles from the past. He said he couldn’t really remember and then he went quiet. I’m pretty confident he felt embarrassed about how he’d nearly denied planet Earth somebody as brilliant and kind as me. ‘Imagine if Mary had wanted Jesus aborted?’ I thought to myself. ‘Now that was a surprise pregnancy!’ Then I felt grateful that nobody could read my mind and find out how often I compare myself to Jesus.
I begged my mum not to tell Dad I was pregnant so she rang him straight away. I had an awkward conversation with him on the phone. He’d recently moved to Australia, which I’d accepted as abandonment. He was very relaxed and ‘hey, do what you gotta do’ about me wanting an abortion. I thought he didn’t care and I preferred that to how much my mum clearly did. She thought I should have it. So did Colin’s mum, so did Colin. I was very, very sure that I wasn’t going to.
There were lots of things I didn’t appreciate at the time, or that I understand differently now. I really thought Mum’s sadness at my decision was an act of cruelty towards me rather than a genuine response. I couldn’t grasp that if you’d had your own babies, if you had held them when they were really tiny, if you had experienced the entire process of gestation inside your body then maybe you couldn’t help empathising with them even as cellular embryos. When my sisters had children over the last few years, the affinity and attachment I felt to their bumps and ultrasounds and the animal rush of holding my nieces revealed to me a sliver of what my mum might have been feeling when I refused to contemplate continuing with my pregnancy, when I stomped down the street referring to her grandchild as a tumour.
There are so many cultural clichés about grandmothers - pressurising their kids to procreate, embarrassing us with questions, telling us to ‘hurry up’ and then being overly involved, bossy and controlling when babies come along. It’s another sweeping stereotype that appears to be based on universal instincts. We evolved to depend on grandparental care in raising children. We are almost unique among mammals in that we undergo a menopause, a cut-off of fertility many years before we die. Lots of apes have a slowing down of fertility as they age, but never a complete cessation. Female animals usually retain their ability to create offspring as long as resources and environment support them. The evolutionary theory of human menopause is that it allows a woman to concentrate her efforts on caring for her children’s children, foraging for their food supplies and assisting their mother in protecting and educating them without the distraction of having her own young children to care for. This input of effort has been proven to make a huge difference in children’s survival rates in modern tribal cultures, and in fact a meta-study of developing and developed world nations found that the presence of a maternal grandmother was more beneficial for the survival and health of children than any other relative except a mother - that, statistically, kids are better off with a grandma around than a father.
Everything I read about the generosity of mothers and grandmothers makes me want to apologise to mine. I should send them some flowers and nice jackets. Then I remember how they were simply ensuring the survival of their own genes via me and I keep the flowers, jackets and sorrys all for myself. It’s what they would want. Also, would you like to learn an incredible fact? Female children are born with their ova already in their ovaries, so a mother gives birth to half of each of her grandchildren with her daughter. Isn’t that weird and great? A layer of Russian dolling in us flesh-and-blood women.
I had a doctor’s appointment that I went to with Colin. They said I could wait for an NHS termination in a few weeks or organise one immediately if I went private. Going private meant paying £400. I needed it to be quick, I felt so sick and disgusting and my mum agreed to loan me the money. And I realised while writing that sentence that I never paid her back. I just emailed her - ‘I still owe you for my abortion’ - and she’s written back: ‘oh dear! X’. I’ve replied, ‘Can you write something funnier so I can put it in my book?’ and she has texted me her bank details with an aubergine emoticon.
The clinic was in a posh part of Essex I hadn’t been to before. My mum drove us there early on the morning of my seventeenth birthday. Colin seemed like a child in the passenger seat and I felt like a child in the back. He’d bought me sweets for my birthday, Jelly Babies, and we laughed at the inappropriateness but I still ate them. When the car stopped, I got out and was sick in several colours onto the kerb. It was momentary, a few gags and gone, but when I stood up I was blurry-eyed and suddenly surrounded by people. They held placards with bloody, mangled pinkness, black-eyed, fish-looking, mashed innards and death. They asked me to look at the pictures and said they would help me and Colin shouted at them, ‘Fuck off,’ and my mum said, ‘Don’t swear,’ and I was walking up towards the clinic and I felt embarrassed that they thought they knew something about me. No one asked my side of things. It was just a cluster of cells, a blastocyst six weeks into development, not a rabbit-looking baby thing like on the placards they were using to block my way. Late-term propaganda, split skulls and whisked-up limbs. As we turned towards the building they followed us and when we opened the door, they put their hands together as if to pray and a man said softly, ‘There go the parents of another dead child.’
