‘The motions we went through that night came to us naturally. They seemed the only thing to do at the time. Nothing about her bourgeois ideals or her beliefs had prepared O to sever the umbilical cord of a three-month-old foetus. Today she may have dismissed this episode as a temporary aberration, an inexplicable moment of chaos in her life. She may also hold anti-abortion views. But it was she, and she alone, who stood by my side at night, her small face crumbled with tears, acting as an improvised midwife in room 17 of the girls’ hall of residence.’
Happening by Annie Ernaux
In 1963, this brilliantly-talented young woman almost died as a result of an illegal abortion. She is one of the lucky ones who lived to tell her story. Her writing is compelling and rich, but not for the faint of heart. Ernaux gives a brutally detailed account of the abortion process, which evoked such rage in me that I threw the book against my kitchen wall. I sat shaking in a state of pain and anger, but mostly injustice. The role of class, wealth and education are all entwined in Ernaux’s experience, as though a woman’s right to dignity is contingent on such things. Tragically, as we know, this is still a reality today. I returned to the passage above and wept. Through the dark emptiness, the innate human proclivity of helping someone in need shines through.
Whilst women’s rights have improved, illegal abortions carried out by non-medical professionals continue, with scores of women losing their lives in unnecessarily painful and traumatic procedures. Rather than this continued inhumanity in which our lives are damaged and our bodies mutilated, we need free access to medical care and our choices respected.
Ernaux’s unapologetic, confident and intelligent manner endeared her to me. Her unwavering belief that her individual life matters affirms much of what I believe about my own existence. I promptly ordered two more of her books, and made a plan to buy the French original next month. Alas, Covid-19 had other plans. Soon, I hope.