I have just been reading Diana Athill’s recent memoir: Alive, Alive Oh! published by Granta. Now aged 97 Athill studied at Oxford before the war, then was for many years an editor at the publisher Andre Deutsch. Her slim book is a collection of reflections on different subjects: her very privileged childhood, the home she is now living in, her favourite books and so on. She has never married and has no children.
One of the chapters made me ponder. In her 40s Athill describes how she became pregnant as the result of an affair. Her pregnancy reminded her of an abortion she had had many years before, about which she has no regrets. Debating whether to continue her present pregnancy or not she writes: “So it would be sensible to have an abortion. In my experience it was not a profoundly disagreeable thing to have … There was this humiliating ugliness, and there were sounds, and for a few moments there was a dim sensation of pain. If the doctor was businesslike and kind, treating one (as mine had done) like an ordinary patient, there was no sinister or shaming atmosphere to contend with. One was simply having a quick little operation for a sensible reason … So it was odd that I should start to shiver slightly as I thought about it.”
Athill then has an interior argument with herself, where her head nearly wins over her heart: “No, I did not feel that a murder is committed during that operation. I would go so far as to say that I am sure it was not: no separate existence, at that stage, was being ended, any more than when a sperm was prevented from meeting an egg.”
But her instincts, which she calls a “tortoise”, prevail: “But that old juggins, the pin-headed, pig-headed tortoise behind my reason: he was tough, he was good at recovering from setbacks, but at the prospect of yet another of them he was showing signs of turning into a porcupine. He wanted me to have this child.”
Athill finally chose to go ahead with the pregnancy. In fact it ended in a miscarriage from which she nearly died. But what interests me here is the implicit and unwitting contradiction that the passage reveals and which is intrinsic to the whole subject of abortion. On the one hand a foetus is a merely a bundle of cells, not much different from a sperm and egg before fertilisation. This is the (flawed) reasoning of the head. On the other hand the heart and instincts tell a different, more truthful story: that an ancient, human drama is being played out concerning, in Athill’s own words, “this child”.
Why did Athill “shiver slightly” when thinking about “a quick little operation for a sensible reason”? She doesn’t say. But it made me reflect that in our society there is too great a disjunction between the practical reasoning function of the brain and the deeper instinctual wisdom of the heart. For Catholics the concept of “personhood” is much richer than this seeming division. Perhaps we need to take the argument on abortion away from “rights” and “choice” and discuss with those in favour of it the very nature of personhood — their personhood and that of “this child”.