April 4th marked my seventh date with the boy my friends lovingly refer to as my "ambiguous manfriend". It was just shy of seven weeks since we'd met, and just under six weeks since our first date. He was not my boyfriend. We were dating but not going out.
We met in Caffe Nero after I got out of work, and I watched him drink hot chocolate while telling him about my day. He'd had a haircut. It was hilarious. He offered to buy me coffee, but I refused; I'd spent the day in a tea-fueled haze and my stomach was full of sloshy liquid. After an hour of giggling in the coffee shop, garnering dirty looks from the rest of the pseudo-hip Oxford Street caffeine fiends scrounging for their next espresso shot, we decided to get dinner. We walked next door to get Chinese food and held hands across the single street we crossed.
Our conversation over dinner started out innocuous - the weather, shoes, Singapore. American politics.
"The South is scary," he said. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere with such lax gun laws."
"The Midwest isn't so peachy either," I said. "Like, North Dakota is fucked. They've just passed a law banning abortions after six weeks! And that's six weeks from your last period, not even the date the baby's conceived, so you could be pregnant for only two weeks and denied an abortion. Now that's scary!"
There was a silence which stretched slightly too long.
"Is it bad I think abortion's a bad thing?" he said. I glanced at him, then back down at my vegetable fried rice. I tried to remember my friend Emily's technique for using chopsticks, but ended up reverting to my method of shovelling the food with them.
"I'm not sure it's a good thing, necessarily," I replied, "but it is necessary. And trying to curtail it when there isn't a real reason is really stupid."
"But - ah - isn't there a real reason?" he said, eating his own rice. I realised what was about to happen. I was going to spend the rest of this dinner sat opposite a boy who made my heart flutter, arguing about an issue close to my heart. It was something people had died over before. I thought about Savita Halappanavar, the Northern Irish women denied an abortion because there was a foetal heartbeat; she died of septicemia, in agony, her baby along with her.
"It's all life, isn't it?"
In my mind, a foetus is not alive. It doesn't have rights. The point of viability - around 26 weeks - the point when a baby can live outside its mother's body: that's when life begins. When the brain can process pain, and has developed the startle reflex (and can react to external stimuli) - that's when it goes from being a hunk of cells into something real and living. Before that, in my mind, a foetus is nothing more than a parasite.
If you rely totally and utterly on another organism to keep you alive, all take and give, then that's hardly a symbiosis. It's all well and good if you want to carry the baby, and keep it alive: I recall hearing some mothers say that pregnancy is something sacred, something pure. But if you don't want to? If your own resources are being drained to feed an alien inside your abdomen? Nobody should have to suffer through that involuntarily.
I tried to explain this to the boy, and added that safety is another issue. Women have been getting rid of unwanted babies throughout history; better to do it safely, with medical care, than illegally and alone in a back alley.
"But whenever a woman has sex, and she gets pregnant, it's a risk she knew she was taking, so it's her fault - or, equally her fault and his fault."
I looked at him. I'm pretty sure the rice fell off my chopsticks. It was the sort of statement I'd expect from Todd Akin, not the beautiful cello-playing Tory-hating liberal biochemist sat across the table from me.
"So she ought to be able to rectify the mistake," I said.
"What about the father? Doesn't he get a say? What if this girl gets pregnant, and six weeks later says, I'm pregnant and want an abortion, and he says no, I want us to have kids? What then?"
"She has an abortion," I said. It was a stupid question. The baby wasn't going to invade him for nine months, get in the way of all his plans, strain to breaking point her friendships and physicality. The baby wasn't going to stretch his orifices, possibly kill him giving birth, make him gain weight or swell his ankles or strain his back.
"Is that it? You're throwing away a whole life because it gets in the way for nine months? Just think of the potential you're wasting!" he exclaimed. I raised my eyebrows.
"Okay," I said. "Say that couple was us. Say tonight, we get a bit carried away and fuck without protection, and in six weeks' time I'm pregnant. It's not you who's going to be pregnant. It's not you who will have all your future plans for the next almost-year fucked up. It's me. It's my body. And before the embryo turns into a foetus into a baby, it's just a part of me, which I don't want, so I have to be able to get rid of it."
He looked at me around his mouthful of egg-fried carbohydrates.
"Why are you prioritising the woman's life over the baby's?"
"Because she's alive," I said. "She's me. The baby is just... cells. Especially at six weeks. You don't issue stem cells with passports and birth certificates. The baby doesn't exist anywhere outside of a tiny triangle of uterus. She does."
When he replied, I smiled, tight-lipped, and carried on eating. He was an athiest, like me; but every argument he spouted sounded like the same old Sanctity of Life bullshit which the Church has used to enslave women for as long as written records stretch back.
"I don't think it's wrong," he finished, "just... I don't know if I agree with it."
"I just..." I started, but I couldn't go on. I picked up my spoon and ate the rest of my dinner with it, scraping up the last few vegetables. "Yeah."
The silence returned. We both cleared our plates, methodically eating every last item.
"I like your nails," he said, and I was glad he'd changed the subject.
At least our first argument was about something that mattered, rather than any of the usual trivialities like how to split the bill or where to go for dinner.
We returned to talking about lighter things, less fractious ones. We walked through the chilly London streets and went to a busy pub. We drank, leaning against a wall because it was too busy to sit down. Eventually a sofa became free, and I snuggled into his shoulder when he put his arm around me. Before we left I ran downstairs to the bathrooms, following the shiny signs to the shiny white ladies'. I ducked into a stall, and noticed the smear of new red blood in my knickers. Five days of stomach cramps and low-level mood swings and craving for sugar would follow. But it could be worse.
Well. At least I wasn't pregnant.