‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Six

This is the last of a multi-part series reviewing the 1994 anti-abortion novel ‘The Lost Child’, in which protagonist Caz reacts to her mother’s abortion by constructing an elaborate lifelong fantasy about the younger sister she imagines she would have had. Part One is here and contains links to all the other parts.

At this point in the book, Caz has finished writing and publishing her book, in between a rapid and intense romance with her next-door neighbour Will, to whom she is now engaged.

Content warning: Talk of child death, life support cessation decisions, ablism (though this is presented as wrong in-story), inappropriate pressure from the medical profession, description of callous treatment of a body after death, and suicide plans.


The highbrow despair

Having ended the previous chapter (the conclusion of the book-within-a-book) on a positive note, with Caz looking forward to the future, Atkins starts this one with Caz in the depths of despair. In a very highbrow literary way, to the point where she actually lampshades it; ‘Oh, Caz, can’t you even watch your heart break without quoting effing literature?’ she writes after quoting Macbeth and rambling about how Laurence Olivier managed to howl effectively on stage when required by learning it from trapped minks.

The next several pages are Caz a) lamenting how awful she feels and b) telling the Greek myth of Cassandra because Atkins wants this for symbolic purposes which I’ll get to shortly. One slightly odd thing here (which will be relevant in a few minutes, so bear with me) is that Caz claims that, as part of the curse, Cassandra knows her prophecies will be believed just once in her life, on the day that she dies.  This would be a brilliantly effective addition to the curse (imagine not only never being believed, but knowing that when it eventually happens it won’t be a relief as it’ll be a sign of your own imminent death), but it isn’t one that I can find in any version online, nor could I find anyone who’d heard of it when I asked on Reddit. I’m not sure whether Atkins took liberties with the story deliberately, whether she actually had heard this version somewhere herself, or whether she simply got it wrong.

Anyway, we eventually find out what all this is about; her lover Will has finally told her the full story of his child’s death, and it turns out that he gave the doctors permission to turn off the life-support machine, which Caz finds unacceptable.

Will’s story (as told by Caz)

Late in her pregnancy, Will’s wife was hospitalised and unconscious with severe pneumonia. The baby was delivered by emergency Caesarean and put on a life-support machine. The next day, the paediatric team came to Will (his wife was still unconscious) and told him that ‘there was a considerable possibility of brain-damage to a greater or lesser extent’. We’re not told what sort of level of brain damage the doctors were suspecting here, but Caz implies that it’s on the level of ‘won’t get qualifications or go to university’. The consultant’s response to this level of uncertainty was…

Their medical opinion was that the continuance of life-support for the foetus was strongly contra-indicated.

As before, Atkins apparently doesn’t know that ‘foetus’ is a term specifically used for the stages of development prior to birth and thus no-one would have been referring to a child after birth by this term. However, that’s far from being the worst plausibility problem with this story. We’re told that the consultant not only recommended switching off the life-support machine, he wanted a fairly quick answer from Will about this because…

[…] as there was no knowing how long the machine would be needed … well, suffice it to say that Will would have to make up his mind while there was still the choice.

… and so the consultant was going to come back to Will at the end of the ward round, forty-five minutes later, and get his answer then, the clear implication thus being that this was framed as ‘switch off the life support right then or risk being saddled with a brain-damaged child which will, of course, be too awful a prospect for you to even consider it as a possible option’.

Aaaaand no, Atkins, that is not how decisions about switching off ventilators are made in real life.

There are rare and tragic cases where brain damage is so severe and the predicted quality of life so poor or non-existent that doctors will advise that life support be turned off. Typically, in such cases, the medical staff will do everything they can to be sure that the prognosis really is that bad. They will sit the parents down for a sensitive conversation about it. They will give them time to think about it. And, above all, they won’t make the suggestion in the first place unless they’re sure that the prognosis really is hopelessly dire.

This idea that a consultant would railroad a parent into making this sort of decision about a child who was already showing enough signs of improvement that they anticipated her shortly being able to breathe independently is just so far away from the reality of these sorts of situations that I’m flabbergasted that Atkins had the brass neck to write this. This is deeply insulting to all the doctors who’ve had to guide parents through these horrible decisions with sensitivity and professionalism. While I disagree with Atkins’ views on abortion, at least with abortion she’s objecting to something that actually happens and not to some strawman she’s invented.

Oh; we also get told a few pages later that the baby’s body was thrown out with hospital trash after death. Again, no. I get that Atkins is probably trying to make some sort of point about how much she disapproves of fetuses being treated this way after abortion or miscarriage, but that isn’t what happens when children die after birth. (For that matter, it’s also not what happens with stillbirths after viability or even with late miscarriages.) Both parents would have been given a chance to hold and say goodbye to their child and then a chance to plan a funeral and choose either burial or cremation. Atkins is arguing against a strawman.

Caz’s reaction

So, Caz has told us this heart-wrenching story of Will, left alone and without guidance under this sort of pressure while his wife is still unconscious. She tells us about how he desperately tries to get through to someone he trusts with whom he can discuss this horrible decision, and can’t manage it within the short time he’s been given, and how he prays for an answer and doesn’t get one, and eventually, after forty horrible minutes of this, tells the doctors that he’ll ‘be ruled by them’, because he just can’t think of any other way to make the decision. Regardless of what you think of the rightness or wrongness of the decision itself, it’s very hard to read this without your heart going out to anyone faced with such a horrible situation and so little support.

Well, except apparently for Caz. She writes in her diary that he ‘murdered his child’ and that he ‘must be a monster’ who ‘destroys everything I’ve ever lived for’. That’s the level of compassion she’s able to show for the man she supposedly loves so much.

And that’s completely in line with the way Atkins has written her character. So far, through the book, we’ve seen a judgemental woman with rigid views on right or wrong, whose main relationship has been with an imaginary person she can idealise, who doesn’t seem able to extend sympathy or grace to the flaws of real people, and who doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of being able to sympathise with a decision with which she disagrees. Meanwhile, she’s seen no problems with making a decision to marry her first serious partner only a few months after meeting him, while still in full-on NRE stage.

With that background, it feels very realistic that she has this kind of 180o reaction to finding out something about Will of which she disapproves. She doesn’t seem to have any kind of framework for accepting and forgiving someone who has done anything with which she disagrees, however long ago and however deeply regretted. And, now that she can no longer idealise Will (the way she idealised her imaginary sister), everything has crashed down for her.

But I don’t get any sense that this characterisation was deliberate on Atkins’ part. It could, in fact, have worked really well to present Caz deliberately as a flawed protagonist and unreliable narrator. But Atkins is trying to present her as Cassandra the ignored prophetess, the truth-speaker we should all believe. Atkins is on Caz’s side here.

Having given this scene a lot more thought than it actually deserves, I’ve eventually realised that Atkins is clumsily trying to make some point about non-Christians supposedly being unable to forgive:

So what do I do? I honestly don’t think I know anyone who’d understand. I once knew a man [her grandfather] who would have done. But then he had a future and a city with a crystal river to look forward to, where the sun never sets. He would have known what to do. But this, all this futility, wasn’t the end for him.

I don’t have his future or his faith, and my point of reference isn’t the Bible but the classics – which he understood well enough too – so I’ll have to look for my answers there.

So it seems Atkins thinks nonbelievers are incapable of forgiveness. At the same time, she seems to have no concept of reacting to a disagreement by thinking about the person’s reasons for acting the way they did and/or their feelings about it now and whether they regretted it and forgiving others in that way. In other words, she doesn’t really seem to understand forgiveness at all. I’m left with the impression that she sees forgiveness as ticking off a mental ‘there, forgiven’ box rather than actually trying to understand anything about the other person’s viewpoint or actions.

Atkins does not seem to see anything wrong with Caz’s lack of any such attempt to understand. As far as I can see, the only problem Atkins has with Caz’s reaction seems to be that she isn’t able to tick the mental ‘there, forgiven’ box which (in Atkins’ eyes) a Christian would be able to make everything all right by ticking. Other than that, Atkins seems to see this harshness and lack of compromise as completely justified. If this is how Atkins really feels about the matter, then that tells us quite a lot about her.

And just when you thought this was bad enough… (further content warning)

Caz, having broken up with Will because of a decision he made years ago under great pressure and clearly deeply regrets, feels she also can’t face living without Will. So, her reaction is to start planning her own suicide.

She doesn’t go through with it; after a few days of relating her despair at great length (and, to be fair, with beautifully written vivid description; Atkins is good at the wordsmithery part of writing), she posts a more positive diary entry which is all very vague but does effectively imply that she’s going to go and make it up with Will. On top of which, she is apparently a major character in Atkins’ next novel, and, from the look-inside feature on Amazon, it seems she is back with Will, so clearly that’s what happened. But we do get these few days in which, although she never specifically says in so many words that she’s planning to kill herself, she makes it very clear that that’s what she’s thinking.

Now, I’m trying to think how to say this next bit, because I do not want either to minimise the horrendous pain that leads so many people to take their own lives or to make assumptions about what anyone does or doesn’t feel they have to live for. I know that people whose lives seem wonderful on the surface can have unsuspected torments beneath that surface. I know that depression is a tricksy lying weasel that can convince someone that their life is hopeless even when it seems objectively good. So please, please, do not take my next comments as being any sort of judgement on the real people who are faced with real problems that drive them to suicide, and please, if anyone reading this feels that way themselves, know that I believe in your pain and hope for you that you have people who will take it seriously and help you.

But here is the problem with Atkins’ portrayal: We’ve been reading Caz’s diary all along, so we know that she doesn’t have that level of problems. This isn’t a case of someone who seems fine on the surface while feeling terrible underneath. This is someone who has not been suffering from depression, who has not been struggling with hidden problems, whose life has by her own account been going splendidly up until the point where she chose to break up with her fiancé purely because she is too rigid and lacking in compassion to accept that he once, long ago, did something she believes to be wrong. And the result of writing Caz as planning suicide solely for that reason is that what would otherwise have been a genuinely excellently written portrayal of someone struggling with despair comes across more as a teenager having an ‘I shall DIE and THEN they’ll all be sorry!’ strop.

On top of which, we get this:

Cassandra died the moment she’d been believed; with the truth, as always, on her lips.

…which Caz ties in to the fact that she got such good reviews of the advance copy of her book:

My book has been hailed as prophetic, the catalyst to change the law. ‘The tide of morality is turning (I quote) and soon the law will protect the unborn child again, as it has throughout most of history until 1967.’

Oh, yes, they believe me now.

They believe me now.

So, Atkins is trying to draw a parallel between Caz’s planned suicide and Cassandra’s death, with both of them presented as the prophets who die only at the point where people finally believe them. I’m sure she meant this to be powerful and symbolic, but it doesn’t stand up well.

Firstly, Caz isn’t making a prophecy; she’s expressing an opinion. So people aren’t disbelieving her, they’re disagreeing with her. There’s a difference, although Atkins doesn’t seem to get that.

Secondly, the reason Cassandra’s realisation of her upcoming death was a tragedy was the inevitability of what she predicts. She knows that she’ll die later that day and she knows that there is absolutely nothing she can do to prevent it. Caz, on the other hand, is making a choice. She has the options of either facing the grief and learning to make a life without Will, or being less unbendingly rigid in her requirements for the people in her life, forgiving him, and taking him back. However much she might dislike the idea of either of those choices, they still exist.

The result of all this is that her comparison of herself with Cassandra comes across as not so much powerful as grandiose. (It also occurs to me that it is really quite rich for Caz to be comparing herself to someone who had ‘the truth, as always, on her lips’ when she has in fact spent years lying to her publishers.)

However. We are not done yet; there is still a layer of hypocrisy icing on this particular intolerance cake. Because we now find out…

Will and I are having a child.

This, by the way, is written on August 26th. Caz also says it’s a boy, so she’s supposedly far enough along to have had some sort of test for (apparent) gender. Caz and Will met on the first of May and became lovers some time in the middle of June. If Caz is not only pregnant but far enough along to have had a gender check, she must have conceived almost as soon as they started going to bed together, which was only about a month and a half after they met. That is… not a good timescale for making decisions about creating a new person for whom the two of you will be forever jointly responsible.

However, setting that aside; Caz, ferocious defender of fetal life, is pregnant. And considering suicide. So, surely, according to her own beliefs she should be planning on postponing her suicide until the baby is born? Nope. We’re back to the Greek mythology-based symbolism:

Procne took her beloved son, her Itylus, and killed him out of vengeance for her sister.


Will and I are having a child. A boy. Our Itylus.

…so Caz’s plan is, apparently, to commit suicide while she is pregnant and to view this as some kind of symbolic vengeance against Will in a gospel-according-to-Greek-mythology way.

And she’s planning this despite the fact that her defining character trait throughout the book has been her utter opposition to abortion, which she firmly believes to be child murder. Despite her protest in the end of her book, written only weeks ago, about how having to live through ‘a few short months’ of unwanted pregnancy shouldn’t outweigh a child’s right to life. Despite her childhood vow ‘never to kill my children, I mean a baby in my tummy’. Despite the fact that the entire reason she’s upset in the first place is because she’s angry at Will for what she believes to be child murder on his part. The hypocrisy is utterly breathtaking.

And it could still have worked in-story if called out. After Caz’s eventual decision not to commit suicide after all, she could have had a scene of looking back with horror at how nearly she had done something she found abhorrent. It could have been a learning moment in which she realised for the first time what it was like to be desperate enough to get to that point. She wouldn’t even have needed to change her views on abortion; just find the understanding and compassion that has been so missing from her character until now, maybe look back at her mother’s decision with new insight and sympathy. But we don’t get any of that.

The outcome, and final thoughts

After several entries in which Caz despairs of ever feeling happy again (and also some letters, including one from Caz to her niece for her sixth birthday in which she sends her the story she once wrote of Procne and Philomela, because of course that’s a totally appropriate present to send to a six-year-old, especially when you’re planning to commit suicide knowing what a traumatic event that will be for her), we get a final entry in which Caz seems to have found her way back to inner peace and a wish to go on living. And, again, the wordsmithery part of the writing here is very good. Caz goes out to look at the Thames and we get shown-not-told that she’s focusing on more positive imagery, in ways that are very nicely bookended with the negative images she was writing about back in the novel’s opening pages. The final line, in a callback to a pleading letter Will wrote Caz a few days earlier in which he told her he’d get a bottle of Moet and wait for her, is:

Well, I thought as I turned away, who ever said you couldn’t have Moet for breakfast?’

So, without being explicitly told that Caz has decided to try again with Will, we can still pick it up from that line. In these ways, this chapter is good writing.

The problem with it, however, is that we’re given no indication of how Caz got mentally from Point A to Point B. In real life it is of course fairly normal for a few days of letting the dust settle to be enough for people to find they’ve moved quite naturally from ‘LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF’ to ‘Potayto, potahto, whatever’; not every argument needs a big definitive resolution. But, when you’ve gone to the trouble of throwing a nuclear-level disagreement in as a plot twist forty pages from the end of your novel, you need to actually address it in some way, not just let it peter out vaguely into nothingness.

Caz could have realised that, while she still disagreed with what Will had done, she could nevertheless feel empathy for him and forgive him. Even better, she could have come to the obvious realisation about her own hypocrisy in planning suicide while she was still pregnant and could have learned the more general lesson of ‘people can make decisions they deeply regret later, especially in acutely stressful circumstances, while still being basically good people’ and extrapolated that to understanding and forgiving Will. But we don’t see any of that. We just go from Caz being all ready to commit suicide to make a point, to Caz waking up feeling a bit better, to Caz apparently feeling positive about life again and being about to go back to Will. So, as plot resolutions go, it’s a damp squib.

