When do women stop being people?
Actually, there are lots of times. When we’re treated like objects to be remarked upon on the street. When we’re treated like objects to be assaulted on the streets. When our utterly personal right to bodily autonomy is violated and stolen from us by abusers and rapists. When we’re reminded once again that men are default human, and we’re a vague category of ‘other’.
However, in this one particular post I want to talk about one particular moment when women stop being seen as their own person – pregnancy.
On Monday night, I chaired a panel debate between the parliamentary candidates standing in a nearby constituency. The penultimate question was about abortion rights – specifically asking the incumbent MP why he had voted in favour of reducing the abortion upper time limit to 22 weeks and whether it was paternalistic for male MPs to decide on women’s bodily autonomy in this way.
The MP and a couple of the other candidates answered gamely. It’s a question of viability, some explained. It’s a question on whether it is viable for the foetus to survive. It’s a question of whether medical advances have come so far that the foetus is viable.
He, and others, didn’t mention the woman.
It is remarkable, really, how quickly she is forgotten in a debate about her own body.
It didn’t seem to occur to those arguing about foetal viability that a woman is involved in the pregnancy, that it is her body that carries the foetus and that it is her right to bestow personhood on the foetus growing inside her, not theirs. It didn’t seem to occur to them that perhaps she, rather than the state, might have a stake in her own body and its future.
As I listened to the pro choice and the anti choice candidates express their views on foetus viability, I couldn’t help but feel that what we were actually debating was when women stop being people. We were arguing about the moment when a woman stops being a person and instead becomes a vessel that carries a potentially viable foetus. According to the pro choice MP, it was at 22 weeks of pregnancy. According to the anti-choice candidate, it’s day one of pregnancy.
According to me, that moment is up to the woman. It is a woman’s choice whether the foetus growing inside her has personhood or not.
Before I go any further we need to get some stats straight. Firstly, 90% of abortions are carried out before a pregnancy reaches 13 weeks. Secondly, 98% of abortions are performed before 20 weeks. Most late abortions are carried out because of a medical emergency.
Of course, chances are if our laws included abortion on demand and women were not required to gain permission from two doctors before they’re allowed the operation, then even more abortions would happen even earlier.
I wanted to turn to those men debating my humanity on the panel and ask them why they hadn’t considered the woman in their arguments on foetal viability. I wanted to ask them why they had taken the woman out of the equation. I wanted to ask them if they could imagine for a moment how it would feel to be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy against their will, or a pregnancy that could lead to desperate health complications or death. I wanted to ask them why they don’t believe it is up to the individual women to decide if the foetus inside her has a humanity that is equal to her own. I wanted to ask them why they believed its potential trumps a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.
Abortion has been legal – with caveats – in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967. It remains illegal in Northern Ireland. Every year, thousands of women travel across the Irish Sea in search of an abortion. Why is their humanity not respected? Why is their right to bodily autonomy – a right that men here and in Northern Ireland take for granted every day – not enshrined in law?
On the same day I chaired the debate, the Mirror ran a poll on whether it should be illegal for women to drink during pregnancy. 71% of poll respondents voted yes.
Once again, we have to ask the question about whether we see women as people. I personally don’t think it’s a great idea for women to drink to excess during pregnancy – no one does. Of course that can lead to health complications in the child.
But making it illegal? What does that solve? How does criminalising women support expectant mothers who may, for example have addiction issues? How can they access help if they are afraid that to do so would mean they risk arrest? What impact would criminalising women’s drinking have on an expectant mother’s confidence about going to see her doctor or midwife? What does it say about our view of women as people?
And where do these kinds of conversations lead? These conversations about whether women are people or vessels? These conversations about whether women have a right to bodily autonomy at every moment of their life, or whether they should give up that right during pregnancy (and, as mentioned at the start, on other occasions too)?
In the USA, these conversations have led to the arrests and convictions of women for foeticide.
Last month, Indiana sentenced Purvi Patel to 20 years in jail for foeticide. Patel had had a miscarriage at around 23 weeks of pregnancy and – scared that her conservative family would discover she had had sex outside of marriage – threw the stillborn foetus away. It’s a tragic story. But her sentence is, fundamentally, punishment for a miscarriage.
Patel is the first women to be sentenced under foeticide laws but she is not the first woman to be charged. In 2011 Bei Bei Shuai had a miscarriage after attempting suicide. She was held in prison for a year before charges were dropped as part of a plea deal.
These are grim, grim cases. And they are part of the slippery slope that we slide down when we stop seeing women as people. With these two cases, the USA appears to be getting closer and closer to criminalising miscarriage. The Handmaid’s Tale was meant to be fiction – a dystopic sci-fi novel. It was not supposed to be America’s view on women’s bodily autonomy in 2015.
None of these issues are easy. But I believe that when talking about pregnancy and abortion, we have to start from a position of women being people. We have to start from a position of women having a right to bodily autonomy.
When we don’t do this, we have women dying from illegal abortions all over the world. We have women like Savita Halappanaver dying in hospitals because they’re denied the medical care they desperately need for their own survival. We have women too scared to seek support for addiction. We have women too scared to go to the doctors with a miscarriage.
And we have a society that continues to refuse to allow that women might be people after all.
That’s not good enough.
So please, let’s start talking about women when we talk about abortion.
Our bodies. Our rights. Our humanity.
To support women in Northern Ireland seeking abortions, check out the Abortion Supper Network.