The Sticking Point

I don’t know if you have ever heard of the Bodies exhibition. 

It is an exhibition of real human bodies – dissected, plastificated – which has been touring the world for years now, and I visited it when it happened to be in Madrid, Spain. It was astonishing; human anatomy as I had never seen it. Maps of blood vessels and arteries, stiffened and displayed between slabs of clear acrylic. Skeletons in motion. Muscles, lungs, and other organs exposed to my curious eyes in a way that seemed slightly indecent. I kept having to remind myself that once upon a time these were people, real people. They had lived and loved and laughed and died and somehow they had ended up here, frozen forever in a frisbee-throwing pose or sliced into sections for intrigued spectators. A modern side-show.

Although I was much younger then, I still remember the black fabric-draped tent in one corner of the hall. A sign by the doorway warned those with sensitive dispositions to turn away. I passed the sign with barely a glance and entered into a long, narrow, spotlit room with numerous glass containers forming a line down the centre. Each glass container held one unborn human, from visible embryo to fully-formed baby. A sign on the wall explained that each specimen had been donated after a miscarriage. The room was sombre and silent, and I remember feeling a wave of sadness for the parents, and the amount of potential happiness and life that had died only to be preserved forever in these glass canisters.

I walked along the rows, reading the signs and looking at these unborn babies. The first few look like tadpoles. Then indistinct shapes with clouded eyes. Then embryos that looked like they might become baby rabbits. As I continued down the row of glass canisters I could see the development, the growth, the unfolding of a new human. The last one looked just like a newborn baby. It had hair, and fingernails. It floated, suspended in the solution, and the circumstances that had led to me standing there, looking this unborn boy in the face struck me as both grotesque and strangely serene, fascinating and utterly depressing.

I tell you all this because I want you to appreciate that I understand what is at stake. I am not ignorant of the facts. I am not blind to the sadness of the situation. I know what an unborn baby looks like; I have seen it with my own eyes.

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In 1983, in an Ireland where abortion was already illegal, a constitutional subsection was voted in giving the unborn an equal right to life to the pregnant woman carrying it. This was intended to safeguard the unborn against any possible ramifications of the Roe vs Wade ruling across the pond. Making abortions extra illegal seemed important in a Catholic Ireland where people still could not buy condoms without a prescription*.

One week from now, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.

The no campaign has, as you can probably imagine, been extremely organised and well-funded. Their message is simple, and blunt, and effective: if you vote no, you are saving  babies. If you vote yes, you are paving the way to eugenics, and voting for the mass murder of innocents. They mention the decreased number of people born with disabilities in societies with legalised abortion. They discuss ‘contraceptive abortions’ borne solely of convenience. They talk of babies yawning and sucking their thumbs in the womb. They speak of women who have had abortions and later regretted it. 

The yes campaign for this referendum has been scattered, divided, and comparatively disorganised. I don’t think this is a problem with the campaign, as much as it is a problem with the issue at hand; there are many different reasons why people might vote yes, and not all of them mesh well with others.

Some will vote yes because they agree with the idea of legal abortion being accessible.

Some will vote yes because they trust women to make the best decision for themselves and their situation.

Some will vote yes because they find it hypocritical that Ireland continues to outlaw abortion*, while legalising travel to the UK for the same purpose.

Some will vote yes because they think it inhumane that a couple dealing with a fatal foetal abnormality must travel abroad if they want an early termination.

Some will vote yes because they don’t want anyone else – or they themselves – to become the next Savita.

Some will vote yes because they think rape victims should not have to carry a resulting pregnancy against their will.

Some will vote yes because they believe the lives of living, loving, thinking, breathing adult women should not be equal in value to that of ‘the unborn,’ because ‘the unborn’ is very vague; is that the unborn, newly fertilised egg? Is it the unborn embryo, bean-sized, dependent on the mother? Is it the 25-week old unborn baby? Is it all of the above? If it is not, then where is the line? The placement of that line is controversial and, depending on the individual, can be based on personal, religious or scientific reasons.

Some will vote yes for all of the above reasons, and some for a combination of only some of the above.

“We can’t focus on the hard cases,” is something I’ve heard often in the run-up to this referendum. “Not when 95% of abortions are not hard cases. Not when most abortions are done for the sake of convenience.”

