This is a piece about society. It isn’t specifically a piece about human rights in an EU that includes Poland. It’s not even specifically a piece about the direction of travel of next week’s US Presidential election, last night’s confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barratt to the Supreme Court of the United States, or the potential implications that has for Roe vs Wade.
All of these things feed into the broader narrative of this issue from varying angles, but it’s not them that I want to talk about today.
This piece is about the basic concept of humanity in the context of baby loss.
Now, many bereaved parents talk about the sense of taboo felt when experiencing the death of your baby, the sense of ostracism and isolation that any parent experiencing this in any form can relate to. What’s spoken about far less – although a little more openly in the last year or two – is the taboo within a taboo that is termination for medical reasons (TFMR). For more information on TFMR, check out the Tommy’s and ARC pages, or check out the Beyond Bea social media accounts.
Baby loss isn’t talked about as openly as it should be for many reasons – but for one key reason more than others: because it makes people (specifically people without personal experience of it) feel deeply uncomfortable. Confronting it reminds us all of our inherent mortality and vulnerability, reminds us all that (but for quirks of fate) it could be OUR experience – any one of us.
Even for many of us who have lost our children, contemplating TFMR can feel like a mental crossing of the Rubicon. Even within the community of bereaved parents that extends far wider across the globe than anyone likes to acknowledge, these parents can often be excluded or isolated. The implications of it involve the concept of choice – some parents make one decision, others the opposite. I know many parents who’ve made diametrically opposing decisions when faced with these tragic circumstances. Many people seem to assume that parents who have lost their children would become overwhelmingly ‘pro-life’ or anti-abortion. In my experience, it’s the opposite. The loss of our babies gives us an empathy and some understanding of the horrific reality of this sort of situation that many of us simply didn’t have before.
But it’s not really a “choice”. My friend Heidi describes termination (she faced the prospect due to her own cancer diagnosis during pregnancy), in her uniquely inimitable style, as a “shit-uation”, an impossible choice – you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. This isn’t a decision anyone should ever have to make.
Even in a year that’s been the strangest, and in many ways scariest, year I can remember, I’m seeing the beginnings of a trend that really terrifies me.
The Polish Constitutional Court announced a momentous (not in a good way) decision last week when it announced that – in a country which already had highly restrictive legislation on that matter – terminations of pregnancy for medical reasons were now illegal, at a stroke making 98% of its terminations illegal. The only exceptions would be in cases where the mother’s life was at risk, or in cases of rape or incest.
Termination for medical reasons is now banned in Poland.
Let that sink in for a second.
Poland is a very conservative country with deep-rooted religious beliefs underpinning much of its society, but even in Poland this decision has been widely greeted with horror, and protests in the streets of Polish cities. The current US administration has talked openly for some time about widely restricting reproductive rights, and we’ve seen recent moves in more traditionally conservative states to legislate to restrict women’s rights within their state lines as a direct challenge to federal law. The US has this week joined numerous other largely authoritarian governments in issuing an anti-abortion declaration – more information here. Judge Amy Coney Barratt’s unwillingness to be drawn on these issues during her confirmation hearing should act as yet another red flag.
I’m not writing this piece to argue the ins and outs of the pro-choice vs pro-life debate. This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of abortion. So why does what’s happened in Poland and the US in the last week matter to the baby loss community? Simple – because wider society needs to hear, understand and discuss openly the reality of Termination For Medical Reasons. The age of social media doesn’t lend itself easily to informed, reasoned debate. It lends itself too easily to uninformed people making snap, generalised judgments without understanding the nuances, the complexities, or the evidence base of an issue.
I’m privileged to call numerous parents who’ve been faced with the poisoned chalice of a diagnosis of fetal abnormality (a clinical term meaning that a problem has been identified with their precious baby’s development) my friends, I’ve talked to them about their journeys and their babies, I’ve heard them lecture about their experiences, and I’ve buried my son – and I still have absolutely no idea how I’d cope with being faced with that shit-uation.
What I do know from listening to these parents is this: society does them a great disservice if it lumps their myriad of traumatic situations under the simple heading ‘abortion’. Without exception, the parents I know who’ve been faced with this impossible decision and opted for a termination for medical reasons did so with nothing but love in their hearts, and with no other motivation other than doing the best they could do for their unborn child. No-one chooses to get terrible news at a twenty week scan. No-one wants their child to be diagnosed with any sort of abnormality. This – despite what people might write on Twitter – isn’t a group of parents who get five, six months into a pregnancy and then suddenly wake up one morning and decide “I don’t want a baby any more”. Even this is a massive over-simplification of this issue. Terminations for medical reasons just aren’t what they’re made out to be by supporters of this new court ruling in Poland, or by opponents of Roe vs Wade in the USA.
So what makes this a worrying trend? And why should it be our problem, in the UK, or wherever else you may be reading this?
Because there is no group of parents more deserving of love and support than these parents, and the longer we avoid talking about their reality because it makes us uncomfortable, the longer society reinforces a stigma around their experiences, and the more the net of religion and/or restrictive legal rulings is thrown over them, the harder we make it for them. So seeing a trend of – largely authoritarian – governments around the world manipulating political and legal systems to force women to continue with pregnancies with devastating consequences should deeply trouble us all.
Why should this be anyone else’s problem though? Because this is a challenging and horrific enough experience as it is without having to consider the prospect of sourcing a means of illegal termination or continuing a pregnancy when you don’t believe that is what’s best for the unborn child you long for.
And because this isn’t just a hypothetical debate about the point at which a baby is ‘alive’, or a government’s right to force people through incomprehensible experiences against their will.
It’s a real life situation that happens every single day.
It happens to our cousins, our work colleagues, our neighbours. It happens to people we pass in the street or sit near on the bus or train.
It happens to our brothers and sisters.
It happens to our friends.
What they don’t need is judgement or regressive legal rulings restricting their ability to make the right decision for their unborn children following such devastating news. They need love, and for those around those around them to advocate for them and support them – whatever decision they make for their family.
This is about humanity. We are all Polish now.