I recently re-watched a documentary called Daughters of the Troubles, a piece of work from the late 1990’s produced and directed by American filmmaker Marcia Rock, and written by late Belfast author Jack Holland (more commonly known to me as Dad.)
It tells the story of the Troubles and the working class communities they most affected through the lives of two women, Catholic Geraldine O’Regan, and Protestant May Blood, who not only coped with the violence around them, but actively worked to keep their communities functioning as the violence raged on.
It examines the young lives hemmed in by lack of economic opportunity, social exclusion, and by teenage pregnancy, which the women freely acknowledge holds many back in working class communities.
Yet what struck me watching the footage of teen mothers in their mother’s warm and clean homes – holding chubby babies on hips, the young grandmothers watching over what looks like busy and happy homes – was how stable and even prosperous they seemed.
Young girls in the documentary spoke honestly about wanting to get pregnant, and a glimpse into a well run home with a benign older woman at its head makes you understand why. Intergenerational bonds between women helped sustain communities through the darkest days, and kept the social fabric largely in tact. Here and in every other part of the world. Motherhood, in those moments of warm domestic intimacy and safety, is truly a blessing.
Pregnancy and motherhood is not always a blessed event. Sometimes it’s a disaster, financially, emotionally, medically, or all of the above. Sometimes it’s the result of rape or incest. Sometimes a woman would rather commit suicide than have a child.
But far more often, the situation of an unwanted pregnancy is much more mundane. It’s not the right time. It’s going to make life difficult, uncomfortable, it’s just too much to handle. Few people say this openly, because it is perceived as bolstering the anti-abortion stereotype of lazy, selfish women who would rather kill a baby than take the trouble to raise it.
These days we hear a lot about access to abortion for women with unviable pregnancies. At the weekend Sinn Fein voted to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. The disaster pregnancy storyline may seem to be an easier sell to the public in conservative Northern Ireland. This is understandable. Who is worthy of more sympathy than a pregnant woman who is losing a very wanted child? The fact that women in that terrible position are held hostage to legislative moralizing is horrendous, and as the case of Savita Halappanavar showed, dangerous.
But abortion is not an abnormality – it’s a routine medical procedure for women from all walks of life. This is not a value judgement. It is a fact.
Strategically, there are limits to abortion rights advocacy based on the disaster pregnancy cases. It creates a hierarchy of sympathy – as this blogger put it – of “good” and “bad” abortions. It puts abortion outside the norm. But here’s a little secret the majority of women know: abortion is not outside the norm.
Unintended pregnancies happen. A lot. To everyone, including people with sincerely held religious views. Rich women, poor women. Career women, unemployed women and stay at home mothers. Some women chose to carry on with the pregnancy, and some don’t. And it’s nobody’s goddamn business which one a woman chooses.
At its centre, abortion is not a political or moral question, it is a biological one – a question of biological autonomy. A woman has a natural right to biological autonomy (just as a man does). A foetus does not, because it cannot exist without the mother.
No woman has full bodily autonomy without an unfettered right to terminate pregnancy. There is no male equivalent to this simple fact. For men, there is no everyday reality in which the right to make medical decisions about his body lies not with the man himself but with the law.
The biological, emotional and social repercussions of pregnancy and childbirth are enormous and put women in a totally unique position in society. It is because of this fact that women’s bodies are political battlegrounds, and have been throughout history. Who controls the female’s power to procreate? In many societies, including our own, it is not the woman herself.
Here in Northern Ireland, while the men were busy fighting futile wars, women like Geraldine O’Regan and May Blood were busy picking up the pieces. And yet even after all these years, the powers that be still don’t think enough of us to give us right to full self-determination.