In this moving and powerful piece, Author Ayo Deforge discusses bodily agency, freedom of choice and consent, and the French state’s unrelenting control over citizens’ bodies during the pandemic.
Content Warning: Please note this article contains issues relating to stillbirth and feticide.
My hesitance to take the vaccine in the beginning wasn’t because I was an anti-vaxxer. It was simply because I was not ready. My husband received his first covid jab in April 2021. The first few days, he had a sore arm, followed by headaches and fatigue. As for me, having gone through four days of extreme uterine contraction pain induced by stillbirth labour and Bakri balloon – which had me begging for death weeks before – I was not ready for any type of pain, as little as it may be. I knew however that I would take it when I felt ready. I just needed time. I was in a lot of emotional pain back then and I needed time to heal from my deep emotional wounds. I needed to be physically, mentally, and emotionally ready before taking the shots.
On Monday 12th July, President Emmanuel Macron announced that a vaccine passport would be needed to access everyday places. The President said that he was doing so to encourage people to get vaccinated. He used the word ‘encourage’ as though it is a synonym to “oblige”. In November 2020, when the vaccination programs were first launched, we were assured that the shots wouldn’t be mandatory. By July 2021, a domestic passport was required to board planes and long-distance trains, to go to non-essential places like restaurants, cinemas, and shopping malls. By September 2021, thousands of health workers who refused to get the shots were suspended without pay. Does this not mean that vaccination is compulsory and people’s freedom of choice is being trampled upon?
My husband got vaccinated by prudence. His aunt because she felt she had no other choice in the fight against Covid. She was ready to do anything to have her pre-pandemic life back. Her companion has not received the shots – he is sceptical about the vaccine. A female colleague thinks that there’s not enough hindsight on the vaccine’s health effects. “I am willing to try to do something in the interests of public health,” she said, “but not at the expense of my health.” A male colleague thinks there is not enough transparency over clinical trials. “I am not willing to play Russian roulette,” he said. A pregnant colleague is worried that it may harm her baby: “It’s too much of a risk to take,” she told me.
People have different reasons for wanting or not wanting to take the shots and I respect that. I count on myself to protect myself. I do not engage in behaviour that can spread the virus. I wear masks and clean my hands regularly, washing them with soap and water. When I don’t have access to clean water, I use a hand sanitiser. I keep my hands away from my face, eyes, nose, and mouth. I have learnt this since puberty when I trained myself not to touch my pimples. I do not shake hands or share a French cheek kiss. I stopped giving and receiving hugs since I relocated from Nigeria to France in 2012, as it is an unpopular act amongst the French. I have never gotten sick from Covid. Perhaps I have, but because I did not feel anything, I did not realise. I have been a close contact case on different occasions and each time have tested negative. Once in March 2020 at the office; the second time in February 2021, at the office again, while I was heavily pregnant. It remains a mystery to me how I have been exposed to the virus but have never gotten sick like the other close contact cases. What if there are people with natural immunity against Covid?
After the President’s address in July, thousands booked Covid vaccination slots every minute. Twenty-four hours later, over a million appointments had been reserved. The following Saturday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg, Montpellier, and other cities to protest the Pass Sanitaire. Upon listening to the protesters, I understood that it is not a question of the vaccine but liberty and the right to one’s body. I also understand the need to get the jab in the interest of public health, as well as the government’s position of wanting to implement measures that are supposed to curb the highly contagious and fast-spreading Delta variant (at the time). It is also understandable the need to reduce the pressure on health care workers who continue to put their lives on the line. However, we still need to ask the necessary questions. To what extent should the government have control over our bodies?
The relationship I have with my body has always been complicated. This long-life companion has shown me very little mercy and I have rarely felt a sense of kinship with it. Ever since I hit puberty, I have struggled to control it. After years of painful monthly menstrual periods, I am conscious of my body and its ability to bring me pains. This body has determined what society expects of me. Yet, it has failed in one of its greatest social expectations. I have presented this body to lovers who devoured it like a delicious warm meal. They knew me and yet left me. Do I also offer it up to the government for governing, to rule over it and make decisions such as what is good and not good for me?
