Let’s call the overturning of Roe v Wade what it is: state-sanctioned forced birth | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

I write this on my birthday, a date when traditionally my mother likes to reminisce about her labour. I was a much-wanted baby, and that love has carried me throughout my life. I have never, for a fragment of a second, doubted it. I used to gently tease my mother about her reminiscences, but now that I have my own baby I understand the impulse more. In the past few weeks, I have been trying to put what happened during my own labour to bed, or at least arrive at a place of full acceptance. I was not traumatised, as I feared I would be, but there is still a process that needs to happen, a mourning perhaps of the birth I thought I would have.

One day, when my son is grown and it is his birthday, and he asks me how it is that he came into this world, I would like to be able to tell him a positive, happy story. I think this is what people tried to do when he arrived unexpectedly early, and they said, “he couldn’t wait to meet you”. It isn’t true but it somehow soothes, in retrospect, the terror I felt when my waters broke early. These are the stories we tell each other and our children. They are palimpsests. The text beneath is written in blood, and it says that 50 years ago, 100 years ago, we would be dead.

Like me, my son is a most wanted baby. The longing I had for a child, complicated though it was, is one of the most powerful emotions I have ever felt. In light of the overturning of Roe v Wade, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the children who will now be born who are not wanted, to parents unable or unwilling to look after them, and a state with no interest in funding or protecting them. It will be a human crisis of devastating magnitude.

Mostly, though, I think of all the women and girls who will suffer. We need to start calling abortion bans what they are: state-sanctioned forced birth on a monumental scale, which includes forcing children to give birth. I am not even in America, but the news felt visceral, as vicious misogyny often does. If you have ever been pregnant, the thought of being made to go through it – not to mention labour – against your will can make you feel physically sick. I felt like vomiting, then I cried. The same thing happened when Poland banned it, in January 2021. And that will be nothing compared with how women in the US must feel now, as Polish women must have felt then: women who are expected to go about their daily lives as normal when their bodily autonomy has been taken from them, who overnight have become second-class citizens, who must walk alongside those who seek to punish them.

And punishment it is. The punishment is the point, as they say. No one is stupid enough to believe this decision will result in an end to abortion. We all know abortion bans never achieve this, they simply put an end to legal, safe abortion. The point is forced birth, which amounts to torture. The toll pregnancy takes on the body is monumental. I wanted, desperately, to be pregnant, and genuinely loved it when I was. It still felt frightening to find out. Premature rupture of membranes aside, my pregnancy was mostly happy and smooth, though I still experienced sickness, pain, shortness of breath, high blood pressure, anxiety, tearfulness, swelling, lightheadedness, months of sleeplessness, a lack of mobility, bleeding gums, fear, a diabetes scare, and obviously: the birth. Other women are not so lucky. Some want to be pregnant but still hate the experience.

Pregnancy is often the closest a woman comes to death in her lifetime (I remember reading that pregnant women dream frequently of death, how it feels like dancing next to its billowing curtain). It can kill you, and in the US, it is now more likely to do so. Beliefs in foetal personhood are now law in many states, meaning that doctors won’t step in with a lifesaving abortion in the event of complications, even perhaps where, as in cases of ectopic pregnancy, the foetus will only live long enough to kill the woman carrying it. Furthermore, women who are miscarrying or haemorrhaging after having an abortion will be less likely to seek medical help, fearing prosecution.

So, let’s call it what it is: forced birth. And as for “pro-life”, a term recently used – depressingly – on BBC radio: those who identify that way are nothing of the sort. How can anyone use such a term with a straight face, when they support the torture and murder of human women.

It can be hard to find the words when faced with such hatred, so I’ve been reading the words of older women, women who have lived through this. Adrienne Rich, Annie Ernaux, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Malika Booker.

Good abortion poems are hard to find, but I am struck by Marge Piercy’s The Watch, a poem about waiting for your period: “Forty years of our lives, that flag / is shown or not and our immediate / and sometimes final fate determined, / red as tulips / red as poppies’ satin / red as taillights / red as a stoplight, / red as dying, our quick bright blood.”


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