How to be a Woman, the new book from critic and broadcaster Caitlin Moran, is attracting huge media attention for its forthright approach to feminism, family life and, most unusually, abortion. Here, guest writer Joanna Tacon reviews a rare first-person account of the subject.
Caitlin Moran is not, as the saying goes, a shrinking violet. This is made abundantly clear in the first few pages of her rather fabulous new book, How To Be A Woman. She is unafraid of discussing viscera – the blood, the hairy bits, the internal plumbing, all the messy realities involved in being a woman which well-bred people don’t mention in polite company.
From chapter headings onwards Moran signals her no-more-messing-around approach womanhood: Chapter 1: I Start Bleeding! Chapter 2: I Become Furry! Chapter 3: I Don’t Know What To Call My Breasts! (Exclamation marks Moran’s own.) And so on, all the way to chapter 15, Abortion. In a brave, warts-and-all book, the chapter on abortion is perhaps the bravest and wartiest of the lot.
Moran, at the time of choosing to have an abortion, already has two daughters; there is no doubt in her mind that she does not want another child: “I have no dilemma, no terrible decision to make – because I know, with calm certainty, that I don’t want another child now, in the same way I know absolutely that I don’t want to go to India, or be blonde, or fire a gun.”
In 2010, half of all women in England and Wales who had an abortion were already mothers; Moran is hardly unusual in that regard. Speaking out as a mother who chose an abortion, though – that is unusual. As Moran says:
“My belief in the ultimate sociological, emotional and practical necessity for abortion became even stronger after I had my two children. It is only after you have had a nine-month pregnancy, laboured to get the child out, fed it, cared for it, sat with it until 3am, risen with it at 6am, swooned with love for it and been reduced to furious tears by it that you really understand just how important it is for a child to be wanted.”
She notes with mordant wit the social forces discouraging women who have had abortions from speaking aloud of their decisions. Making the comparison to the hilarious episode of the satirical comedy Brass Eye where Chris Morris talks of the difference between “good AIDS” (caught from a blood transfusion) and “bad AIDS” (caught from casual gay sex), Moran discusses Western culture’s notion of “good” and “bad” abortions. A mother having an abortion definitely falls into the second camp. “Our view of motherhood is still so idealised and misty – Mother, gentle giver of life – that the thought of a mother subsequently setting limits on her capacity to nurture, and refusing to give further life, seems obscene.”
This is, of course, a nonsense, and Moran deconstructs the patriarchal assumptions which lie behind the pervasive belief that, as she puts it, “[women] should be, essentially, capable of endless, self-sacrificial love”. She observes: “The idea that I might not – in an earlier era, or a different country – have a choice in the matter, seems both emotionally and physically barbaric.”
The procedure itself is described bluntly and unsentimentally. It is “quite painful – like labour, five hours in”, and takes seven minutes in all. It’s not an especially pleasant experience, but it has a “happy ending”: Moran anticipates the “dolorous coda” which societal narratives tell us must follow on from an abortion, but it never manifests itself. “I keep waiting for my prescribed grief and guilt to come – I am braced, chest out, ready – but it never arrives.”
She is instead “thankful” and “relieved” and “hugely, hugely grateful”, and says: “I suppose what I’d been given to believe is that my body – or my subconscious – would be angry with me for not having the baby. […] But all I could see – and all I can see now, years later – is history made of millions of women trying to undo the mistake that could then undo them, and then just carrying on, quiet, thankful and silent about the whole thing. What I see, is that it can be an action with only good consequences.”
Reading Moran’s sensible and compassionate conclusion is refreshing. It is also, unfortunately, still somewhat shocking: a famous woman who talks of an abortion, her abortion, as an easy decision to take, with no negative after-effects. If only we lived in a culture where more people felt free, as Moran feels free, to speak of abortion not in hushed, lachrymose tones, but honestly and matter-of-factly. How To Be A Woman is, ultimately, uplifting and important. It’s also freakin’ hilarious. Highly recommended.