I have feelings about this perception that women are getting abortions the same way they’d get their nails done. I have feelings about it, but for me it’s not the main issue.

The sticking point, for me, is this:

What if I’m that woman?

What if my wanted, yearned for, unborn baby is diagnosed with some awful condition that means that although I might carry it to term, he or she will die, suffering, within seconds, minutes, hours of being born? What if I have to endure nine months of well-meaning questions from strangers, each kindly remark about an impossible future cutting through me like a knife through my soul? What if I want an abortion to save my unborn baby (and yes, myself) the suffering? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have to fly to England, where I would then – like so many other women – have to make decisions about where to go, where to stay, and what to do so far from home with the remains of my very much wanted, heartrendingly loved child?

And what if I am raped? It doesn’t matter by who. An old friend. A man in a dark alleyway. A relative. A stranger with a knife at my throat. I am raped and now I am pregnant. I am already struggling to cope with this awful thing that has happened to me, and now I am pregnant with a daily reminder. Crying, I confide in you. I tell you that I can’t do this. That I’m not mentally strong enough. That perhaps I can overcome sexual assault but I cannot overcome it if I have to carry within my body the result of this rape for the better part of a year. Would you think it fair and reasonable that I should have no choice?

And what if I am diagnosed with cancer, and I am pregnant, and I want to live? What if my doctor tells me that because I am not at imminent, immediate risk of dying, they will have to work around my pregnancy, give me treatment that is less effective, but also less likely to kill my unborn baby? What if they tell me that early, aggressive treatment will cure me but that I cannot access this treatment unless I get a termination abroad? Because my life is equal to that of my ten-week old developing foetus, they cannot harm it any more than they can intentionally harm me. Never mind that inaction will indirectly harm me. Legally, their hands are tied. I must be dying, and not only dying in a long-term manner; I must be dying enough to warrant intervention. What if the time it takes me to carry this pregnancy to term is the time the cancer needs to become terminal? What if I don’t want to take that risk? Would you think it fair and reasonable that I not have a say? 

I have spoken about this to people who are thinking of voting no, and they pat me on the arm and say, in what is meant to be a reassuring tone of voice, “Stop worrying about these things. They almost definitely will never happen to you. The chances are so, so small. These “hard cases” only happen to about 1000 women every year.” And every time I hear this I feel frustrated and upset that I have not managed to communicate my point effectively. 

I’m not worried that it will happen to me.

It’s not about me.

It’s about you.

It’s about you, and how you would react to my being in these situations. It’s about how you would feel if it were someone you know. It’s about whether the needle on your moral compass starts to shake with uncertainty if that one ‘hard case’ is you, or your mother, or your sister, or your best friend, or your cousin, or your daughter. If I become a “hard case” – or, God forbid, you – what does it matter to either of us how many other people are trapped in this same private hell? What does it matter if it is five? Or fifty? Or a hundred? Or a thousand?

It’s about the women that this is happening to right now along the length and breadth of the country. As I am to my friends and family, those women are to others. They are loved. They have people around them who are impacted by their joys and sorrows. Their tragedies unfurl like drops of ink in water, dispersing and turning everything around them a shade darker.

It’s about why the statistics and percentages and numbers of ‘hard cases’ don’t make a difference to me. I don’t think there should even be one couple crying, leaving the ashes of their baby in Liverpool because they can’t afford to courier the remains home. I don’t think there should even be one victim of rape forced to sacrifice their health – mental or physical or both – to carry the resulting unwanted pregnancy to term. They should have the choice to do what they feel is best for their lives.  We should have the compassion to allow them to make that choice.

In one week, Ireland will be asked to vote on whether we should remove the 8th amendment from the constitution.

I will be voting yes.

*Condoms and other forms of contraception were fully illegal until 1980, and then legal only with a prescription until as late as 1985. 

**Abortion currently carries a 14 year prison sentence.

An Impotent Rant About Impotence

low-sugar-foods-supermarket

It happened again, mis amigos!

To fully set the scene, I must first explain certain truths about myself, like the fact that grocery stores relax me. I know, but they do. They are my zen garden. They are my mountaintop sanctuary. I can’t explain it, but walking up and down aisles of consumer goods just speaks to my soul. I don’t necessarily have to buy anything, it’s just the actual act of browsing that makes me feel a deep and abiding sense of calm. Roaming Target at 11pm with no shopping list in mind is my idea of bliss.