We’re never all going to agree on when life starts. I don’t think aborting foetuses will ever be an unemotive issue or occurrence. I don’t think women will ever have abortions unthinkingly or unfeelingly. The upset, the rage of the prolife people who stand outside clinics or send hate mail or shout on the internet, I get. Morality and the ego are connected. When we feel we are absolutely definitively correct about something, when we have no doubts or concessions, it is extremely physiologically powerful. When we live in a society that disagrees with us, it makes our will to be heard stronger. It makes us want to shout louder. To persuade more forcefully. You can try this with a thought exercise. Imagine something that you are completely, undeviatingly sure of - like ‘paedophilia is wrong’. I use that as an emotive example. It’s not an issue one could be on the fence about. If you woke up tomorrow morning and ‘Newsflash, newsflash,’ said the radio, ‘Prime Minister David Cameron has repealed all paedophilia laws. Do what you like to kids now - have a nice day,’ imagine how you would feel. The world would be crazy to you. How could something that was so obviously and utterly morally disgusting be permitted? Imagine how frustrating it would be to know something, deeper than an intellectual idea, to be convinced down to the foundations of your being and then be contradicted by those around you - it would feel like insanity. It would make a dictator of any of us; we all have a few beliefs which we’re so sure are correct that we’d force other people to comply and not feel guilty about that. I can’t imagine a person who didn’t have some conceptions of rightness that they wouldn’t budge on.
Happy Seventeenth Birthday Sara!
Let’s have another look inside me. Sperm and egg collided around six weeks earlier. They travelled slowly, incrementally, through the fluid in my Fallopian tube, waved onwards by minuscule cilia towards my womb. Twenty-three chromosomes from the egg paired up with twenty-three chromosomes from the head of the sperm (its tail had been discarded) to create the DNA of a brand new organism. The DNA was replicated, so that there were forty-six chromosomes, and the original cell bulged and divided until it was two. These two cells replicated DNA and doubled. The four cells doubled. And so on, doubling and replicating and arriving in my womb. On attaching to the uterine wall, the building of placental cells produced human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), an analogue of the luteinising hormone we met earlier, which signalled that an embryo was present. That was why the pregnancy test looked for it - it is a hormone that appears only when there is an embryo, and any trace of it is a sure sign of fertilisation. Hour by hour, week by week the embryo increased very gradually in size until at week six it was tadpole-like. It had transparent skin, organs forming in the correct positions and a heart the size of a poppy seed that was already beating.
When we discuss the rights of the unborn, we’re thinking about non-conscious, non-sentient beings. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have rights. I do believe that unborn foetuses have rights, and they should not have to wait until birth to be accorded the respect we endow on the living; believing a woman is entitled to choose to abort a pregnancy doesn’t mean the rights of foetuses are dismissed and disregarded. It means there is a hierarchy. It means that I believe the rights of the woman who is pregnant take precedence. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that it is sad, it doesn’t mean you are not allowed to be outraged and upset by it. Sometimes in pro-choice arguments we can get stuck in defending what seem to be morally stronger arguments: pregnancies that have resulted from rape, children who are impregnated by their abusers, women who may die if their pregnancies continue. These examples may help soften some pro-lifers, or help them empathise with the complexity of some women’s experience and choices. But I am going to stand, hands on hips, and tell you that a woman like myself - healthy, wealthy and with love in my life - if I am pregnant and I don’t want to be, it’s top trumps and I win. It’s harsh and horrible that a possible person can be unexisted and it might make you want to cry, but if you want fewer abortions then you should devote yourself to helping women who don’t want to be pregnant not get pregnant, not terrifying and humiliating the ones who are.
