What is bodily autonomy?
What does it feel like when it’s taken away?
I’m the editor of Autonomy, a women-led collection of creative writing on the theme of bodily autonomy published by New Binary Press, which is about to be launched around the country. Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the Together for Yes campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment; an unworkable piece of legislation which has caused untold harm and suffering since 1983.
There are many reasons why I’ve done this. I’m a woman. I’m aware of our history. I’m a social care worker. I’m a doctor. I’m a writer. I’m a human being. But what it keeps coming back to for me is that I still cannot say, “I don’t want to be pregnant”, and have my country respect that wish. I can still be forced to be pregnant and to give birth against my will. It’s happening to women in this country every day. Women are sitting on planes or alone in bedrooms right now, scared and alone and in pain because of it. How can anyone think that forcing someone to be pregnant and to give birth could in any way be interpreted as caring?
I wish I could write poems about flowers and horses and The Odyssey, but that won't be happening until I can prise de Valera's cold, dead hands off my uterus
My grandmother Alice had 16 children, including two sets of twins, one of one of which is my father. She also lost two pregnancies. She died when I was seven. Stories about the childhood in the big, rambling farmhouse fall randomly from my father’s lips: they built an “annex” for the boys to sleep in; my grandfather sometimes had difficulty identifying which children went by which names; kittens were drowned.
In the 70s, my grandmother was interviewed about her life by her youngest child for a college assignment. I have those handwritten pages now. In them, my grandmother speaks of her own childhood, endlessly minding younger brothers and sisters, and of how much she resented having to do this gendered work. She speaks of how she excelled in school, how much she longed to continue her education beyond primary level, how there wasn’t money for this (her brothers went). She speaks of her father, my great-grandfather, bringing a succession of men to the house to match with her, and of how she had her brothers beat these men up.
There are photographs of my grandmother’s children, all tall and handsome and red-haired and freckled, in a calendar called Ancient Irish Wisdom my uncle designed. Looking at these pictures, it’s possible to imagine a kind of Ireland that American anti-choice groups have long been fighting to “preserve” – an Ireland of comely maidens dancing at crossroads, of supposed innocence and purity and simple values. It is a fantasy Ireland, where a nameless childhood can be reimagined as nostalgia-filled, where a woman like my grandmother can be redacted into a contented wife. It is a mass grave. It’s not an Ireland I want to live in or to lie about any longer, and I think I speak with the majority at last.
The phenomenon of hypermasculinity, where a newly-postcolonial nation's emasculated male population turns on its women and girls, viciously recolonising them in turn
Autonomy is a complex concept. As a young woman I was briefly lured into the anti-choice movement, and it was difficult to realise afterwards that the bodies and minds of real, alive women had been completely absent from the narratives I had been fed and had parroted. That my own body was absent from my narratives. That women’s bodies were absent from the narratives of history, except for their roles as tools, cyphers or vessels. Especially, especially from Irish history. I could talk about the phenomenon of hypermasculinity, where a newly-postcolonial nation’s emasculated male population turns on its women and girls, viciously recolonising them in turn, but maybe I won’t.
I’ll just say what I say whenever I read my work: that I wish I could write poems about flowers and horses and The Odyssey, but that that won’t be happening until I can prise de Valera’s cold, dead hands off my uterus. I can feel them there when I say the words, grasping, assaultive. I can feel them giving way, wizened interphalangeal joint by joint.
We’re at a turning point, and Together for Yes is part of that. Most of the women I know have had to realise over the course of this year that encounters they laughed or cried off in the past were in fact rapes and sexual assaults. In recent days, thousands of us have taken to the streets in support of the Belfast Survivor. We’re struggling to redefine our relationships with our bodies and to create boundaries where we were taught that we couldn’t have any. That my body could be my own is something I’m still getting used to. It still isn’t. That must be strange for some men to read. If it is, read Autonomy.
The idea for Autonomy came from my experiences teaching creative writing, working with silenced communities and especially with women. I’ve seen the power of story and human experience to change hearts where anger and even facts do not. Together for Yes is about love and compassion.
I believe that anyone who reads these stories about real people struggling to be true to themselves and their values, to survive for their families, to take back their bodies, will come to understand that. Nobody wants to have an abortion. But some people need to. Contraception fails. We make mistakes, because we are human. Things go tragically wrong. Forcing people to go through agony and pain, or stigma, silencing and shame, is not the way to make the world a better place.
Taking people’s bodily autonomy away from them is not the way to a more compassionate society. Listening to people’s stories with empathy and an open heart may be a good start.
I have been overwhelmed with support and with beautiful work by writers from all walks of life. More than anything, I have experienced what it feels like to speak out in defiance when you know you are among friends. The brave contributors to this book have made it what it is, and I can’t thank them enough. Please, if you aren’t sure about voting yes, have the courage to listen to these stories and to do something good.
Autonomy will be launched around the country on the following dates:
Dublin: Books Upstairs, April 13th, 6pm
Hannah Sheehy Skeffington Building, UCD, April 26th, 5.30pm
Cork: English Department, UCC, April 19th, 5pm
Limerick: Art and Autonomy Conference, UL, April 20th, time tbc
Galway: The Black Gate, May 5th, 6.30pm
Kilkenny: The Book Centre, April 27th, 5pm
Belfast: Belfast Book Festival, June 8th, 6pm
Follow @AutonomyKDArcy on Twitter for more information, or get in touch to organise a launch event.
Order Autonomy online at newbinarypress.com/product/autonomy
Donate to the Together for Yes campaign at togetherforyes.ie/donate