Also, I love automatic sliding doors and those little metal barriers that spring open as you approach; I always put my hand out, wave it to the side, and pretend I’m a Jedi.

Try it! I promise it will brighten your day considerably.

Anyway. I’m in the grocery store and I’m strolling aimlessly up and down the aisles. I have my earphones in because I’ve been listening to a podcast*, and I am idly contemplating a packet of crisps when a large guy comes over and starts talking to me. At first I don’t hear him, so he gets right in my face. I pull out an earbud and he says:

“Hi, how are you?”

What an opener. Ladies and gentlemen, witness this masterclass in charm.

“Good, thanks,” I reply politely with a smile, and then put the earbud back in my ear and step past him. He follows me and gets in my face again. I stop and pulled the earbud back out, feeling a tingle of irritation.

“Are you looking for something or just browsing? You look like you’re just window shopping. Are you window shopping?”

I blink.

“Yeah, pretty much.” I put the earbud in my ear and step around him again.

Now, I know I haven’t stuck my hand out and primly stated, “KINDLY LEAVE ME ALONE, GOOD SIR. YOU ARE INTERFERING WITH MY SUPERMARKET MEDITATION” but to be honest, I don’t feel like I should have to resort to that in order to be left alone. If I were to pull the other earbud from my ear and smile gormlessly into his face, twirling a lock of hair around my finger, then he would have reason to persist. That’s not what’s happening though. None of my body language is inviting even the slightest prolonging of the moment. I am actively trying to escape the situation. I don’t think my feelings on this can possibly be misconstrued.

AND YET.

Instead of taking the hint, he turns and falls into step with me. I can hear him talking still but at this point I’ve tuned him out and am actually annoyed because 1.) I’ve given absolutely no indication of being interested, 2.) he’s ruining my mountaintop sanctuary experience and 3.) he’s really large and persistent, which makes me feel threatened. I hate feeling threatened; whether the threat is real or not. I feel vulnerable, and I hate feeling vulnerable, so then I feel annoyed that someone has put me in the position of feeling vulnerable, which just makes me feel angry….

It’s a complex tangle of emotions.

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Here is my artistic representation of this moment

I take a breath and imagine for a moment that I am a porcupine. I imagine that I am covered in spikes and every quill on my body is ready to impale him if he gets too close. Then I exhale deeply and ruefully accept that sadly, I am not a porcupine, and even more sadly, I have no quills. Instead I am a small, soft, squidgy human, and I cut my fingernails quite short, so I don’t even have acrylic-talon weapons of death** at my disposal. I decide my best plan of action is to pretend I can’t hear him over the sound of my non-existent music, and just leave the shop. Which I do.

It’s a shitty feeling. If you’ve never felt so intimidated you’ve needed to leave a public space, you might not understand this. All I can say is that it feels really rubbish to change your plans because someone makes you so uncomfortable you don’t feel you can stay. It feels like weakness, and I guess it is weakness, but I’m polite and I’m also half the size of this man who thinks he can wear me down with inane conversation, so I retreat like the coward that I am. I walk down the street and turn the corner. I walk down another street, go into a shopping centre, take the escalators up to the first floor, and wander into another shop.

And this [unutterable word]…. he follows me.

I realise I might be particularly sensitive thanks to past experience, but this guy appears in front of me like a recurring hallucination from a bad trip and says, “Hey beautiful, we meet again!” as if it’s just a total coincidence and well fancy meeting you again so soon and he is looming over me grinning and I want to punch him in the face with my tiny fist because seriously, screw this guy and his dogged determination to ruin my day.

I don’t, obviously. Partly because that would be an overreaction, partly because I’m polite, and partly because I’m afraid that he would punch me right back with his fist the size of my face and I’d end up embedded in the tiled floor.