I remember sitting at the geneticist’s office in March and listening to her asking if an autopsy could be practised on my daughter who at the time was still alive in my belly. I remember being shocked at the question. I had just submitted to feticide because my daughter was ill. It had not occurred to me that autopsies were practised on babies. I remember shaking my head in declination as I thought, ‘just leave her alone,’ as the geneticist explained that an autopsy could bring answers to some of our questions. My husband’s answer had been quick. It had not been a difficult decision for him to take. He did not want them using her in university studies or research. As much as I would have wanted it for the answers it could bring, I could not bear the thought of her lying on a cold stainless-steel table, being dissected, and observed by doctors and medical students at the teaching hospital. The geneticist insisted but my husband stood his ground.
I felt the same way when I first heard about the French law called the ‘Loi Caillavet’. In France, one is automatically accepted to be a potential organ donor unless your objection is recorded in the national registry. While in many countries one has to opt-in to be an organ donor when one dies, in France and some other EU countries, one must opt-out. This means that our body and body parts automatically become the property of the government as soon as we take the last breath. I would love to help people on the transplant waiting list; I would love to save people who need organs. However, everyone should be able to decide if they want their organs donated or not. Automatic consent is no consent if the permission is neither oral nor written. It is scary that the government can seize sovereign power over our bodies and body parts.
During my pregnancy, I was asked to take a blood analysis in November 2020. They screened for Down syndrome and when the results were ready, the laboratory refused to give them to me. The doctor did not call my husband and I to inform us of the results when he received them, causing us undue anxiety. Three months later, I was offered an amniocentesis procedure after fetal anomalies were detected during the second-trimester scanning. Five months after the procedure, I was informed that the results were finally ready but the geneticist was too busy to receive my husband and I. So I asked them to send us the results so that we can have another geneticist interpret them for us. The geneticist’s secretary informed us that the law does not permit them to do so. Therefore, we must wait until September 2021 when she can fit us into her schedule, to relay the findings to us. Except I am wrong, I remember being told before the procedure that the results would take six weeks. I tried to explain to her that waiting for the results made me feel like I could not move on until I had known the cause of the condition my daughter had. In an impatient tone, she told me the geneticist was not a therapist and that I needed to contact one. She also reminded me that my child was already dead and therefore was not an emergency. Seven months after the amniocentesis, I finally got the chance to speak to the geneticist through video call and she confirmed that no genetic anomalies were detected. I would have wanted a written document regarding the information. I would have loved to have the results of the procedure: to see for myself what the results say; to file them in my medical folder where I keep the results of all medical tests and exams.
In June 2021, I had a pap test. The laboratory I took the pap smear but refused to give me the results. They told me the law does not permit them to. I was told that if I do not hear from the person who has ordered the test, then it means all is well. I sent a text message to the midwife who had the results and she confirmed that all was well. I requested a copy of the test for my medical folder and to date, I do not have it.
They collect a specimen from your body and make you sign a document giving them your permission to run tests on your samples, then they withhold the findings from you and ask you to stay out of it. On what rights?
Because I am a Nigerian who has become French, I do not know how much of my rights I have lost when I was adopted. Have I lost my right to receive certain health information regarding my own body? Have I lost the right to decide whether I want my organs harvested without my consent after my soul exits my body? Would my nationality be withdrawn if I was an anti-vaxxer? Do I have the freedom to choose whether I would want to get a fourth, fifth and sixth shot or not?
Is it not our body? Are they not our rights? How much more do we give to the government? How long before we give everything and have nothing left for ourselves? Pray, tell me.
Amnesty International has said that being able to make one’s own decision about one’s health, body and sexual life is a basic right. If girls and women are being told that we can make our own choices on matters affecting our bodies, then these same rights should be extended to all. Everyone, everywhere, should have the right to make choices about all aspects of their bodies and their lives, without the fear of being forced, sanctioned or fined.
About Ayo Deforge
Ayo Deforge is a Nigerian writer whose works have appeared in Litro Magazine, Brittle Paper, Ayo Magazine, Kalahari Review. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1982. She graduated from Lagos State University where she studied the French Language in 2008. She moved to France in 2012 and is currently working on her debut novel, Swept Away. She is represented by Jessica Craig at Craig Literary.
This piece was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Feature image: detail from Francesca Woodman’s ‘Space 2’, 1977.