However, good or bad (I’m voting ‘indifferent’), it is the end of the book. As I mentioned, Caz does show up in a subsequent Atkins novel titled ‘On Our Own’, and if anyone does happen to have read that I’d be interested to know what happens with the plot and whether the dangling threads from the end of this one are ever addressed. But I’m not interested enough to bother ordering the book, so unless I happen to find a copy in a charity shop somewhere I will not be reading any more about Caz.

And, since I have finally ranted myself out on the topic, this is also the end of this book review. I am sadly behind on responding to comments – for which my apologies – and will try to do so in upcoming days. Meanwhile, I will close by once again channeling Richard Ayoade: Thank you for reading, if indeed you still are.

‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Five

This is the fifth of a six-part series reviewing the 1994 anti-abortion novel ‘The Lost Child’, which is about protagonist Caz reacting to her mother’s abortion by constructing an elaborate lifelong fantasy about the younger sister she thinks she would have had. At this point in the story, Caz is finishing her own book-within-a-book about the subject, in which she alternates between her experience of her mother’s abortion when she was a child and her fantasies about her imaginary sister Poppy written as though they were actual memories. This post is going to be about the conclusion of that book-within-a-book, in which she reveals (or at least confirms, since it’s probably fairly obvious by now) the truth about Poppy’s imaginary status to her readers.

The book-within-a-book’s conclusion

Caz, after a bit of humming and hawing, comes out with the reveal:

Have at you, then; I shall say it. Know what you’ve already worked out. Poppy is dead. I shall never see her no more.

I do not wish to dismiss Caz’s clear distress over the issue, but can we please keep sight of the fact that Poppy, even within the story, never existed. I do understand that, in this storyline, Caz genuinely sees her mother’s abortion as a sibling she has lost, that this would have been a potential brother or sister for her, that from her perspective she’s lost a sibling, that her grief over this is genuine. But that’s not the same as Poppy being dead. Poppy-the-person, the character described in the book, was never more than a creation of Caz’s imagination.

What more can I say? That I see her death in terms of tabloid headlines? Terrified Child Torn Limb from Limb. Callous Cold-blooded Killing…

Atkins has clearly been reading anti-abortion propaganda; the ‘torn limb from limb’ bit is a classic anti-abortion ploy of describing abortions in the most lurid way possible, at the expense of accuracy. We also now know enough about fetal brain development to know that a fetus doesn’t develop conscious awareness this early and thus a first-trimester fetus isn’t going to feel ‘terrified’ or anything else (though, to be fair, on the level of knowledge available at the time that Atkins wrote this it would not have been unreasonable for her to believe it).

At the time, as a child, I thought my world had gone mad when I found that those who were my greatest security, those I was supposed to turn to in times of most desperate trouble, were monsters of grotesque proportions, perpetrating violence against the innocent.

While Caz could plausibly have read anti-abortion propaganda between her childhood experience and the writing of her book, what she seems to be implying here is that the ‘torn limb from limb’ view of abortions was part of what made such an impact on her back when she first heard about them. The problem with this is that, regardless of what Atkins thinks about the accuracy of this description of a abortion, it doesn’t fit with the plot she’s chosen. The whole point was meant to be that we get the reactions of a child with no prior knowledge of abortion to the euphemistic description she’s given of it. Atkins doesn’t seem to have spotted the contradiction with having this same child apparently aware enough of abortion mechanisms to interpret them in pro-life propaganda terms.

This is, I gather, an adjustmental flaw. Most children can absorb new, even shocking facts about the universe, and modify their worldview to accommodate them. I could not. I still cannot.

Actually, Caz’s (and, by implication, Atkins’s) main adjustmental flaw is that she doesn’t seem capable of recognising anyone else’s viewpoint but her own. Remember that she’s showing no empathy for her mother’s risk of postnatal depression had she continued the pregnancy, and that she couldn’t even comprehend the fact that her lover was able to see her mother’s side of the story as well as hers. And, yes, for all the heavy subtext implications that this adjustmental flaw is Really A Virtue, this sort of rigidity is a major flaw.

Caz talks about how she invented Poppy’s life to deal with ‘the fact that no-one would even acknowledge she had ever been’. Then she moves on to discussing how she now feels about her parents. Or, rather, conspicuously avoiding discussing how she now feels about her parents.

The time has come when I want to say that I don’t blame my parents, because I know that they will read my book and the last thing I want is to cause them any more pain.

Caz, come off it. While it might well be true that you don’t actively want to cause them pain, it’s also true that you are a) publishing the book, b) doing so without discussing it with your parents first, and c) not even trying to anonymise them. Clearly, avoiding pain for your parents is lower priority to you than avoiding any of the above actions. When you can’t even spend the time on a find-and-replace of the names and details in your book to at the very least try to avoid doxxing your mother in the process of publishing her personal life for the edification of the world, let alone think about not publishing it in the first place, don’t try to tell us that causing them pain is ‘the last thing’ you want.

Having assured us that she wants to say that she doesn’t blame her parents, Caz… does not say that she doesn’t blame her parents. Instead, she tells us:

When I was studying the Second World War at school, I couldn’t understand why such a civilised country, which produced Beethoven and Bach and Mozart and Goethe, and some of the most interesting and gentle people I’d ever met, could have allowed six million people to be murdered without a protest. Had they all gone collectively mad?

This, please note, is the next paragraph after Caz’s claim that she wants to say that she doesn’t blame her parents. Yup, nothing says that you don’t blame someone like comparing their actions to the Holocaust.

My teacher explained it to me by saying that many didn’t know, and more didn’t believe what they knew. And those who both knew and believed did what they could before they were arrested and hanged themseles.

But what will posterity say of us? That we all knew, we all believed, and those that condemned did so politely in the newspapers.

This is something I actually remember from my own time as a pro-lifer: actually failing to comprehend that pro-choicers genuinely do not see embryos and fetuses from conception on as being full people with full rights. I really believed that all the people supporting abortion rights must just not know about fetal development, and once they knew all the details it would change their minds. (Shut up; I was naive, OK?) The thing is, once I realised that that wasn’t so, it did give me pause; not in a ‘all those people must just be callously evil!’ way, but a ‘wait, is it possible that there’s something wrong with my conclusions here?’ way. My mind didn’t change at that point, but it was one of the things that sowed the seeds. Atkins doesn’t seem to have had this reaction.

Meanwhile, Caz still notably fails to come out and say that she doesn’t blame her parents. It’s like the scene in ‘Monsters’ University’ when the can design lecturer tells them in their first lecture that some people find can design ‘boring, unchallenging, a waste of a monster’s potential’ and then says nothing to contradict this. The headcanon I was left with is that Caz knows perfectly well on some level that blaming her parents is an unpleasant thing to do that doesn’t fit well with her image of herself, and so is subconsciously struggling with wanting to say that she doesn’t blame her parents but not wanting to do the actual emotional work of not blaming her parents.

However, while the silence remains deafening on the topic of whether Caz blames her parents now, she does tell us this:

Strangely enough, I think that on a subconscious level, emotionally not rationally, without questioning why, as a child I blamed my father not my mother. This was totally unfair of me.

Yes, it was, rather, wasn’t it?

A possibly relevant bit of background here: Atkins happens to have read the same anti-abortion propaganda book as I did back in my anti-abortion days; ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, by Margaret White. I know this because she quotes from it several times for her chapter epigraphs. While it is a mercifully long time since I have read this book, one thing I do remember is that White did try the ‘but why do fathers get no say in what happens to their unborn children!’ argument. I wonder, therefore, whether that’s where Atkins got it from.

By the way, the reason I remember that detail is because it was the one claim I managed to see through even when I’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for the rest; I recognised perfectly well that this supposed concern for giving men ‘a say’ in the decision would be nowhere to be found in a situation where it was the man who wanted the abortion and the woman who didn’t, that pro-lifers were going to be just as much against abortion in a situation where both partners agreed that was what they wanted, and that White was only using the argument because it supported her overall viewpoint, not because it actually stood up. Shame this didn’t give me any pause in questioning everything else she wrote, but at least I spotted that fallacy.

Anyway, however Atkins got there, she seems to have actually spotted the practical flaws in this particular argument while still finding it convincing on an emotional level. This gives her an interesting case of cognitive dissonance:

I believe he would have liked another child. But he is a gentleman and a scholar, and would never have dreamt of compelling my mother to do something against her will. Indeed, such an idea is unthinkable as well as repellent. The man must be a monster who would force his wife to carry a child she didn’t want, even if the law allowed him to, which it didn’t. I have no desire whatsoever to return to a so-called ‘Christian’ society, or emigrate to an ‘Islamic’ state, where a man has powers over his wife and can tell her what to do.

But at this point something atavistic and childlike deep within me cries out in protest against the civilised times we live in. Why can’t a man have some say over his child’s life?

Excuse me, Caz, but your father did have some say. You had a family vote. He cast his vote. He accepted that he was outvoted. That is having some say. I’ve never before seen it made quite so obvious that ‘Why can’t men have a say?’ is code for ‘Let’s look for excuses to stop women from getting abortions!’

And is a woman’s body so precious, I want to ask, that it is worth more, for a few months, than my sister’s whole three score years and ten?

Can we drop the claim that pregnancy and birth are just a matter of ‘a few months’? It’s nine months plus postnatal recuperation time of varying and typically significant degrees of problems, with all sorts of potential complications (speaking of which, let’s once more remember that Caz knows about her mother’s high risk of postnatal depression), some of which can be permanent. And that’s all even without discussing the permanent impact that becoming a parent has on your life.

And, yes, everyone’s rights to their body are that ‘precious’. That’s why we don’t make organ donation compulsory.

It’ll be said, by those who want to say it, that I had problems because of my upbringing. That I suffered a trauma, at the age of five, because of well-meaning parents who were too liberal, who told me too much, who allowed me to know something that a five year old can’t cope with. That I suffered from too much truth. Say that if you must. I’ll never believe it. The truth, in itself, can’t be harmful.

Firstly, I think that, whether or not her parents did the right thing by telling her about her mother’s pregnancy and abortion, the way they dealt with telling her was terrible. Her mother told her about her pregnancy before having made the decision about it, thus giving Caz a chance to get excited over the prospect of having a sister only to have that snatched away from her, and then there was the whole dreadful family vote scene in which she was left feeling that the responsibility for stopping the abortion was somehow on her. If they were going to tell her, it would have been better if they’d presented her with a fait accompli and then sympathised with her disappointment over not getting the sister she wanted. (Caz’s grief and disappointment about this haven’t been properly acknowledged by her parents at any point, and are inextricably tangled with her moral outrage.)

Secondly, regardless of the effect on Caz of knowing vs. not knowing, Caz is showing that her parents were wrong to trust her with the information. She’s about to make a personal and painful episode in her mother’s life public, without discussing that with her mother. While Caz is still focusing only on the impact on herself and what would or wouldn’t have been best for her, I think her mother would have been better off not telling her.

I hope I shall follow my parents’ example, and always tell my own children the truth, however unpleasant it is. If they ask me where we go when we die I shall answer, quite truthfully, that for all I know some godless hell awaits us.

I suspect this is Atkins trying to write what she thinks a nonbeliever might sound like and ending up in ‘said no actual person ever’ territory. In terms of the validity of this approach, it’s like answering “What are we going to do today?” with “Well, for all I know a grisly fatal accident might await us” on the grounds that it’s quite true that for all you know that might be the case. Telling people ‘the truth, however unpleasant it is’ has its points as an approach but does not require deliberately digging up the most unpleasant hypothetical situation possible.

Caz wraps up the epilogue and her book-within-a-book on a positive note, telling us that she’s finally said goodbye to Poppy and is moving on and building her own life, and that she’s looking forward to having her own children ‘and making my own mistakes instead of dwelling on other people’s’, which was more of a self-own than I’d have expected. Thus ends Caz’s book-within-a-book.

There are still a few more chapters of the overall book, all part of the frame story of Caz’s diary and letters. While I’ll review those in a separate and final post, there is one point from the next chapter that seems to fit more neatly in this part of the review, which is the reception of Caz’s book by the ARC reviewers:

My book has been hailed as prophetic, the catalyst to change the law. ‘The tide of morality is turning (I quote), and soon the law will protect the unborn child again, as it has throughout most of history until 1967.’

To get the pedantry out of the way first; I have no idea why Atkins included the words ‘I quote’ in brackets. That’s both unnecessary (since the quote marks show that it’s a quote) and inaccurate (unless the original line she’s quoting included those words in brackets). C’mon, Atkins; according to your Wikipedia page, your degree is in English Language and Literature.

In terms of Atkins’ claim here, this wishful thinking on her part wasn’t fulfilled by her own book either in terms of the law changing or, as far as I can remember, in terms of making much of an impression at all. (To be fair, it was of course almost thirty years ago, but I do spend a good deal of time in bookshops and this book doesn’t ring any bells as anything I remember seeing when it came out).

As for Caz’s book, realistically it’s hard to see why that would make that much of an impression on society’s collective opinions. Why should ‘children’s author wanted a baby sister and didn’t get one’, which is what this boils down to, be a stronger anti-abortion argument than any of the ones we already know? Doylistically, I suspect Atkins thinks she’s written the equivalent of an alternative-universe scenario in which we get to see what a great and talented person the world could have had and what a wonderful relationship Caz would have had with her sister if only it hadn’t been for the abortion. But, of course, that isn’t how the story goes; what we’re actually given is Caz’s idealised imagining of the wonderful sister and trouble-free relationship she thinks she could have had, which isn’t the same thing at all. Watsonianly, meanwhile, I’m headcanoning that Caz’s publishers realised what they’d been saddled with and sent the ARCs off to the most pro-life reviewers they knew of so that at least they got glowing reviews to quote.

Anyway, that’s it for this section. The last post in this series, with review of the final part of the frame story, will be up next. Brace yourselves; it’s another doozy.

‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Three

This is part of a multipost series about ’90s anti-abortion novel The Lost Child, by Anne Atkins. The first post is here; other posts will be linked back there as I post them.

This part of the review will be about the third of the three alternating story strands that I described in my initial summary. In this strand, protagonist Caz tells the story of her relationship with her sister Poppy as part of the book-within-a-book she’s writing, thus giving us what seems on the face of it to be a rather sweet story about the lifelong bond between two sisters. However, in her book’s conclusion, Caz will reveal that Poppy was in fact imaginary. In response to her mother’s abortion, Caz invented the sister she thought she could have had and spent the next twenty-four years picturing the different things she might have been doing with this imaginary sister, and her book has actually been telling the story of her memories of imagining these things.

I originally planned to get through all of this part of the story in one post. However, Atkins has a tendency to weave in bits of anvil-dropping moralising, and there was so much to discuss that I’ve finally decided to split it into two posts. As I still have two concluding posts planned after that, this will make the full review six posts long.

Content warning: Greek myth involving rape, body mutilation, silencing, and child murder.


