I spent seven years trying to have a child. While I endured miscarriage after miscarriage throughout my thirties, all around me other women were getting pregnant, by choice or by accident. Some of those women chose to continue with their pregnancies and others chose to have abortions. At times I felt envious, even resentful. Why them and not me? After a year of IVF treatment none of the medical interventions had made a difference. I remained childless. Did it feel unfair, that others seemed to find it so easy to have a child? Absolutely. Did I envy the women around me who had a chance to choose whether to continue with or to terminate their pregnancy? Yes. Did I wish those women who chose terminations had made different choices? Absolutely not. If anything, my infertility journey strengthened my conviction that only a woman should have the right to determine her reproductive future. After all, those women and I had more in common than not.
Whilst trying – and failing – to have a child I felt an overwhelming loss of control over my own body. My reproductive system was preventing me from becoming the person I always wanted to be. Month after month I felt increasingly at the mercy of external forces, including the male-dominated medical profession. No one could explain why I was unable to fulfil my desire to become a mother.
Loss of control. External forces. Unfulfilled desires. Sound familiar? My situation might have seemed like the opposite of a woman facing an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. There was nothing I wanted more than to have a child. But many of the causes and consequences of our situations were the same. The processes taking place in our bodies were threatening the dreams and expectations we had for our lives. And without access to safe and legal termination options, those women would potentially have been even more disempowered than I felt at the time.
Years later I discovered the so-called medical experts had failed to test for and diagnose a treatable thyroid condition which had increased my risk of miscarriage and infertility. Last week, so-called legal experts in the USA failed to uphold a long held Constitutional right for women to determine what they can and can’t do with their bodies. This failure will inevitably lead to an increased risk of women having to resort to unsafe illegal abortions. In both instances decisions made by others resulted in a lack of choice for us in relation to our reproductive futures.
Repression comes in many forms. The Supreme Court of the USA has just enabled a very dramatic and dangerous form of subjugation. But there have been other less visible repressive consequences of the toxic long term campaign against women’s right to choose.
While I was trying to have a child, members of the anti-abortion lobby were loudly proclaiming that ‘life’ begins at conception, that all embryos thus defined have value and a ‘right to life’, and that a termination is therefore an immoral act. Their opponents – amongst whom I counted myself – argued that the most important right is that of the woman’s right to choose.
All of my miscarriages occurred early, around six or seven weeks. The anti-abortion campaigners would already have assigned those fragile embryos legal status. I had given them a different kind of value. They were the embodiments of my hopes and fantasies for the future, the members of an imagined family my partner and I were hoping to create together. I was already wondering about their hair colour, the sound of their voices, the games we would play together. When those pregnancies were lost, so too were my expectations of a life filled with maternal love.
I remember feeling anxious and bewildered. If I publicly acknowledged the value to me of those longed-for pregnancies, would I tacitly be supporting the anti-abortion lobby’s insistence that all embryos have value, and therefore a ‘right to life’? If I supported a woman’s right to not have a child, how could I grieve a cluster of cells that, in my mind, were not yet a child? The last thing I wanted to do was to further enable the self-righteousness of ‘pro-life’ vigilantes. Somehow, in my confused and grieving mind, they had succeeded in defining the terms of the debate. So I pushed my sadness down and remained silent.
Unacknowledged grief is corrosive, and mine eventually sabotaged several intimate relationships. It has been almost two decades since I gave up trying to become a mother, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand the toxic personal impact of the polarised public abortion debate. Emotional self-censorship is not the answer. We need a more nuanced public conversation about the profound differences between a wanted pregnancy and an unwanted pregnancy.
No child should have to come into the world against the wishes of its mother. No woman should have to give birth to a child she doesn’t want or can’t afford to have. And no childless woman should have to pretend their lost pregnancies have no meaning, for fear of giving succour to those who would seek to repress us. I join the women of America in expressing rage and grief over the erosion of their physical autonomy, and I also give myself permission to grieve and rage over the loss of my longed-for child.
(This essay was first published on the Meanjin blog in July 2022)