Tuesday, 14 December 2010
To be or not to be
I have not honestly visited this question since I was an undergraduate of eighteen and wondered if I might be pregnant myself. I can recall the turmoil. My upbringing valued the art of fitting in. You don’t cause trouble. You don’t draw attention to yourself. You don’t rock the boat. You sit nicely and pass the biscuits and initiate conversation on topics that cause no contention. You are grateful for what is done for you, you work hard, you take responsibility, and you behave in a manner that will bring credit to your family. On reflection I could see that an undergraduate eighteen-year-old pregnancy was not going to be good news. Everyone I knew socially at that time (mid-70s) was of one mind – you make it go away. But not me. I had joined a pro-Life group (the only university club I did join), though I had stopped going because it was a pro-Life pro-Feminist group, and I was a bit annoyed by this because I wanted to put my hand up and be counted for babies to have the chance to live, but I didn’t think I was a feminist and didn’t want to become known as one by default. Anyway, the problem with its attendant turmoil did go away because I wasn’t pregnant – not by happenstance but because the contraception I had been carefully and precisely using had not let me down. I mention this moment in my mis-spent youth because I think it’s important to make it clear I am not thinking about ‘these girls who get themselves into this situation’; I am thinking ‘if this were me’.
Later, as a young mother of 22, I became friends with a Jewish obstetrician. By this time I had clearly abandoned my mother’s painstakingly taught lessons in how to conduct myself as a young lady, because I asked him not if his wife was quite well or he had enjoyed good weather on his holiday, but how he could square being a good Jew with his occupation as an obstetrician, involving as it did the regular performance of abortions.
He was a man not unfamiliar with questions of life and death. He had come to England in the first place on the Kinder-transport, sent by his parents as they saw what was approaching. So he evaded the concentration camps, but his family had not, which must have left its scars, don't you think? He wanted, I sensed, to work close to where life was, where life began. He was very honest in his answers to me. He said that he had become an obstetrician in the first place because he loved children, and wanted to be part of bringing babies into the world. When he began it, that’s what he had been thinking of, not doing abortions. But he said that people seek abortions because of serious moral dilemmas. He said that he had interviewed women who were afraid for their lives because they were pregnant, and women whose lives would be ruined for ever by the birth of a child. And of course, though he didn’t say this, women who have been trained to be compliant and respectful, to please and serve men, may be all the more likely to find themselves in this terrible dilemma. Women who have done what is asked of them and are not sure how to refuse an unwelcome request, or how to say ‘no’ when a situation has evolved beyond what they intended or imagined. He said he didn't see how he could improve anything by forcing such a woman to bring a child into the world. He said he thought it was desperately sad, but some of the situations brought him to the place where he saw it as the best thing to do. And he didn't like it.
When I met that man I had one child. I went on to have four more, all planned and intended. I used contraception on those occasions when I judged it not right to have a child, and left of the contraception when I thought another baby would be okay. I never had to do more than leave off contraception once or twice and I would conceive; and I never conceived when I was trying not to.
After I had my twins (Child 3 and Child 4) I felt I had seriously exhausted my resources on the child-raising front. We lived in a very tiny two-bedroomed cottage, with slightly less money than we needed to pay our bills. I had no car and it was a long walk to any grocer’s store. My husband was a busy musician, often out weekends and evenings as well as working fulltime (though when he was home he was a very hands-on father, and formed a close and happy relationship with his children). We had four children under four, all in nappies at night, some by day as well, no help in the house, and I was tired.
But the Lord asked me to have another child. He showed me that wherever the Bible says ‘blessing’ it means ‘fertility and increase’. He showed me that children are a gift from the Lord. He sent a word of knowledge for me to our prayer group. ‘I want you to have this child,’ he said. So I did. And what a child. The wild side of feral. Untameable. Our own small fury. That fifth child deserves a whole blog post of her own, but she threw the entire peaceful rhythm and ordered routine of our home life up into the air like confetti. She shredded beyond repair all my preconceptions about myself as a person and as a mother, and pulverised my illusions about my ability to cope. Since then she has grown up in to a sort of guru – not in the context of a cult I mean, just that she is as wise as the hills and the stars, and walks as free and as pure as the soul of the wind. She is an extraordinary woman.
When she was a baby, John Bickersteth blessed her. He was the closest to being a saint of anyone I ever met. It happened when I was supposed to be at my husband’s side in a meeting for worship, but couldn’t because I was still trying to get my wild baby to sleep in the corridor. I had her in her moses basket which I was swinging gently at the darker end of the passage where people were not, in the hope of her going to sleep. While I was doing this, John Bickersteth and his wife arrived at the meeting. This was in the context of his big stately home place that he’d turned over to the Lord to use as a conference centre, Ashburnham. He and Marlis were just going into the big hall for the meeting, when he stopped, left her side, came along the corridor to me, and asked: ‘Are you all right?’