The imaginary baby sister

This strand of the story starts out with what are supposedly Caz’s memories of the day Poppy was born. This scene works well in light of the reveal; the scenes Caz describes are blurred and confused in a way that could work equally well for ‘adult remembering something that happened when she was six’ and ‘six-year-old’s imagined version of what a baby sister’s birth would be like’. However, the next scene doesn’t. It’s a lengthy anecdote about how six-year-old Caz and her grandfather get left in charge of baby Poppy one afternoon and chaos ensues, which works well when we think it’s an actual story of someone looking back on what a mess they now realise they made of something as a child and joking about it all in hindsight, but doesn’t read like something that a six-year-old would have had the self-awareness to invent.

The imaginary justifying quote

As Poppy gets older, Caz and Poppy play together extremely well despite the age gap. That fits perfectly with the reveal (of course Caz would want to picture this imaginary sister as someone she loved playing with). However, what doesn’t fit well with the reveal is that Caz ‘quotes’ her mother as telling other people that it’s actually really easy to have a fourth child because Caz and Poppy just amuse each other all day long and her mother has hardly anything to do. Since under the circumstances her mother clearly couldn’t have said any such thing, what this means is that Caz has blatantly invented a quote from her mother to convince us and herself how easy it would have been for her mother to have the baby. (As Atkins herself has four children, she might well have been trying to get in her own opinion about her own experience. However, she doesn’t seem to have realised what an inappropriate comment it is from Caz in this context.)

The Greek myth

When Caz is twelve and Poppy supposedly six, they spend a holiday with her grandfather, who is apparently a retired classics teacher and who is ‘appalled’ to find out that Caz’s private school no longer teaches classics. Caz is in fact interested in learning the subject and thus her grandfather starts telling them various Greek myths, including the particularly gruesome one of Procne and Philomena. In this story, Procne’s husband King Tereus rapes her sister Philomela and cuts her tongue out to prevent her from complaining; when Philomela nevertheless manages to communicate the terrible truth to her sister by weaving a tapestry which shows the story, Procne gets her revenge on her husband by killing their son Itylus (or Itys, in most versions, but this is the name Atkins used).

Atkins had a few different Doylistic reasons for including this myth, which I’ll get to, but first Caz asks her grandfather the obvious question; why would Procne get revenge by killing the child who was her much-loved son as well? This seemed like a good question, so I did a fairly small amount of internet research and found a point which hadn’t occurred to me; Procne, in the story, would not actually have another option for getting any sort of justice for her sister. Her husband was the king in a country with an absolute monarchy, so he was above the law. I realised that the power of the myth was in Procne’s dilemma; she either had to let a hideous crime against the person she loved the best go unavenged, or avenge it in a way that would hurt her even more. We can disagree with her solution and still recognise why the story of the dilemma is powerful.

Now, if I can work that out I’m fairly sure a classics teacher should be able to work it out. And surely someone who’s ‘appalled’ that his granddaughter isn’t being taught the classics should be eager to seize the chance to explain this. However, here’s her grandfather’s take on it:

‘Well, it was an ancient feminist protest, I suppose. Like Medea. Men could be pretty beastly in those days, and what else could she do?’

‘But didn’t she love him?’

‘Her son? Indeed she did: she died of grief afterwards. She and her sister. That’s why nightingales and swallows have such sad voices.’

‘Then why did she do something which would upset her even more than it would upset her husband?’ I wanted to like Procne, as her story was such a romantic one, but she did seem to me to have behaved idiotically.

‘Ah, now, some people would say that’s what Women’s Lib. is all about,’ Grandfather said with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. ‘Cutting off your nose to spite your face. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t dare: your mother would give me a frightful ticking off. But it’s only a story, darling. You mustn’t take it too seriously.’

So, there you have it. Raping and mutilating your sister-in-law, leaving her voiceless, is ‘pretty beastly’. But clearly the only reason a woman might not want her sister treated in such a way is that she’s making some sort of ‘feminst protest’ (really, darn those feminists!). And, even if you’re appalled by children not getting to learn the subjects you think they should learn, don’t bother taking the chance to fill in the gaps if you can instead take a dig at ‘Women’s Lib’ while pretending you’re not doing so.

Anyway. One of Atkins’ reasons for including this myth was, of course, so that she could throw in this mention of a woman killing her child because Incomprehensible Feminsty Reasons, Really, These Feminists. Another reason will come up in the final chapters. The other reasons (one thing I do respect about Atkins’ writing is that she does get in a decent amount of layering in this way) are that this helps to set up Caz’s future career and Poppy’s future imaginary career, and it gives us our title grab. Caz writes a short story based on the myth, with illustrations supposedly done by Poppy, and submits it to a publisher under the title ‘The Lost Child’; it gets published in a collection of children’s stories.

Moralising in India

Caz and Poppy drift apart somewhat in Caz’s teenage and university years (which, again, makes meta-sense, since it can reasonably be interpreted as Caz’s interest in her imaginary friend waning quite naturally in her teenage years). Caz then goes travelling through India after university to get some life experience, and meets up with her older brother, who’s working there as an engineer and living in what seems to be a very remote rural village, where he’s formed a relationship with a local woman. Would there be long-term engineering projects in very remote rural villages? I’m a bit dubious, but the Doylist reason is that Atkins wants to set things up for a speech from him about The Evils of Modern Western Society.

‘What d’you imagine it felt like,’ Jack asked me, ‘to be living in the Roman empire at the time of its collapse?’

I was completely stumped. ‘Well, I suppose … er. What did they have? Orgies and things. I guess if you were rich enough …’

‘Exactly,’ Jack said. ‘It probably felt all right. Perhaps quite fun: they might even have argued that that kind of sexual freedom, for instance, was an advance on the strictness they’d had before. […]’

It sounds from this as though Atkins went along with the view that the fall of Rome was related to their sexual activities. From what I can find out on the subject, that idea now seems to be thoroughly discredited. By the way, the actual answer to what it would have been like to live in the Roman Empire when it collapsed seems to be, for the most part, ‘Horrible, with severe food shortages and a high death rate‘.

‘[…]Anyway, that’s what Europe looks like to me now: a society in decline. […]’


‘But how does it affect things? What d’you mean?’ After all, does it matter if society’s in decline, if people are fed and warm and comfortable?

If people are fed and warm and comfortable, that sounds like a society that’s doing rather well. But what Atkins is talking about, apart from the implication about what she sees as sexual immorality, is the society’s attitude towards having children.

‘It affects everything. It means children over here are more important than cars or telephones. It means people would rather have a family than an electric oven. It means there’s a hierarchy, and people have duties to one another, instead of simply having rights.[…]’

I’ve never understood this particular either-or; it’s like saying ‘coins should have a tail side as well as a head side’. The existence of rights automatically implies the existence of duties.

‘[…] It means I have to decide whether I want to give up my way of life back home and stay here and marry Shangani; or take her home with me; or give her up. If this were Europe we would have been living together for the last year, and she would have had a child if she wanted one, and wouldn’t have if she didn’t, and if she wanted a career she’d have a career, and if she didn’t she wouldn’t; and if I wanted to leave I’d leave, and if I didn’t I’d stay for a while.’

And you’re talking as though having those choices was a bad thing. Yes, I do much prefer living in a society where creating new humans or entering into permanent unions are choices rather than obligations and where women as well as men get the opportunity of having careers. I notice we aren’t told what Shangani thinks of the issue; how does she feel about living in a society that expects her to have children whether she wants to or not?

(On a separate issue, I can’t find the name ‘Shangani’ on any of the main name sites. I might be wrong but I have the feeling Atkins might have pulled a Panju here.)

Caz says that surely that approach is ‘much more convenient, after all’, which doesn’t sound at all to me like an actual response anyone would make to this; I suspect Atkins is working from some kind of pro-choice stereotype (as per the ‘they have abortions for convenience!’ myth). Jack says that it’s more convenient but he’s not sure it’s right, and he’s considering whether to stay in India with Shangani.

‘I don’t want a child in England,’ he said. ‘Europe doesn’t value children. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.’

First, a disclaimer: India and Europe are both huge areas with populations in the hundreds of millions, so I’m very wary of generalisations about how people in one of these places think X while people in the other think Y. However, taken in the context of Jack’s speech and the fact that he’s living in a particularly poor and remote area, what Atkins seems to be trying to say is that subsistence societies place a greater level of importance on having children than Westernised societies do. And, while this is true overall, I think Atkins has completely missed the point of why this is. It’s not because children in subsistence societies are more valued as individual people; it’s because, in a subsistence society, children are your workers and your pension fund. I suspect Atkins might be less keen on the reality of that attitude to children.

The reappearance of Poppy

Caz gets a job as a correspondent in Iran and moves there. After a bit more than a year and a half, she starts up with Poppy again, with the in-story explanation supposedly being that Poppy is travelling for a bit after finishing art school so will come out and see her. How this is supposed to fit with the reveal is extremely unclear. We do learn that Caz is really lonely and longing for another British woman to talk to, but taking up with your childhood imaginary friend again seems a bit of an odd way for an adult to deal with loneliness, and doesn’t go that well with Atkins’ main storyline about the Poppy invention supposedly being Caz’s reaction to the effect on her of her mother’s abortion. There’s then a whole bit about Caz waiting for Poppy and getting so worried when she doesn’t turn up that she phones her parents daily, and Poppy eventually hitch-hiking to get to Caz who then berates her for taking such a terrible risk. Again, I’ve no idea how any of this is meant to fit with the reveal. I suspect that at this point in the story Atkins had temporarily lost sight of the fact that Poppy wasn’t supposed to be real.

Caz loves spending time with Poppy and ends up deciding to come home to London. As it happens, Caz’s parents have just moved to the country and are letting ‘Poppy’ have their London house, so Caz moves in with her. No mention is made of how the finances work out; do Caz’s parents just let her have a family-sized house in London for little or no money while still somehow affording a second place themselves, or is Caz paying a London-rate rent or mortgage on a house that size on a freelance correspondent’s pay? The former sounds implausible but the latter would be downright impossible, so, on Sherlock Holmes’ famous principle, I’ll go with the explanation that her parents were letting her spend years living in a very valuable house for at most a peppercorn rent. That adds an even more pronounced level of poignancy to the way Caz is currently treating her parents.

Anyway, that issue aside, Caz finds that sharing a house with her imaginary friend works beautifully:

In some ways we were happier than the happiest of cohabiting couples. We never quarrelled, as couples inevitably do because they have so much invested in each other. We were never jealous, because we had no rights to each other. If we found each other irritating we could ignore each other for a few days. If either of us needed a change, we could go on holiday with someone else, or simply travel, for a couple of weeks or more. If one of us had a new boyfriend, as I did seldom and Poppy did frequently, the other would simply take a delighted interest in the progress of the affair. [p 251]

That’s the nice thing about imaginary friends; you can picture their interests and wishes as harmonising exactly with yours. I do wonder if Atkins realised this or if she really thought this was a realistic description of what a beautiful relationship Caz could have had with her younger sibling if her mother had continued her pregnancy. Of course an actual relationship with a real sibling – with someone who would have been hanging around hogging the bathroom when Caz wanted to ignore them, who probably wouldn’t have wanted to disappear on holiday conveniently just when Caz wanted them to, who would have had actual new partners whom Caz might not have got on with, who would have had all sorts of traits that would have grated on Caz’s nerves, who might well not have wanted this convenient house-share in the first place – wouldn’t have gone this well. Maybe it would still have been a great sibling relationship, maybe not; but it would never have lived up to the idealised image Caz is picturing.

I think this is a good place to break the post, so I’ll post the rest of my review of this part of the story in a few days, followed up by two more posts as per the original plan.

‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins: review, Part Two

This is part of a multipost series about ’90s anti-abortion novel The Lost Child, by Anne Atkins. The first post, which contains the summary, is here; other posts will be linked back there as I post them.

In this part of the review, I’m going to discuss the second story strand, which is protagonist Caz’s experience of her mother’s abortion when she was a child, including her family’s vote on it. These sections are part of the book-within-a-book that Caz is writing, and alternate throughout with sections from the two other book strands (read my summary in the previous post and it’ll hopefully make more sense). Caz writes this part of her book in third person and refers to herself as Sandy.

The timeline

Sandy is five when this part of the story starts and has her sixth birthday during it. The timeline is accordingly vague, but here’s what I’ve managed to glean. (This is, of course, all based on the assumption that Caz is accurately remembering events from when she’s five and six, but since that’s what Atkins wants us to go with I’ll go with it.)

Sandy’s story starts in the first week of her summer term in 1990 (which, based on the date of Easter that year, would probably have been latish April). Soon after this her mother mentions having forgotten her contraceptive pill, with the implication being that this is when she gets pregnant. The family vote is on the last day of the half-term holiday, and the abortion in the last week of Sandy’s summer term (which would make it the third week in July). The story then continues through to a point in the summer holidays of the same year, far enough into the holidays that it would have been some time in August.

Working out likely term dates for that year’s calendar, this all means that her mother would probably have been 8 – 9 weeks pregnant at the time of the family vote (making the embryo 6 – 7 weeks, since, for archaic reasons too ingrained to be changed, pregnancies are dated from two weeks before conception), and would have had the abortion around 5 – 6 weeks after that. In case anyone is wondering, that last sadly does fit with typical NHS delays at the time.

Setting the scene

We get a long-drawn-out chapter describing every random thing five-year-old Sandy’s thinking during a school afternoon, which, as you can imagine, is pretty much the opposite of gripping. Considering this is supposed to be the opening chapter of Caz’s book, I’m dubious as to how many readers she’d get. As far as I can see, it’s mainly there for the foreshadowing; in the course of lengthy stream-of-consciousness thinking, Sandy thinks about how she’d like a sister, she mentions to her friend that she’s not allowed to play shooting games because ‘it’s not very nice to kill people’, she thinks about how adults are usually good people with good reasons for the things they do, and she thinks about a book she has at home that shows the various stages of fetal development complete with fruit size comparisons and emotive thumb-sucking.

The story continues through a couple of chapters of very British-middle-class lifestyle, during which Sandy’s mother (Amanda) mentions having forgotten her pill and we gather that this is something she does quite often. This is an excellent example of why long-acting reversible contraception is so important, by the way; what a shame Amanda didn’t get an alternative that would have avoided the need for her to remember to take something on a daily basis. Shortly after that, Amanda tells Sandy she’s pregnant, and Sandy gets hugely excited at the prospect of a younger sibling and starts imagining all the things they’ll do together. This means that Caz/Sandy’s moral objections to the abortion are going to be inextricably intertwined with her crashing childhood disappointment about it. It’s sad that she had her hopes raised in this way.

The family vote

This is the scene that inspired Atkins to write ‘The Lost Child’ in the first place, after she heard about a real-life family who did this (for reasons that Atkins never found out). Here’s how she wrote it.

As per the timeline above, this seems to be several weeks into Amanda’s pregnancy. We don’t find out why it took so long, but maybe Amanda was struggling with the decision. Their father (Simon) tells the children to stick around after breakfast so that they can have a Family Discussion. He launches rather self-consciously into an awkward little speech about how Mummy’s pregnant but it was an accident, and how people used not to have much choice about how many babies they had, hence the huge family size/high infant death rate in Victorian times, and ‘Nowadays we have far fewer children and they hardly ever die, which is much better’ (we’re told, not surprisingly, that Sandy’s brother Jack is already looking bored by this point), but that with this increased choice comes more responsibility:

‘[…]But now we have no excuse for ever bringing a child into the world which isn’t wanted. So this means we have a decision to make. We have to decide whether to have the baby or not. And because the decision will affect you, we want to know what you think about it. We want to hear your opinions. We won’t necessarily do what you want, but we promise to listen to what you say.’

