Sunday, 18 September 2011

Non social justice interlude: time to talk teeth

"Come on, guys," I say, whenever my impacted wisdom teeth make their biannual surge for freedom. "I don't mean to be rude, but I've got more teeth than I know what to do with already, and I've definitely got enough damn wisdom, so be a pal and just keep your heads down, eh?"

But do they listen? Do they balls.

I have no idea if this little nugget of wisdom will ever come in handy, but for the record, keyhole heart surgery is a freaking doddle compared to getting a tooth pulled out. The morning after the former, I was back at work. The day after the latter, I was sobbing with pain when my BFF phoned up: "Uhwuuh huh huh wuuuuuuuh," I said. "Aww, don't worry, we're only one-nil down, and Stoke away is always a hard game," he replied, incorrectly diagnosing the source of my woe.

When you freak out because there are magic science wires wiggling around in your right ventricle, they give you diamorphine. When you freak out because some dude is sawing your molar in half, they trill "nearly done!" and turn up the bizarre 90s pop compilation. Seriously, Savage Garden? An odd choice for drowning out screams from the dentist chair. I wanna stand with you on a mountain! I wanna bathe with you in the sea! I wanna stay like this forever! Until you stop STABBING ME IN THE DAMN GUM AND PULLING OUT IMPORTANT BITS OF MY SKULL!

Whatever noxious oozes your heart may produce during the healing process, at least you don't have to see them. Or smell them. Or taste them, 24/7, making an already texturally-monotonous diet flavourishly-monotonous too: mmm, soup. Tastes like bloody eggs. Mmm, porridge: tastes like bloody eggs. Mmm, Shreddies, popped in the microwave so they turn to mush, sipped gingerly from a teaspoon because my mouth no longer opens beyond 1.5cm: tastes remarkably like... bloody eggs.

And as if having a face so puffy that I look like JFK wasn't humiliating enough, the perma-clenched jaw has also given me the voice of Sean Connery. "Ashk not what Mish Moneypenny can do for you, but what you can do for Mish Moneypenny..."

So if you were wondering, that's why things have been quiet round these parts. Bear with me, normal service will be resumed as soon as my skull stops screaming at me.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The master's tools appear to be leading you to my house

Yes, it's that time again: time for a fun game of "the weirdest search terms bringing people to give the feminist a cigarette... EVER!"

In ascending order, we have:

3. "explaining the offside rule to women": I'm giving this one the benefit of the doubt, because it led the seeker to my post on one of my favourite misogynist moments of the year to date.
2. "knitting is not feminist", which I disagree with, if memory serves.

And the best? The very besty best? The one which I may frame and hang on my wall, or perhaps knit onto a large multi-faceted object of my own design?

Drumroll please!

1. "Women cannot mentally rotate 3D objects."

Altogether now: "Knit that, motherfucker."

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A short story about what "independent counselling" could mean

A true story:
At the end of July, we heard from a woman who only discovered that she was pregnant at 20 weeks. After trying to raise money for flights and travel in every way possible, she found out about ASN. A few phone calls and days later, we were able to arrange for a reduction in the cost of the procedure, a grant, and a host for two nights in London. Unfortunately, when she was scanned at the clinic, she was ONE DAY past the legal limit. Our hearts break for this woman – who, if she’d had the financial means to travel and book immediately, would not now have to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
But Nadine Dorries' mandatory "independent" counselling wouldn't hurt, right? Wouldn't add to the delays at all? Wouldn't lead to more women having to go for surgical abortion rather than medical, or push them over the 15 week limit? Well, thank the stars that Dorries isn't also campaigning for a reduction in the time limit to 20 weeks, or one might suspect that this self-proclaimed "pro-choice" MP was trying to use every trick she can muster to eat away at the edges of the abortion settlement; a few weeks less time here, a few weeks extra waiting there, and presto! a few thousand women are forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy everywhere.

