Iam not an angry person, I get headaches instead. Rage is swallowed like a meatball and spreads fattily around my body, ensuring afternoons of snippy irritation and pounding temples. But when it comes, when I do manage to access my anger, the relief is stunning, and it happened this week when deleting photos from my very old phone.
Mine is a predictable photo album – a baby transforms across a camera roll from limpid mole to Ian Hislop in leggings, kittens simper beside screengrabs of news stories, pink cake, a very big plum. It was the juxtaposition of three pictures that documented April though, that pricked my fury. A photo taken from our car of one of the anti-vaccine marches that shut down London sat beside a headline that pregnant people were finally being offered the coronavirus vaccine, then a picture of my son’s first birthday party.
The photo from the march was of a young woman, blonde, chanting, holding up a placard that read “My Body My Choice”. I’d taken the photo in shock and boredom – it was rare to be out of the house, in the city, but the novelty had worn off an hour into the enforced traffic jam as the anti-vaxxers plodded by for freedom. And then I saw her, in her lux athleisurewear and ponytail, merrily singing phrases co-opted from pro-choice activism to protest Covid legislation.
s I looked at the picture properly for the first time, the idiocy of her position laid itself out on the duvet in front of me. “My body my choice” means nobody should force us to carry a pregnancy we don’t want, or indeed force us to have sex we don’t want. While Covid-deniers are slinging these slogans about bodily autonomy around in discussions about vaccine passports and face masks, they are still being used to protest government regulation around abortion. In Texas for example, a law has just been passed that allows Americans to sue anybody who helps a woman get an abortion. If a stranger overhears you talking about your abortion, they can not only sue the clinic (for up to $10,000), but also the parent who lent you money for it, and the taxi driver who took you there. The phrase still has work to do. It’s used in Covid marches with the grim-plication that it’s hypocritical to support the right to choose a medical procedure and also support public health requirements, like wearing face coverings. Except no. A person who doesn’t want to be pregnant harms nobody by choosing an abortion. Making that choice does not result in her breathing abortions on to six strangers. But by refusing a vaccine, a person is putting others at risk. So I got angry.
And what distilled this anger were the simultaneous realities of my recent pandemic pregnancy, illustrated by a photo of my baby, one year old and afraid of balloons, and women’s anxiety about the safety of the Covid vaccine in pregnancy. Last December, government advice stated that women who were pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not have the vaccine. That changed in April, but data suggests hundreds of thousands of pregnant women have decided not to get vaccinated as the number hospitalised with the virus continues to rise – one in seven has needed intensive care. That early caution (as is standard practice, pregnant women were excluded from the initial Covid-19 vaccine research) has led to confusion: 50% of the population said they don’t know if it’s safe to get vaccinated when trying to get pregnant, 34% said they don’t know if the vaccine makes it harder to have children. It’s little wonder they are nervous. Campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed reported that nine out of 10 pregnant women felt “scared for their safety”, in part because of “negative messaging” from healthcare professionals. A midwife told one woman, “Probably don’t want to risk another thalidomide situation by having the vaccine.” Eeesh.
Getting vaccinated is not just a decision we make for ourselves, we do it to protect other people, too. So when a huge proportion of a vulnerable group, like pregnant people, are hesitant to get vaccinated, it impacts everyone. And this could have been prevented. If pregnant women had been included in vaccine trials, if evidence-based information had been promoted widely, and if there had been a concerted public health campaign to address their concerns, 171 pregnant women would not have been admitted to hospital with Covid in the three months since vaccines were approved for them, and fewer young people would be citing concerns about fertility as a reason for skipping theirs.
As the pandemic evolves, fear no longer a siren but more a faraway car alarm, vaccination becomes a clear axis for our rage. Looking at those protesters using borrowed rhetoric, exploiting pro-choice politics in order to defend the right to get their families sick, that anger rose in me, rare and familiar, and, for a second, my headache was gone. I sat, dizzy and suddenly fabulous. I must try it more often.