I wasn’t. I felt upset and frustrated because I never seemed to be free of having a baby to care for, and I wanted to be in the meeting; and I hadn’t wanted this child in the first place, it was all the Lord’s idea and he’d sent me one that caused havoc and never went to sleep. But I had only been standing there in the shadows, quietly rocking the moses basket. Nothing in my demeanour should have given me away – and besides that, John was almost blind. He had about 10% vision. But the eyes of his soul were not blind. He had Seen me. So I told him about that baby, and how the Lord had asked me to have another one even though I felt I’d had enough, and how tired I was and how hard she was to care for. I told him about the vision I’d had when she was conceived – of an old plant fruit like a rosehip or an onion, wrinkled and finished, that had become infused with radiant light and turned back into a rose-bud again. And John said the Lord would honour that I had been obedient to Him, and that this child would be a special blessing. And he blessed her. I hung onto that through her stormy and difficult childhood, and I remember it now that I see her pure soul – a wise, ancient soul, a soul with a blue starry robe that sees into the secrets of life and knows about love and truth and freedom, and the power of patience and kindness – all the things that most of us come to much later in life than she has.
So I know a bit about having babies and what a struggle it can be. I am well aware that once a child is born your life is never the same again. But in my understanding of things, though a child’s body must form, and its mind and character develop, these proceed from the interaction of the soul with its environment: and the child’s soul arriving into your body is what conception is. The soul arriving is what starts it all off. When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, he was not suggesting that she grow or raise a Messiah. What He was would be there with her from the moment of conception – though His style of Messiahing certainly owed something to His mother, as you can see if you compare His sermon at Capernaum with the power and glory of His mum’s Magnificat.
So the idea of abortion is something I have given headroom to, but I would not give liferoom to it. I could not actually do it because if we had got to the place where this small holy guest had chosen the hospitality of my body, I could not live with myself if I turned her (or him) away. God can be trusted. God alone gives life. If God thought that my body was a suitable stable, and my womb a suitable manger, then Amen.
But I am speaking out of my life, my experience. I cannot begin to know what it must be like to be a woman whose family will beat her and burn her and murder her if she has this child. I cannot imagine how it must feel to live with the kind of rigid Protestant parents who would cover her with shame and throw her out of the family, and leave a woman raised to compliance and belonging and authority and hierarchy on her own with no support just when she needed it most, expected not only to manage an independence she was not raised for, but the expensive and exhausting care of an infant without the means to provide that.
Abortion? This is what I think about abortion. I think that like many social ills, abortion is an end-stage that people think of as a first-stage. Abortion is symptomatic. It is to be expected in a society where shame and punishment are rife, where breastfeeding is seen as obscene, where people are infected with materialism and consumerism, where women are supposed to be elegant and thin and sexy and employed, where raising children is not natural and sweet but processed through institutions and regulated by inspectorates, and where religious people get all acidic about sex. In a society that sets up gatherings – everything from church and chapel to theatres and restaurants and colleges – where the presence of babies will be an interference, unwelcome and a disruptive nuisance, of course people will seek abortions. Because they are themselves only human, only children, and they don’t want to be left out they want to join in.
When I had my second child, and she was about seven or eight weeks old, I went to a carol service. This took place in a medieval church on a freezing December night. It was beautiful, magical, charming, ethereal – songs about the baby Jesus, readings about the baby Jesus, a little Nativity tableau, everything you could wish. But oh dear! My baby got restless. She was one who liked to be fed at least once an hour. And in such a setting, breastfeeding was not socially acceptable. Hoping to quieten her and string her out until the thing was over, I crept out into the small, icy porch. There I found all the other people with restless infants, crowded into this bitterly cold inadequate stone ante-room because the real children were nothing but a darned nuisance to the people who were singing lovely songs and reading lovely poems and Bible passages grouped round a baby and its mother who were conveniently devoid of screaming, pooping or breastfeeding because they were only statues.
In such a society abortions will occur naturally. It’s no good blaming the women or saying they are selfish or sinful. If we don’t like abortion, then everything we do and say, every choice we make in our homes, churches, shops, cafés – everywhere – will have to say YOU ARE WELCOME. Abortion is the end-stage of an inhospitable society that practises a culture of blame. Why do women seek abortions? Because they will be excluded, punished, ostracised, blamed, limited, poor, left alone and get into trouble. We could change that, couldn’t we?
Just as long as babies are a nuisance, people will seek to avoid the responsibility they bring.