This is shit, this is unutterably shit, for everyone in the UK, but it is honestly terrifying for women in Ireland and Northern Ireland. For them, time is already too short: along with obstructive doctors, crisis pregnancy centre workers, secrecy, childcare/time off work/coming up with an excuse to go to England for a couple of days, they also have to find THE MONEY, and the longer it takes to get it together, the more they need to find. You need money for the procedure itself (£350 to £1500), money for last-minute plane fares, money for a bus to the airport and money for the tube to the clinic and money for somewhere to stay the night before your early morning appointment.

A could-be-true-soon story:
So, imagine you find out you're pregnant early enough to be eligible for a medical abortion. You're living on benefits, say, and you've been struggling to provide for the two children you already have since your husband got made redundant. You both agree that you're not able to care for another child right now and decide on terminating the pregnancy. Of course, it'd be a lot more convenient if you could just get the bus into town and go to a clinic there, but that's illegal, and the only 'clinic' is run by way-too-keen fundamentalists who will scare, lie, and shame you into keeping the baby. It's okay though - it's not talked about, but you've heard whispers from a friend of her sister's journey 'across the water', so you do a bit of research on the internet at the library, make a couple of calls, and you've got your appointment at Bpas in Streatham.

You're lucky. Compared to many other women who make this journey, you are lucky as hell: you've got the last of your husband's redundancy payment, and you get a fairly good deal on a Ryanair flight, maxing out the credit card you applied for in happier days to pay for it. Your husband can take care of the kids while you're away, and you don't even have to lie to him about where you're going. Your passport's up to date and you don't need a visa. Even the weather's co-operating - no volcanic ash-cloud or heavy snow to stop your plane taking off.

So far, so good: you get up in the middle of the night to get to the airport, travel into London as dawn is breaking on a train full of bleary-eyed commuters, somehow manage to navigate the ridiculously complicated combination of buses, tubes and trains to arrive at the clinic. You have your consultation with a trained counsellor who explains what the procedure will entail, makes sure you're comfortable with your decision, and lets you know that you can change your mind at any time. If everything goes to plan, you should be able to take one pill this morning, return a few hours later for the second, and after a lie-down in the recovery room you'll be able to catch your flight back this evening. It's a huge relief: you've only talked about this in whispers after the kids are in bed, and now you're in a space where you're free to talk for as long as you want about your fears - will abortion give you cancer? What if you want to have kids in the future? Are you going to Hell for this? - and receive reassuring, unbiased support. You talk about what contraception you're going to use in the future - you weren't aware that the antibiotics you were taking for an infected wisdom tooth would stop the pill working. You laugh a little at the idea of making the same mistake again; after all the hassle it's taken to get here, you're going to make sure your cervix is more heavily guarded than Fort Knox.

For all your worries, you're happy with your decision. It's the only thing that's right for you and your family right now.

Haha, not so fast! You might be alright with your decision - the doctors might be alright with your decision - but are any of you really qualified to make this decision? The doctors work for Bpas: Bpas gets money from the government for performing abortions. Alright, they're a charity, but still, they must have some kind of profit motive to abort as many babies as possible, despite being a non-profit organisation. Yeah, this all sounds like bollocks, but it's the law: Bpas aren't legally allowed to perform your procedure until you've sat through a mandatory counselling session with someone from an "independent" body.

The "independent" body which has the NHS contract in this area is run by Life - an anti-abortion campaigning organisation. The idea that they are somehow less biased than the caring professionals you've met at Bpas seems ridiculous - they're the same people harrassing women outside the NIFPA offices in Belfast - but there you go. It's not like you've got a choice in the matter. You wait while the receptionist gives Life a call, asking when they can fit you in.