Sandy was listening very carefully, but even so she didn’t understand very well. The baby was already there, wasn’t it? She was in Mummy’s tummy. She was the size of a pear.

No, she wasn’t. Based on the dates I worked out above, it’s at most the size of a grape, if that. Let’s get background facts right, at least.

By the way, the Watsonian reason for Sandy coming up with the fruit comparison is the book she’s been reading about fetal development that uses fruit sizes for comparison. However, it’s not clear why Sandy picked this particular one. She doesn’t seem to have thought at all about what gestation her mother’s at (and, as above, she’s actually wrong about it anyway). So it’s not clear why she’s opting for ‘pear-sized’ with such apparent certainty.

Sandy could see that there might be other people, bad people perhaps, who didn’t like babies. But her parents loved babies. All good people loved babies. That’s what babies are for.

All right, let’s put that myth to rest. I think it’s reasonable to say that all good people want the best for babies and don’t want to see them hurt or neglected. Loving babies is a different matter. The whole matter of how you feel about beings who can’t make conversation, require intense round-the-clock care, and emit loud noises and noxious smells at unpredictable intervals is an extremely individual one, and it is absolutely possible to be a good person who’s indifferent towards babies, or likes them in very small doses, or actively dislikes them. It’s a really bad idea to judge morality by personal likes and dislikes.

Sandy’s mother talks about the practical side of having a baby insofar as it will affect the children; less time to spend on them, less space, difficulties caused by one of the parents having to give up work temporarily. Her father, in a pro-lifer stereotype of why people get abortions, tells them that they won’t be able to go away for expensive holidays or buy expensive things, and won’t be able to send the children to boarding school.

‘Well, I don’t want a baby,’ Jack said simply.

‘I see.’ Daddy sighed. ‘I see, Jack. You don’t want to think about it any more than that?’

No shit, Sherlock, your child is not interested in thinking about the details of a potential baby he doesn’t want. What are you expecting from him; a well-thought-out debate speech that’ll make up your mind for you?

Sandy’s other brother’s view is that he doesn’t mind, which I would have thought counted as a neutral vote. However, because he adds that he’d like to go to boarding school and likes their holidays, it gets counted as a vote for abortion.

Sandy asks the obvious question:

‘What will happen to the baby?’

‘You mean if we don’t have it?’

‘Mmm,’ Sandy said, and the sound hardly came out at all.

‘It’s called a termination, sweetheart. It means ending. It means you stop the baby growing and don’t let it be born and become a person.’

I get that Atkins’ point is meant to be that if you describe abortion to a child she will see past your euphemisms and see that it is really MURDER MOST FOUL, but, even aside from disagreements over whether abortion is murder, I genuinely cannot see how a five-year-old would have got ‘killing’ from this. I’d have thought Sandy would interpret it as the fetus being forever frozen in time at whatever gestation she’s currently picturing it, or maybe thought they could start it growing again later on.

Strangely, we then get this:

[their father] ‘It’s not quite like our summer holidays, this. It’s not a decision where we all have an equal say. You see, there’s one person who’ll be influenced much more than the rest of us by this decision, isn’t there?

Sandy nodded. She thought of Poppy, the size of a pear, in a little pink bonnet and sucking her thumb.

‘Mummy, obviously. For myself, I’d like to have another baby. I think the financial considerations are secondary. We’d make do. But it’s Mummy’s body, and I really can’t ask her to have a baby she doesn’t feel she can cope with. No man can make that decision for a woman.’

So why are they even putting this to the vote? This should never have been a voting matter.

Sandy, of course, desperately wants the baby and is highly distressed by the whole thing:

She would keep the tears down if she had to fight them with all her body. She held her bottom lip with her teeth. Under the table her hidden fists kept seizing the air and letting go again in a quick little rhythm.

Also a reason why this should never have been a voting matter. I get that Sandy would have been upset about this however it was handled – on top of how she feels about abortion, there’s also the fact that she really wants a baby sister and now sees her chance disappearing – but putting a share of responsibility for the decision on her was never appropriate and just made it harder for her.

She knew what she could say. She would save up all her pocket money for all her life for the baby. She would give up school to look after her, so Mummy needn’t give up work. She would do her washing: Barney and Jack needn’t help. She could even feed her with a bottle like some people did, if Mummy was too busy to feed her properly. But somehow she knew these minute arguments of delicate and fragile logic would be useless against the vast tidal wave of adult feeling.

That’s not ‘logic… against a vast tidal wave of adult feeling’, that’s a five-year-old being age-appropriately terrible at thinking through the long-term problems of a plan that seems good in the short term. Of course Sandy’s parents aren’t going to opt for ‘our five-year-old can drop out of school and devote her life to taking care of the baby’ as a solution here, because that would be child abuse.

Sandy casts her vote for having the baby, but because her father is counting Barney’s neutral vote as a vote against (Fix! Fix! Fix!) she’s still outvoted. Her father comes out with some patronising guff about how this is a good lesson that you can’t always have what you want. I really hate it when people do that. If someone is dealing with disappointment, acknowledge that and sympathise instead of telling them what a great life lesson it is. And, yes, this is very much still the case when the ‘someone’ is a child.

Strangely, now that the vote is over we get a completely different explanation from her mother:

‘You see, I got quite depressed when I was pregnant . . . when I was last pregnant. Depressed means sad, but much worse than sad. Sad in a way that sort of destroys you. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I love all three of you very much and I’m more pleased than I could be that I’ve got you all. But I was quite ill, and couldn’t be a proper mother to anyone, and I had to keep going to the doctor to be cheered up.’ She smiled. ‘It was beastly. I was horrible to everyone. I really don’t think I could go through it again. And I’d much rather have more time with you, than have to worry about a new baby all over again.’

So in fact, the actual issue for her mother is her history of significant pregnancy-related depression and her concern about the effect a recurrence will have on both her and her existing children. It’s extremely understandable that she wouldn’t want this to happen again. And so, once again… why was this being put to the vote? Why was Amanda’s mental health being treated as though it was a subject on which everyone got an equal say? And why was the discussion held in the way it was, with the parents talking about every potential downside of having a baby other than the actual main one that was the issue?

We know that the Doylist reason for the vote scene was that Atkins had heard a supposedly true story about a family who actually did this (or at least that’s how Atkins interpreted the story). However, I don’t get any sense that Atkins worked out a Watsonian reason. She’s trying to portray a Liberal Middle-Class Family who Have Discussions (and doing it pretty well, actually; the dialogue has a realistic feel to it), but even liberal middle-class parents don’t typically feel themselves constrained to run the really important decisions of the family past the children. Nor does it sound as though the parents in this story were genuinely running this past the children; rather, we get the impression that they’re trying to talk the children into voting the way they want.

The headcanon I ended up with here is that Amanda feels guilty about not wanting to continue the pregnancy, and making the decision at least nominally a family vote lets her feel better about it than if she’d just said ‘I can’t face going through post-natal depression again, so I’m going to have an abortion’. I doubt Atkins had that in mind, but it works for me as a headcanon, given the pressure women often feel to shoulder all burdens For The Sake Of The Chiiiiildren. Meanwhile, I feel Atkins has unintentionally written a meta-commentary illustrating how pro-lifers stereotype abortion decisions as being about superficial things when they aren’t.

One other (in-story) point worth noting here is that all of this is supposedly adult Caz’s description of the scene years later… which means she remembers her mother saying this. This isn’t just about Caz not properly understanding her mother’s viewpoint as a five-year-old. She can look back as an adult, remember her mother telling her this, write about it, and yet never see it as a reason to rethink the anger and resentment she’s always felt towards her parents about the abortion. Caz makes it clear she thinks her mother should have continued the pregnancy, but never addresses the risk this would have entailed of severe postnatal depression.

The fetal viewpoint

This chapter is then rounded out with a page or so in which Atkins tries for an ‘omniscient narrator’ effect in order to include what she thinks the fetal POV is. She writes about the ‘smallest member of the family’ feeling safe and comfortable in the womb and learning to suck her thumb, while meanwhile Amanda and Simon are discussing abortion and a song from Rigoletto mourning the murder of a daughter is playing in the background. That last bit is rather nicely done in terms of providing a sense of understated menace, so credit to Atkins for the writing there. However, remember that we’re talking about a fetus that’s at most around nine weeks gestation, which means that brain development would still be at a very rudimentary stage. A fetus of this gestation just doesn’t have the kind of conscious awareness that Atkins is trying to portray. (For that matter, she’s pushing it a bit with the thumb sucking, as well; while that’s reflexive and does start pre-sentience, the earliest I could find as an estimate for when this starts was ten weeks.)

I think Atkins genuinely believed what she was writing, by the way. I don’t think she was lying here; I think she was misinformed, partly because this was all at a time when less was known about fetal brain development and partly because, alas, pro-life groups have a strong history of manipulating and misrepresenting facts. But, however well-meant a misrepresentation this is, it’s still a misrepresentation, so it’s worth correcting the facts here.

It’s also worth commenting on the worldview which Atkins (or Caz, in-book) is trying to use the fetus to portray:

This world around her, she knew without knowing it, was dedicated to her safety. Her mother’s body would starve itself sooner than let her go hungry.

Note that Caz/Atkins is presenting this as a positive in a book that’s against abortion. The implication is, apparently, that this sort of self-sacrifice is a noble goal to which pregnant women should aspire. It genuinely does not seem to have occurred to Caz/Atkins to stop and wonder how right it is to demand that someone continue with a process that can potentially take that kind of toll on the body.

Her mother’s womb would shield her from the cold, and cushion her from violence, and continually keep her protected and nourished.

This image of the uterus as a fetal protector is, of course, the standard popular one. However, it is worth reading this really interesting take on this viewpoint, which turns it on its head. (Hat tip to blogger Samantha Field, from whom I found that link.) The (anonymous) writer at that link points out that, in fact, zygotes often implant in places outside the uterus and grow very nicely there, burrowing in and grabbing their nutrients from the host’s blood supply just fine… up until the point where they rupture something crucial and cause the person whose body it is to suffer life-threatening haemorrhage. That’s why uteruses are necessary. The purpose of the uterus isn’t to protect the fetus. It’s to protect the person who’s pregnant. It’s to mitigate the dangers of pregnancy to the point where the pregnant person is (probably) going to survive them for long enough to give birth.

And I think that’s worth thinking about here. Atkins is giving us the romanticised view of the uterus’s role in pregnancy, with the implication that this is some kind of ironic contrast to the whole idea of abortion, where the pregnant person refuses to have their body devoted to fetal nurturing in that way. But, in fact, it’s biologically more accurate to view the uterus as protecting the pregnant person against the dangers of the fetus… because pregnancy is actually inherently dangerous. And, while it’s easy to forget this in a world where modern medicine has managed to bring the death rate of pregnancy close to zero, it remains the case that having a fetus growing inside your body for nine months and then vigorously exiting carries all sorts of potential short and long-term complications. Without abortion, those of us with uteruses are denied the final say in whether we’re willing to risk those complications. That’s probably not the part of the abortion debate Atkins wants us to think about, but it’s not something of which we should ever lose sight.

The aftermath of the vote scene

The rest of this strand of the book consists of Sandy’s reactions to the decision, both before and after the abortion itself. This part, I think, is well written; overall, it’s a very good portrait of a child trying to process something distressing that she doesn’t properly understand and struggles to articulate even to herself. Sandy has nightmares, becomes upset with her parents, and hides the expensive tennis racket her brother gets for his birthday (leading to it being accidentally broken) because her father managed to leave her with the impression that her mother had the abortion in order to enable them to buy expensive stuff and the thought of this trade-off upsets her in a way that she can only express by hiding the racket. Eventually, she sobs out the story to her grandfather, who is also against abortion and who’s able to offer her the sympathy and comfort she needs.

In this part of the story there are a couple of arguments meant in an out-of-the mouths-of-babes way; the ‘why be pro-choice but against capital punishment’ argument and the ‘why not have the baby adopted’ argument. I’ll therefore write about those.

Abortion vs. capital punishment

This starts off with a very odd bit of Hitler apologia in which Sandy asks her father about Hitler after hearing a garbled version of his story from one of her classmates:

‘He was a man with a great dream […] He wanted work for all his countrymen, and he wanted health and happiness for them all, and he wanted the best nation in the world’

Because that’s totally the way a middle-class liberal is going to describe Hitler to their child. Atkins seems to be using this as the setup for these lines to which she clearly wants us to have an ‘Oh, the irony’ reaction:

‘[…] He was wrong about how to go about it. […] No dream’s worth killing for. You never get freedom that way. You can’t build your own liberty on other people’s lives.’

So either the Hitler apologia bit is Atkins’ very poorly thought out setup or she actually wants to equate pro-choicers with Hitler supporters. Hmmm…. I’m going to vote for it mostly being the former with a bit of subconscious influence from the latter.

Anyway, we learn that Sandy’s grandfather is a pacifist who almost went to prison during WW2 due to being a conscientious objector, and get onto the topic of capital punishment, which Sandy’s father tells her is wrong because we never have a right to take other people’s lives, and we inevitably get this:

‘So Daddy can you only kill people if they’re really, really bad people?’

‘Yes. […]’

[…] It was during bathtime that Sandy asked, ‘Daddy. Can babies be bad?’

Daddy laughed. ‘Babies are very selfish. But they’re not really bad. […]’

‘So a baby that hasn’t been born yet can’t be bad?’

And her father gets a bit evasive and tells her that no, they can’t, but we normally call them fetuses. Walked into that one, Simon.

I’m coming from different premises here as I object to capital punishment on practical grounds rather than ethical grounds. I actually don’t have an ethical issue with the idea that someone who deliberately takes another person’s life should forfeit their right to their own, but I think there certainly are enough problems with the accuracy of the legal system that I’m not OK with that level of irrevocability in punishment. So my position on this is not ‘We never have a right to take someone else’s life’, but ‘There’s always a chance new evidence might come to light proving them innocent, so I’d rather have someone who’s still alive and can be let out of prison if need be’. And I’m also not a pacifist, because I think that fighting back against oppressors is much better (or a lot less worse, if you prefer) than leaving them to go blithely on with the oppressing. I certainly think there are cases to be made for objecting to particular wars, but I really don’t share Atkins’ implied belief that refusing to fight against Hitler is somehow a morally stronger position.

Of course, there are some people who are against capital punishment but for abortion rights; so is that a contradiction? I don’t think so. I think it’s perfectly consistent for your dividing line to be ‘protect life, but not at the expense of using other people’s bodies for life support’, or ‘protect the right to life for conscious beings with actual brain activity’, either of which works as support for a pro-choice and anti-capital punishment stance. (On the flip side, I do also think it’s not automatically inconsistent to have the opposite set of views. While I obviously disagree with people who are against abortion, I don’t think ‘But you believe that people who’ve committed severe crimes should lose their right to life, so how can you say that a fetus should still keep it?’ stands up as a good reason for that disagreement.)

Since we’re on the topic of contradictory views and since the US political landscape is what it currently is, I will add one other thought here which is not related to anything Atkins has said but which I think does need saying: If you’re against abortion but also against setting up a properly tax-funded healthcare system which would save lives – and which would also pay for contraceptives to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place – then that is contradictory. Unless, of course, protecting life isn’t really your reason for banning abortion at all.