I gave my name to reception. My mum left. Colin sat on a plastic chair where the Christians outside were still audible. I was called through for my ‘counselling session’. I’d been told about it at the first appointment: everyone who wants a medical termination has to convince a doctor that they know what they’re doing, persuade them they are making the right decision. I was really looking forward to it because I had seen counselling on TV and it looked great - you get to tell them how fucked up your parents made you and cry on free tissues - but this session was rubbish. A man said, ‘Are you sure you want to terminate your pregnancy?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Why?’ and I thought, we’ll start with the basics, ‘Because I don’t want a baby,’ and a box on a form was crossed. He told me to jump on a couch - oh yes, here we go, this was far more Freudian, lie down, top up - the man put jelly on my lower belly and said, ‘We just need to find out where it is,’ and then I still hadn’t realised what he was doing but I’d seen this on TV as well. Grown-up women with clear skin and happy faces, men gripping their hands, joyfully worried as they asked, ‘Is it healthy?’ and were told, ‘It’s a boy!’ TV didn’t show seventeen-year-old birthday girls with sick in their hair. ‘Have a look,’ the doctor said - I’d turned away, I didn’t want to see, but I am obedient and looked back and there was a mess of static that meant nothing and the man pointed with a biro and said, ‘It’s very small,’ and the counselling was over. Afterwards my mum said they don’t have to do an ultrasound. She said that maybe they do it to check that you’re sure, that maybe seeing it would change some people’s minds.
I’d told my family that I was on the contraceptive injection but that I’d forgotten to go back for the next one after three months. I told the nurses and doctors that we’d had a split condom and that the morning-after pill hadn’t worked. I did not admit to anyone that I was a really, really stupid person. And now I waited with my naked bum on a chair, in a cold corridor, queueing for an abortion. I realised I must really hate myself to have done this to me. I hadn’t visualised this bit, I didn’t know they would make me take my knickers off, put me in an operation gown, tell me where to wait and not look me in the eye. This bit was too hard and I would have liked to say ‘Stop’. Very politely and firmly. ‘Stop all this. Can I get dressed and go home now please? This is a mistake, I don’t want to have an abortion. But also, I also don’t want to be pregnant so can we all agree that I have made a terrible mistake, whizz me back to the past and undo this?’
That’s the bit I would describe to my fifteen-year-old self. The moment when the realisation hit and I was alone and frightened with a cold bum. I always wonder what might have made me take better precautions. What I could say to my nieces, not to scare them, but so they could visualise the connection - hey guys, I hope you’re enjoying this Peppa Pig episode. Did you know that twenty seconds of awkward condom conversation can save you an hour of corridor purgatory waiting to have your womb vacuumed?
Are you gonna call Aunt of the Year Awards or shall I?
I was taken in to lie on a bed in an operating room. I was incredibly, incredibly embarrassed to see the two stirrups in the air and putting my feet into them was an out-of-body experience. My mum had warned me about stirrups, she said they make abortions as horrible as possible so that you don’t go back. There was an anaesthetist and a nurse and a doctor and they could all see up me and I wanted to die. I had a rash on my bikini line from shaving. I wanted to apologise for it. A woman put an injection into the tube in my hand and said count to ten, and while I counted I thought, ‘Oh no - the sleep stuff isn’t working, I’ll have to tell them,’ and then I woke up sobbing. I was in a different bed, on a ward. There was a curtain around me and I was alive again and it was done. A nurse came and was nice, and she explained the sanitary pad in the knickers they had given me, to expect pain and treat it like a normal period. She said no sex for an amount of time I intended to ignore. And she got me a cup of sweetened tea that tasted like freedom. While I drank it a bed went past transporting a sleeping body. Curtains went round. She woke up sobbing, got the same speech and tea, and when the curtains were opened we chatted. She was from Dublin and had come on a boat because abortions weren’t allowed in her country. I told her about my boyfriend and she told me about her boyfriend and I had to ask again: ‘Are you sure it’s illegal in Ireland?’ I thought she must be unintelligent or mistaken. Because she was just like me, from a country just like my country and right next door.
