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.