In the wake of a judgement from the European Court of Human Rights and a growing public outcry from both sides of the debate following the death of Savita Halappanavar in October last year, the Irish Government is this week conducting a three day public hearing on abortion in Ireland. The hearings have been broken down into medical hearings, legal hearings and church and advocacy hearings.
I don’t want to continue the debate here – that’s for another day – but I would like to touch on a comment that was made by one of the presenting experts during day two of the hearings yesterday which covered the legal side of the issue.
University of Limerick law lecturer Jennifer Schweppe made a submission based on the constitutional law on abortion as it currently stands. Schweppe herself is heavily pregnant and during the course of her speech she made the following statement:
What is inside me now is a foetus, it is not a baby. I am not a mother, I am a pregnant woman”
To give her comment some context, she was discussing how any legislation around the subject of abortion should be value neutral and unemotive. So where previously, the legal text read “mother” and “baby”, she believes it should be “pregnant woman” or “woman” and “unborn”. From a legal perspective, of course she’s right. Emotion has no place in the law. But her statement about herself really struck a chord with me.
When does motherhood begin? I thought back to my post about Savita Halappanavar and Anna Byrne and remembered I talked about a mothering journey beginning when a woman turns her thoughts and actions towards becoming a mother but that’s a kind of pre-mother state really, isn’t it. It’s the start of the journey to a final destination of motherhood rather than actually becoming a mother.
Do you become a mother the second you conceive? To say yes is to narrow motherhood to including only women who give birth to their babies but immediately we know that being a mother is so much much more than that and excludes all of those wonderful women who adopt, foster or are mothering children that they haven’t given birth to themselves.
In some ways, being a mother is all in the mind, a psychological and emotional concept more than a physical one. It’s when you become aware that you are a mother that you begin to be a mother. Or to put it another way, when you are aware of the existence of a child to be mothered by you, you then become a mother. So when your adopted or fostered child is delivered to your arms or when your relationship with your partner gets to a level where you assume a mothering or step-mothering role to their child, that’s where you become a mother. And when you discover you’re pregnant – rather then when you actually conceive – that’s the nub of the issue for me. When you see that double pink line and you realise there’s a life inside you, that’s when you become a mother. Suddenly, you have the responsibility to act on your new-found pregnant status. For most, this is an immediate instinct to change your lifestyle, your diet, to assume a nurturing role, to protect and grow this life and prepare to welcome a baby into the world. For others, the realisation of their pregnancy is not a happy time and they make decisions to end their pregnancy that are right for them. But in my mind, whatever way your pregnancy journey ends, be it holding a newborn – both welcome and unwelcome – having an abortion or having a miscarriage, you were a mother from the moment you became aware of your pregnancy.
To claim that pregnant women are not mothers and just pregnant women is to deny the love, the nurturing, the heartache, the disappointment, the grief, the myriad of altruistic emotions a women feels for the foetus in her body and how she feels about herself during her pregnancy. I think it’s impossible to say that a pregnant woman is not a mother. Can you tell a woman who lost her child in late pregnancy that she was not a mother? I don’t think so. So where does that line to cross into motherhood begin?
By all means, let’s keep the legal debate about abortion in Ireland calm, clear, value neutral and unemotive. But let’s not diminish the status of pregnant women in society by saying they’re not mothers until they hold a living baby in their hands. We’re not vessels. We’re living, breathing, loving, nurturing, strong women who when we discover we are mothers have to make life changing decisions about what happens next. It’s a mother who chooses to end her pregnancy for excellent reasons unique to her and her life. A mother chooses to continue her pregnancy to term and bring a new life into the world. There are no human incubators devoid of the emotions of motherhood here.