I know there are people thinking, ‘He probably just wanted to talk to you,’ and I agree. You are right. That is probably what he wanted to do. Maybe he thought I was shy, and I just needed the right amount of persistent conversation in order to bloom like a delicate flower. Maybe he thought he was being brave, walking up to me in the supermarket and striking up a conversation out of the blue. That is pretty ballsy, after all, and I don’t really have a problem with that. Take your chances chatting up the girl buying groceries. Go hard! Maybe she’s only strolling the shop floor because she’s waiting for a guy to sweep her off her feet next to the cereal. Maybe your eyes will meet over that box of Rice Krispies and love will blossom on aisle five. Who knows? Life is short, take a risk.

However, I do have a problem with the fact that once it’s clear I’m not interested in a conversation, he doesn’t just… let it go. He sidesteps my sidestep. He actively ignores any and all signs of discomfort on my part because his desire to talk to me is apparently more important than my desire to walk around without feeling hunted.

That’s how I feel in that moment. I feel like a wide-eyed, frightened rabbit. I let my eyes glaze and slide right over him, and then I turn and walk in the other direction as if I haven’t seen or heard him. I wonder whether he will keep following me around the shop. I wonder if he will follow me home. I keep moving through the aisles without actually looking at anything on the shelves, keeping an eye on him out of my peripheral vision. Then the heavens open up outside and it starts bucketing down.

I take my chance and, while other people huddle inside the door fiddling with hoods and umbrellas, I walk straight out into the downpour and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reach my apartment complex. As the gate swings shut behind me, I feel like I’ve reached the safety zone in a kiddie game of tag.

Once I get inside my apartment, I am so angry I am shaking. I am angry with him, because he ruined my day and made me feel small and weak. I am angry with myself for being small and weak. I am angry because after listening to two episodes of a podcast about boundaries and anger, I totally and completely failed to express myself in terms of either one of them. I was too afraid of the consequences to use my words. I was too afraid of what his reaction would be if I rejected him. His total dismissal of my obvious discomfort made me far too uneasy to challenge him in any direct way, because if he can ignore my disinterest so fully, why wouldn’t he ignore my rejection?

Instead, I’d run back to my burrow like the frightened rabbit I am. All keyed up, I ranted about it on Snapchat. Now I’ve ranted about it here. Maybe next time I’ll get loud and brave the consequences. Maybe I’ll take up Krav Maga in the meantime. Or maybe…

Maybe there won’t be a next time.

That would be nice.

 

 

*It’s a comedy podcast called The Guilty Feminist and you can find episodes of it here.

**I always wondered why people get such awkward looking nails and how they’re able to do anything with such long claws but now I’m thinking that actually they seem like a sensible choice in terms of self-defence and maybe I should invest in my own set of tiny daggers attached to my fingertips.

The End Of The World As We Know It

Fresh oranges

Yeah, you all know what this is going to be about.

I had something else in mind to write about today, but then I remembered that an egotistical bloated orange is being sworn in as president of the United States, and so this is possibly our last day of blessed normalcy for a while.

So here I am, writing about that instead.

I spent some time in San Diego just before the election. In the run-up to my trip I felt cocooned in my safe web of world media telling me that Clinton had it in the bag. Wonderful, I thought. Worst case scenario, America will have their first female president, and the human goldfish will go back to reality television where I can go back to ignoring his existence.

I won’t dive into what I feel to be the extremely problematic voting system in America except to point out that the United States has a population of almost 319 million people – 319. million. people. – and yet from a country that large, that diverse, with that many citizens, Hilary* and Donald were chosen as the two best candidates for the job.

Now, it’s not my country, and you could claim it’s none of my business, but I think I speak for the world at large when I say we would like to suggest that America see this as a sort of gentle nudge, if you will. Except, perhaps not so gentle. In fact, more of a forceful shove, because when your presidential election cycle whirls by like an East Asian typhoon causing nothing but chaos and disruption, it might be a good idea to call a Time Out and reassess your political process.

Just saying.

Anyway, so I’m in San Diego, and I’m feeling pretty good about life because let’s face it, San Diego is beautiful, and the streets are clean, and the weather is sunny, and the people are gorgeous, and the Nordstrom Racks are caves of treasure, and the roads are wide enough that a Boeing 747 could probably land without major concern, and there are dogs EVERYWHERE**… and then, suddenly, my little bubble of happiness is popped rather unexpectedly by a gathering of boisterous Trump supporters heaving giant placards onto a bridge crossing the freeway.