What if abortion was illegal in England, what would I have done? People who are anti-abortion and want it to become more restricted, less available, might say, ‘You wouldn’t have got pregnant, you’d have taken better precautions if there was no escape route.’ I can tell you honestly, having been me, that I don’t think I would have made more effort with contraception. I took risks, not with silent awareness of an undoing process available for £400, but because I believed pregnancy was something that happened to other people. It was their disaster, their bad luck. I have always felt immortal and that’s been reinforced by years of undeath. I smoked secure that I would never get cancer. I cycled drunk certain that cars would bounce right off me. Having unprotected sex I knew I was dancing with something, that there was danger nearby, but I didn’t think it would dare touch me. Until it did. And if legal termination hadn’t been an option I would have done something else. I would have starved myself and tried to kill it, I would have got really drunk and taken boiling hot baths. Maybe pushed something inside me and done my best. Maybe visited some non-legal doctor. It must be difficult to imagine if you’ve never had some alien growing in your body against your will, but wanting rid of it is not a mild desire. And it is not a modern affliction. Techniques for ending pregnancy have existed for as long as medicine; Hippocrates himself recommended an abortion method of ‘kicking yourself on the buttocks until the seed fell out’. If only that worked - any Irish girl in trouble could Riverdance herself out of it. I hope the law in Ireland has changed by the time this book is published so it’s me that seems outdated rather than their legal system.
My mum picked me up after work. Colin was very quiet, I was exuberant with relief. The nausea had gone, I already felt better, even internally bruised with a bloody fat sanitary towel in my knickers. In the weeks afterwards, my feelings about sex changed. It was now connected to something painful. I had lived its consequences, I knew the damage it could wreak and so it wasn’t sexy any more. I began to silently resent Colin and he resented me back. If he loved me, why had he let this happen? Why hadn’t he protected me? He hadn’t put his legs in stirrups, he was unscathed. It became clear that I was still in charge of whether we used contraception or not: if I didn’t mention condoms then he wouldn’t. In reverse, he hated me because I’d made a decision without him. I hadn’t known enough to make a pretence of including him. When we broke up months later, when he was suddenly with someone else, someone unsullied by this operation, I was angry. I was glad I hadn’t listened to him, but I wondered if he’d have stayed with me if I had. Would I be pregnant and with him or would he have abandoned me pregnant?
The male experience of a partner’s abortion is interesting. Thinking about it now, I realise that none of my boyfriends have talked to me about whether it has happened to them. (I must write and ask on their Facebook walls immediately!) There is an obvious separation - the embryo is not growing inside the man, the father does not undergo the procedure - but I am sure, if a man wants children and his partner is aborting one, there must be an out-of-control and existential suffering that deserves compassion and consideration. I always think it’s noteworthy that the ancient Greeks did not believe a woman was related to her children. Guys like Aristotle told how women and their wombs were just vessels that grew the male seed, like the soil grew plants. To me this seems more than a pre-science misunderstanding; it’s an undermining of female power, it’s a firm insistence of male ownership and responsibility. Fighting their terrified disconnection from their growing children by reducing women to flower pots.
People told me how I’d feel about my abortion. I was to expect regrets and tears and guilt and bad dreams, and perhaps I’m an awful person, but I was not sorry. I only felt relief and buoyancy as if cured from a sickness. I have been haunted since but the ghost is gentle and suggestive. Every year on my birthday, I do a little sum in my head to work out the unborn’s age. Enjoy a flicker of imagining height and hair colour, and how different my life might be. The ghost child is now the age I was when I had the abortion and that is odd to consider. But it is nothing stronger than odd. I am not racked with sobs. I am not shaking my fist at the past. I did not make a mistake. Or I did, but I was not wrong to abort my mistake.
There’s been some discussion amongst people who care about my professional life as to whether I should be writing about my teenage abortion. My agent Dawn, my brilliant career mum, warned me that once it was ‘out there’ it could be brought up in any interview, mentioned in any review. I don’t care. I stand by it and I will talk about it every day if people want me to. Sex education in schools should involve women who’ve had terminations talking about them and answering questions. No shame and more prevention, that’s my motto.
