Zoë Brigley writes on her experience attending a pro-choice rally in Ohio and why multiple miscarriages have only strengthened her belief in a woman’s right to choose.
content warning: discussion of miscarriage, abortion, mention of sexual violence.
This past weekend, I attended a pro-choice rally organized by Planned Parenthood at City Hall in Columbus. Ohio is one of the states where abortion is under threat should Roe versus Wade be repealed. The likely result would be that Attorney General Dave Yost would allow the heartbeat bill to take effect, effectively banning abortions after six weeks, and Governor Mike DeWine has also said that he would ban all abortions in Ohio. There is currently a trigger law pending in the legislature that would make it a crime for doctors in Ohio to perform any abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Unsurprisingly, the turn-out at the rally was high with over a thousand protesters. All kinds of people, including men, came out to protest about reproductive rights. One young man in the crowd explained that he had come to listen and learn and support women, that he wanted to go into politics and that this issue was important to him. A mother talked about standing up for her daughter, who had become pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the process of having an abortion had been far from straightforward but in fact became very traumatic. ‘There is no way that my daughter could have provided for a child, and seeing what is happening, we have to act to protect our kids. We have to act now.’ Many young women attending talked about the potential harm of repealing Roe Vs. Wade as a catalyst that made them attend the rally when they hadn’t campaigned in the past.
It was clear that all those attending the rally had been touched by stories or circumstances of abortion. It often surprises people that, despite having had four miscarriages, I still support the right for women to have an abortion. Surprisingly, at a book launch in Cardiff a few years ago, a British woman wanted to talk to me about how I could hold those views given my experiences.
Admittedly, abortion can be a difficult thing to think about when you have experienced that kind of loss, especially when women are offered so little help or support after a miscarriage. Many women and childbearing people will testify that they are expected to swallow down their grief and simply carry on, perhaps without even registering the loss. I have noticed however how the pain of miscarriage – often unspoken and unregistered – is sometimes exploited by the anti-abortion movement.
A few years ago, when I had a late miscarriage, I had to have a surgical procedure called a dilation and curettage (D&C) which is similar to the procedure in abortion. A D&C was heartbreaking when I was hoping for a different outcome. Most disturbing, however, was my encounter with the nurse who was prepping me. We made small talk, until she noticed on my chart that I’d had a D&C before and she questioned me about it as to whether it was a miscarriage. This in itself is wrong. There was no medical reason for her to ask me about that, but the reason she asked is because miscarriage and abortion procedures are often described on charts using the same medical language. She wanted to know if it was an abortion or a miscarriage. Because I was nervous and distracted, I didn’t register this at the time, and I admitted that I had had three miscarriages before. At this, she thought it was safe to start an invective against people who have abortions – so careless and cruel – and she admitted to me that she herself had experienced a terrible fetal loss that she had never come to terms with.
This encounter felt very violating. Imagine if I had had an abortion and been shamed by this encounter. But I also felt compassion for the nurse and her loss. Her story explains why there are many women in the anti-abortion movement: that perhaps they associate abortion with terrible, traumatic losses. What is missed, however, is that we have a lot in common: people who miscarry and those forced to carry a baby against their will or shamed out of having an abortion. Our choice is taken away about our own bodies, because ultimately for most of pregnancy a fetus is a part of the mother’s body, unable to support itself or be an independent entity. What holds us together is the desire for choice about what happens to our bodies.
At the pro-choice rally, I found this common ground again when interacting with anti-abortion counter-protesters, who use graphic and disturbing images of fetal remains as shock tactics. I have encountered this for many years in the US, where anti-abortion protesters will display huge pictures of mangled fetuses in public places. As someone who had two late miscarriages, these images are deeply upsetting, and regardless of my own feelings, it is deeply dubious to shame people who have had abortions with shocking and graphic images and make them unavoidable to see.
It would be impossible for people who have had abortions to confront these protesters and their triggering images without facing hostility, so I made a point of going and telling each person holding a grotesque image about how their placards affected me personally. Often, they said how sorry they were for my losses, but they continued to display their enormous signs in front of me. I asked one young man if he had sought permission from the parents to show the image of the fetal remains, if he was sure that the image was not from a D&C for a miscarriage. He told me to go and ask his supervisor. I did ask his supervisor who laughed and said with vitriol, Why do I need to ask permission? She aborted her child. But they didn’t seem sure exactly where the images had come from.
The supervisor’s hatred for the hypothetical person who had aborted their fetus was because of a particular kind of story he was telling himself. It was a story that mistrusted and despised women and believed that women’s decisions to have abortions were casual and callous. The real stories that women are telling now about why they had abortions tell us something different and often these are complex situations with complex reasons for choosing abortion.
But it was also clear to me that the supervisor’s mistrust extended to me myself. There was no compassion in how he responded. Perhaps he was asking himself, had I really had miscarriages? Was I hiding an abortion? This criminalization of miscarriage is potentially already happening in Texas where laws have become extremely strict, and where some pharmacies have refused to prescribe certain types of medication to treat miscarriage in case they are used for an abortion instead. This reveals that anti-abortion campaigns effectively seek to control women’s bodies and police their reproduction, and this is all women and childbearing people, not just the ones who need abortions. As poet Amanda Gorman tells us, ‘When the penalty for rape is less than the penalty for the abortion after the rape, you know this isn’t about caring for women or girls. It’s about controlling them.’
I have two wonderful kids now, and I am very thankful for them every day. But I’ll always remember my losses too. When my fetuses did not develop it was desperately sad for me, because my choice would have been for them to grow into healthy babies – I have to live with that choice being taken away. For another person, it might be hugely traumatic or harmful or just obstructive to carry a baby to full term, and their choice should not be taken away. I will always fight for women’s right to choose what happens to their own bodies.
Zoë Brigley is editor of Poetry Wales and a poetry editor at Seren Books. She is Assistant Professor (0.49) at the Ohio State University. Her most recent books include Hand & Skull (2019), Notes from a Swing State: Writing from Wales and America (2019), and 100 Poems to Save the Earth (2021).
Feature image by Zoë Brigley.
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