Reconciling abortion with my motherhood

At some point during my own pregnancy I knew I would confront my pro-choice politics, not because I had had an abortion in the past but because I could have, and because I believe so strongly in my right to do so. Because I dedicated some years of my career to the pro-choice movement; because I personally assisted other women, many other women, in accessing abortion; and because my politics had never wavered over that time but they had also never been tested beyond the hypothetical. While I knew the fundamentals of my politics would never really change – I would always believe there are good reasons not to continue a pregnancy and I would always believe only a woman could know these reasons for herself – I wondered if the state of being pregnant could shake my views at all on abortion. Could I somehow find it immoral?

I didn’t know at what point in my pregnancy, a pregnancy both planned and wanted, that this question would come but I knew it awaited me. As it turned out it came quickly, during my first ultrasound when I saw proof that I was indeed pregnant. The shape on the screen meant I had not imagined the excitement nor invented the symptoms of pregnancy. That I then felt this ‘something’ to be alone inside me meant that I saw it as ‘other’ and ‘apart’, and that it seemed to be waiting implied I saw some future for it. That it was living and had a heartbeat to prove it, and that I suddenly knew it to be so – the significance of all of that was not lost on me. I confronted my abortion politics there and then, I felt the wrestling within, whether to continue calling this ‘something’ a foetus when that bean-like shape on the screen was being referred to by everyone else with a term as romantic and hopeful as ‘baby’. It would be a symbolic gesture, but significant to me all the same. So many of the important debates eventually hinge upon a few simple words and ‘baby’ with all its emotional triggers has been critical in the tussle over abortion.

There is nothing like the experience of early bonding in a happy pregnancy, enhanced by technologies like ultrasound, to move you from being a person who referred to an embryo as “a collection of dividing cells” to a person who refers to their embryo as “a baby”. Unless you are me, in which case you steadfastly refuse to let go of the technical terms. I saw the doctors flinch when I used ‘foetus’; I know what they thought it meant, that I was already somehow failing to bond with my pregnancy. On the contrary. I used the word to indicate that I needed the facts, that I wanted the details in a version undiluted by visions of bunny rugs. That however unsettling those facts might become should things go wrong over the course of this much wanted pregnancy, that I needed to know them because I understood my vulnerability in wanting to love something as precarious as a foetus. In part, I used the word ‘foetus’ not because I didn’t feel attached to the idea of my pregnancy but because I already cherished it.

After facing this test of sorts I went on to find my pro-choice politics affirmed. Over the coming weeks I celebrated each progression towards viability – the heartbeat, the functioning kidneys, the budding fingers, and the sucking reflex – but I also saw that I celebrated them not as the joys of a baby, rather as the joys of the baby it promised to be and not yet was. I willed my body and this foetus to continue their transaction towards that delightful outcome. And let me be straight, I loved the journey whole-heartedly, but I came to understand as I hadn’t before pregnancy that this state of being is a devouring one, and that it is vital that it not be experienced unwillingly by a woman.

Somewhere in the second trimester I finally gave in to the word, my hope was too strong and I recklessly used the term ‘baby’ all over the place, along with everyone else. By then I was filled with both optimism and something enormous and kicking. And that came to be a baby, with all the promise I had imagined. (She is now five years old). When I was pregnant for the second time the ‘cluster of dividing cells’ stopped. It had grown far enough along to nudge past the term ’embryo’ and officially be called a ‘foetus’ but I called it ‘baby’ anyway. It was as much in recognition of the grief I was experiencing as it was in what might have been.

(P.S. For a more thorough examination of the topic of abortion and maternal love and the reconciliation of the two I recommend Daphne de Marneffe’s Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life).

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, medicine, parenting, technology

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4 replies

  1. Using the old term of “quickening” for the time in gestation where the mother starts to feel movement from the foetus, it seems very natural (in a happy pregnancy) for one’s emotional bonds with the growing lifeform inside one’s belly to become deeper as the movements grow stronger and start to react to what one is doing, to begin to view it truly as a person-in-waiting and anticipate its arrival joyfully.
    Before our modern technologies where we see signs of personhood in a blob on a scan and a pulsing sonic signal of a heartbeat, quickening was the most common time for people to get really excited about a pregnancy, and announcements regarding pregnancies were rarely made before this time. Of course, this was also a time when pregnancies were much more common both in general and in an individual woman’s life specifically, so there wasn’t quite the same major production angst about pregnancy as there is today when women delay their childbearing and space and limit their pregnancies.
    Sorry, rambling a bit.

