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Interview: Sarah Williams, historian, author

01 March 2019

‘We should receive a child unconditionally — male or female, healthy or sick’

Seventeen years ago, we discovered at a regular 20-week scan that our third daughter, Cerian, would die at, or shortly after, her birth. We carried her to term, and she died during labour. I wrote Perfectly Human primarily for those who find themselves having to decide whether or not to terminate a child with foetal abnormalities.

I say “we carried” because my husband, Paul, carried me, like those Dutch dolls that carry one another — and the community carried us, and God carries all of us. That was part of the beauty of the experience.

Culturally, we understand autonomy as an individual concept, and the 1967 Abortion Act is based on the understanding of a woman’s property rights to her own body, protecting it from the incursion of the man. Problematically, it completely excludes everyone except the woman carrying the child. It gives no legal standing to paternity. When you stand back from a century of feminism, that’s an extraordinary thing. The man is completely excluded from preventing the termination of his own child, and yet we still expect men under the law to pay for the support of his child.

It’s often what happens to minorities that reveals problematic assumptions underlying society’s laws. Why are we spending more money on pre-natal screening of babies than on budgets for obstetric care and training midwives, when, if there are serious problems, a midwife would pick them up in routine checks? And routine screening creates problems in minority cultures in which female children are unwanted.

We should receive a child unconditionally — male or female, healthy or sick. To be able to terminate a child on grounds on health or gender is a eugenics matter — nothing more or less — from a policy perspective, though it’s not popular thing to say.

Even “the right to life” is a language of protection, whereas all children are a gift to us, in the language of joy. We’re the poorer — we’re dehumanising ourselves — if we don’t understand life itself is a gift: fragile, finite, and limited.

The statistics suggest that most women — about 80 per cent — abort their baby in this situation. But how do you grieve a termination? All the research shows that women who have terminations have long-lasting and complicated grieving processes that can often lead to serious ongoing problems. Those who don’t abort fend far better in the grieving process.

I knew the readership for my book would be tiny, but my heart was to provide language for those who find themselves in this invidious situation, and those who care for them pastorally. But this book was also for all people who have lost babies before, at, or after birth, and for a culture that behaves as if children were commodities that we choose, design, and acquire.

It was Cerian’s story more than mine, giving her dignity and a voice. We have two other daughters; at the time, Hannah was eight, and Emilia five. Paul worked as an economist in London, and I was a history tutor at the University of Oxford.

I didn’t speak about Cerian till a public event in 2015, and realised that I hadn’t done justice to her story and its implications for contemporary culture. Perfectly Human was simply an attempt to speak that message, based on the detailed account I kept throughout, both my spiritual journal and the social and family journal.

I’m highly introverted, and I hadn’t realised that books were an invitation to relationship with other people. I didn’t want that for my family, but my capacity for working things out through story and writing is part of me. I was educated at Trinity College, Oxford, and then at Merton College. I’m a historian by vocation and passion.

The research I’ve done since Cerian has been profoundly shaped by the experience of carrying her. The essential question for our culture, which believes in unlimited choice and the autonomy of the individual, is: “What does it mean to be human, to be limited?”

I’ve spent a decade studying changing cultural attitudes to gender and sexuality, sex, and the family, in Britain, and I’ll publish my research as a book next year. It’s a Christian theological framework for thinking about humanness, the body, the woman’s body, and the nature of parenthood as an act of stewardship of persons who belong primarily to God and not to ourselves. Christian teaching and the Christian life have important things to teach us about all this.

The historian asks: How did we get here? Where are we going? We’re in a bad way in our attitudes to birth. The dislocation of sex from procreation, which began in the 1930s, is a seismic event in human history, leading to a new way of perceiving humanness, sexuality, gender, and materiality. It’s taking our culture in directions that disregard the weak and others whose opportunities have been more limited than their own. It’s what makes me most angry.

In history, the times of greatest darkness are times when the light of God appears again in fresh ways. We’re heading into the dark because there’s no fear of God, in the Proverbs sense. You don’t have to be a born-again Christian to understand that we’re creatures dependent on one another. Without that, there’s no reason to limit humanity’s ruthlessness, narcissism, and autonomous individualism. In ten years, it’ll be hard to resist economic arguments for assisted dying, for instance.

It’s a profound injustice that we have two legal abortion time-limits in place: 24 weeks for the well, and no time limit at all for the sick. I’d like to see this law changed, at a minimum.

The dissonance we feel about this individualism — the feeling that it’s wrong — is the beginning of change and regeneration. We are asking if we’re living well on this planet. As things get darker, there’s potentially more hope we’ll change.

Cultures can change for good, as well as for ill. History — look at the changes from Georgian to Victorian Britain — teaches me that.

My heroine is Josephine Butler, because she was a woman of prayer. She was responsible for getting rid of the contagious-diseases legislation, giving rights to a tiny minority of women on the streets, whose vulnerability I compare with the unborn child. She saw a concrete example of a spiritual problem, and she used language which was clear and plain. She endured abuse that Wilberforce never encountered in his anti-slavery campaign, but she believed that Jesus not only identified with the outcast, but actually became the outcast. And she lost a baby — the depression that followed drove her further into God.

I first encountered God in the Anglican liturgy at the age of four; but it was Cerian who precipitated a new level of relationship and intimacy with God, falling in love, encountering the beauty of Christ, and discovering the vitality of God daily. It fundamentally altered the direction of my life. I’ve studied the Christian mystics since, like Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena, because carrying Cerian was a mystical experience in which Christ revealed himself.

When I’m not working, I’m usually reading, praying, walking, or gardening. I’m happiest being alone at home or in my garden, and praying.

My favourite sound is hearing Paul’s voice reading scripture aloud.

If I were locked in a church, and could choose anyone to be my companion, I’d have Bernard of Clairvaux to tell me of Christ, and Teresa of Ávila to make me laugh. And Josephine Butler to tell me my life was not in vain.

Sarah Williams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Perfectly Human: Nine months with Cerian is published by Plough Publishing House at £11.99.

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