(Here’s the full version of a piece published in the Comment section of the Independent last Saturday 04/05/13. It’s a personal contribution to the current conversation about abortion legislation in Ireland.)
Every Child a Wanted Child
When I was 17 I was raped by an older man I knew. We were at a party. He gave me cocktails, fun to look at and easy to drink. I wasn’t used to drinking and drank too many, too fast. He offered to bring me home, but once I was in his car he brought me somewhere else instead. I thought that night would never end, but morning came, as it does, and he let me go.
You probably have opinions about whether an experience like that constitutes rape or not, and that, right there, is one of the reasons I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. I had those confusions too. I blamed myself enough to satisfy the entire nation, and then some. But I’m not here to write about rape, I’m here to write about what happened next.
I bled for three days, but kept it hidden. I didn’t look for help because I was humiliated and ashamed and because I didn’t have words for what had happened to me. In any case, because I was 17 and no-one had ever told me otherwise, I thought I deserved the damage. And I really, really, really did not want anyone to know. No amount of hot baths or pumice-stones could wash the memory of that night away, or scrub the reek of it from my skin.
On top of all that, I was afraid I might be pregnant. There was no doubt in my mind that if I was, I’d have an abortion. I wouldn’t have told anyone that, either.
I didn’t want to have an abortion, but I knew that a pregnancy from that night would destroy me. I needed to scrape every trace of the experience off me, root it out from every pore and crevice. I’d have bathed in acid if I thought it would scour my body clean and free. The only thing that kept me sane in those first few days was thinking I had the option of abortion. I’d been stupid at that party, but I was savvy enough in other ways. I knew where to look for information, how to get out of the country, where to borrow the money I would have lied to get. I was the opposite of proud of myself, making these plans, but I was desperate to wrest my body back from the force that had stolen it.
Would I have been suicidal, if I’d been pregnant and unable to end that pregnancy? I think it’s likely. My revulsion and loathing – self-loathing and the other kind – were so strong, I’d have done anything, and I do mean anything, to escape them. Lucky for me, there was no pregnancy. When the waiting was over and I knew for sure, I took a deep breath and got on with my life, more or less.
A wanted pregnancy, in very different circumstances, was a revelation to me in all its physical and emotional intensity. It was the most extraordinarily intimate and powerful experience I’d ever known. It was obvious and secret, ordinary and sacred, banal and deeply thrilling, all at once. There was magic in it. Every day I felt its power grow and embed itself more deeply in every cell of my body. You might think this would convince me that abortion was absolutely wrong, but it had the opposite effect. It convinced me that no one has the right to force that intensity on anyone who doesn’t want it, or isn’t ready for it. I couldn’t begin to imagine the nightmare of going through such seismic physical and emotional changes against my will.
I didn’t want to have an abortion, when I was 17, but I would have done it if I had to, to save myself. I think that sentence is at the heart of the current arguments about legislating for suicidal feelings. The argument as to whether abortion can be a valid treatment for a psychiatric condition is a distraction. There’s a big difference between mental illness and the suicidal feelings a person might have in response to an overwhelming situation.
In the early stages of pregnancy there are two lives in the balance, but one of them is a potential life; it can only become viable over time and at the expense of the other. Only that mother knows what the cost to her will be and whether she can afford it or not.
I defy anyone, male or female, to look my 17 year old self in the eye and tell her that they feel personally entitled to deny her the right to regain control of her own body, that they will force her to endure an extension of that rape for the sake of their world-view. But that’s what it means to pass laws that frame the kinds of restrictions our legislature are discussing right now. Where will the pundits and the politicans or the panels of experts be during the long, frightened nights and days of an unwanted pregnancy, or during the storms of labour? Will they be the ones to cope with the consequences, to the mothers, to the children, to the families? Will they be the ones to mind those babies, bring up those children, minute by minute, day by day, year on year?
Abortion is a highly-charged, difficult subject. It sparks so much passion, fury and hatred that many women are afraid to speak out privately, let alone in public. I was afraid to write this. But on balance, I think I’m more afraid of living in a country where I’m afraid to say what I believe and why.