Who should not be making the abortion law?

Making abortion illegal does not stop it, it just makes it less safe, writes Collins.

For over 20 years an abortion to save the life of the mother has "technically" been legal in Ireland - but without legislation to spell out what that means, doctors have been reluctant to act [AFP]

The other day, standing at a bus stop, I experienced what I can only describe as an episode of loud, persistent flatulence. I am British, so this was most embarrassing for all concerned. Everyone in the queue looked at the floor and coughed unconvincingly. My boyfriend tried to look nonchalant and sidle away from me. I tried to stop it, but I just could not.

You see, I am pregnant and there is a hormone called relaxin which floods your body in pregnancy. Relaxin makes pretty much everything in your body a bit looser, including the muscles and lining of your gut. This can lead to heartburn, constipation, and yes, you have guessed it, loud and uncontrollable farting.

Oh, the indignities of pregnancy! They told me it would be beautiful and glowing. They did not tell me about farting loudly at bus stops.

It turns out I did not have a clue about pregnancy. I did not have a clue about the tiredness. About the constipation. About being constantly hungry. About dozens of other symptoms. And what I quickly realised was, friends who had got kids knew about it all. You would go to see them and they would straight away ask how you were feeling and if you wanted something to eat.

But people who did not have kids were oblivious. In the first few months – when you still looked the same as before – they expected you to be the same as before. It did not occur to them you were distracted and talking to them through a thick fog of tiredness. They did not automatically sit you nearest the toilet, and offer you snacks every five minutes.

It is as if only people who have experienced it have a clue what pregnancy entails. And I started to think that was pretty weird.

Pregnancy is marginalised

In biological terms, having offspring and passing on our genes is the point of all organisms. It is the central fact of existence. Consider salmon. They swim thousands of miles, back from the ocean to the upper reaches of the rivers they were born in to spawn. Or they die in the attempt. It is a grand, heroic journey, the central narrative of salmon-hood. If salmon wrote novels or made films, that is what they would all be about.

Yet we relegate pregnancy to specialist magazines and the occasional feature in the women’s section. Many people will probably have skipped over this column, thinking that making future human beings is petty and parochial. Not to be compared to IMPORTANT ISSUES like the economy and politics. We marginalise pregnancy and ignore it.

Is it because we do not take things that affect women seriously? Or is it just because we are all squeamish about blood and mess and lady-bits? I do not know, but I know that if we ignore the realities of pregnancy, we cannot have a meaningful debate about abortion. I mean, if pregnancy is all just rosy cheeks and funny food cravings, then why would anyone want an abortion? For me, pregnancy has been an eye-opener. I am far angrier about abortion laws now, because now I know what denying women an abortion forces them to go through.

You see, pregnancy is not just the petty indignities of strangers at bus stops hearing you fart. Pregnancy has serious medical consequences. Pregnancy is varicose veins and piles and back pain and heartburn. Pregnancy is an increased risk of stroke, blood clots and diabetes. Not to mention the chances of dying in childbirth.

It is also a huge 24/7 imposition on your body, your mind and your attention in a way I would never appreciated before. And anyone who tells me “it is only for nine months” can try carrying a bowling ball around, and never, ever putting it down (even while you are asleep), while progressively reducing your lung volume, and taking a cocktail of mood-altering drugs, and see how “only” nine months feels now. 

Tragedy reopens Ireland abortion debate

Pregnancy is feeling an alien creature moving, autonomously, inside your body. The books said feeling the foetus move for the first time would be “a magical moment”. No it was not. It felt freakish and weird and gave me a moment of pure existential terror.

If you have never been pregnant I will try to explain it. Picture a creature, roughly the size of a mango. A large rat would be about right. And this rat is suddenly inside your abdomen, wiggling and scrabbling about. Feel magical does it?

Now imagine you never wanted the rat there in the first place. And that doctors could very easily and safely have removed it, months ago, when it was only the size of a pea. But the law in your country forbids them from doing that. So instead it is growing and growing and completely changing your whole body.

If you had not chosen it, this state would be intolerable.

Now do not get me wrong, personally, I am glad to be pregnant. We wanted to have a baby. Although nervous, we are looking forward to becoming parents. But still, at times, I am heartily sick of it. The discomfort, the ungainliness, the inescapability of it all. You can never have even half an hour off from being pregnant. But at least I chose this.

It seems to me to be the most inhuman torture to force someone to go through all this against their will. Claustrophobia – the feeling of having no escape – is a perfect description of it.

Proposed new legislation in Ireland

Which brings us to Ireland. The Irish government is finally getting round to drafting a new law on abortion. The law will only cover cases where the mother’s life is in danger without an abortion. Even so, the Catholic Church in Ireland is opposing the legislation. How fixated do you have to be to oppose an abortion where the mother (and of course, the baby), will die without one?

The Catholic Church is an institution run by allegedly-celibate men. Precisely the group of people who have got the least idea what pregnancy really means. But that does not stop them having this opinion and forcing it on everyone else. “Prominent voices” within the church suggest withholding communion from politicians who vote for the draft legislation. As an atheist, I could not care less if I am banned for communion. But in a devout country like Ireland, this is a particularly spiteful threat.

For over 20 years an abortion to save the life of the mother has technically been legal in Ireland. But without legislation to spell out what that means, doctors have been reluctant to act. Which is why medical staff stood by and watched as Savita Halappanavar died so tragically and avoidably last October.

Fearful of angering the church, the Irish government has fudged and delayed on clarifying that legal situation for 21 years. Meanwhile, women like Savita Halappanavar die. And every day, Irish women who can afford travel to Britain and have private abortions. Others stay at home and take unregulated abortion-inducing drugs they have bought over the internet. Because, as all the evidence shows, making abortion illegal does not stop it, it just makes it less safe. But everyone can pretend there are no abortions in Ireland, so let us all not talk about it.

What is it with these celibacy-choosing priests? So squeamish about women’s bodies they do not want anyone to talk about the squelchy, messy, bloody details. And yet so obsessed with restricting what we are allowed to do with them. If those “prominent voices” within the Catholic Church have even heard of relaxin, if any of them could list the symptoms of pregnancy, or have the slightest clue what it does to your body, then I might have more time for their opinion on abortion. But I bet you my comically-huge maternity bra they have never even heard of pelvic floor exercises.

The Dail Eireann (Irish parliament) is made up of 85 percent men. Fianna Fail, the third largest party, has only male TDs (parliament members). The church hierarchy, of course, is male. So, yet again, a bunch of men argue among themselves and stick to their so-called principles, with little idea what that means for the millions of women they inflict them on.

So here is my proposal. A spot quiz – no warning, no revising! Twenty straightforward questions on pregnancy and birth. Maybe we will broaden it out a bit and have a few questions on child development and the legal responsibilities of parenthood, stuff like that. Every TD who passes the quiz gets to vote on abortion legislation. The ones who fail do not get a vote. Priests can take it too. In fact, let us include any man who pontificates about abortion. The ones who pass, fair enough, they at least know what they are talking about. All the ones who fail can shut the f*** up on the topic from this day forth.

Sophia Collins is a science engagement specialist. She’s interested in science engagement, dialogue, science education and science and society issues. She has written for The Lancet, Comment is Free, Focus magazine, Diva and Broadcast.

Follow her on Twitter: @ayiasophia

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets