A year later, I can’t say that I would have made a different choice, given the chance. Photo: Getty
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“You’ll ruin my life”: one woman’s experience of abortion and the Catholic church

“Asking the nurse not to turn the ultrasound away, I saw our baby, the same size as a chickpea, and wondered how an innocent thing could ever be shameful.”

“Only God can forgive you,” two nuns repeated, forcing leaflets into my hand as I pressed the buzzer on the abortion clinic door.

My baby was 7 weeks and 3 days old. Some suggested that it would hurt less to call it a foetus. Some asked why I took vitamins to nurture a pregnancy I’d planned to terminate. And of course there were others still to damn me and wish me straight to hell.

But this is what I know: nothing is straightforward. There’s no instruction manual. No experience akin to another. And almost nobody wants to talk about it.

All we can do is what feels right for us. Yet, that itself is a privilege.

The father was a 30 year-old man terrified of his devout Catholic family. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that our baby would ruin his life. We weren’t in love, we weren’t together, let alone married. There was little talk permitted for accountability.

Asking the nurse not to turn the ultrasound away, I saw our baby, the same size as a chickpea, and wondered how an innocent thing could ever be shameful. To me it was beautiful, with power enough to grow the instinct inside me, telling me to run. But I didn’t. Instead, my voice was stuck in my throat and the religious pleading kept ringing in my ears.

“You’ll ruin my life.”

 “Only God can forgive you.”

“You’ll ruin my life.”

 “Only God can forgive you.”

This is where I tell you I’m agnostic.  I have no God, no Allah, no churches or mosques. What I have instead is faith in humanity. To me, religion, like love, is a freedom.

And all I needed then was to not feel alone, to appreciate the women who had faced this before me, to know that they had survived.

“Do many of us come here, not knowing what to do?” I asked the nurse.

“Yes.”

I left a pause, a deliberate beat, a request that she continue to fill the silence I couldn’t bear.

I heard about a 13 year-old girl who had saved her pocket money so she could get to the clinic, travelling there alone, not wanting her parents to find out.

I heard about a Catholic teacher whose treatment was privately paid for by the church, her baby fathered by a priest.

That’s when I pictured them both, tucked them away to keep them with me.

My baby was 8 weeks old on the day of treatment. That morning, I did three things: I took the vitamins, fell to my knees and prayed. Hands clasped, desperate. “You’ll ruin my life.” How could I be responsible for that? I wiped my face clean of make up after crying it off a second time.

Inside the clinic, inside myself, I was breaking, my mind screaming at me. Screaming at me for being so polite to the woman who handed me the paperwork. Screaming at me for saying, “Thank you ever so much,” when she handed me a pen, when all I wanted was to say, “I don’t want to be here. Please help me.”

There is much to say about a society that raises us to be polite and not to make a fuss.

In the waiting room I asked again if keeping it would be the worst thing in the world: “Yes.” That night, he showed me a pair of jeans he’d bought while I was in surgery.

I wasn’t prepared for what followed. The tears that wouldn’t stop. The sound of me screaming into my pillow, a sound I didn’t recognise. The regret of not speaking up, haunting me beyond pain. The grief.

My first step towards closure came some months later. I was exiting the tube at Oxford Circus when the notes of Amazing Grace from a Salvation Army brass band hit me in a wave. I froze on the corner of Argyll Street, and all the tears I had in that moment fell; one heavy tear after another until my body forced me to breathe again.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”

I’ll never know if she would have been a girl, but she became one to me: Grace. Named after a Christian hymn. I smiled at the irony.

A year later, I can’t say that I would have made a different choice, given the chance. Along with peace, time has given me clarity: that it wasn’t the right time, the right situation, and certainly not the right person.  

But in making my decision, I wish it had been my voice alone that I’d heard. Not the voice of any man or church or faith. Because ultimately, alone in the clinic, that’s all there was. Just me. And that’s OK. That, I could have lived with.

Eva Beeching is a pseudonym.

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University