Photo by Jorm Sangsorn
Artillery Row

Spreading the sympathy

Why feminists should care about the case of Paris Mayo

If Paris Mayo had died, it wouldn’t have been complicated. A girl who’d got pregnant at fourteen, following sex with a boy she was desperate to “keep happy”, Mayo concealed her pregnancy. She gave birth at home, alone and in silence, terrified of the response of her father, who would regularly tell her she was worthless. Had she died in childbirth, it’s easy to imagine her becoming a cause celebre for abortion rights campaigners.

Mayo didn’t die, however. Despite the risks of lone childbirth, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, whom she assaulted, then suffocated to death. Convicted of murder, she has just been sentenced to at least 12 years in prison.

For comparison, when Anthony Williams killed his wife Ruth in 2020, he was sentenced to just five years for manslaughter. Williams claimed he found it “really, really hard” five days into the first UK lockdown. Ruth had been trying to unlock the front door to escape when, in Williams’ own words, he “choked the living daylights” out of her. Attempts to increase his sentence were rejected on the basis that he was not known to have been violent before and his mental state was “severely affected at the time”.

This looks a lot like conjecture regarding a confused, frightened child

Obviously I cannot speak for Williams, but I’ll tell you one thing that “severely affects” a person’s state of mind: giving birth. I’m not talking about doing it alone, in agony, desperately afraid of other people’s responses and of what might happen if your body lets you down and no one is there to save you. I’m talking about “normal” giving birth, in the presence of people who want to keep you safe. I’ve never been more scared — of dying, as much as anything else — than when I was in labour. For me, the aftermath was total elation, but then I wanted my babies. I wanted to hear them cry. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to endure hours of pain, my body splitting apart, then want nothing more than total silence, with the creature who had left my body alien to me.

Paris Mayo had no history of assaulting babies. What she had been through just before she killed her son is appalling. Whilst a murder conviction necessitates a different sentence to a manslaughter one, there is something badly wrong with the fact that this is happening at all. The prosecution in her case alleges that Mayo must have known she was pregnant and “planned to kill Stanley [the name her father gave her son] as soon as he was born”. They are the experts on what must have been going through her mind, which is useful — otherwise this looks a lot like conjecture regarding a confused, frightened child.

To not know you are pregnant until you go into labour is not unheard of. Indeed, when the outcome is welcome, it’s the stuff of cheery “mum had no idea until she gave birth in the toilet!” stories. When I was fourteen, a classmate of mine went into hospital with suspected appendicitis and came out with a healthy baby. No one had suspected, though I wonder if she’d half-known the truth but forced herself not to. An unwanted teenage pregnancy seems such fertile ground for knowing and not knowing. One of our teachers described my classmate as “silly”, though I’m not sure in what respect. Nothing about the story seemed silly to me.

Similarly, nothing about Mayo’s story seems calculated. It smacks of terror and panic, not forward planning. I cannot help but draw comparisons with the case of Carla Foster, recently sentenced to 28 months in prison for taking abortion medication when her foetus was at 32-34 weeks gestation. Hers is also a difficult case, but feminists have rallied round her. Whilst there are obvious differences between the two, I think we should care about Paris Mayo.

I worry that in writing this, some people may feel I am proving what they’ve always suspected about feminists. See? They’re into baby killing! I am not questioning whether a baby was killed. He was, in a horrific manner. He deserved love and care, and he only ever knew violence. Of course this was terrible.

At the same time, I fear that a desire to draw neat, precise lines regarding “my body, my choice” could lead us to fail girls such as Mayo. Who wants to talk about infanticide whilst fighting for abortion rights? The clean, logical approach to abortion has always appealed to me, with its analogies to blood or organ donation, and its quips about how “if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”. The anti-abortion position has always seemed to me to devalue the continuous nature of pregnancy itself, the fact that it is a unique relationship. “It’s not a baby,” I’d think when pregnant, “because I’m one person, not two. I am still engaged in the act of making this person exist.”

What feminist wants to admit that some boundaries are unclear?

In the case of Foster, there is someone who had already carried a foetus almost to term, someone who would have had to go through labour anyways. I do find it unsettling, not in the sense that I believe any purpose is served by imprisoning her, or that some deterrent is needed to prevent other women from emulating her. Even so, some line has been crossed — an extremely blurred one, at that — whereby “her body, her choice” doesn’t capture the issue any more. We, too, devalue the unique nature of pregnancy if we pretend that the instant a baby is born the relationship between foetus and gravida is nothing, a memory, whereas before it is everything. Still, what feminist wants to admit that some boundaries, particularly those relating to our own bodies, are unclear?

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes “never having felt more pro-choice than when I was pregnant”:

And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception. Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says IT’S A CHOICE AND A CHILD but of course that’s what it is, and we know it.

She mentions joking with her partner “that women should get way beyond twenty weeks — maybe even up to two days after birth — to decide if they want to keep the baby. (Joke, OK)?” It’s not a joke I find particularly funny. Then again, if you’ve expressed something so politically discomforting (did she just call the foetus a child?), you might feel the need to reiterate which side you’re on.

As feminists, we are wary of doing anything that might imply our support for abortion is based on anything other than the great god of bodily autonomy. The trouble is, we end up losing sight of all other aspects of pregnancy, birth and the impact on female bodies and minds. A degree of compassion for women who kill their newborns, especially young women in desperate circumstances, should not be considered extremist, let alone approval for baby killing. One of the reasons reproductive rights matter so much is to avoid these very situations.

If Paris Mayo had killed her baby fifty or sixty years ago, I think we would see it as an indictment of the times. How could anyone let things get to that point? That is what we should be asking now. That, and is a murder conviction really justice? Or is it just piling one tragedy on top of another?

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