Abortion vs. adoption

This one comes up when Sandy and her family are visiting her mother in hospital prior to the abortion (which was, by the way, a blast from the past for me, bringing back the days before pre-op clinics when anyone having surgery under general anaesthetic had to come in the day before and stay overnight; I remember the ward clerkings back in my junior doctor days). Sandy gets chatting to another woman on the ward, Sara, who is, apparently, recovering from surgery from ectopic pregnancy (which Atkins does apparently consider acceptable, so she at least hasn’t reached the stage of extremism of the current US anti-abortion movement).

We learn, via Sandy’s questions about whether Sara has children and why not, that following surgery for two ectopics Sara can no longer get pregnant, and, as she’s too old to be approved for infant adoption (she doesn’t mention the possibility of adopting/fostering an older child), she won’t be able to have children even though she really wants them. Ding! Sandy, of course, comes up with the idea that her mother can continue her own pregnancy and give the baby to Sara, thus solving both problems. When her parents tell her that it ‘just doesn’t work like that’ and can’t explain more clearly why not, she understandably becomes upset and desperate to convince them, or at least to get an answer that makes sense to her. It all deteriorates into a huge argument with Sandy getting smacked by her stressed father.

Looking at this altercation more clear-headedly, it sounds as though the question of why they couldn’t give the baby to Sara (answer: because legally in the UK you can’t just give a child to a random stranger, so Sandy’s parents didn’t have the option and that’s that) was getting confused with the more important question of why they didn’t give the baby up for adoption by someone, which is what Atkins actually wants to demand of women having abortions.

There are, of course, many reasons why adoption isn’t just a substitute for abortion. What’s strange is that the very obvious answer regarding this pregnancy doesn’t get mentioned at all. We’ve already been told that Amanda is at high risk of post-natal depression. That risk is still going to be there (in fact, probably higher) if she continues the pregnancy only to have the baby adopted. Having brought up Amanda’s risk of depression, Atkins ignores that plot point completely for the rest of the book, including here where it would be an obvious point to mention.

So, poor Sandy doesn’t get her question properly acknowledged or dealt with, and is left once again wondering desperately about the irrationality of the adults in charge.

The vow

This strand of the book ends with a chapter about the death of Sandy’s new rabbit (also called Poppy, which made this book really confusing when I was skimming through trying to figure out the plot). Amanda offers to help Sandy bury it, and after this is done Sandy stands by the grave wondering why her sister didn’t get a grave and thinking deeply about the whole thing. She thinks about how she’ll always remember her sister and think about what she’d be doing at each age and stage of life (thus giving context to the ongoing third strand of the story in which she’s been writing about her supposed relationship with her in-fact-imaginary sister). She vows to Poppy (the sister, not the rabbit) that she’ll never forget her and that she’ll ‘never kill my children, I mean a baby in my tummy’. Thus ends this strand of the book.

Book review: ‘The Lost Child’, Anne Atkins. Part One.

The Lost Child’ by Anne Atkins is one of many (many, many, many…) books that I picked up who-remembers-where because it was on sale and looked potentially interesting, and then didn’t get around to reading for the next I-don’t-know-how-many years. When I did eventually check it out (by which I mean ‘skipped to the last few chapters to see whether it was worth reading the rest of it or whether it should go straight on the charity shop pile’) I discovered that it was a novel written to convey an anti-abortion message. That, of course, made me immediately interested in critiquing it, which… might not have been the most sensible decision, since it led me down a rabbit hole of writing increasingly detailed notes about a book which has in fact been out of print for so long that nobody cares any more, most of which notes have ended up being about aspects of the book that aren’t even directly related to the pro-life arguments. So, yes, I question my life choices.

However, for what it is worth, I have now written a long, detailed, multi-part review which I plan to put up over the next couple of weeks. Content warnings: some moralising about sex, one use of an ablist term.


Atkins, who was apparently quite well known as a Christian writer and speaker in the ’80s, tells us in the preface that she came up with the idea for the novel after hearing about a family who collectively voted on what the mother’s decision about her unwanted pregnancy should be. Apparently everyone voted for abortion except for the youngest child, who firmly dissented. Atkins’ attempts to find out more details were unsuccessful, so we don’t know why the child disagreed, how she reacted to the vote going against her, why on earth this decision was being put up for a vote in the first place, or whether the story was even true (it probably is, but it doesn’t strike me as impossible that the speaker from whom Atkins heard it could have invented it as a condemnation of Middle-Class Liberal Families These Days). However, it inspired her to write a story about such a vote happening and about the aftermath.

Plot summary

The story is written from the perspective of the person who, as a child, dissented in the family vote. Her name is Cassandra (shortened to Caz), which is part of a heavy overall emphasis on Greek mythology/symbolism; Atkins is presenting her as the person who speaks truth even when no-one else around her believes her.

The book consists of three alternating strands, of which the first is the frame story and the second and third form a book-within-a-book which Caz is writing over the course of the story:

  1. The adult Caz’s diary (plus a few letters from/to Caz)
  2. The story of the family vote and abortion as seen through her eyes as a child
  3. Her story of growing up with her younger sister Poppy.

The reveal at the end of Caz’s book-within-a-book is that Poppy is actually a creation of Caz’s imagination; the sister she imagined she would have had, had her mother continued the pregnancy. Following this, we get further entries from Caz’s diary describing her horrified reaction to finding out that her lover once gave permission for his newborn child to be taken off life support. The ending of the book overall is rather vague but positive, implying that Caz eventually got over this reaction and decided to stay with him.

While I’ve been unable to resist going into a lot of detail in this review, I have at least succeeded in keeping to a shorter format than my more usual chapter-by-chapter breakdown; what I’ve done is to do a post for each strand of the story as described above. I left the conclusion of the book-within-a-book to its own post, and likewise the last part of the frame story after the BWAB finishes. So, five posts altogether. As I’ve been working on them all concurrently, I’m hoping to be able to post them over a shorter time frame than I usually manage with book reviews, so look out for them over the next week or two.

(AMENDED: Part 3 became so long that I’ve split this into two posts. So, two posts discussing the part of the story in which Caz writes about her supposed life with Poppy, and six posts altogether.)


The frame story

Diary format is hard to write well, because it’s difficult to convey all the necessary information in a readable way while still coming across like something that sounds plausibly like someone’s diary. Authors doing this often fall into the trap of writing the way they would for any other first-person narrative, which doesn’t sound quite right for a diary. This is what Atkins has done, and it has the unfortunate effect of making Caz sound rather pompous. That impression isn’t helped by Atkins’ strong predilection for throwing in quotations from obscure classical literature, or by her moralising with Caz as her mouthpiece.

There is a fairly slow start in which Caz goes into quite lengthy detail about a nightmare she had the night before, about her wanders around London the day before, and about finding the right stuff to make coffee when she’s just moved house and everything is still packed. In amongst all this, we learn that she is steeling herself to write a book that her publishers have already accepted for a publication date four months hence, which does not fit with what I’ve read about typical writing-to-publication timelines, but I suppose might have been realistic at the time (1994) that this book was written? I’m dubious, but don’t know enough to rule that out. Either way, it sounds like an incredibly tight schedule in terms of getting the book written in time to get to the publishers. However, Caz never seems bothered by that aspect at any point; what’s worrying her is the prospect of revisiting the story at all. Despite this, she concludes that she must

…tell it, remember it, write my book, so that all the world knows what happened. And then say goodbye, forever, to the dearest friend I ever had.

Let’s remember here that, while it’s left vague at the time, we will eventually find out that the ‘it’ she is planning to tell is her account of her reaction to her mother’s abortion. We aren’t told at any point how her mother feels about having such a personal episode made public. Caz is making her mother’s abortion all about herself.

We also get an insight that’s retrospectively poignant once we know Poppy is imaginary:

Because of Poppy, I never had the companions I would have wanted otherwise: a kitten, a dog. I loved animals but Poppy took their place, and I simply played with her instead.

Which I now believe, looking back on it, was what happened with boyfriends I tried to have. Trouble was, however much I liked them, however much I fancied them even, most important of all however good they were to me as friends, they could never compete with Poppy. I might talk to them, but I could never say as much as I could say to her. I might be open with them, but they never understood me as well as she did. Any love affair was doomed to failure; although to be honest I didn’t try very hard. I already had the best friend I could want. [p 17]

I think Atkins was probably aiming for ‘See how damaged Caz is by her mother’s abortion’, but the actual effect is to paint Caz as someone who has idolised her imaginary relationship with her imaginary sister to the point where it prevents her from forming real relationships. She can’t deal with the normal flaws of real people.

However, Atkins wants us to see Caz finally moving on with her life now that she’s bringing her family’s Deep Dark Secret out into the open, so, a couple of pages later, her next-door neighbour Will comes round to welcome her to the area and Caz describes this in a way that I expect Atkins at least meant to start out sounding like casual diary-writing rather than giant Here Be Love Interest signs. Mentionitis ensues, both in the diary and, apparently, in Caz’s life, since we also get reports of her having ‘so who’s this person you’re falling in love with?’/’DON’T BE SILLY, OF COURSE I AM NOT FALLING IN LOVE’ type conversations. Of course, the two of them do shortly end up in love and major NRE ensues. Caz, who previously moralised about someone she passed in the street who had the temerity to look bored while resting her hand on her partner’s bottom (which was apparently a shocking sight which indicated that the entire younger generation don’t take sex seriously enough, and, no, I am not exaggerating; that was actually Atkins’ message), now rhapsodises about how she isn’t just having sex, she is Making Love, which is soooo much superior.

Despite her whirlwind romance and massively detailed diary-writing, Caz never seems to feel any kind of time pressure over her incredibly tight book deadline. Once she’s overcome the psychological hurdle of getting started, we get no indication at all that she’s having any concern over getting the book done in time. No stressed-out calendar checking, no late night or all-night sessions, not even a mention of it being an issue on her mind. There’s such a thing as straining the willing suspension of disbelief too far, Atkins.

Will tells Caz about the breakdown of his first marriage. His first wife contracted severe pneumonia late in her first pregnancy, and was rushed into hospital unconscious. The doctors did an emergency Caesarian ‘of course’ (from the extremely little that I know about the subject of dealing with critical illness in late pregnancy I don’t think it is an ‘of course’ at all, but he’s a non-medical person describing a medical event so some inaccuracy is reasonable here) and kept the baby alive briefly, but…

‘…the next day, when Helena was still unconscious, they came and told me that in their medical opinion they considered the foetus “non-viable”.’


‘Will? […] She wasn’t a foetus. She was a baby girl.’

I get that this is Atkins’ attempt at a Don’t Say Foetus, It’s A Baby message. However, regardless of what you do or don’t think about the use of ‘foetus’ as a term prior to birth, it’s never used to refer to a baby after birth, so this bit just sounded rather silly.

Anyway, Will says that because the baby died while Helena was still unconscious she never got to see it (as a doctor, I have to point out that that last would not have been the case; in such a situation the mother is given the chance to hold the baby after death to say goodbye if she wishes, and, yes, this was also true back when Atkins was writing) and that she blamed Will because he ‘shouldn’t have believed the doctors, that I should have questioned everything they said’ and this led to the breakup of their marriage. (We find out in the last part of the book that that wasn’t the full story, but the above is the version we get in this bit.)

They visit Caz’s parents. Caz’s father drinks excessively and her mother can’t go out due to mental health reasons. The implication is clearly meant to be that all of this is a reaction to the abortion. Will spots Caz’s massive grudge against them (as well as, we can fairly assume, picking up on other clues in things she says), and eventually asks her

‘[…]What happened when you were five, and what happened to your sister? […] I know something’s upsetting you, and I want to know what it is. And I know it’s to do with your book, but so far you haven’t told me anything.’

My initial read of this was that Caz had been abandoning her decision to put her imaginary sister behind her to the extent of still talking to Will about her ‘sister’ as though she were real, which would have been bizarre behaviour to a mind-boggling degree. However, we do learn later in the book that Caz has made her name writing and illustrating children’s books but has published them with Poppy rather than herself listed as the artist. While that raises a number of questions on which I will indeed have things to say when we get to that bit, it does at least give us a plausible alternative explanation here; my headcanon is now that Will, on finding out that she’s that Cassandra Whatever, has been asking her friendly questions about her sister and their work together and that Caz has been evading the questions because she can’t figure out how to admit to him what she’s been doing. I doubt Atkins actually thought this through to anything like that extent, but at least it’s plausible as a Watsonian explanation.

Anyway, Caz tells him, though not us, the truth. To put this into context, at this point in the book we’re far enough into the interspersed book-within-a-book to know about the abortion, but haven’t officially been told that ‘Poppy’ is imaginary; the other part of the book-within-a-book, in which Caz writes about her imaginary life with her sister as though it were real, is still ongoing and we haven’t yet got to the Big Reveal. (I assume a lot of readers would have deduced it by that point, but since I skipped ahead to read the ending first I don’t know whether I would have been one of them or not.) However, Atkins apparently wants to stretch the reveal out as long as possible, so this is how the next bit is phrased:

And I did. I told him everything I could remember, just as I’ve told the book everything I can remember, all through that summer of 1990. And then I told him everything after that, everything about Poppy, from my memory of her birth right up until this year, till I moved out of Perrymead Street and said goodbye to her, I believe for ever.

Which is an extraordinary amount of detail to go into about your imaginary friend from whom you’re supposedly moving on; if I were Will, I’d be having some concerns about Caz’s stability at this point. If Will does feel that way, he gives no indication of it. However, to Caz’s outrage, he does sympathise with her parents as well as with her, which she’s not happy about at all:

‘But you can’t understand it from both points of view,’ I said. ‘You can’t! You can’t! If you do that, you’re saying that there’s no absolutes, and that nothing’s right or wrong.’

Caz literally does not understand the concept that someone can legitimately sympathise with a different viewpoint while still disagreeing with it. Or, for that matter, that disagreeing with her particular morality on one point is not the same as saying that ‘nothing’s right or wrong’. And Will does not call her out on this; there’s no indication in the text that there are any problems with this attitude. That’s a damning window into the author’s worldview.

Will, by the way, apparently also sees no reason why Caz should check with her mother before publicising her mother’s personal story; when Caz asks whether she should cancel her book, his reply is

‘No,’ he said. ‘Because I think your parents understand much better than you think. And probably rather better than you understand them. I think you should change the names. And I think you should let them read it before it comes out. And I think you should start talking to them. If you feel angry with people you love, you don’t write them off: you tell them, idiot.’

So at least there’s some constructive advice in there, but unfortunately it doesn’t include the advice that her mother might want to have the final say in whether a personal and painful episode in her own life is made public in this way.

(Also: I know, I know, ablist term. But it was the ’90s and this genuinely wouldn’t have struck Atkins as a problem, so on this one I don’t mind giving her a pass.)

Also, Caz doesn’t even take the advice. She does change the names she uses for her brothers in the book, but she doesn’t change her parents’ names, ‘because I can’t think of them as anything else’. (Since the whole point of the book-within-a-book is that it’s meant to be from a child’s perspective, she could have quite easily just omitted names altogether and have gone with ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ all the way through, but she doesn’t.) She says she’ll pick two names out of a hat when she’s finished and get the computer to do the find-and-replace, but, since the names she mentions her parents as having are the names used throughout the book-within-a-book as we read it, that doesn’t seem to have happened. She’s also used the names of the streets on which the family used to live as titles for the different sections of the book, and mentioned her parents’ professions. Also, she’s publishing the book in her own name, as a well-known author already. So, her mother is going to be very identifiable here.

