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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.