I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 21st of August 1948, not long after the end of World War II and right in time for the blighted years of Apartheid as well as the mixed blessings of the swinging sixties and the dawn of the digital age. There have been some remarkable ups and downs in my life but by and large I consider myself to have been exceptionally lucky. I was born privileged and white ; I had an adequate brain and I never went hungry. Most importantly of all, I had parents and siblings who loved me.
So, 21 has always been my lucky number, and when I started this blog – for fun, for keeping my literary hand in, and hopefully to share some of the books I’ve most loved – I decided that the twenty-first would be my last. I haven’t always known when to stop, but increasing years are finally bringing a little wisdom: there are thousands of competing blogs out there, never mind the tweets, the postings, the sharings that make up the digital cacophony. I’ve added my bit, but enough’s enough.
If you’ve read this far you may be wondering what I’ve saved for a final blog. The answer is possibly not what you’re expecting: there are no books or cats in this one, no absent-minded professors or domestic disasters. This one is for all those women and girls who, like me, were denied the right to choose.
Abortion is such an emotive word. The moment it’s uttered people draw back to one side or other of the battle lines – or simply draw back their metaphorical skirts. Which is unfortunate, because it’s not abortion that’s in question. For the majority of people, after all, the health and well-being of an adult woman must take precedence over that of a developing foetus, and it’s perfectly legal in the United Kingdom, although not in Ireland, north or south. What is in question is an ordinary woman’s right to make a decision that, no matter which course she chooses, will affect her for the rest of her life, but which she, and only she, is qualified to make.
I had an abortion nearly 50 years ago. I was twenty years old, I had no money or proper job, and the man I loved (and with whom I was living, in contravention of society’s laws) wouldn’t marry me. He did however have the money for a private abortion. It wasn’t legal, of course; it required a flight to another city as well as absolute secrecy, and after all these years it is still something I find hard to talk about. But I remember very clearly the pain and humiliation of feeling that I had no choice. And the utter loneliness of being forced to travel without friends or family on one of the worst journeys of my life.
A few weeks ago I joined my youngest daughter on a Pro-Choice march through Belfast, and was immensely proud to be in the company of so many brave and principled women and men, young and old, who are determined to keep fighting for what should be a woman’s legal right. There are of course as many different reasons for a woman choosing to terminate a pregnancy as there are women, and there are many whose religious or other convictions would make it impossible for them to do so. I have no quarrel with them: I respect their beliefs and their own right to choose where they stand. But no woman should be forced to bear a child she cannot or does not wish to bring into this world; no human being should be regarded as simply a receptacle for incubating another; and no woman should be censured for making a decision that one way or another will cause her lasting grief and pain. No woman should be forced to order pills online and run the attendant legal and medical risks, and no woman should have to travel alone across the water to endure the sorrow of a termination far from friends and home. And what offends me most of all is that it is the poor and most desperate who have the least choice.
I have no wish to hurt or offend anyone – least of all a friend or relative – but the world never changes until enough people speak out, and this, for me, is a matter of deep injustice. So I make no apologies for this blog. I had a lot of fun doing the earlier ones - I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this one, but I feel bound to make a contribution to the debate. Because this is a conversation we must have: half the population of this island are being treated at worst like criminals, and at best like second-class citizens. Shame on those who allow it to continue, and more power to those who are brave enough to fight for change.
A luta continua…over and out!