Funnily enough, it turns out that this completely impartial and independent body doesn't have a vested interest in making this process as quick and easy as possible: they don't have any appointments today, and the only one they can offer you tomorrow is late in the afternoon. You'll miss your flight back, and you're going to have to find the money for a B&B for at least two more nights. You call your husband in tears, explaining the ridiculous situation through your frustrated sobs. All you want to do is get this over and get home. He tells you not to worry, that you'll figure it out somehow; he'll try to come up with a story to tell his mother so he can borrow a little money without her asking too many awkward questions.

So you wait. You stay the night in a grotty guesthouse, you eat as little as possible because your money's draining away much more quickly than you'd hoped, and you wait. You've nothing to do until your appointment, late in the afternoon, at the crisis pregnancy centre.

When you finally get there, you're instantly on edge: the atmosphere is very different to Bpas. There are pictures of smiling babies everywhere, a suspiciously Madonna-esque mother and child on the wall opposite you. The woman who talks to you claims to offer "non-directive counselling", but she works for an organisation which explicitly believes that life begins at conception: and oh boy, does it show. She doesn't tell you what to do. She just asks questions. "Wouldn't you rather have your baby? You know, he has tiny fingernails by now. I know things are tough financially, but surely love is the most important thing?" You know she's wrong - you know you've made up your mind - but it still hurts. Maybe she passes you some leaflets about the link between abortion and breast cancer (didn't the Bpas counsellor say this wasn't true? It looks really convincing, though); maybe she warns you about "post-abortive syndrome".

She lets you go after an hour or so, looking sorrowful when you say you haven't changed your mind. You blink in the late afternoon sunlight, reeling: "Away and pray yourself to death, you old hag", you mutter, but you still feel like you've been blindsided. What was the point of that? You knew what you wanted to do - your husband agreed, your doctors agreed, why this totally unnecessary step before you can get this medical procedure that's supposed to be legal over here? And now it's another day before you can get back to Bpas, have another talk with the actual counsellor to get over all the horrible guilt and fear this interview has churned up.

Surprise! This pointless delay? Has taken you over the nine-week limit, and you're no longer eligible for a medical abortion! Luckily, Bpas can fit you in today, but you're going to have to stay yet another fucking night - you'll be physically able to leave, but you can't get a plane ticket at this short notice. The surgical procedure - under local anaesthetic - also costs a lot more, so there's another anxious phone call to your husband, and another mad scramble for cash back home.

Miraculously, you manage to scrape the money together. You have your procedure, you get home, several days later than planned and several hundred pounds out of pocket. But, finally, it's over.


This dystopic short story was brought to you by I AM REALLY PISSED OFF ABOUT THIS. Also by WAHEY ASN can make this a bit easier, by giving funds, information and non-judgemental support to women seeking abortion, but guess what? We have but £400 left this month, which will pay for precisely ONE abortion before 14 weeks.

So, if you can, I am literally begging you to make your MP aware of how Dorries' amendment to the Health & Social Care Bill will affect Irish and Northern Irish women before they vote. And if you have any money whatsoever to spare, ASN is a mega-awesome cause.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lego incubators, and seven fluid ounces of pain

Oh goody, everyone's talking about abortion! Cheers, Nadine Dorries; you've poked and prodded at the issue so much that every idiot has pulled their opinion out of the cellar and dusted it off.

Today: Lovely Andrew Brown argues that women carrying unwanted pregnancies should continue gestating For The Good Of The Nation. He claims that the current abortion settlement is based on a faux-utilitarianist argument - that allowing abortion provides "the greatest good for the greatest number" - but in fact serves  "the greatest happiness of the greatest person, ie. me". (Please note he doesn't mean himself. He means someone with an unwanted occupant in his/her uterus.)

This is totally irrelevant to the matter at hand, but I would just like to pause for a moment to observe that Jeremy Bentham, who famously proposed that "the greatest good for the greatest number is the only proper business of government" is currently sitting embalmed in a hallway in my old university and once had his head stolen and sent to Glasgow.

