Abortion, as a debated topic, has had a life span filled with controversy. Never once has it been an issue taken lightly, as it demands sides to be taken and swords to be drawn. Today, feminism is at the heart of this contentious issue. As Rachel Green once eloquently summarised, ‘No uterus, no opinion'.
It is a matter now believed to concern women and women alone, but this has not always been the case. The feminist movement of the 19th century was actually rather indifferent on the topic, as the same stigma that clasped onto the bodies of prostitutes also got its claws onto the women who sought an abortion. In other words - abortion reeked of promiscuity, and the feminist movement primarily needed to focus on education, jobs and votes, and to do this, they had to be a respected political movement. The feminists under Victoria had to gain respect because it was an absolute necessity for their movement to be successful: Respectability was the quintessential hallmark of Victorian life. Once gained, it could be worn as a fireproof suit of armour. Rape allegations were dropped if the man was deemed too respectable to have possibly taken part in such a degrading activity like physically assaulting a woman. A respectable lady however had double the chances of convicting her attacker than a prostitute, or even just a working-class woman, who was believed to be female only in the biological sense. They were not ladies in the eyes of the middle-class man nor in the eyes of the court. Therefore, to be a feminist seeking respectability was to be a feminist indifferent to abortion.
But this did not mean women were not the defiant, strong, resilient creatures they always have been and continue to be, and their disregard for the opinions of white men was beyond admirable. The laws against abortion, which prohibited its occurrence in all cases except when the mother’s life was in danger, did not correlate to the number of abortions, which continued to take place regardless. It was, back in Queen Victoria’s day, one of the only ways a woman could control her own fertility. The other methods of contraception were abstinence, what was perceived as the ‘safe period’ (which was actually the point of highest fertility for women) and withdrawal. All of these methods relied on male cooperation. Fool proof. I mean, men have always proved so cooperative … right? As a woman writing in the 21st century, the thought of relying on a man’s cooperation is simply unbearable, and it was, I am proud to say, also unbearable for the working- class woman of Victorian England, even if she was a tad more discreet. So many were brave enough to undergo abortions at such high risks, with most methods having possibly fatal consequences. Lead poisoning was the most common method used, as an accessible, affordable and easy way of bringing on a miscarriage, but even this could cause the paralysis of hands or blindness. Other ways were the use of knitting needles, hairpins, and, devastatingly, quack remedies. These were drugs that were sold by corrupt companies, like the Chrime’s brothers in London, who were one of many who exploited the market and sold ineffective pills for extortionately high prices, and blackmailed their customers who were terrified of being sent to court. As I said earlier, men, so cooperative, right?
Regardless of the persisting stigma abortion carried with it, knowledge of remedies passed through generations. Mother to daughter, sister to sister, aunt to niece. The awareness of the effectiveness of lead poisoning spread from the women who worked in factories where lead was used. These women, who chose to limit the number of children they had in the only way they knew how, were going against the wishes of their husbands, their priests, their doctors. Especially the doctors, who were bound up in the whisperings of Social Darwinism. For those who don’t know, Darwin, as great as he was for biology, was really not so great for women as he compounded the societal roles of the sexes into the Victorian way of life. Women got the short straw as the ‘producers’ of a race ‘fit’ for survival. We were breeders, and abortion a crime even more intolerable to the white man, who still had no uterus, or the slightest concept of the pain of childbirth.
However, despite having a history filled with its own controversies, losses and gains, today is most certainly a gain. It is a day on which steps have been taken in the right direction. On the 25th May, 2018, the Eighth Amendment was repealed in the Republic of Ireland. It is a day filled with extreme emotion and achievement for both the women and men who are striving to live in a society more equal. Social media is constantly filled with depressing news as Donald Trump continues to breathe, plastic continues to pollute and sexual scandals continue to be revealed. But today we can be positive despite all this, as a day in which the rights of the woman truly emanated, and I am proud to say, through all voices of our generation. No longer will the women of Ireland have to pay for travel to a different country to undergo a safe abortion, and no longer will her rights be infringed upon.
"I know a woman in her 30s: she’s married, she has a toddler, and she desperately wants a second child – but a dangerous medical condition means that having another baby would be life-threatening. Despite being careful, she got pregnant. She had an abortion because she wasn’t willing to risk her life and leave her child motherless, but she still feels a deep sadness.
I know another woman, in her 20s, who had a shitty boyfriend (but no kids) when her birth control failed and she found herself with a pregnancy she knew she didn’t want – a pregnancy she wasn’t ready for. She was upset about the situation, but had no doubts about what she wanted to do and, after the abortion, no regrets. She rarely thinks about the pregnancy or the abortion anymore.
If you’re like a lot of people, you probably have much more sympathy for the first woman than the second. Though the majority of people in America and Northern Ireland and so many other places believe abortion should be legal, too many of us still think about reproductive rights as if there’s a hierarchy of good and bad abortions – the kind that women “deserve”, and the kind women should be ashamed of.
But those two women? They’re both me." - Jessica Valenti, http://jessicavalenti.tumblr.com/about