Last week, when Roe vs Wade was overturned, taking away half the American population’s bodily autonomy and destroying any hope of women’s economic parity, I found myself in a spiral of futile rage familiar to many women and girls. I kept thinking about what it would have been like if someone had walked into the abortion clinic where I had sat 16 years ago and announced that all terminations were permanently cancelled. That I would now have to go through with an unwanted pregnancy unless I was prepared – and had the means – to fly hundreds of miles. In which case, here was a phone number, a web link, a vague rumour of someone somewhere who might be able to help. I’ve lived in the United States. I know that this journey would have left me feeling desperate and alone.
Like many women, I shared my fury on social media and then read the calm-down-dear takes from British men, wondering why we were being so emotional, since abortion is effectively a political non-issue in the UK. As if such takes aren’t themselves rooted in emotion; as if the decision by five Supreme Court justices wasn’t entirely based on emotion!
The difference, for women, is that it’s more than our feelings on the line – it is our bodies, too. But according to Tory MP, Danny Kruger – whose own mother, the TV chef Prue Leith, has spoken of her backstreet abortion – women shouldn’t have “the absolute right to bodily autonomy”. If you have any idea of what carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term and then giving birth involves, I’m not sure how you can remain impassive while reading about any country in which religious fundamentalists have reduced women to second-class citizens overnight – let alone a country as familiar to us as the US.
And while we British like to congratulate ourselves on our liberal enlightenment on the issue, my experience of abortion taught me that our attitudes aren’t so advanced. Although terminations are freely available on the NHS (in theory at least), having one is still deeply taboo, bound up in shame and judgement that owe far more to entrenched religious beliefs than medical realities. Americans may scream loudly about abortion, in ways that make us recoil, but in Britain, the impulse to control, coerce and judge women just manifests itself more subtly.
It’s not so well remembered now, but in the late years of Margaret Thatcher’s government, abortion was a live debate in the United Kingdom. I remember my mother – then a local councillor – addressing hundreds of campaigners at political rallies when the Liberal MP David Alton put forward a motion to cut the legal limit for terminations from 28 weeks to 18 weeks, first in 1987 and then again in 1990.
Back then, my mum was described in the local press as a “pro-abortionist”. She was certainly pro-choice. That’s what was written on the T-shirts she wore and the banners she and her friends carried on demonstrations where they chanted: “NOT THE CHURCH, NOT THE STATE, WOMEN MUST DECIDE THEIR FATE.”
I was only nine years old in 1990 but I vividly recall the looks of disgust we received from some passers-by. I felt embarrassed but I also admired my mum’s forcefulness. She explained to me that she had come to feel passionately about the issue after accompanying a college friend to an illegal abortion before the law was changed in 1967. A few years later, I wrote about the subject in school. A girl in my class wouldn’t stop going on about the “evil” of killing unborn babies, and it had left me feeling helpless and incensed.
Reading back through my old school project this week, I was surprised at how diligently the 13-year-old me had tried to weigh up arguments. I had Pritt-Sticked into my folder newspaper clippings: a profile of a woman who had an abortion, regretted it, and was subsequently calling for an outright ban, and articles about anti-abortion campaigners posting ghoulish models of 20-week old foetuses to MPs. At the end, there is my own anguished argument for a woman’s right to choose. “No woman wants an abortion,” I wrote. “I would certainly not want to go through it myself but that is not to say that I wouldn’t in a given situation. If I had a good reason to abort a child, then I probably would, but it would be very hard.”
When that moment did come at the age of 25, my physical and emotional distress were not eased by my certainty on the issue – nor by my mum’s commitment to women’s rights. Did I have a “good reason” to do it? Not according to some people. I lost several close friendships within weeks of the termination, which went wrong and landed me in hospital. “Well, at least you look thinner now,” one had said, when she saw me a few days after the first procedure. I learned then that the same people who will sob with you through Mike Leigh’s abortion drama Vera Drake might also stop answering your calls when you find yourself dealing with an unsuccessful termination.
It didn’t help that, two weeks after my abortion, I opened the Guardian to see a comment piece by the journalist Mary Kenny that began: “I once knew a girl who had an abortion at a cushy clinic in Regent’s Park, where they provide flowers and champagne along with ‘the procedure’. She was treated so royally she came out saying, ‘When can I have another?’”
As I read the column – which went on to insist that some women were becoming addicted to having abortions, much like heroin users – I felt like I was on fire. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever put out the flames. That “cushy Regents Park clinic” was where – after several failed attempts to get an NHS abortion – I had my procedure. When I explained that I couldn’t produce the right utilities bills in time to get an early-stage abortion, and nor did I have access to a fax machine (that wasn’t my employer’s), my future mother-in-law offered the use of her credit card. Her loan was one of the most surprising acts of female solidarity I have ever experienced. But at the clinic, there were no flowers or champagne. All I remember is a windowless waiting room, and women of all ages and races, some looking focused, some relieved, some dejected.
My abortion happened in June 2006, 16 years ago almost to the day. This is the first time I have openly discussed it, partly because for many years, I feared the judgement, the professional fallout, the broken relationships. Devastated at being abandoned by friends over the issue, I kept it hidden from one my best friends, a Jehovah Witness, because I couldn’t face losing her too. Once, when I had confessed a secret to her, she had said: “Phew! I thought you were going to tell me you had had an abortion. Because then we couldn’t go on being friends.” A therapist I saw for a short while suggested I just tell her I’d suffered a miscarriage, but this felt false. Of the friends with whom I had been – perhaps foolishly – completely honest, one or two worried I might “regret” my decision or feel “guilt” over it.
It all contributed to a feeling that I was not “deserving” of an abortion. I was in a long-term, stable relationship with my university boyfriend (now my husband and father of my two children). We had been living together for three years and were the same age as his parents when they had their first child. When my boyfriend told his mum I was pregnant, she could hardly contain her delight – only to have to hide her disappointment when he said we weren’t planning to go through with it. The truth was, neither of us felt ready for a baby.
Now, as thousands of women come forward with their own abortion stories, I have different misgivings about telling mine. Does my experience serve any purpose? Will it change anybody’s mind? Is it extreme enough? Or, conversely, is it positive enough? What if it puts women and girls off having an abortion?
I now realise that for the last sixteen years I have been subconsciously crafting my own sympathetic abortion story – so that when I eventually came to tell it, I would come across as responsible and relatable. A good girl – like the one who carefully weighed up both sides in her school project. I would explain how the contraception failed, the morning-after pill failed and so – it turned out – did the medical procedure (though this may seem to strain credulity). I might tell you how several weeks later, I was found bleeding, quite dramatically, in the loos of a department store and taken in a taxi to hospital. Though I would of course spare you the nasty details.
So many of the personal stories that get told about abortion are stories of women’s pain and suffering. As with accounts of sexual abuse, we know that we must portray ourselves as good citizens, victims of circumstance. While these stories can be valuable in highlighting how difficult it is to access reproductive care, they feed into a narrative that says abortion is justified for certain patients and not others. Less often do we hear from women who had abortions freely and easily, without ambivalence or apology, because it was their right to do so. Plenty of women aren’t traumatised by their experience of abortion because they see it as a healthy choice. We should hear from them.
So, no, I don’t take abortion for granted. But even if I did, even if I swaggered into the clinic – as Mary Kenny suggested – thinking this was some kind of “cushy” option, that would have been fine too. In fact, flippancy about pregnancy is surely one compelling reason to end it. A person’s control over whether and when they have a child leads to healthy children, healthy parents and healthy families. I am happy that things turned out for us the way they did.
I promised my mother, who died at the end of last year, that I would one day write about my abortion, though neither of us realised how politically pressing the issue would become. She knew she was leaving this world with a lot for women to still achieve but she thought her generation had at least taken care of this issue.
We are lucky that religious extremists are not as empowered in the UK as they are in the US. But we are kidding ourselves if we think that the matter is settled. The overturning of Roe vs Wade has already emboldened those people who stand outside British clinics harassing and shaming the women who go inside. These are women of all kinds. Your neighbour, your boss, the woman who sells you a flat white in the mornings, your sister, your daughter, your mother, perhaps even your wife.
Women seek abortion every hour of every day. Nice girls too. In the end, the only question that matters is: can they do it safely and without intimidation?
This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special