Brown argues, therefore, that the "greatest good" could in fact be achieved by... all unwanted pregnancies being carried to term, and the resulting progeny given to childless couples who want to raise a baby! He doesn't specify whether the uterine-enabled would have any choice in the matter, but hopes that "her suffering might be mitigated by the reflection that it does some good". Isn't it nice that he cares?
So if we are interested in maximising happiness, or diminishing suffering, then unwanted pregnancies should be continued, and the babies given out to adoption. This is, of course, liable to be horrible for the natural mother. I know women who had to do this, and it was dreadful for them. But her suffering must be measured against the joy of the adoptive mother. That seems at least as great and goes on for a great deal longer. And of course the baby, if it had a vote, would presumably cast it in favour of being alive.
Wow, he really does care! So much! It's almost as if he's experienced the blind terror of a pregnancy scare himself! OR NOT. It sounds, actually, as if he imagines all of humanity as little Lego men in his own personal Lego fiefdom which he built himself in his attic. 'How can I make my Legotopia more efficient?', LegoLeader Brown asks? Not, actually, 'how can I make as many as possible people happy'. He sees one group of LegoLadies without LegoBabies who want LegoBabies, and another group of LegoLadies who have LegoFoetuses but don't want LegoBabies, and instead of seeing a multitude of deeply personal and individual situations - he sees a basic supply and demand scenario. Why let those LegoBabies go to waste? Reduce, reuse, recycle; don't you know there's a war on?

I've been pro-choice for as long as I knew there was such a thing, but I only really got it - not intellectually, but on a visceral (indeed uterine) level - during My First Pregnancy Scare. Lying in a too-small bed in a grotty flat somewhere in South London, awake all night with visions of sperm swimming like salmon towards the giant target of an egg just a few centimetres beneath to skin of my belly... the thought of getting pregnant was terrifying, but what really scared the crap out of me was the idea of someone else - anyone else, anyone who wasn't me - having any say whatsoever on whether or not I grew a whole new person inside me.

LegoLadies face no such night terrors, because LegoLadies aren't people: they're just interchangeable units who have something that other LegoLadies want.

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number" sounds so innocuous, doesn't it? Who could possibly be against that? But it's not a zero-sum game. The "joy" of the adoptive parent doesn't instantly cancel out the "suffering" of the birth parent. I'm not going to make a value judgement on whether not having a kid when you want one is more traumatic than being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy to term, because the point is that you can't put them on the bathroom scales and decide that seven and a half metric tons of joy justifies two cubic hectares of misery.

Maybe some people would be completely fine with continuing with an unwanted pregnancy in order to produce a baby for someone else. And sure, there would be a demand, because there are lots of kids out there who need a home, but surprise! Most of them aren't white infants.

But really? There's nothing stopping people from doing this now. It's a choice that's readily available to anyone who's pregnant. And for those who feel that they are not able to cope with the stress and pain and inconvenience and health risks and emotional repercussions of continuing their pregnancy - there is the option of abortion. That's why it's called pro-choice: the point isn't to come up with The Best Way To Deal With Every Single Unwanted Pregnancy Ever, but to work towards a situation where everyone has the right, information, and resources to deal with their situation in the way that works for them.

No one has the right to have children. Everyone should have the right to try to have children - to pursue whatever options are available, from artificial insemination to fostering or adoption to ye olde shagging with a penis - but no one has the right to a bouncing baby infant to call their own just because goddamnit they want one. Your right to pursue your reproductive potential ends where my right not to be enlisted as an incubator begins.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

I never thought I'd be using my history degree to defend The Other Boleyn Girl

Slumping on my boyfriend's sofa in a Bank Holiday Monday food coma, University Challenge came on the telly. Everyone loves University Challenge, for that moment when you correctly answer one question and crown yourself Super Clever Queen of Ace Town. This was a particularly fruitful episode: I managed to get a full three answers (Super Clever Queen of Thrice Town?).

