In the aftermath of the arrival of little Prince George, it seemed the whole country went baby crazy. Families are good! Parenting is great! But what do you do if that doesn’t apply to you, or at least, not yet?
Claire Finney investigates.
It’s the question you never want to ask. It’s the answer you never want to hear. It’s the thin blue line you thought you were a good ten years off discovering. But the reality is that falling pregnant is a possibility all heterosexual couples face if they are sleeping together, and as I learned recently from a friend who faced it unintentionally, the fact that it’s the twenty-first century in a liberal western society where abortions are largely tolerated has not made it much easier to bear.
Indeed, in some ways, it is harder. My friend – we’ll call her Eve – was 24 when she fell pregnant, an age at which the decision to terminate is borne rather less lightly than it might have been six years earlier. She was physically capable, emotionally stable, and her parents, while shocked, would have been supportive. So what if she was a six-hour journey away from them, unprepared and unwilling to have a child, in a new job and a new relationship and poor?
So everything, argues the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Britain's largest single abortion provider. As Abigail Fitzjohn, the service’s Public Policy Manager incontrovertibly points out, “an unwanted child is always an unwanted child.” Reasons to terminate can vary enormously with age, circumstance and health, but if at any point you feel you can’t continue with the pregnancy that’s ‘the bottom line’ as far as BPAS are concerned. “People are entitled to their ethical opinions – but women should feel empowered and comfortable to make their own moral choice. It’s up to them.”
Fortunately, at least as far as England, Scotland and Wales are concerned, most people agree with her. Abortion is a right – although it doesn’t come without taboos. For one thing, it’s largely associated with vulnerable young girls. Like me and my peers, Abigail too recalls impassioned, self-righteous conversations at teenage sleepovers, in which many of us argued that we would not possibly be able to justify an abortion once we had finished education and were old enough – and it was with some surprise that I discovered the highest abortion figures are for women in their twenties. People might object in theory (how many of us will have heard Damien Hirst on Desert Island Discs recently, recalling his mum saying ‘he was the best mistake she ever made’ and thought it touching?) but cold statistics suggest that, when it “comes down to the nitty gritty of actually deciding whether you want a baby, right now” one in three women will decide they would rather not.
What’s more, they’ll be largely, if quietly, supported. A YouGov poll in 2012 found that only 7 per cent of people in this country object to abortion, and overall Abigail says “people are pretty ‘live and let live’ about termination. It’s a funny choice of words, until you realise that what is at stake here is the woman’s life as well as that of her unborn child. “Women in their 20s these days are grappling with careers and settling down later in a way they weren’t when the Abortion Act was first passed,” she explains. Faced with the prospect of throwing away her prospects as a journalist and the life she’d built in London for a child she neither wanted nor could afford, the consequences of Eve carrying her baby to term were, if not more drastic, then at least more complex than they would have been for her 1950s counterpart. Physically capable she might be, but with no money and no guarantee of a lasting relationship with the father, she surmised “it would have been a bad thing for both me and the child if we went ahead.”
For Eve, it was this stark realisation that forced the point – not that she ‘wasn't thinking about the life being created inside of her’, as organisations like 40 Days for Life would have us suppose. “There is this big misapprehension among the movement that women seeking abortions don’t quite understand what they’re doing, and if they could just be made to realise it’s a child then they’d decide not to,” says Abigail, “but women come to us precisely because they know if they don’t have abortion they will give birth.” As 25-year-old Regina points out, on a website dedicated to abortion stories, “when you have children, you are basically signing over your life to them: no going out with friends, no movies, no grocery shopping, not even a shower without finding someone to watch your kids.” Her story and Eve’s speak of a decision made with the child’s interests in mind as much, if not more, than their own.