She doesn’t warn her mother about this, either. In fact, when she’s asked during her visit to her parents whether her book is going to be autobiographical, she flat-out lies to them, saying it isn’t. Her mother is going to be completely blindsided by this. (We never see her mother’s reaction or how this affects her.)

Later in that same diary entry, we hear that Will has proposed to Caz and she’s accepted. The date is July 10th… no, wait a minute, not even that, because that’s the date of Caz’s entry and she’s writing about something that happened ‘last Wednesday’. Working it out from a previous diary entry that gives the day as well as the date, July 10th seems itself to have been a Wednesday, which would mean they became engaged on July 3rd. Anyway, the reason I’m bringing this up is because they first met on May 1st on that year. That’s two months from their first meeting to their decision to spend their lives together.

Now, from all descriptions Will actually sounds like a decent man who treats her thoughtfully and respectfully, so at least this isn’t another toxic relationship story. But here’s your PSA for the day; however much you love someone and however good the NRE, it’s really not a good idea to make life commitments to them that quickly. There are so many possible reasons why even an apparently lovely – or genuinely lovely – person might not be the right one for you to be with long term, and this sort of timescale just doesn’t allow the chance to look out for those possible reasons.

Anyway, that diary entry is the last one from the part of the book I’m reviewing in this post; after that are the last few chapters of Caz’s book-within-a-book which I’ll discuss in their respective posts, and then the final section of the diary which I’ll discuss in the fifth post. Next post up will be the review of the part of Caz’s book-within-a-book which tells the story of her mother’s abortion, including the family vote. As usual, I will link subsequent posts at the bottom of this one.

Further posts

Part Two: The story of the abortion

Part Three: Caz’s story of growing up with ‘Poppy’.

Part Four: The rest of the Caz/Poppy story

Part Five: The wrap-up of Caz’s book-within-a-book

Part Six: The last few chapters of the book overall, complete with last-minute hypocritical twist.


Anti-abortion meme: Crystal bellies?

A couple of days ago, I ran across a pro-life (as in, anti-abortion) meme on Facebook:

For those of you who can’t see it, it’s a picture of a crystal statue of a pregnant woman in the ‘hand resting on belly’ pose. In her abdomen, curled into fetal position, there is what appears from the development level and general cleanliness to be a baby from some point after birth but which I assume is actually meant to be a highly sanitised version of a full-term fetus. The caption reads: ‘Imagine a world where a mother’s belly is made of crystal. Would this make a difference?‘ (No, I don’t quite get what the deal is with the random emphases.)

My first thought, as always on seeing the ‘transparent abdomen’ meme, was ‘Well, if getting naked together meant getting a good look at a woman’s internal organs, then there would probably be less heterosexual sex happening, hence fewer unplanned pregnancies, so I suppose in that sense there’d be a difference’. Because this meme specified crystal as opposed to non-specific transparent material, I went on to have a few more thoughts:

  • But crystal can’t stretch. Wouldn’t pregnant people all just end up miscarrying somewhere early in the second trimester, when the fetus had no room to grow?
  • Also, for this meme to work at all, we have to hypothesise that part of the pregnant person’s uterus would be crystal as well. Crystal can’t contract either. Wouldn’t this end up with either the crystal being shattered by uterine contractions, or the rest of the uterine wall ripping away from the crystal segment and causing a uterine rupture? Neither sounds like a good thing to have happening inside someone’s abdomen.
  • Also… holy crap, are pro-lifers actually passing around a meme aimed at getting us to picture women as fragile ornaments who literally have no internal existence other than gestating? Seriously?

But, yes, yes, I know; none of this is addressing the point the author of this meme actually wanted to make. So let’s rewrite it in a way that gets at the point a little better, then answer that.

If pregnant people could somehow see exactly what the embryo or fetus within them looked like, at every point throughout gestation… how would that affect the chances of them seeking abortion?

I’m not sure this would work out quite the way that the pro-lifers passing along this meme would like to think.

First of all, of course, there’s the fact that a lot of the people seeking abortion are desperate enough that knowing what the fetus looks like doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. After all, it’s not as though Operation Rescue have much success with their tactic of waving fetal pictures/models at people on their way into abortion clinics. If you’re in a situation where having a baby is going to tie you further into an abusive relationship or render you unable to pay for the basics for the children you already have or shoot down your one chance at getting an education or any of the many, many reasons why continuing a pregnancy could have terrible consequences for the pregnant person, then the details of exactly what your embryo/fetus looks like right now are probably going to be very low on your list of potential deciding factors.

But, secondly, there’s the fact that most people seeking abortion are doing so early in pregnancy. In the UK, almost 90% of abortions take place by or before 10 weeks gestation, which means that the majority of decisions are made before then. There are always going to be exceptions; sometimes people don’t realise they’re pregnant until later on (which is, by the way, a point on which I would have thought embryo/fetal visibility would be helpful; I should think one consequence of ‘what if you could see your own fetus’ would be that people would be less likely to miss an early pregnancy, and hence an even higher proportion of abortions would take place in the early weeks), sometimes the pregnant person’s circumstances drastically change in some way, and some abortions are on grounds of fetal disability, which normally can’t be diagnosed till at least 10 weeks gestation and often later. But, overall, most pregnant people making the decision about whether to have abortions are making that decision at a gestationally early stage.

Now, that’s not the bit of embryonic development that pro-lifers want to show people. You know how I mentioned the very late gestation of the fetus in the picture above? That isn’t because someone accidentally copied the wrong picture. It’s because pro-lifers want the pictures they use to be thoroughly into the developmental stage where the appearance brings out our automatic reaction of ‘Baby! Must protect!’ The fetuses shown in pro-life propaganda are almost all from the 10-weeks-or-later stage, with a heavy emphasis on ‘later’; the majority are second or third trimester.  Pro-lifers want abortion banned from conception on, but that isn’t reflected in their selection of photos.

And what that means is that if every pregnant person actually could see what the blastocyst/embryo/fetus inside them looked like at each stage, a significant part of pro-life propaganda would simply fall apart. I’m not sure the pictures pro-lifers use are that effective in convincing people anyway, but they’re really not going to be effective on someone who can see perfectly well for herself that what’s growing inside her right now looks a lot more like a so-small-it’s-hard-to-see-anyway version of this, this, or this.

Bottom line? I think the biggest effect of being able to see the fetus growing inside you would be that pro-life campaigners would suddenly find it a lot harder to get people to take them seriously, because the level of misrepresentation in their propaganda would become really obvious.

Finally, this seems like a good point to remember once again that ‘pro-life’ groups and political movements typically refuse to support the things that we know do make a difference to abortion rates. If you happen to be a pro-lifer who supports the above ‘crystal bellies’ meme, ask yourself if you also support the idea of 1. making contraception easily and widely available to reduce the rates of unwanted pregnancies and 2. making sure there’s an excellent social safety net with widely available/affordable childcare and health care to avoid being driven to abort a pregnancy for financial reasons. If you do, then great, because not only have both of these approaches got other advantages but they’re also both evidence-supported ways of reducing the rate of abortion. If you’re against abortion but don’t support those two ideas, then it would be a good idea to consider what your motives really are.

How I changed sides on the abortion rights issue

First, before I get into any of what is going to be a very long story: we have a podcast on the topic of abortion, later on today, in which I’ll be participating (and probably telling a much briefer version of this story). If you’re free then, please watch the livestream and ask questions! For those who don’t get to watch it live, the recording will remain up at that link.

On to the post.

I’ve mentioned before that, in my late teens, I was strongly pro-life – as in, anti-abortion – for about a year and a half, eventually changing my mind and becoming pro-choice. That’s a story I’ve been meaning for a long time to tell, and so I’m going to tell it now.

Some thoughts first:

This is a really long post, but after thought I decided to leave it as a single post rather than splitting it up. Thanks in advance to anyone who chooses to read it all.

A quick note on terminology: I will mostly be using the term ‘pro-life’ for the anti-abortion position. I’m extremely well aware that there are many anti-abortionists for whom this term is hideously inappropriate, but there are also a lot of anti-abortionists who genuinely hold that position because they care about fetal life, and I was one of them. Also, although there are good reasons to use the term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’, I’m writing about my views back in the ’80s when awareness of transgender issues was vastly behind where it is now; as such, I use the term ‘pregnant women’ throughout because it represents the language I used at the time when thinking about the issue. Finally, since I’ll be talking about my former pro-life views I will sometimes be using the phrase ‘unborn babies’ because, again, that was how I thought at the time.

Finally, you guys are good at keeping it civil and respectful in comments. Keep that up! As always, I will enforce if needed. Feel free to ask anything you want about my beliefs then or my beliefs now; but keep it polite. Thank you.


How I became pro-life

“Sarah, I HOPE,” my classmate declared, appearing in front of me, “that when you’re a doctor you’re not going to be one of the ones that KILLS POOR LITTLE UNBORN BABIES.”

“Er…” I said, or something equally articulate. It was first thing on a schoolday morning and I’d just walked into the Upper Sixth common room, thinking about homework or Venture Scouts or whatever I thought about in the mornings; whatever it was, it probably hadn’t been the upcoming school debate on abortion. But two of my classmates (both Catholic, although that wouldn’t occur to me until much later) had taken the opportunity to go for full-on pro-life campaigning, so next thing I knew I was sitting down and reading through a stack of leaflets.

It was early 1988, two decades after abortion was broadly but not universally legalised in the UK by the 1967 Abortion Act, and I was seventeen. Like many people, I hadn’t previously had a definite opinion one way or the other on abortion beyond “it’s complicated”. I could see that unwanted pregnancies could make life really difficult for women, and didn’t know how best to balance that against vague ideas that ‘killing unborn babies’ was not a great thing. This was the first time I’d read all-out arguments for one side.

I read the fetal development screeds, with their heavy emphasis on the cuteness and fingers and toes. I read the arguments as to why each human life started at conception and was thereafter a continuum with no logical place after conception where a line could be drawn. I read the scare lists of horrible risks and side-effects. I read the claims about how easy, how obvious a solution, it was for women with unwanted pregnancies just to put their babies up for adoption by a couple from the queue of couples desperately longing to be parents. I read the whole kit and caboodle of arguments aimed at simultaneously appealing to and bypassing my sense of logic. Naive and unfamiliar with the tricks of propaganda, I was a pushover.

Despite my classmate’s best efforts at passing the same leaflets round the debate audience, the pro-life side lost resoundingly (51 – 13, according to the diary I kept sporadically at the time), but she’d made at least one convert; I was utterly convinced.

What happened next

Well, next I pretty much forgot about it for a while.

I had plenty of other stuff on my mind; my A-levels coming up that summer, the ongoing worry over whether I should convert to Christianity/Judaism/neither, the ongoing stress of being an insecure social misfit despite my best efforts. Then, on one of my regular bookshop browses, I came across a book called ‘Two Million Silent Killings’, which, as you can possibly deduce from the subtle clue in the title, was a virulently anti-abortion book. It all came flooding back. The unborn babies being killed! In horrible ways! With alarming-sounding risks to the pregnant woman! When clearly it would be easy and straightforward to instead have those babies adopted! The logical arguments in favour of life starting at conception! I think the phrase we’re looking for here is ‘hook, line, and sinker’. I was a committed, hardcore, no-exceptions-except-for-life-of-the-mother pro-lifer.

Fortunately, I never got round to doing anything practical about this; it never occurred to me to join a pro-life group or do any campaigning. Instead, my new interest manifested itself in hate-reading anything I could find on the pro-choice side so that I could think smugly about how wrong they were; I diligently checked every feminist book I found (quite a lot) to see what each one had to say about abortion. Unfortunately, every author I read took their readership’s pro-choice beliefs so much for granted that it didn’t occur to any of them to debunk any of the claims from the anti-abortion movement. My smug Sense Of Rightness was fueled further; clearly they didn’t know what they were talking about, and I was entirely correct to continue as a pro-lifer.

However, over the course of the next however-long-it-was between me reading ‘Two Million Vocal Attempts At Blatant Propaganda Silent Killings’ and the summer of 1989, various things happened that… didn’t alter my view, but certainly rocked it somewhat. I can’t remember in what order they happened, so I’m just going to list them, and the order might or might not be correct. None of them changed my mind at the time, but, looking back, all of them contributed.

The multiple choice book

One of our neighbours was a GP who, enthusiastic about my plans to go to medical school, gave me some of her old textbooks, including a book of practice multiple choice questions for medical students. It was in a different format from the O-level and A-level multiple choice papers I’d done before; instead of a choice of five answers, the book presented a series of statements that had to be marked as true or false. The other side of each page listed the answers, with a brief explanation of each.

I flipped it open for a look. Most of the questions made no sense whatsoever to me at this pre-medical-school stage, when even the parts that weren’t literally Greek to me were very much metaphorically so. However, one caught my eye, because it was about abortion. The statement that had to be marked ‘true’ or ‘false’ was that early abortion carried lower maternal risk than a full-term pregnancy.

OK, that had my attention; I turned over the page to check out the answer. ‘True’, the book stated. The explanatory line informed me that the risks of a full-term pregnancy were always higher than the risks of early abortion.

I had, of course, read all the scary things the pro-life books had to say on the risks associated with abortion. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that they hadn’t had anything to say about how these compared to the risks of not having an abortion. And now I realised that they hadn’t directly lied (well, actually, knowing everything I’ve learned since then about the level of dishonesty in anti-abortion propaganda they probably had, but I didn’t know that then)… but they had deliberately left out an important part that significantly changed the interpretation of this particular information.

It was, I think, my first encounter with the way that propaganda can mislead you. While it didn’t change my mind, it did make me realise that things weren’t quite as clearcut as I’d thought. And it made me realise that I hadn’t been told the whole truth.

Time limits

One thing that had been stressed in the pro-life arguments I read was the folly of declaring abortion all right up to a certain point and then illegal after that. How could viability be a logical reason for drawing a line? Or birth? Or any other stage of fetal development? The only logical place to draw a line, they assured me, was conception. If we drew a line at any place not backed up by solid reasoning, then what was to stop a series of slippery slopes moving it further and further out until it was five minutes before birth, then five minutes after birth, then a free-for-all on infanticide and probably wholesale murder of any other groups society found inconvenient as well? The logic was unassailable; it convinced me completely.

Until one day, apropos of nothing much, I thought “So… when is this supposed to be happening, then?”

I realised that abortion had, by that point, been legal in the UK for over twenty years. That seemed like more than ample time for the slippery slope effect to kick in. By now, surely the limit ought to have edged out at least to the infamous Five Minutes Before Birth point, with campaigning mobs all ready to push it that last step of the way into infanticide. What was actually happening, however, was that we still had exactly the same time limit as we’d had back in 1967, with a distinct lack of anyone marching up the local streets demanding that it be changed.

I was quite confused by this; after all, the pro-life argument as to why this extension of time limits would happen seemed utterly watertight. But I couldn’t really dispute the fact that it clearly wasn’t happening. The hypothetical future I’d been taught to fear came smack up against reality, and that’s an encounter in which reality holds the trump card.

Early pregnancy

If you’ve read many pro-life arguments, you get familiar with detailed descriptions of embryonic/fetal development that put a lot of emphasis on the cuteness aspect. They would always take care to mention just when the fingers and toes would develop, and how early this was. I didn’t think to ask what the hell fingers and toes had to do with the right to life. But I wasn’t meant to, was I? I was meant to absorb the whole description in a general haze of adoration for the cuteness/lifeworthiness of the fetus, and I did that just fine.