(a) From the Greek blah blah blah, what is the name given to a rapid heartbeat of above 70bpm? (TACHYCARDIA!); (b) Name this woman and the man she married after Henry VIII (KATHERINE PARR AND THOMAS SEYMOUR!); (c) Which is the only bone in the human body which is not articulated with any other bone? (HYOID!) I got these answers from (a) my medical history, (b) the works of Philippa Gregory, and (c) having watched five series of Bones in the last month. And they say Low Culture doesn't teach you anything.

So, Philippa Gregory! Are you going to lose all respect for me if I admit to a strange obsession with her Tudor series? That is a risk I will have to take, but before you denounce me to the proper authorities, I do have some sort of a defence.

Low Culture can actually be immensely informative, as demonstrated above. (Obviously it often takes some entertaining liberties with the facts, and I guess not everyone goes straight to Wikipedia to verify whether Anne Boleyn totally did it with her brother, so you do have to take lots of it with a fulsome pinch of salt.) But more importantly, it generates genuine enthusiasm for fairly arcane topics: I always thought the Tudors were kind of boring (my historical interests lie more in the twentieth century, which resulted in me coining a shorthand for human rights violations: HRVs! Fun!), but my Amazon wishlist is now chock full of Proper Scholarly Works on the period - and I'm waiting with baited breath for delivery of a book subtitled A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII.

One of the trickiest things in studying history is really believing that people lived hundreds of years ago who loved and hoped and dreamed and shat just like you. You can learn the statistic that up to 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas died from European diseases brought by colonizers - but you can't understand what that means, what it was like to live through, until you bring it down to an individual human level. I know what it's like to lose a family member. From there, I can project how it might feel to lose everyone in my family. I can try to extend that to imagine losing every single person I've ever loved, liked, or even had a vague nodding acquaintance with, and begin to have a glimmer of the actual scale of the tragedy: of what "95%" actually means.

And fiction is perfectly placed to do this. Barbara Kingsolver observes that "a history book can educate you, but oddly, a novel is much more likely to move you to tears, because it creates empathy". The human brain just doesn't have the capacity to care deeply about millions of individuals, but through one 'case study', you can truly comprehend how it felt to one of those millions: "Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.  It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction".

So, the schoolbook story of Big Henry's Quest For A Son never struck me as particularly compelling, because it was always told from his perspective. What Gregory does is bring the women of the period to life. She imagines them as astute political actors, navigating a world where their power was extremely curtailed, and puts their experience at centre stage. By so grimly detailing how these women's only chance of improving their own situation was by making a good marriage, she makes you feel the patriarchal norms of late medieval court society, not just learn them.

She is kind of a sexist, though.

For a start, anyone who puts the phrase "beneath the good name, we (Boleyns) are all just bitches on heat" into the mouth of her protagonist has gained some major misogyny points. Then there's her rendering of major historical figures: Elizabeth I, for example; slutty and sex-crazed and manipulative and power-mad. Partly this is just for shock value - "aha! You all love Elizabeth, but maybe she was MEAN!" - but the specific framing is packed full of deeply misogynistic tropes. Anne Boleyn is painted in a similar light. I'm ambivalent about this character: presenting Boleyn as a calculating political figure, rather than a doll who sat around until Big Henry picked her as this year's incubator, is great - but it's shown as a bad thing, a pathological lust for power, rather than a perfectly reasonable ambition.

The Good Women protagonists, in contrast, always retreat to their proper sphere. They settle down with a good man and find enormous amounts of fulfilment in making bread and babies rather than laws.

It's no secret that these books aren't great art. They're repetitive, formulaic, and as cheesy as all hell: basically Hollyoaks with swords. And yet! I kind of love them. The lady-hating chafes more than a little, but the paradoxical centring of female experiences  brings them back from irredeemability, for me at least. I don't just want to know what happened in the days of yore, I want to know how it felt: warts, corsets, leaking ulcers and all.