I begin to look around me and take note of the fact I haven’t seen a single Hilary bumper sticker.

Sidenote: If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Americans, it’s that they love their bumper stickers. I cannot pretend to understand this phenomenon. Every time I saw a bumper sticker I would crane my neck to get a good look at the driver, and then picture them monologuing to themselves:

“I have bought a car! It is a lovely car, and when I drive it, everyone will think, ‘that person is driving a lovely car!‘ But that’s not enough. I want them to know more about me. I cannot happily make the drive from my front door to the car park at Target without the people behind me at every single red light knowing that I love Jesus/my cats/surfing, or that I support the United States Marines/Donald Trump/the legalisation of marijuana, or that I hate Mitsubishi/idiots who can’t drive/Shania Twain. This is the one thing that truly defines me – that gets to the very essence of me – and I must print it on a sticker and slap it on my rear window for all the world to see. YOU WILL KNOW ME!”

And then I would sit back and wonder what my bumper sticker would say if I had one. Maybe ‘You do you!‘ or just a thumbs up emoji with ‘You’re doing great!‘ to try to spread a bit of positivity. I have the same feelings towards bumper stickers as I do towards tattoos; I don’t think there’s anything I really feel strongly enough about to have it as the one standout feature on my car/skin.

/Sidenote.

I had seen multiple cars purposely defaced with Trump slogans in crude white marker or neon pink paint. I had seen Bernie stickers by the dozen. I had even seen a ‘Giant Meteor 2016’ sticker.

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I hadn’t seen a single Hilary sticker.

I started to feel a chill up my spine. I turned to Scrubs, wide-eyed with apprehension.

“We haven’t seen a single Hilary sticker,” I said gravely.

“So?”

“So what if Trump wins this thing?”

“He won’t,” Scrubs reassured me, patting my hand.

“WHAT IF HE DOES? This is like when we were in London just before the Brexit vote, and we saw David Cameron derided on national television and realised it might actually happen! This is just like that! Trump might actually win! We won’t be able to move here and live our dream life of sunshine and dogs if he actually wins!”

Scrubs fanned my face. “There, there” he said. “Shhh. It’ll be okay.”

It was not okay.

It was a mess.

People bought into his rhetoric despite his proclamations having absolutely no basis in reality. They cheered his “plans” despite there being no plans, actually, if you paid attention. I transcribed a number of his speeches, and the thing that struck me most was the feverish enthusiasm of a crowd that was hearing the words coming out of his mouth, but not listening. They chanted fervently, drowning out the fact that his sentences barely made sense, and if they did make sense, they were impossible pipe-dreams.

He could have been saying anything at all, and their earnest loyalty would have carried them along on a wave of devotion, their blind hope making it possible to paper over his contradictory statements. It was impressive. It was inspiring, in some ways.

And it was frightening.

Today, Donald Trump, a man with no plan beyond inflating his own ego, takes office in one of the most powerful countries in the world. He has shown complete disregard for tradition. He has shown complete disregard for the White House press corps. He is unpredictable, he is hypersensitive, and he will now be president of the United States. He could have chosen to surround himself with more experienced, bipartisan people in an attempt to bring the country together, but instead he has chosen to surround himself with cronies and right-wing fanatics. He has the capacity to sever diplomatic ties with long-standing allies. He has the capacity to pull out of trade deals and international organisations. He has the capacity to sink the world economy into another recession.

Of course these are worst case scenarios. I hope that none of them come to pass. I hope he is reined in, and his twitter account is taken off him, and that the people in government remember they serve the people – all the people – and not just their own interests or beliefs. I hope that America can find a way to knit itself back together and be true to its self-styled identity as ‘home of the free, land of the brave’.

And not just because I would love to live in San Diego.

For now, I’m off to find some butter popcorn so I can watch the inauguration in style. Let’s all cross our fingers tightly and wait and see what tomorrow brings.

*Despite the fact that I believe almost anyone would be a better president than Trump, I really don’t believe any candidate should be the son/wife/cousin/grandchild of a previous president. Again, there are 319 million people out there! It’s just downright lazy. Pull your socks up, America.

**I have a theory that any place with a lot of dogs must have lovely citizens. Dogs make people happy, happy people are nicer people, therefore dog-friendly places have nicer people! Q.E.D.