Until I started thinking about what it would be like to be in the very early weeks of an unwanted pregnancy, and my mental spool of all those compelling developmental features faltered. While there’s plenty of developmental stuff going on in the earliest weeks after conception, it isn’t the kind of stuff that bypasses logic to grab straight onto emotions in the same way that the fingers-and-toes screeds do. (Let’s face it: ‘formation of the neural tube and branchial arches’ just doesn’t seize the heartstrings in the same way.) Thinking about a creature that didn’t yet have such basics as a properly-formed face or brain… well, it was harder to find justification for the idea that a woman at that stage of pregnancy shouldn’t have an abortion at any cost.

I still believed it, mind you. After all, I reasoned (or the anti-abortion arguments in my brain reasoned for me), if you don’t draw the line at conception, where do you draw it? There are no other clear and logical lines in development. I thought of it as the Sherlock Holmes argument; however improbable it was that an embryo should be treated as a human with rights from the one-cell stage onwards, it was impossible to find any other clear lines to draw. It just didn’t feel as obvious as it once had.


Benefits‘ is a feminist novel by Zoe Fairbairns, written back in… goodness, 1979. I recall it as being a pretty good novel, but what’s relevant here is one specific line; I can’t remember the exact wording, but when the protagonist is thinking about her reasons for not wanting an abortion if she finds she’s pregnant, there is a passing mention that she’s read all the anti-abortion propaganda with the pictures of dead fetuses and it leaves her cold.

That startled me. Up until that point, I’d assumed that the reason people were pro-choice was because of general ignorance on the subject of fetal development. Surely they just hadn’t read the arguments against abortion and would change their minds if they did? But here was an author describing someone who hadn’t reacted that way at all (yes, this was a fictional character, but the author clearly thought this viewpoint was realistic). That must mean that there were people out there who’d read pro-life arguments and didn’t find them convincing. While I still didn’t fall into that category or understand people who did, it did seem to indicate that the arguments weren’t quite as unassailable as I’d thought.

The kidney analogy

Which is, of course, now something of a cliché, but was a new thought to me when it first occurred to me. I was thinking about the issue and realised that a pretty close analogy to abortion was being required to donate an organ in order to keep someone else alive; hard on the heels of that, I realised that that analogy didn’t really come out on the side I’d wanted it to. We don’t expect people to donate organs to keep other people alive, because we accept that the right of people to make important decisions about what does and does get done to their own body is so fundamental that it even outweighs the obligation to keep others alive. I’m sure my mental phrasing at the time was less eloquent, but I definitely recognised, in that moment, that kidney donation wasn’t compulsory and that there was a rather worrying contradiction between that and my views on abortion.

Maybe I’m projecting back… but I do have a clear memory of pausing and thinking “Now what do I do with this one?” Because it was comfortable, having at least one issue in a confusing life on which my mind was made up and I knew which side I was on. I’d thought about it! I’d read about it! The arguments were clear! And I didn’t quite know how to cope with the idea of changing my mind or accepting I’d been wrong about something of which I felt so comfortably sure. So, in a classic case of cognitive dissonance, I shelved it and moved on.

Operation Rescue

How the hell did I find out about Operation Rescue? I have a clear memory of reading collated photocopies of articles about them, stapled together into makeshift booklets; I just don’t remember where I got the articles from. Maybe I’m lumping two memories together and the booklets came from later on, after I’d changed sides and joined a pro-choice group; yes, that’s more plausible, now that I think about it. But how did I find out about Operation Rescue back in my pro-life days? Oh, well, my parents have always subscribed to the Guardian (moderately left-wing UK broadsheet), the paper probably ran an article on the subject which caught my eye.

Anyway, however it happened, I remember that at some point during my pro-life days I learned about Operation Rescue, the US anti-abortion group that got, um… proactive about their beliefs. Actually, looking back, what I learned was a strongly edited version. I’m not sure whether the rose-coloured glasses came from whatever my source was or from me, but somehow or other I came away with the message that, apart from the occasional shooting or firebombing which I successfully rationalised to myself as being the work of a few nonrepresentative extremists, their regular activities consisted of stopping women outside abortion clinics for polite discussions about why abortion was wrong.

Which… seemed like it should be a good thing, surely? Giving women the information to help them make decisions? Explaining to them what abortion was really all about before they made the decision to have one? Why did the thought make me feel so uneasy?

I realised that, however good I felt about my reasons for being against abortion when the whole subject was comfortably theoretical, it felt distinctly different to think about taking the argument to actual women who would be struggling with actual problems as a result of being pregnant. And this time the issue wasn’t something I could just push aside, because of my future career plans.

Those future career plans

Under British law, abortion is only legal if two doctors agree that the woman fits at least one of a list of criteria. Since the criteria in question are broad enough that in practice they cover everything short of the mythical third-trimester-abortion-for-convenience that never actually happens outside the minds and propaganda of pro-lifers, it’s easy, in practice, for a sympathetic doctor to authorise an abortion whatever the details behind the request; on the other hand, it has also been rather too easy for a doctor opposed to abortion to stall a request. These days, the NHS avoids that problem by commissioning services from clinics run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who will allow people to self-refer; as far as I know (though I’m open to correction), this applies across the UK, meaning that no-one has to go via their own GP at all. However, this wasn’t the case back in the ’80s. Unless a woman could afford to go to a clinic privately, she would have to get referred by her GP to a gynaecologist who would also have to agree, and so an anti-abortion doctor had quite a lot of scope for making things difficult.

And I’d applied for medical school. I was planning to become a doctor, and I anticipated (correctly, as it happened) that there was a fair chance I would want to be either a gynaecologist or a GP. I was going to be in a position of deciding whether requests for abortion should or shouldn’t be granted.

So, once Operation Rescue had got me thinking about the morality of trying to talk women out of abortions, I found myself thinking about how this particular aspect of my chosen career was going to work in practice. I would be in the position of deciding for a woman that she had to stay pregnant, while both she and I knew damn well that I wouldn’t have to take any further responsibility for her problems the moment she walked out of the door, that she was the one who’d be lumbered with all the consequences of that pregnancy. I believed, logically, that stopping abortions was what I should be doing, the right thing to do… so why did this prospect feel so wrong?

And this was where I was up to by the summer of 1989.

The turning point

Just after I turned 19, I holidayed in the US, and the reading material on the plane was some sort of news magazine. Topic: abortion.

If anyone has any idea what magazine this could have been, by the way, I’d love to know; I checked out the covers of Time magazine back issues and it doesn’t seem to be any of them. It would have been in July or August of 1989, and the cover showed a pro-lifer at a march, holding up a sign that said “Unborn women have rights too: Baby had no choice!” I remember that cover, all right, because it summed up everything I felt about being pro-life. I felt my shaken beliefs rise up and rally one last time. Yes! Of course unborn babies had a right to life that trumped everything else! Of course abortion was wrong! How could I doubt it?

Then I opened the magazine and read one of the stories in it.

It was a first-person story by a woman who’d had an abortion in a clinic picketed by Operation Rescue. She’d become pregnant when she and her boyfriend were both students and in no position to be able to take care of a baby, and, although she’d have liked to give birth and give the baby up for adoption, there was a further problem; she was taking lithium, which has a high chance of causing cardiac abnormalities in a developing fetus. She knew that babies with disabilities, unlike healthy babies, were unlikely to be adopted. This was the first time I could remember seeing anyone address the ‘why don’t women just have their babies adopted?’ argument, and, because I hadn’t at the time been able to work out for myself why giving away a baby after nine months of pregnancy might feel impossible or why even going through pregnancy and birth might in many cases be too much of a burden, this argument had always been one of the trump cards that had kept me believing. But here was the story of someone who’d thought about that route and couldn’t do it.

I read how she felt when she found out about the protestors picketing the clinic; not only was she going to have to have an abortion when in better circumstances she’d have wanted to proceed with the pregnancy, but she was going to have to run a gauntlet of people screaming and ranting at her while she did it. I read how upsetting it was for her to hear a protester shouting “Why don’t you just have your baby adopted?” when she would have loved to do just that, had it been a feasible option for her. I read what she said about the other clinic patients; about the irony of protestors screaming “Don’t punish a child for the sins of its parents!” when one of the patients was a twelve-year-old whose pregnancy might have been the result of rape by her own father, about another patient muttering “Are they going to take care of this baby for me so that I can go to college, then?”

I don’t remember the rest of the story. I just remember recognising that that was it; I could no longer support the idea of trying to stop women from getting abortions. The wobbling needle finally swung round the full one hundred and eighty degrees. I was pro-choice.


All of this had a couple of lasting effects on me besides, of course, the fact that I was henceforward pro-choice with the passion of a convert (a convert who tended to get pretty passionate about things even without the ‘convert’ factor).

Firstly, I’d learned the extremely valuable lesson that, even when a group’s arguments sound superficially convincing, it’s still worth hearing the other side before you make your mind up. (This was one of the things that would, later, save me from falling for creationist propaganda.)

And secondly, I’d learned that it’s possible for people to hold a completely opposing position for entirely well-meant, even if utterly misguided, reasons. And this plays a large part in my lifelong commitment to keeping discussion civil (well, all right, sometimes snarky, but my aim is to avoid stooping to insults or ridicule) and to explaining why arguments are bad or inaccurate instead of just trying to be the person who yells the loudest. I fully accept that in most situations this just isn’t going to work and that there need to be a lot of people out there who do keep yelling loudly, or equivalent. And I’ve learned that, in individual situations, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away and not engage. But I think there’s an important place for people who say “This is why I disagree with what you say” and take the time to explain why.

I hope this post has gone some way towards doing that with this particular issue, and I’m happy to keep doing the same in the comments. If you made it this far, then thank you for reading.

Richard Dawkins, abortion, disability, and human suffering

Most of the people who pay attention to Richard Dawkins probably remember exactly which tweetstorm I’m referring to, but, for anyone who doesn’t, here’s the quick version:

Some years back, when a woman made a passing comment in a Twitter discussion that she didn’t know what she’d do if she found she was pregnant with a fetus with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins responded with the bald statement “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Faced with a storm of outrage in response, he followed this up with a ‘sorry if you were offended’ post in which he explained that his beliefs on the matter were based on his ‘desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering’ and that thus giving birth to a baby with Down’s Syndrome rather than having an abortion ‘might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare’.

This was, as I say, several years ago, but was brought up again a few weeks ago in a radio interview in which the host (after stating that he himself had a child with Down’s Syndrome) asked him about this view. (Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist blog at Patheos has a transcript of this part of the interview, for anyone who wants to check out what Dawkins said without listening to the whole thing.) Dawkins has dialled it back at least somewhat; if he learned nothing else from the previous brouhaha, he does at least seem to have learned the practical wisdom of trying to avoid getting too inflammatory on the subject. However, from what he says here, it’s clear he still holds the general view of thinking that it’s advisable – the exact phrase he used was ‘wise and sensible’ – to abort a fetus diagnosed with a disability rather than continue the pregnancy.

In case anyone reading this isn’t clear on why people have objected so vehemently to this viewpoint: To reach this belief, it’s necessary to be working from the assumption that disability is likely to impact a person’s life so adversely that it will prevent them from ever having as good a quality of life as a non-disabled person. This is an inaccurate and horribly ablist belief that, in itself, impacts adversely on the lives of disabled people by contributing to myths about disability and by sending an unfortunate message about which lives are or aren’t worth living. I have every sympathy for anyone who’s felt the need to choose abortion for themselves when faced with this situation – we live in a society where support for disabled people and their carers is sadly lacking – but treating abortion as some sort of advisable optimum solution to a diagnosis of fetal Down’s Syndrome or other disabilities is reprehensibly ablist.

That’s the obvious reason, and the one that reactions focused on at the time this happened. However, when Mehta’s post brought this up in my mind again, I realised there was also a second problem with Dawkins’ approach that got somewhat obscured by the extent to which he’d offended everyone with the first problem. I thought it was worth mentioning now: Dawkin’s formulation of ‘abortion advisable here because that’ll reduce suffering’ also completely ignores the experience of the person who would have to go through with the abortion.

Now, there is a huge range of possible reactions to having had an abortion, and I do not wish anyone to misread this post as some kind of claim about the supposed miseries of abortion; there are plenty of people out there whose main reaction post-abortion was ‘Thank goodness for that’. However, that isn’t really representative of the experience of people who have abortions for a diagnosis of fetal disability. Abortions for fetal disability are usually on pregnancies that were otherwise wanted. On top of that, they are, on the whole, carried out later in pregnancy than the average abortion; most abortions are done in the first trimester, but, because of the need to reach particular gestational stages before tests for disability can be performed, most abortions for disability are done in the second trimester, and on rare occasions even in the third. This makes them significantly harder both physically and emotionally.

The result of these factors is that abortions carried out for disability are typically, overall, some of the most difficult and distressing abortion experiences; in short, they cause suffering. Now, obviously, there are many times when people faced with this choice decide abortion is going to cause less suffering than continuing the pregnancy, and that is a choice that I believe should remain available for any individual in this situation. But ‘aborting a disabled fetus causes less suffering than continuing the pregnancy’ is absolutely not a blanket one-size-fits-all rule, because there are so many times when the reverse is true.

What all this means is that when Dawkins assumed abortion was the more moral choice because it would reduce levels of human suffering, he was not only making offensively ablist assumptions about disability equating to suffering; he was also showing utter disregard for the suffering that this would cause for pregnant people in this situation. It’s not that he actually wants them to suffer; he doesn’t. It’s that, when he weighs up what he believes to be the different degrees of suffering, it doesn’t even occur to him to include the feelings of the pregnant person in there. That factor simply isn’t on his radar.

Dawkins is, in fact, providing a sterling example of the Dunning-Kruger effect; the effect of having so little knowledge about a situation or issue that you don’t actually recognise your ignorance. He’s saying what seems right and reasonable to him, because he genuinely does not realise that disabilities such as Down’s don’t have the degree of negative impact on life that he’s picturing, or that abortion for disability is as hard to go through as it is. But, unfortunately, he hasn’t realised that when you don’t know much about an issue, it’s a good idea to avoid making categorical pronouncements about it, and also a good idea to listen to people who know more about it if they’re trying to set you right. And he hasn’t realised the importance of listening to people about their own lives and experiences. Which is a terrible shame, because that certainly is a wise, sensible, and moral thing to do.


Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 4

This is the fourth, and I hope the final, part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (they’re also written sequentially so you can just click ‘Next Post’ each time to read them in order). Without wishing to be hidebound by convention, I would recommend starting with Part 1 as it explains some key points about why I hold my beliefs.

The questions are in reverse order; I hope to cover 3, 2 and 1 in this post.

One other issue. I’ve spent a lot of time in these posts so far referring to pregnant women, or to women affected by these laws. Which might seem obvious to you… except that transgender people exist, and some of these are trans men or genderqueer people who have uteruses and ovaries and hence can get pregnant, which means that, when I talk about pregnant people as ‘women’, I’m ignoring groups of people who are also part of the debate. I was aware that this is a problem, but was ignoring it for the not very good reason that I didn’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. Given that I literally still have a post up on my ‘recent posts’ sidebar about the importance of transgender visibility, this was hypocritical of me. I apologise.

