TheLike many people, I’ve been thinking about women in Texas, a US state that is now engaged in forced births. When you consider how to date a pregnancy from the first day of a woman’s last period, the recently imposed six-week maximum on abortion essentially amounts to a ban, leaving a very small window for a woman to arrange a termination. In addition to the horror of this cynical assault on human rights, I find myself once again counting my lucky superstars living in England, a country – unlike many others, including Northern Ireland, where women are still forced to travel because of the ZIP Code Lottery He can access a safe and legal abortion for free.
As long as the assault on women’s reproductive rights continues around the world, it is forbidden to talk about abortion in any other way. It’s such an honor to be able to make an appointment, take the pills (if it’s early enough), and get on with our lives. But what has become difficult to admit is that for some women, even a safe, legal abortion can be a traumatic experience. This is a story we have ceded to the right, while it is an experience that deserves to be heard and could even serve to advance the cause for better access.
A deeply painful miscarriage is the subject of Lucy Burns’ book Bigger Than an Orange. This isn’t the story of a woman who miscarried and feels nothing but relief, then moves on, hardly ever thinking about it again. It is a diary of an abortion and its aftermath, which sees the narrator alone in her grief and pain, compulsively telling people about it and browsing anti-abortion memes on the Internet. He somehow manages to honestly convey the trauma of one woman’s abortion while also being firmly pro-choice. It’s quite a balance, in these polarized times.
In conveying the gap between politics and personal experience, Bigger Than An Orange provides us with a vital nuance, expressing feelings that feel unexpressed, even for women. “Many of my girlfriends have said, ‘I knew it was true, it had to be true, but I had never heard anyone say that before.’ And it’s crazy,” Burns told me of their reaction to the book. (For her male friends, many of them had no idea what an abortion entailed.) Like Burns, I think what lies behind this silence is fear.
“We are fortunate enough to be able to have safe legal abortions in England. So people don’t want to talk about all the bad sides, because they are worried that when access feels unsettled, it will be taken away from them.”
I wonder if they were also concerned that being too frank might scare other women, especially younger ones. In Saint Frances, the woman miscarries and bleeds for almost the rest of the movie, and for the most part refuses to admit—to the frustration of the man she’s been sleeping with—that she has any feelings for it at all. It feels radical and fresh and belongs in a space akin to “bigger than an orange”: a space of complex emotions and gray areas, coexisting with a powerful message about the importance of safe and legal abortion. A space, although St. Francis is an American film, I’m not sure the United States is quite ready for it, as it remains mired in emotive religious debate over when life begins. (It should be noted that Burns’ book has not yet found a US publisher.)
However, the situation in the UK is far from ideal. As Burns says, access to abortion comes with caveats. It is only legal insofar as it constitutes, in certain circumstances, an exception to the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861. It must be signed by two physicians, who verify that the pregnancy to term would be a danger to the body or mental health of the mother. There is a scene in the book where Burns sits with the nurse at a standstill. She knows the nurse wants her to say something a certain way to allow for the abortion, but she’s not sure how to formulate the words.
“I thought you just went to the clinic and said, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant, I don’t want to be pregnant.’ It was clearly not the case,” Burns says. “These circumstances kind of confirmed the trauma of it… I’m sure some other people have gone through the same experience, where you feel like you I was forced to say, “I believe that if I could not have an abortion, the impact on my mental health would be so severe that I was in danger of harming myself.” This is something extraordinary that you must admit to yourself.”
I find myself wondering if the legal need to establish the trauma of an unending pregnancy for some women prevents them from discussing the exact same trauma of the abortion itself. Instead, there is a culture of silence about the potential impact on mental health. The right shouldn’t have uncomfortable feelings about abortion, and especially in Britain, speaking out could help pave the way to a better legal situation.
Accepting that abortion will be traumatic for some women adds strength to the argument that no one should jump through hoops or stick to a legal provision in order to get there. Having to subordinate your feelings about an unwanted pregnancy to exercise is not a sign of an overall human system.
The significance of Burns’ work lies in giving him permission. Women who find their miscarriages shocking shouldn’t feel as lonely as I did, and their reaction is part of a host of experiences worth hearing. Listening should in no way undermine the issue of legal abortion, but I can understand that American women might be reluctant to have this conversation, standing on the brink as their rights crumble before their very eyes.
In 2015, writer Monica Hezzi wrote about her frustration at not being so nuanced about an abortion, and how a woman looked at it with soft, sympathetic eyes, when her decision to terminate a pregnancy was far from the hardest decision of her life. As Hesey wrote then, there are as many reasons for abortion as women have, and that “denying the body of women’s experiences of abortion keeps the topic from actually being taboo and a lively topic for discussion in the abstract. It is easier to abandon reproductive rights to an abstraction.” Instead of forcing women into polarizing situations, we need to acknowledge a whole range of feelings, including those of women like Burns, who define this as the worst experience of her life. I think we’re ready for this conversation, even though it’s a challenge.