They might well want children, but they know what it will cost them, financially and emotionally. In Eve’s case she even looked up the cost of childcare and did the maths: lost earnings (impossible) or a nursery fees that along with her monthly rent would leave less than £200 for bills, baby and non-baby related necessities, and food. “I do consider her to be more than a bundle of tissue, and I do believe that there is a sort of soul involved… but I also believe that she can wait for me until I’m ready for her and able to provide her with the life she deserves,” Regina concludes – a sentiment that seems echoed by the vast majority of women in her situation. Thus considered, abortion seems a procedure designed not to destroy a life, but to save two: one from the misery of unfulfilled dreams and anxiety, the other from a childhood without opportunity and poor.
Of course pro-life campaigners and their political mouthpieces would have us think otherwise – it’s their mission. The worry is that they are often successful, both in mystifying abortion and discouraging discussion of it and, more worryingly, in restricting access. Both BPAS and the national pro-choice campaign, Abortion Rights, can cite various attempts under the coalition government to make abortions difficult: imposing spot check inspections on clinics to check their legal forms are being filled out, threatening to reduce the time limit on abortion in this country to 21 weeks – even proposing a ‘cooling-off period’ in which a woman would have to have pre-abortion counselling between seeing a GP and going ahead with the procedure (a measure which “would have delayed women getting the help they're looking for and may even have exposed them to judgmental advice on the issue,” says Darinka Aleksic of Abortion Rights). These last brainwaves came from Nadine Dorries, whose reasoning boils down to “just feeling right” and to some dubious ‘scientific advances’ suggesting that foetuses are more developed at 24 weeks than we had thought previously.
This claim is quite ridiculous, according to ratified scientific research (you’ll find the links on www.bpas.org), and, of course, to Abigail: “The problem is that people like Nadine find it very difficult to accept that women have abortions at later stages often for compelling, and distressing reasons,” she says. “These are women with difficult things going in their lives. That’s why they present at 20 to 24 weeks.” Unable to contend with the moral strength of this argument, she continues, “pro-lifers “make stuff up in order to paint woman and service providers negatively. In so doing, they create a taboo culture of secrecy, and a deeply distressing situation for women who are most in need of support.
These effects are by no means confined to just these women, either. Women of all ages and stages of pregnancy are affected by misleading media reports on foetuses (complete with scary pictures), and mixed messages about the effects of abortion on health. The internet is awash with misinformation spread by pro-life groups; abortion dialogue is dominated by the sorts of "I never got over it" or "I got an infection and now I can't have kids" stories that Eve was constantly regaled with – and even loved ones can harbour bias: when Eve first told me what she was planning, I asked about the depressive effects of abortion, only to find, through research, that they’re entirely non-existent. Another friend was sceptical that Eve had used contraception properly: “You must have messed up.”
This is an educated country. Abortion is sanctified by law. Yet it is also, argues journalist and campaigner Zoe Williams, considered “an unarguable tenet of modern society, that you would feel ashamed of having a termination, that you would, in some cutesy, feminine, inarticulate way, feel ‘bad’.” When a topic exists in a world of secrecy, panicked Google searches and furtive, coded conversations among teenagers, urban myths proliferate. “It's common to hear women say that they believe abortion will leave them infertile, suicidal or at greater risk of breast cancer,” says Darinka. “None of this is true.”
In an ideal world, public discussion would be such that the beliefs and values shared among many young women – women of my age – would be quite laughable. Until that happens she suggest speaking to loved ones “only if you feel comfortable in doing so”, and contacting organisations such as the sexual health charity FPA, the young people's organisation Brook, and BPAS itself for impartial advice. “One of hardest things about the issue when you’re older is that it is entirely your right legally, but it puts a lot of pressure you as a result,” adds Abigail. “If you can talk to someone you can trust, either an organisaon or a GP or a loved one, I would do so – but you don’t have to share it with anyone, even the man you slept with. It’s your choice.”
So what of the friend who inspired this piece? Three months after her procedure, Eve is in London, on the career ladder, and in love (she did speak to the man involved; he was wonderful). She has no regrets about her choice, but she does think that if the one in three women in the UK who have had an abortion talked more about it, it would have made the process of choosing much less stressful. Regina is brave to share her story publicly, and to put her name to it. For the sake of all ages, let’s hope others will do the same in future. As she herself concludes, “the more you talk about it, the less power it has over you.”