Let’s forget the undone now. Instead we shall consider the terrifying business of babies that are actually born. The history of childbirth is a horror show. Our evolutionary combination of walking upright (producing slim hips) and massive brain development (necessitating huge heads) has made the natural process of birth dangerous, potentially fatal for the women undertaking it. Until very recently all women would have considered pregnancy and birth like a disease - something that you might not come back from. In developed countries maternity wards now have excellent facilities, antibiotics, anaesthesia and sterilisation that help make the process less deadly. But the majority of the world’s women do not have access to this kind of medical care and around 350,000 women die giving birth every year.
Someone needs to write a book on the topic of patriarchy and childbirth. For swathes of recorded history the delivery room was all women taking care of women. The word ‘gossip’ apparently originated from ‘God’s siblings’. These were close family friends (think godparents and godchildren) but over time the term became used for the women attending local births and helping out. It conjures such a great image of a room full of bossy ladies, nattering away and sharing local news while mopping brows and cutting cords. It seems male involvement was a relatively recent response to the number of deaths and infections caused by childbirth; male doctors began to mistrust inherited female wisdom and local midwives, and wanted to invent forceps and get involved That is my very biased and abridged view of the matter - but here are a couple of examples of men interfering that are … perturbing.
First meet Dr Marion Sims, don’t be fooled by his girly name, this man is a man. He lived in the US in the nineteenth century and was fascinated by the fistulas that some women are left with after giving birth. You don’t know what a fistula is? Well, let me tell you: the skin around a woman’s vagina can often rip while pushing her baby’s head out. In some cases the tearing is deeper and can create an opening between the vagina and the bladder or colon. This alone indicates how almost unfit for purpose evolution has left our bodies. If women were a product you would take them back to the shop.
Oh yes, excuse me, I bought this ‘woman’ for the purpose of making people, but whenever it makes one, it breaks.
Ah yes, it’s a very clever design. Despite great agonies and physical risks these ‘women’ are continuing to make people even though it rips and stretches them.
Can I have one that doesn’t break?
They have to break to make people—
Could the people be smaller?
With smaller brains this whole product line would’ve died out.
Wow! You mean the sacrifice ‘woman’ makes in childbirth has enabled the continuance of human life on the planet?
I surely do!
SHOPKEEPER and CUSTOMER turn to camera and do a thumbs up.
CUSTOMER and SHOPKEEPER
So this vagina-bladder/colon rip is called a fistula. It is incredibly painful and it’s an injury that ruins lives. With a fistula urine or faecal matter may leak constantly out of the poor woman’s genitals. This incontinence leads to infection and smelliness and embarrassment. Nineteenth-century women were becoming disabled and housebound; their husbands were leaving them. Forget what you know of medicine in your lifetime - there were no tablets that killed viruses for these women to take, no creams to kill germs and no painkillers. Just hundreds of thousands of suffering women. I can only slightly imagine how upsetting that must be, not just the grossness and pain of it all but the constancy of focus. When I have cystitis it’s all I can think about; a continual nagging, unsettling ache as my body throbs and reminds me ‘something is wrong, everything is wrong’. And that’s only stupid cystitis and I have a cure in my bathroom cabinet … those poor women - anyway. There was no cure and Dr Marion Sims decided to find one, hooray! So he decided to buy a load of slave women - oh no, hang on - and experiment on them until he found one.
I want it noted that I have taken my hooray back.
