Growing Pains

Liberty Beswick

CN: Discussion of Abortion

The Chamber was full to the brim with bright, unsmiling faces. The six red chairs huddled precariously on a stage architecturally proportioned for two imposing armchairs inhabited by grave men. I spotted at least ten male-presenting people in the audience, which was gratifying, but one of them less than two metres away was quite obviously suffering from flu symptoms.

As mumbled chatter and benches creaking filled the room, I had no idea what to expect. Then the grand entrance of the panel: a range of law experts, medicine experts, and Americans.

I was sitting in the Cambridge Union on Friday 14th October watching the inaugural event of the newly-formed Cambridge University for Reproductive Rights (CURR), a panel on post-Roe America. Sat not just in this ancient institution of conservatism, but in almost the same seat as when I watched “THB Nothing Should Impede A Woman’s Right to Choose” the year previously.

“This House Believes Nothing Should Impede A Woman’s Right to Choose”. Justifiably, you may have assumed from the name that this debate was framed with a pro-feminist, pro-choice angle, the debate, perhaps, centring on the heterogeneity of human rights in practice. Instead, I heard religious extremist arguments about inherent life upon conception, and very little in the way of moderation to recentre the ‘debate’.

The Union freely and willingly had an abortion debate. Let that sink in.

This is a story of growth.

Is it growth on the part of the Union to be hosting a ‘reproductive rights’ panel this year, instead of a reproductive rights debate? Perhaps. In all 59 years since women have been able to participate in Union debates, there have been a range of ideological leanings within the Chamber. All Union events are politically neutral, of course. But some events are more neutral than others.

This event might well have been the marker of change for the Union, trying – as always – to shrug off the chequered past of Presidents and events thathave caused injustice fighters’ uproar (and rightly so). There was absolute certainty in the intellectual framing of this panel that the fall of Roe vs Wade in the USA is an issue rather than an event happening in a bubble to debate, safe in our little Cambridge supo rooms. This was a pertinent, personal problem for many, many people, and debating this in a decontextualised forum would only have contributed to the rationalisation of politics, the abstraction of emotional and mental weight from ‘debates’.

CURR – an ironic acronym if I’ve ever heard one – is ‘A forum for students to learn about, discuss, and campaign for reproductive rights’, according to their Instagram page (@camreprorights). It shows growth for this world-leading place of thought to have a dedicated space for reproductive rights campaigning, when, to mine and my friends’ horror, there has already been a dedicated pro-life chapter stalking these cloisters for years.

To me, ‘society’ seems like such a flimsy word. How can the same term refer to fake assassinations as to campaigns for basic human rights? I could take many more paragraphs to problematise the idea of human rights, but it’s not unimaginable to believe that kindness is as close to the universal human condition as can be found in this wide, wide world. Unless you believe Hobbes, of course.

This society – and it is a society, a coming together of people – invited us to partake in a realisation of our fears. We sat in a space not built for us, listening to people who have fought for us, who were now telling us that anti-abortion America is a ticking time-bomb for all.

This is a story of my growth.

Seated in two timelines, three body imprints apart, I spoke up – in the anti-abortion debate, in the anti-abortion discussion. My emotions got the better of me. Life sprouts through nervous systems, but trembling your way through a public speech is frowned upon, in these circles of thinking in abstract. No matter.

I trembled and coughed, and I forgot the queer pun written in her head, and ultimately I said nothing much of value. The woman who exists in spite of the category of woman most often acknowledged, the kind who is beautiful, the kind who is containable. I have attended protests, and counter-protests, and speeches, and discussion groups; and I speak with purpose and with power in those spaces of justice. But that chamber is not those spaces.

In that chamber I vitally felt the need to speak up, to ‘contribute’, to defend. I felt like a vacuum, like the eye of the storm around which destruction lies waiting, as people listened patiently to the questioning of my fundamental humanity. I faltered in the eye of the establishment, with the pain of the abnormalised on my shoulders, with the awareness that no matter what I said this debate did not care for the emotional toll of ‘noticing’ – to quote the wonderful Sara Ahmed. Still, I tried.

Today I sit comfortably, at ease, in the squashed brown leather seating – or at least appear to do so – and I speak up with one more year’s wisdom and might. I am the same, and yet different. A 20th of one’s life is significant, after all. Well-thought out, well-structured questions come more easily, as does the nihilism of world-ending awareness. 

This is growth. I am given the final question of the session. Lucky.

I ask what the fall of Roe vs Wade in America means for international abortion rights, for Reproductive Rights, for feminism in perpetuum. The panellist who responds, Melissa Upreti, is bitingly honest. “It’s very bad.”

And yet, this is a story of growth.

This is constructive growth, with a person tracing their own footsteps feeling a little more audacious every time, a little more capable.

This is cancerous growth, with souls and bodies at stake, bodies like Atlas holding the heavens.

I walk out of the chamber and my heartstrings feel plucked out of tune.

Feature image credit: Pinterest

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