Following the leak of a draft US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs Wade, the ruling that guaranteed the right to an abortion, many women looked to history for lessons in defiance. As the writer Lola Olufemi reminded us, feminist networks have always been there to help “the next person” who needs an abortion, and “we have never been passive in the face of states that want us dead”. She was damn right to do so. Resistance begins with mutual care, as the women I shared my own abortion with in 1988 taught me.
At the end of the day, we sat together in the dusty conservatory of a large Victorian house in south London, drinking sweet tea. Two women, around the same as age as me, told me they had come on the ferry from Ireland the day before, and shared a room in a bed and breakfast around the corner the night before. They didn’t know each other until they stepped on the boat. Along with an older woman in her 40s and a girl, probably not yet 18, we were the patients of the morning shift.
We’d sat on beds behind curtains in a large converted drawing room since 8am. One by one we were wheeled out to theatre. One by one, dozy, crampy, damp, we were wheeled back. Now it was all nearly over; we’d been checked, got dressed and, in the best acknowledgement of difficult transitions known to these islands, given a cup of tea.
Everything had been quiet up to that point, as though a blanket had been thrown over us. Some sounds had broken through the silence: medical muttering, footsteps, the squeak of wheels, the youngest woman softly crying for her mum as she came around from the anaesthetic, the oldest slipping from her own bed and between the curtains to whisper firm comforts to her. We didn’t talk that much as we sat with our tea cups, blinking into the rest of our lives. We didn’t need to. We were already intimate; we knew what we had shared; what we’d never forget.
Abortion in England in the 1980s was legal; not particularly easy to access, but not impossibly difficult either. It was very different for Irish women, both north and south. My companions were already pale and exhausted when they arrived that morning. The hour of unconsciousness they experienced in theatre was probably the most peace they’d had for weeks.
We all reached the clinic that morning through the assistance of other women. Charities and, in Ireland, clandestine networks that arranged appointments and tickets. We borrowed money from the friends, mothers, or relatives who waited for us outside, or back home, with painkillers, more tea, smiles, sighs and gentle conversation. Not everyone had or will have networks of care, but very few will get a safe abortion without them. When we say “safe” we mean without cruelty, humiliation, unnecessary pain — and without dying.
The solidarity experienced in the abortion clinic is no less real for being unspoken. In fact, it may be one of the most real, consistent and reliable things in what is commonly called “the abortion debate”. This quietly defiant solidarity has always been there, even if the stories of the abortion clinic have been difficult to tell. Telling that history, recording it, insisting on it, has never been more urgent.
In the 1950s a journalist named Marta Hillers anonymously published A Woman in Berlin, an account of the mass rapes of women by Soviet soldiers in Germany in 1945, including her own. The book is notable for its frank account of survival. Women knew what they had to do to stay alive. Underground abortion and sexual disease clinics were set up. People knew which doors to knock on and would try to make sure that the most vulnerable found their way to them, too. I would like to see a plaque commemorating these women on every one of those doors.
Hannah Arendt once wrote of the intense human communication often experienced between those with their backs up against the wall: the pariahs and outcasts, the victims of fate, bad economic situations, poor judgement, war, violence and cruel law. This communication is priceless because of the strength and simplicity of the love involved, but it is also priceless because it acknowledges a shared reality, and that too is something we need to be fighting for just now.
Current anti-abortion campaigns are an attack not just on the rights and bodies of girls and women, but on the history of abortion and its reality today. Advocates dream of an ordered world where every pregnancy is a blessing. Everything they want, they say, is in the name of life, but it is not life as it is lived they are talking about, but a fiction. This is what aligns anti-abortionists with today’s second-generation fascists. It is not simply the desire for state rule over the most intimate parts of our bodies and minds that betrays the totalitarian elements in abortion politics, but the conviction that it is possible to make an ideological fiction real.
What we experienced together that day in 1988 was the reality of one another’s lives. Yes, this is happening, yes you exist, yes, yes, yes, we are here and it is OK. I refuse to have that reality or its memory consigned to oblivion.
This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer