I am absolutely passionate about the reproductive rights of women living with HIV. In equal measure, I am angered by the scale of moralising that surrounds HIV+ women and their decision to have a baby.
I am sat at my kitchen table writing on a Tuesday afternoon. My two year old son is sleeping serenely in his nursery; I know I have minutes left to type before he wakes and I dedicate my time to ensuring that he is happy and fulfilled as a child ought to be. He is free of HIV. He was born free of the virus and he does not carry it.
As for me, I have an undetectable viral load and I maintained it throughout my pregnancy. I am fit and I am healthy. Yet, should I want to try for a second child, let’s say with the assistance of fertility treatment, I would find myself immediately barred from a first consultation with a fertility specialist and any subsequent treatment (should I need it) from my local fertility clinics due to my HIV status.
I write this as both a mother and also as a researcher who is investigating this topic. I write in 2013. At this precise moment in history, women living with HIV are banned from receiving fertility treatment in the vast majority of fertility clinics in the UK. To me, this is akin to HIV apartheid.
So how does it feel to be a mother living with HIV with a HIV negative child?
The simple answer is that I feel amazingly fortunate and I never take a single day for granted where my child’s health is concerned, for I know that not all pregnant women have access to HAART to prevent mother-to-child transmission (MTCT).
I recently watched for the first time some old footage of Elizabeth Glaser’s campaigns around eliminating mother-to-child transmission after discovering she contracted HIV (via a blood transfusion during labour) and had unknowingly passed the virus onto her daughter, Ariel, via breast milk, and her older child, Jake, during pregnancy. Ariel tragically died of HIV related complications at the age of seven years in 1988, and her mother died, after campaigning and advocating relentlessly, in 1994.
My son was born free of the virus in 2011. I had a beautiful textbook pregnancy, with the addition of adhering to HAART to prevent my unborn child contracting HIV in-utero or during delivery. I was reassured both before and during my pregnancy that there was a 99% chance that I would not give my unborn child HIV.
Whilst MTCT (mother to child transmission) has been virtually eliminated in the UK and significantly reduced internationally, it is difficult to contemplate that babies continue to contract HIV during the most natural and intimate of human processes when the routes of HIV transmission can so easily be prevented. I know that my little one and I are extremely fortunate. I never lose sight of this fact. I had access to HAART and I also had access to clean water to avoid breast feeding.
Despite such huge strides in this area of public health, it is frustrating that medical and public attitudes do not exclusively reflect these trends. If such attitudes were more enlightened in the UK, each and every fertility clinic approved by the HFEA, would embrace HIV+ women rather than barring us from fertility treatment and curtailing our reproductive rights.
Not so long ago, I was asked by someone ‘why on earth did you get pregnant if you’re HIV positive?’ The question reflectes a deeply ingrained belief that women living with HIV do not have basic reproductive rights. The question also reflects a deeply ingrained belief that women living with HIV who have their own biological children are inherently selfish and irresponsible by default. Interestingly, those people who pose such ridiculous questions in 2013 tend to fall into one of two camps; they are either ignorant of medical and scientific developments in the treatment of HIV or they are simply unwilling to change their mindset when presented with scientific fact.
As for me, I celebrate the fact that my child was born free of HIV. But I know at this moment in time somewhere else in the world, there will be a child who is not so fortunate, and that is an avoidable tragedy.
This article first appeared on the blog of girlwithhiv here.