    I loved the journey whole-heartedly, but I came to understand as I hadn’t before pregnancy that this state of being is a devouring one, and that it is vital that it not be experienced unwillingly by a woman.

    This, absolutely. I don’t think it would be possible to fully emotionally detach oneself from a pregnancy once one can feel all those movements, and if one never wanted that pregnancy it must feel horribly, traumatically invasive and lead to intense fear and resentment.

  2. This entry reminds me strongly of Respectful of Otters on feelings about abortion after a wanted pregnancy (she also wrote about feelings about abortion as a PWD from birth).
    I actually did use ‘fetus’ as a term of caution: at risk for pre-eclampsia and knowing women who had to abort a pregnancy in second trimester and after quickening because they developed severe pre-e just before viability, I was using it to mark that relationship, in which my life and the life I planned to bring to term might oppose each other’s interests. I used ‘fetus’ right up until he was born.
    … that was all really hard. So my relationship with abortion during my recent pregnancy was in some ways more immediate. I think, while not reducing my pro-choice position on abortion, it improved my commitment to the broader spectrum of reproductive choice issues.

  3. I’ve also always been pro-abortion, but in some ways had quite a different experience, because my pregnancy was unplanned, and a shock when I saw those two blue lines. I spent some weeks thinking very intensely, emotionally consumed as you say, about what I was going to do. I decided to keep the pregnancy, but the decision process made me even more pro-abortion than I’d been, because in the end, the major reason I could say “yes” wholeheartedly and embrace the experience, the change in my life, the potential future human being, was because I knew I could have said “no” and it would have meant something.
    If I’d thought abortion wasn’t an option, and I simply had to go along with what was already happening, there would always have been a degree of resentment to the experience that I think would have contaminated both the pregnancy, and the parent-child bond. So for me, there was no “reconciling” abortion with motherhood, it was a necessity for developing motherhood.
    As it happened, I miscarried at the end of the first trimester. Initially the news was very upsetting, but like you I understood that what I was grieving was a potential, a possible future, not the death of a human being in the normal sense. And the ability to see a jellybean on the ultrasound had turned that potential into something that felt more real than it actually was. My mother said that in those pre-ultrasound days, her pregnancies didn’t start to feel real until she felt movement, and I thought that in many ways that’s more sensible. (The place you’ve reached is very similar to where I ended up, as you can see).
    I also experienced a lot of anger at anti-abortion activists, who by a lot of their rhetoric imply that unwanted pregnancy and a resulting child is reasonable “punishment” for women engaging in (certain kinds of) sexual behaviours, and particularly imply that having an abortion is “getting away with it scot-free”. These are clearly people who’ve never seen those unwanted blue lines. Even if I’d chosen to have an abortion, there is no way I’d have thought I was “getting away with it scot-free”. And certainly, no-way, no-how the way sperm donors can get away with it scot-free in our society.
    There is already a biologically built-in “punishment” for sexual behaviour for people who can get pregnant, namely having to think about that possibility, and sometimes experience it and have to deal with it. I’m an atheist, but in those weeks, Kali made sense to me, because here was I, just a bit of mortal flesh and blood, trying to make decisions about life and death. It was an awesome responsibility, but I was the only one who could fulfil it, whether I felt capable or not.
    Anyway, when you restrict access to abortion, what you’re really doing is punishing the totally innocent future children of unwilling pregnancies. Whether they are adopted out or raised by the birth parent, I can’t believe it’s good for them to spend nine formative months utterly dependent on someone who doesn’t want them there.
    My more philosophical thoughts about pregnancy, abortion, ultrasound etc is that we as humans (or maybe this is a Western culture thing) are really not good at transitions and potentials. We want to stick things in discrete buckets, “alive”, “dead”, “human”, “non-human”. But you can’t bucket-ify the nine month process that turns a single cell inside a person into an independently breathing person, with so many chances of failure along the way. There is no point where “non-human” becomes “human”, instead there’s infinite graduations of “potential human”.
    (My other philosophical thought is that we look at the process as cell becomes person, and I think it’s much healthier to look at the process as person + cell becomes person + new baby person. And even I am still trapped in the first way of thinking and had to edit my previous paragraph. I say “person” rather than “woman” or “mother” because I know some persons capable of pregnancy don’t identify that way.)

  4. I loved these thoughtful responses, thanks.

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