So, for this post, I have tried to use gender-neutral terms to describe people who are pregnant. And I still don’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. So: transphobia will be deleted, whinging about political-correctness-gone-mad or anything along that line will be deleted, and what does or doesn’t fall into those categories will be at my discretion. Genuine questions (that is, not questions that are thinly-disguised point-scoring/JAQing-off attempts) on the subject should be OK, but I’d prefer it if we didn’t get too far off the original topic.


3. Why are abortion laws based on viability outside the womb?

As ‘background history of time limits in UK abortion law’ is one of the rather small list of Obscure Subjects About Which I Actually Know Something, I seized on this question with glee and wrote a whole essay on how it was that our abortion time limits came to be based on viability. As interesting as I found this, it was rather lengthy for something that isn’t really addressing what you meant by your question, so eventually I saved it elsewhere in case I wanted to use it in the future and cut it out of this post. You’re welcome.

What you’re actually asking here, of course, isn’t what the backstory is of how the limit was chosen, but why we have a limit that is, as you put it, ‘blurry and arbitrary’. This is something I covered in the last part of my answer to question 9; time limits typically are based on reasons that are blurry and arbitrary because development rarely presents us with clear-cut and obvious points, but that doesn’t mean that we throw time limits out of the window altogether.

You’re not objecting to the viability time limit because you want to propose one that you think is better. You’re not objecting because you want to do away with time limits altogether and declare abortion legal at any stage of the pregnancy. You’re objecting because you’re against abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. I’ve already explained why that belief is one with which I can’t agree.


2. Why do we fight to save the lives of disabled and premature babies?

While I do not like to put words in people’s mouths, I’m going to go out on a limb here and deduce that this is not actually your question. You’re not questioning why we fight to save the lives of babies. You’re questioning why we don’t apply that same reason to fetuses of similar gestation.

Again, this goes back to my reply to question 10 (same link as above). When we fight to save the lives of babies – or people of any age – we don’t do so by expecting one particular person to make prolonged use of their own internal organs to do so regardless of the impact that that’s going to have on their health and circumstances. Most of us don’t believe that doing so would be OK. (When someone volunteers to be an organ donor, that’s wonderful; but it’s not something we think it right to force unwilling people to do, even to save lives.)

While on the subject of abortions taking place this close to the viability limit, it’s always worth remembering how serious some of the reasons for these abortions can be. Andreas Avester, on this site, has just written a lengthy post about the impacts that hardline ‘pro-life’ stances can have on people in terrible situations, and, while it does not make easy reading – the stories described are truly distressing – it is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand more about why pro-choicers have a problem with the aims of the pro-life movement.


1. Why is there a double standard at work here, in which we stay quiet about abortion while mourning miscarriage?

Because of the impact of pro-life reactions to abortion discussions. Firstly, abortion is heavily stigmatised; it’s hard to talk about having had an abortion when you never know (or know all too well) who’s going to consider you a child murderer. Secondly, there’s the problem I described in my reply to question 5; pro-lifers have a long history of using people’s reactions to their abortions, whether positive or negative, as fuel for anti-abortion arguments, and many people do not want their experiences used in this way.

I would love a situation where this was different, where people who had had abortions could talk freely about their experiences without stigma or shame or fear, where people who were devastated by the experience yet still felt it to have been the right choice could talk openly about their pain and receive sympathy for it without receiving criticism or seeing their experience warped to fit an anti-abortion narrative, where people who were pleased or relieved to have been able to abort an unwanted pregnancy could speak openly about this without being branded as selfish or unfeeling or cold-hearted. Sadly, that isn’t the world we live in.

Last year we had the tragic experience of losing a little boy at 15 weeks. […] Anyone who has felt sadness about a miscarriage feels that way precisely because it is the loss of life.

I’m very sorry for your loss, and understand that this is likely to be a difficult topic for you. Please understand that, when I disagree with you, it is in no way because I wish to dismiss your or your wife’s feelings about your own loss or your own grief.

I do, however, think that this is about more than just ‘a loss of life’. Miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy typically means the loss of the parents’ dream of having this baby, and that is also a powerful reason for grief. When an infertile person who has never been pregnant/fathered a pregnancy grieves the loss of their dream of parenthood, is their grief any less because no loss of life was involved?

I’ll never forget the woman who attended our emergency clinic during my gynaecology attachment with suspected miscarriage; she’d started bleeding after thinking she had a positive pregnancy test after a long period of trying unsuccessfully to conceive. But the ultrasound scan showed no sign of the uterine thickening that would be typical after even an early miscarriage, and we had to gently break it to her that there was no sign of her having been pregnant in the first place. To this day I can remember her face crumpling, the way she struggled to say something but then turned and fled. I don’t think that that woman went home that night feeling that her shattered dream wasn’t a problem because no actual loss of life was involved.

Finally, of course, there is the question of people who don’t feel sadness about a miscarriage. Many people feel deeply relieved by miscarriage of an unwanted pregnancy. It seems problematic to me to treat reactions to miscarriage as some sort of barometer of objective fetal worth.


Anyway… that’s it. Ten questions, ten answers, for what they’re worth. I’ll add the links of the later posts to the first post I made, and e-mail Andrew Haslam to let him know the discussion exists. Thank you to all those of you who read and who joined in.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 3

This is the third part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (although I’m doing them sequentially, so, unless that changes due to anything unforeseen, you could also just click along the ‘Previous Post/Next Post’ links). I’d recommend starting with Part 1, not because I feel any great need to stick with convention but simply because it covers some key points about why I believe what I do.

I’m answering the questions in reverse order; this post covers 5 and 4.


5. Why don’t we talk about the fact that many women suffer unbelievable guilt after having an abortion?

Because of the frequency with which pro-lifers will do exactly what you’re just about to do; claim that this is evidence that abortion is wrong.

(By the way, years of reading pro-life writings have convinced me that this is a no-win conundrum. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and feeling guilty or regretful or sad about it, the pro-life response is that, since abortion is such an awful experience, women must clearly be prevented from choosing it for their own protection. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and not feeling anything negative about it, the pro-life response is that they’re clearly conscienceless sociopaths who can’t be trusted to have a say in making the laws. So it’s a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.)

[footnote] The most comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013, incidentally by a pro-choice psychologist, found that there is no mental health benefit to abortion and there is an increased risk of psychological problems following abortion including anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23553240

That isn’t particularly related to guilt, but I thought it worth saying a few words about this as it’s an example of how research findings can get misrepresented. In that review, the author looked at how the mental state of women who’d had abortions compared to the mental state of women who’d had initially unwanted pregnancies but had chosen to continue with them. (He also looked at comparisons between women having abortions and women having unplanned pregnancies that they were pleased about, but did separate out the results in discussion.)

The problem, of course, is that the two groups aren’t properly comparable. While there are many reasons why someone might go ahead with an initially unwanted pregnancy, and sadly those reasons do in some cases include being forced into doing so (as per the article you linked to in question 4 about reproductive coercion), in most cases the woman’s decision to continue the pregnancy is going to be because, having weighed up the situation, she felt that she would rather do so than have an abortion. It’s also probable that the women facing more difficult or insurmountable problems would be less likely to feel this way and more likely to choose abortion (this wouldn’t be an invariable thing by any means, just more likely overall).

This means that the comparison here isn’t just between a group of women who had abortions and a group of women who didn’t, but between two groups of women of which one probably had a higher level of background problems than the other group. And that, of course, means that we can’t assume that the higher rates of mental health problems seen in the group who had abortions were due to the abortions rather than to the other problems.

Anyway… back to the topic of guilt.

So why do we ignore the fact of guilt after abortions? Is it because the admission of guilt is the admission of wrongdoing?

No. As I said, it’s because pro-lifers will claim it’s the admission of wrongdoing. But there’s also an important flaw in your premise; guilt frequently isn’t ‘the admission of wrongdoing’. Yes, sometimes it certainly is… but what about abuse victims who feel guilty because their abuser has browbeaten them into believing it’s their fault? Rape victims who feel guilty because society’s biases have left them thinking they somehow invited the rape? There are people who feel guilty about wanting to convert to Christianity because the religious tradition they grew up with teaches them that converting to Christianity is wrong; do you believe their guilt means that they’re doing something wrong in converting to Christianity, or just that they’ve been taught that they’re doing something wrong?

Then there are the people who feel guilty over not being able to live up to their own high standards, or to the high expectations others have for them. If your parents set their hearts on you going to university but instead you choose to become a plumber in the face of their visible disappointment, you’re probably going to feel guilty; but is that because you did something wrong, or because others have inappropriate expectations of you? I’ve grappled with guilt over not being able to solve the problems in my children’s lives. Or, in the past month, over not being able to do more to help with the COVID crisis. Does that mean I have something to feel guilty about… or does it mean that my expectations of myself are unrealistically high?

If we’re going to talk about guilt after abortions, then let’s also talk about the fact that it typically occurs in the contexts of groups or societies who transmit powerful messages that abortion is wrong/sex is wrong/women should be superbeings who can manage any and all responsibilities, however many and however heavy, without batting a (perfectly-mascaraed) eyelash. When women in these contexts feel guilty about abortion, is ‘admission of wrongdoing’ really the most likely reason? And what about the converse; when women who’ve chosen abortion don’t feel guilty about that choice, is that a sign that it was the right choice for them and they’ve done nothing wrong? Or is the guilt=wrongdoing equation applied only selectively when it can be used against abortion?


4. Why is a woman’s body pitted against her baby’s?

While I really don’t want to get snarky here, all I could think of when I read this question was “Shouldn’t you ask your god that? After all, you believe that he’s the one who designed pregnancy.”

When a woman is pregnant, the only way for that fetus to survive is for her to allow it to stay within her body for months, wreaking what are typically considerable and sometimes medically serious effects upon her, then forcibly exit with, again, considerable impact and sometimes serious complications. In other words, biology has set up a system where a fetus is in conflict with the body of the person who must gestate it. There isn’t a way round that. If the pregnant person is happy with that – as, again, I was with both of my pregnancies – then that’s fine. If not, then that’s a very big problem for the person who’s pregnant.

The pro-life movement views both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why we fight for babies and for women.

Oooookaaaaay, I did already have my say in the last post about these sorts of general statements about the ‘pro-life movement’ as a whole that, in fact, are clearly not true of a sizeable proportion of pro-lifers, so… must… not… get…. back…. into…. rant.

I’m going to read this as your way of trying to say “I, as a pro-lifer, view both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why I, and many other pro-lifers, fight for babies and for women.” As such; well, that’s nice, I guess, but I do just want to point out that talking about how beautifully valuable you see our bodies as being doesn’t do much for the whole want-you-to-be-valued-and-empowered attempt. Er… thanks for trying, I guess?

We want women to be genuinely valued and empowered, but abortion doesn’t do that.

Being made to go through an unwanted pregnancy because any rights you have to bodily autonomy are considered to come in a poor second to an obligation to gestate really doesn’t do that. Speaking for myself, I support abortion rights not because I think abortion is inherently a wonderfully empowering experience that all women should have (although do note that for some women that’s precisely what it ends up being), but because I think that forcing women to go through unwanted pregnancies is vastly worse.

Why is it that seven percent of women have been forced into having an abortion and it’s used as a tool of coercive abuse?

The simple answer to this complex question is that it’s because there are a heck of a lot of abusers and control freaks out there, and recognition of the red flags in relationships, although improving, still isn’t widespread enough.

The thing is, banning abortion wouldn’t actually solve those problems. I’m not even sure that, overall, it would reduce the number of women who are forced into having abortions; I think it’s a reasonable assumption that someone who is willing to coerce someone into having an abortion against their wishes is, in most cases, also going to be willing to break the law to do so. So, if abortion were made illegal, then most of the people experiencing this sort of coercion would instead be bullied into going to a backstreet abortionist rather than a legal clinic, or whisked away to a country with different laws and forced to have an abortion there instead (or, in particularly horrific cases, subjected to the abuser’s version of a DIY abortion; content warning for abuse and grooming discussed at that link).

While there would be some cases in which this didn’t happen,because the abuser either didn’t want to do something outright illegal or didn’t know how to go about it, that would be counterbalanced by the number of women in this situation who would lose the chance to get help and support from an abortion clinic that might have prevented them from being forced into abortion. The article you linked to talked about how careful abortion clinics are to be on the lookout for this sort of coercion and about the help and support that they can offer when they find out that this is the problem. In some cases – such as that of the woman referred to as Leila in the article – this has led to women being able to avoid the coercion and exercise their choice to continue the pregnancy. Since backstreet abortion services in a climate of illegal abortion would be completely unregulated, it’s considerably less likely they would offer such counselling and support. They also wouldn’t be able to offer methods of tamper-proof contraception, which clinics currently offer and which can protect women who can’t yet leave an abusive situation against further unwanted pregnancies.

So, although banning abortion would prevent some cases of coerced abortion, it would also prevent the very mechanisms that are currently helping to prevent many cases of coerced abortion. It’s quite possible that that factor would actually outweigh any reduction in coerced abortions that a law against abortion would bring about, and that there would be an overall increase in coerced abortions as a result. It’s impossible to know whether that would be the way it went, but it’s a possibility that at least needs to be considered.

Even if the overall effect on coerced abortion of anti-abortion laws did turn out to be a slight decrease in the number, there would be a terrible price to pay for that even if we think only about reproductive coercion and not about other pregnancies. That article also discussed the other side of the coin; women who are coerced into becoming pregnant or continuing their pregnancies, often as a ploy by abusive partners to make it harder for them to leave. That form of reproductive coercion would, of course, be far worse for women in a country where seeking abortion wasn’t a legal option; a woman forced into her pregnancy would either have to go the backstreet route, or go ahead with her pregnancy whether she wanted to or not. The loss of regulated abortion clinics would also mean that the situations discussed in the article where clinic counselling identifies domestic abuse as an issue and supports the woman in leaving her abuser would no longer happen, so one possible route to identifying and supporting victims of domestic abuse would be lost. And, finally, it would potentially be harder for anyone who had been coerced into abortion to seek counselling or support afterwards, because of the fears over admitting to having done something illegal. (In fact, blackmail over this might be yet one more possible route by which an abuser might terrorise a partner out of leaving.)

In short… while the problem of reproductive coercion so vividly described in that article is, indeed, a significant issue, it’s one that would overall be made substantially worse rather than better by making abortion illegal.

Why is it that women feel they have to choose between pursuing a career or education and having a baby? Why can’t they do both?

In that particular case, because the figures on that point that you linked to come from a study done in the USA, which is notoriously atrocious for its stance on maternity leave and on state-funded childcare (which, by the way, are yet more examples of laws that could substantially decrease the number of abortions but are largely opposed by supposedly pro-life politicians in that country). Progressive laws on these policies do indeed help a great deal; that’s one point on which I hope we can agree.

Why do we see an abortion as a central tenet of women’s rights when it seems to cause women so much grief and pain?

Because forcing women to go through with pregnancies against their wishes causes considerably more grief and pain. I’m very sorry for the woman in that clip, and really wish for her sake that she could have got much better counselling about her options, but making abortion illegal altogether does not strike me as a good answer to the fact that some women get inadequate counselling beforehand.

Furthermore, more than 50% of aborted babies are female when you factor in widespread sex-selection on the global scene, so it’s not at all clear that abortion is pro-women on any level.

Sex-selection abortion strikes me as being primarily a symptom rather than a root problem. The root problem here is that some societies place a markedly lower value on the lives of women and girls than they do on the lives of men and boys. The solution to that isn’t making all abortions illegal; it’s working actively to increase the social status of women.