Reading different accounts of Dr Sims’s work, you’ll find a variety of opinions ranging from ‘He was a despicable disgrace’ to ‘He was a product of his culture’. Are we expected to forgive people’s atrocities if they lived in an atrocious time? The women used in Sims’s experiments were young slaves. They were stripped naked, told to hold each other’s legs open and then had their vaginas cut and stitched repeatedly with no pain relief while student doctors or medical voyeurs craned and watched. This continued for months and years and many operations. Sims’s peers started to consider him obsessed and crazy, but eventually he worked out how to repair fistulas. He became very famous, and very rich now that he could use what he’d learned on the young slaves to cure wealthy white women. There are no records of what happened to the slaves afterwards, and some historians wonder if they were probably happy to have been cured or whatever. I find that notion really creepy, this modern-day defensiveness: ‘Well, they got something out of it too.’ In one description I read, the women were described as ‘brave’ and I don’t like that either. If we assume these women sacrificed themselves for a greater good we are inserting a choice they were not given. Sacrifice is something related to will, something that can only be given willingly - not bought or taken. They are closer to martyrs.
It’s so tempting to make what he did okay on some level because, you know, now women in many countries can have their fistulas repaired, but. It doesn’t feel okay. It’s an unhappy seesaw where the great medical breakthrough cannot obliterate the abuses that enabled it. And enabled it only for rich, fortunate women, still. Between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand women in developing countries get fistulas each year, and the World Health Organisation estimates about two million women worldwide are currently living with untreated obstetric tearing. There are charities trying to help as many women as possible with this, and I have listed a few at the end of the book. Along with a pattern for a knit-your-own Dr Marion Sims voodoo doll.
Now let’s meet Dr Grantly Dick-Read. No, that’s not a name I’ve invented to cheer you up, but a real-life man from the 1950s who wrote books telling women how to give birth. His main observation was that other animals didn’t seem to make a huge fuss when delivering their young; a weird look in their eye, a grunt or a moo, and out the little one slipped. So, Dr Dick-Read wondered, how come human women are doing all this screaming and going bright red and everything? His conclusion was that they must be imagining the pain. Everyone had been telling women to expect pain during childbirth, so their fear made them think that they felt it. Lovely bit of logic from a medical man there, and all built entirely on nonsense. On the one hand you had the subjective experience of women who’d actually given birth; all the variety of things that they’d felt and undergone. On the other hand you had Dr Dick-Read shouting, ‘WRONG! All Wrong! I am the only one who understands - ignore your sufferings and read my books!’ And many people listened and agreed and did their best to believe their pain was psychological and HOW WAS THIS ALLOWED?
We understand that the danger and pain of giving birth are caused by those big-skulled babies we’ve evolved to have, but in the olden days people didn’t realise that. They constructed myths of explanation and considered the female body cursed and mysterious. Those myths still linger even in our post-Darwinian, all-information-available-on-the-internet times, resulting in so much babble and rubbish. Remember Eve from the Bible? You know the one, always with Adam, big fan of fruit - when God was doling out punishments after the tree of knowledge debacle he told Eve that he’d ‘multiply her pain in childbirth’. The explicit message here is that birth does not have to be painful but it is because women deserve it, because of … apples? I am not a biblical scholar.
I guess this combination of ‘birth is the most natural thing in the world’ and ‘birth is agonising and dangerous and can kill everyone involved’ is difficult for us to absorb. Consequently pregnant women are bombarded with contradictory and impassioned instructions on how and where to have their children. Our vulnerable physiology is still widely misunderstood. Of all the stuff I’ve read, the most consistent piece of advice is that stress is very unhelpful to childbirth as it tenses the body, and that relaxation will lead to less trauma for mother and her baby, but it’s paradoxical that pregnant women are having that information shouted at them: STAY AT HOME! GO TO HOSPITAL! GET A BIRTHING POOL! NIPPLE MASSAGE! PUT MUSIC ON! CANDLES! ORGASMIC BIRTH! RELAX! HAVE A NICE PERINEUM RUB! GET HYNOTISED! Plus all the conflicting advice about pain relief versus ‘natural’ birth. There’s an insinuation of nobility in denying anaesthesia when available. Some sense that the pain is supposed to be felt, which seems medieval to me. How can ‘natural’ birth be sanctified in any way, when according to nature, at least one in every hundred women would die from it?
Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question.
We’ve been thinking a lot about what happens when the ovum meets a sperm but I’d like to talk now about something I have much more experience of. My monthly non-fertilisation and the madness it brings with it.