issue 176 - October 1987
The wages of sin
Nora lives in a society where contraception is considered immoral,
abortion is illegal and many men refuse to get involved in family planning.
Is it Saudi Arabia? Is it Somalia? No, she lives in a Roman Catholic
community in Northern Ireland. This is her story.
NORA, NORTHERN IRELAND
I've been pregnant 20 times in all, maybe 25. That's 13 born alive, five miscarriages, and two dead babies. And then there's all the other times when I was late and took poisons and pills and other things to bring myself on.
I was married at 19, in the September, and had my first child in June. And that was it then. I must have got pregnant the night before my husband went to work in England. He often had to go to England to work - on building sites. But for that I would have had more children. That's what saved me. There are other ways of being saved too. But it took me a good few years to learn them. You see I could never talk to my mother, or my husband, about these things. But my mother-in-law was awful good. She was the first one ever taught me to do things - you know, to stop a baby staying in you.
I must have had five or six children before I really said: Jesus, what am I going to do? Most of the time we weren't having sex hardly at all, I was avoiding it and just getting caught at the wrong time. For 20 years I can't have got more than about three or four hours sleep a night, between babies crying and needing to be fed and doing housework and avoiding him. He used to go mad about me sitting downstairs at night, reading. He knew well enough why I wouldn't go to bed. Even though I'd be dying to lie down. I'd stay up till three, then have to be up at four maybe to feed the baby, then up at seven again for all the rest of them.
I was always trying to bring myself on. Even if I was just a day late, I was that terrified. I took and did everything bar going to an actual abortionist. Cathy, my eldest used to get me these tablets. I used to take quinine too. The quinine and the pills were awful hard to get because the chemist knew what we wanted them for. Everybody done it, all the women. Religion didn't stop us. That's all we ever used to talk about: who was pregnant and what you could do about it. I douched myself out too. I'd put in soapy water or disinfectant. It never did me no good though.
I would have had every child on my own if I could. I have this fear of anyone touching me or looking about near me. The nurse wanted to examine me, but I wouldn't let her. And I would never let the doctor come, not until after the child was born. I would have died of shame, a man seeing me like that.
With all the births and everything that's gone wrong with my body I've spent 20 or 30 years of my life in pain, or fearing that pain I knew lay ahead of me. I used to pray to God to make childbirth easier, but then I wondered if maybe I just wasn't good enough at suffering.
Eventually my womb collapsed and I was supposed to have this big repair op, because the womb was lying on the bladder making me loose control of my urine and have terrible back pain. But this doctor says to me; 'If you have this op you could have lots more children. If you don't want anymore children put up with the pain until after the menopause.' I must have been about 40 then. The backache was so bad that sometimes I had to be lifted out of bed. He never suggested any contraceptives but he was right about one thing - that trouble did stop me from getting pregnant. Well, for four years. Then everything just slipped back into place. When the doctor examined me he said: 'See there's a miracle. When there's a baby nature always takes care.'
One time I went to the hospital because I had a period for six weeks. Well, it was a haemorrhage really. The doctor had been on at me to go to the hospital but I couldn't leave all the kids and I didn't want to be annoyed with them men poking around and looking and touching. But then I started having really massive clots, about the size of a baby's head. And I started going unconscious in between. So after about ten of these, I says to one of the kids to dial 999. They had to fight the whole night to save me. I got 20 pints of blood before I started to hold any. That was first time I knew I was dying and I didn't care. I wanted to die. But I knew that was wrong, so whenever I was conscious I kept trying to say the Act of Contrition.
Another time, after I had a wee baby that was born dead, the specialist at the hospital insisted that I get contraceptives. 'If you have another child within five years you could have the same kind of birth that just killed this wee baby and nearly killed you.' So he wrote a letter to the priest and I took it round to him straight after I was discharged. I was that weak I could hardly stand. But still he said: 'You can't have five years of contraception, that would make you a sinner. I'll allow you two and no longer.'
Even then my husband refused to use the sheath after six or seven times. He said they deadened this feeling that every time he went with a girl he wanted to leave her pregnant. So I had to get a diaphragm. But there was nowhere for me to get all this palaver done and he would have been sick to see it - messing about with tubes and creams. I didn't have a bathroom, so whenever he wanted sex I had to go out on the landing in the freezing cold. And then I'd be worried about the children waking and catching me at it.
But funny enough, the diaphragm thing seemed to make me want sex, and I couldn't be coping with that. So in the end I just said: Ach! And I forgot to use it all the time. And a year and a half later I nearly died, I had another baby.
Abridged from Only the River Run Free by Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean (Pluto Press, 1984)
The trouble with reading about population is that you really have to decide what you think before you choose your reference book. This is because each tends to be written from one of three main analytic standpoints, each of which is extremely convincing - in its own terms.
Take Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource (Princeton University Press, 1981), for instance. Pick it up unknowingly and you will quickly be convinced that 10-child families are a cause for celebration rather than concern. I had an urge to slap a Waming sticker on the cover to alert people that this cogent little number comes from a high priest of the New Right. But, despite its politics, Simon's book cuts a refreshing swathe through some rarely-challenged assumptions and does a rather neat demolition job on the second type of writer on population.
Simon calls them 'the doomsdayers' and they are just as persuasive as he is, but are putting the exact opposite case: that rapid population growth is destroying our green and pleasant planet along with all its economic and social institutions. If that's what you think, then the excellent Worldwatch Paper series from the Worldwatch institute (1776 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington DC 20036, USA), will provide all the facts and arguments to support your worst fears.
For a somewhat less biased view of the global scene it's worth sending for the latest Report on the State of World Population from the UN's Fund for Population Activities (485, Lexington Ave. New York, NY 10017, USA). A subscription to the international Planned Parenthood Federation's quarterly house magazine, People, is also a must: it's well-written, informative, full of on-the-spot reports and case studies from all over the world - though somewhat eclectic politically (however, many would consider this a point in its favour). You can get it from IPPF, P0 Box 759, Inner Circle, Regent's Park, London NW14LQ, UK. Another must is the booklet that sums up the findings of the World Fertility Survey, World Fertility Survey - Major Findings and implications, and its companion volume of statistics, Fertility in the Developing World, both obtainable from the WFS at 35-37 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W OBS, UK.
Finally I have to recommend the book that best tallies with my own (feminist) analytic standpoint on population: Betsy Hartmann's Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (Harper and Row, 1987, due to be published in the UK this month). If you believe that women, and not planners, should be the people to decide on the size of families they have, then this is the book for you. But I think another Warning sticker might be appropriate here to remind the reader that there are many dedicated women and men out there trying to provide poor people with the means to choose the size of their families. Stunned by Hartmann's catalogue of crimes committed in the name of 'family planning', it's easy to forget such people exist.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7