I’m a strange case. In many ways, says you. I shouldn’t have been born really. My Mother was receiving cancer treatment that should have made her infertile. And when that wasn’t the case the odds pointed to the treatment rendering the pregnancy nonviable.
I am, I think, the kind of case that anti-choice people would like to claim as a vindication of their views. Imagining that my Mother bravely disregarded the pronouncements of the know-it-all doctors who didn’t actually know-it-all, and wasn’t I lucky she didn’t have the option of an abortion?
The truth of course is much more nuanced. This was Donegal in 1980. Three years before the 8th amendment entered our constitution, and from my understanding Doctors were at this time, in the absence of the 8th, at least somewhat and in some cases more at liberty to provide medical care focused on the health and well-being of the woman in front of them, whether pregnant or not. And so, in the midst of these difficult circumstances, with two children at home, and cancer in her body, my Mother made a choice and took a risk. Under the supervision and care of her Doctors she chose to discontinue her treatment to give me a fighting chance, and it worked. But it could have gone so differently.
My mind runs to Michelle Harte, whose cancer treatment was stopped when it was discovered she was pregnant. And was then, after weeks of deliberation by the hospital’s ethics forum denied a termination because there was no ‘immediate risk’ to her life, and advised to travel to the UK for a termination. But by this time, without treatment in the interim, the cancer spread to her brain, finally causing her death in 2011.
My Mother was a ferociously passionate and intelligent woman. Religious, but not blindly so. She had little love for nuns for example. She could vividly recall as little children in the winter they walked miles in the snow to get to school, and if they were late the nuns would make them hold out their tiny frost-bitten hands for the rod. “Our wee hands. Monsters” she would say with stinging eyes. So, at school she always had our backs. One time a teacher hit my brother and she went through him and the principal for a shortcut. We were always close but in my Mother’s final months I was fortunate to be her primary carer and we became closer still. Her illness and the ever closeness of death were something we had shared since before I was born and so it all felt very right in a sense. I think that’s all I can say right now, but I wanted you to know her a little.
I am a great believer in consent. There’s a wonderful phrase that gets to the core of consent for me and it’s this: “You can’t say yes, if you can’t say no”. Which means, if you are unable, for whatever reason to decline something you are never truly able to consent to it or choose it either. Think Don Corleone making someone an offer they can’t refuse. There is no consent where there is coercion. There is no consent where there is no possibility to say ‘no’. There is no consent where there is no choice. And that’s where pregnant people in Ireland find themselves.
Perhaps it’s strange of me, while most are rightly thinking of Mothers now and to come and how they are and will be affected if the 8th is not repealed, yet my mind turns to my own Mother, long passed. The 8th imposed on her. I imagine myself not as a chosen child, but as a child born of the absence of choice. I imagine my Mother reduced to a vessel. Stripped of agency. Stripped of choice. And it breaks me. I do not want that, I do not wish that, for my sake, for any sake. And I find it hard to believe anyone would if they truly thought about it.
Many times during the current discussion, people have said to me not knowing my story, “Aren’t you lucky abortion wasn’t an option for your Mother” and when I hear this my rage becomes boundless. My rage becomes boundless because it negates the choice my Mother made and I will not have that. My rage becomes boundless because it seeks to invalidate her strength and the beauty of the risk she took with her body and her life on my behalf and I will not have that. My rage becomes boundless because it seeks to render my life a product of coercion and oppression and I will not have that.
My life is a gift, not founded on the suffering of another; either freely given I hope, or not at all.
Thank you, Mum