The first time I had an abortion I was 19 and in my second year at a British university. My boyfriend and I had been together a year but we both knew it was a casual thing: he was a lot older than me and said he never wanted kids. We went on a mini-break but ran out of condoms on the last night. I figured I could get the morning-after pill the next day, which I did. But it didn’t work, and I found myself pregnant. I was young; I knew it would be a struggle to finish university if I had a baby; my parents wouldn’t approve; my boyfriend didn’t want children: the reasons not to have a baby just seemed overwhelming. So I went to my local family planning clinic and was surprised at how easy it was. I had to be seen by a doctor who didn’t ask many questions and then signed off a form saying that my mental health would be in danger if I continued the pregnancy. I thought it would have been harder than that, like I’d have to prove the absolute necessity of it.
I went into an NHS hospital alone because I hadn’t been able to tell my parents or friends. The nurses were brusque and business-like. I was given two pills – one take orally and one inserted vaginally by a doctor who didn’t even look at me or say a word. Then I was told to wait. The pain, when it started, was unlike anything I’ve ever known, but I wasn’t offered any pain relief and I got the impression the nurses were too busy for the likes of me. I’d been given a cardboard kidney bowl and told “If you go to the loo, use this. Don’t flush anything away.” When I started miscarrying I duly did as I was told. It was just a horrible bloody mess, and I looked down at it thinking ‘is that my baby in there? I wonder what they’re going to do with it, when they take it away? Will it just go in some hospital incinerator or will they treat it with dignity and respect as human remains?’ It occurred to me that this was a ridiculous thought to be having since if I cared so much about wanting this foetus, even at a few weeks old, to be treated with dignity and respect then I wouldn’t be having an abortion. It was strange that even as I didn’t want it, I still wanted it to have recognition as a human life, I still wanted it treated gently. The nurse carried the kidney dish away and came back a while later saying that ‘yes, the products of conception were in there, so you can go home now.’ It seemed a strange term to use, ‘the products of conception’, and it made me sick to think of some doctor or nurse rifling through the kidney dish with a latex-gloved hand to check that a tiny embryo was there. I can only assume it went in the hospital incinerator after all, and that made me sad. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, I mean, I knew there wasn’t going to be a funeral for a month old embryo: I hadn’t even thought about what they would do with it.
Around the evening of the same day I was checked out of hospital, and went back to my college room and just fell asleep. I carried on life as usual, going to lectures, but the bleeding never stopped. Infact it got heavier with each passing day. One day I had to leave a lecture to get to the toilet and just got blood everywhere, all over the bathroom stall. It was a public toilet next to the lecture theatre and I did my best to clear up but it was just so traumatic, there seemed to be so much blood everywhere and not enough tissue to clear it up. Eventually a kindly woman lecturer found me and took me to the campus doctor. He examined me and said that I’d have to go back into hospital for a ‘surgical scrape.’ It seemed that I hadn’t passed out all the ‘products of conception’ after all; there was still some in there, and I had an infection too. So back I went to hospital, again on my own. This time it was a proper operation where I was given an anaesthetic to knock me out and I don’t remember anything. I was allowed to go home at the end of the day, and carried on life as normal. I healed physically but just numbed it emotionally. I wasn’t offered any counselling, and it wasn’t long before my boyfriend and I broke up. I threw myself into my studies, and got top grades and won a scholarship to graduate school. After a year at graduate school I had a nervous breakdown and was put on antidepressants. My life became kind of chaotic after that. Even though I was doing well in my studies – I won a scholarship to do a PhD – I was sleeping around and drinking a lot. One night I went home with two guys: a friend I’d been seeing casually and his cousin. I was too drunk to ask them to use condoms. I woke up the next morning and thought ‘What have I done?!’ I went to the chemist for the morning after pill. Again, it didn’t work. Apparently it doesn’t work for 5% of women who take it. I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid. I was 25 this time, not 19, and it occurred to me that even though I wasn’t ready to be a mother!
