A doctor's waiting room. Photo: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/GettyImages
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Martha hadn’t let anyone touch her for years and she wasn’t about to start now

A history of sexual assault prevented Martha from seeking an examination from a gynaecologist.

Martha made an appointment soon after moving to our area, seeking antibiotics for a malodorous vaginal discharge. It was a recurrent problem, she told me, and her previous doctor used to give her courses of metronidazole, which would clear it up just fine, albeit only temporarily.

In her late thirties, she wore baggy combats and had several piercings. There was a palpable tension about her. I reassured her that she could see a female GP if she’d prefer, or could have a chaperone present for any examination. That wouldn’t be necessary, she told me, because she couldn’t allow anyone – male or female – to examine her. We talked a bit more and she told me about the sexual abuse she’d experienced as a child. She had managed one sexual relationship many years ago, but it had lasted just six months before foundering on her extreme phobia of intimate contact.

I had every sympathy with her old GP. Faced with an inability to investigate her problem properly, he and Martha had fallen into a pragmatic conspiracy. Metronidazole brought short-term relief, so that was what she kept being given. I was uneasy, though. I explained that we needed somehow to check her cervix, which necessitates vaginal examination. After a lot of careful negotiation, she agreed to an urgent referral.

I briefed the loveliest female gynaecologist on our patch, who handled things with great sensitivity. Ultimately, though, Martha couldn’t permit examination, so an urgent MRI scan was arranged instead. The news was not good: there was a huge tumour at the neck of the womb, extending into the pelvis. If this was cervical cancer then it was far beyond the curable stage, but an operation could ameliorate horrendous symptoms from tumour progression. A lymphoma was also a possibility, and this would be more treatable.

Either way, Martha was facing a stark choice: to enter a programme of surgery, radiotherapy and subsequent follow-up checks, which would necessitate doctors examining her in ways she found intolerable; or to suffer an imminent and extremely unpleasant death.

Given months, if not years, a psychologist might have been able to help her overcome her phobia. But there was no time. Terrified, Martha fled to a town some distance away. But she remained in phone contact, and I did my best to support her as she tried to confront her living nightmare. She developed debilitating panic attacks. The last time we spoke, she mentioned how her breathing had become difficult, a classic physical symptom of morbid anxiety.

The next day she collapsed and died. The post-mortem showed a blood clot in a leg vein – something more common in cancer patients, especially when a large pelvic mass impedes blood flow. A piece of clot had broken off into her circulation and lodged in her lungs, with fatal results.

I will never know whether her breathing difficulty was really anxiety-related, or if it had been due to an earlier, smaller piece of clot. Her tumour was confirmed as advanced cervical cancer; she was never going to survive. That was the main crumb of comfort in the whole tragedy – that her inevitable death had been swift and her dignity had been preserved.

Cervical cancer is sexually transmitted and may well have been caused by a virus contracted from her abuser. It is readily preventable by smear tests but the psychological sequelae of the abuse were such that Martha could never contemplate being screened. Sexual abuse in childhood wrecks lives, and in Martha’s case it ended hers prematurely.

A friend of hers came to see me after the funeral. She told me that Martha had mentioned the way I and my gynaecologist colleague had related to her – one of the few times in her life she had felt fully respected. By the time we met Martha it was too late to save her, but the other crumb of comfort is that she found doctors who did their utmost to treat her with the dignity to which every person should be entitled. 

For more information about cervical screening especially for women who have experienced sexual violence, see mybodybackproject.com

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

Photo: Getty
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No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.