I was at least in a better position than I was before. I confided in my godmother who said, ‘You can’t have this baby. You don’t even know who the father is. What are you going to tell that child when it asks who its father is? Which one of those men are you going to ask for child support?’ So then I confided in my father – though I missed out the part about how I’d slept with two men – hoping he might say ‘It’s okay, I’m here for you’ but he said, ‘Well, it’s just a bunch of cells at this early stage. I’ll pay for an abortion if that’s what you want.’ I wasn’t sure whether it was what I wanted. I weighed it up in my mind, thinking how much I wanted to get my PhD and finish my studies, and how my life was chaotic. I told my friend, and all the colour drained from his face. ‘You’re not thinking of keeping it?’ He sounded panicked and immediately offered to pay for an abortion. He said his cousin wouldn’t want to know, and wouldn’t be responsible for a baby. Keeping the baby seemed like a stupid idea, and yet something in me wanted to keep it. I just didn’t think I could through another abortion like before. I booked an appointment with BPAS, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and they said I should go for a counselling session to discuss my options before they would book me in to the abortion clinic. At the session the counsellor said, ‘You seem unsure, I think it would be best to think it through a bit more.’ My dad phoned me the next day and said, ‘So when’s the appointment?’ and I explained about the counselling session and how I was feeling unsure. ‘It sounds like the counsellor changed your mind’ he said, ‘What did they say to change your mind? You can’t hang around, you know, the sooner the better really.’ So with that I just thought, yeah, I should get on with it, it’s madness to think I can have this baby. So I was booked into the clinic and went on my own. The weirdest part was handing over the £400 in cash – half of it paid by my dad and half of it paid by my lover – to the clerk, like it! was just! any other transaction.
I was got ready for surgery and given a general anaesthetic and don’t recall what happened after that. I came round from the anaesthetic crying and tried to rip out the tube in my hand until I realised where I was and what happened. When I’d had something to eat and drink the nurse said I could get dressed and wait in the ‘post-operative waiting room’ whilst they signed off my papers. I walked in to this waiting room where about ten or more young women like myself were ‘recovering’ from their operations. We were all alone, all sitting apart from each other leaving a few seats between us and the next girl, and all were silently sobbing. I sat there for about an hour, just listening to the sound of women crying and snuffling and rustling tissues and weeping. It was like an antechamber to hell. All these women, alone, isolated, in pain, grieving. And I thought to myself ‘We’re told that abortion is a good thing for women, that it gives us our ‘freedom’ and our ‘rights’. Isn’t every single ‘post-operative’ woman sitting in this room supposed to be *happy* right now? Aren’t I supposed to be happy now I’ve got my freedom back and I’m not having that baby?’ And that’s when the thought first occurred to me that maybe abortion is not a good choice for women – that infact it’s a violence to women. Sitting there in that room surrounded by so many weeping women, who were all supposed to be relieved or happy at their choice, and we were all in pain and wrapped in lonely isolated grief. From that moment I realised the truth of what I’d done. I regretted my choice, and I felt duped.
I carried on my studies, and got my PhD. It took me 12 years to get off antidepressants, and I numbed my pain through alcohol instead. But during a trip abroad I bought a rosary, and slowly I started to think things through. I started thinking about Pope John Paul II’s teaching on ‘theology of the body’ and about the reality of human nature, sexuality and biology. Thinking it through and relating it to my experiences, theology of the body makes perfect sense. And my experience convinced me that abortion is not this great thing for women, but a violence to the dignity of women, and a violence to the dignity of all human life. My babies weren’t ‘a bunch of cells’ and deep down I knew that. I became pro-life, and became a Catholic. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about the children I could have had and mourn their loss.
I sometimes find myself caught off guard when I see a bunch of school children around the age my children would have been had I not chosen abortion, and I have to fight back tears. I pray that I might one day be given another chance to have children.