I had an abortion.
By Claire Tustin
When I was 22, twenty-four years ago, I had an abortion.
I was in a relationship with a young man who I loved very much. I won’t tell you his real name, let’s call him Matthew. There is a lot about that relationship that I regret. I regret the loss of my baby, but I do not regret having the abortion.
We had both graduated from university and were living in a shared house, populated by recreational drug takers ranging from the mild to the extreme. There were dealers and heavy users including one girl who insisted on taking large amounts of ecstasy every weekend even though she regularly became psychotic under their influence and needed sectioning twice in the 6 months I lived in that house. There were two sets of record decks in the lounge for the wannabe DJs, a permanently filthy kitchen and many visitors at all hours of the day. It was a pretty chaotic place.
I was looking for jobs, whilst working as a poorly paid care assistant. My relationship with my boyfriend was not easy. He was a popular, charismatic person but suffered from severe mood swings, probably exacerbated by the drug taking lifestyle. He could be jealous and unreasonable. I was an insecure young woman; I feared losing him, not realising I was losing myself. So when he took lots of drugs and went out clubbing without me, I didn’t complain. When he called me names and accused me of things I hadn’t done, I didn’t complain. Even when he removed a condom halfway through sex without my consent, I didn’t complain as much as I should have done. The first proper row we had was when I got pregnant and he said he didn’t want me to keep the baby.
Looking back, I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted the baby or not. I thought I wanted it. What I really wanted was him to want it. To want to be with me, and our baby, and make a life together. I wanted him to ask me to marry him, and us have a beautiful baby, and live happily ever after. But he was quite clear – he was too young, he didn’t want to be tied down, he wasn’t ready. He was right, looking back. He most certainly was not ready. And I probably wasn’t either.
Is anyone ever really ready to have a baby? Is not being ready a good enough reason? Is living in a house of chaos with an unsuitable partner a good enough reason?
Does a woman need to justify her reasons when she makes the decision to terminate her pregnancy?
Anyway, our decision was made. I would have an abortion. It wasn’t the right time for us. We would have another baby, later. I saw a doctor. I was referred to another doctor. Both men, they were both efficient, unsympathetic and mildly judgemental. I was given an appointment to attend hospital. I kept it. I was given a tablet. I swallowed it, I went home. Two days later I went back to hospital and took another tablet. We waited. It didn’t take long to make me violently ill from all orifices and experience extreme and debilitating pains, continuously, for a full day. I vaguely remember kind nurses repeatedly cleaning me up and having creative ways to administer painkillers. I clearly remember one of them scolding Matthew and telling him to hold my hand. I remember asking to look at the blood clots I had passed because I wanted to see the baby, and being gently told no, they had been disposed of.
The idea that any woman would choose to do this, is utter foolishness. For me it was a horrible, traumatic experience. It was painful in every possible way.
We went home, and I sobbed inconsolably for hours. The guilt of what I had done overwhelmed me, I lay in bed weeping, clawing at myself with hatred, shock and remorse, saturated with hormones. Matthew did try to help, offering platitudes about the future. I know now that he was being unfaithful at the time and could never have truly meant what he said, but at the time it calmed me enough to carry on.
The months after that experience are a bit of a blur. I know now that I was very depressed, probably for a couple of years afterwards. I wasn’t offered counselling from my doctor. My parents were splitting up, and they were both religious people, living quite far away. I couldn’t face upsetting them. I felt too ashamed to tell many friends, so consequently I had very little support. Matthew never wanted to talk about it.
Eventually, after another 18 months of disrespect, betrayals and emotional abuse, I ended the relationship with Matthew, something I should have done much sooner. I had been clinging on to the shreds of it, ignoring and colluding with his selfishness, because I was too scared to lose him. Whilst we were together, we shared the responsibility of the decision to abort our child. Once I left him, I had to carry the weight of it on my own.
So I did. Sometimes I could forget I was carrying it, other times the enormity of it would crush me and I would find myself buried beneath it. Sometimes it felt like guilt and shame, sometimes sorrow and grief, many other times deep anger at myself for my mistakes and weaknesses.
I have read that every woman knows when their aborted child’s birthday would have been. I don’t. Every time I allow myself to contemplate this puzzle, I have to recount the months and dates in my mind. There is not a room in my brain that this information has been able to live in, I’m not sure why. I have moved on; I am lucky to have a kind husband, and two lovely daughters. I am very glad indeed not to have been tied irreversibly to a man who undoubtably would have kept hurting me. I know we made the sensible decision.
Except for the passing of time, the thing that really helped me move on, was talking to my daughters. They were 12 and 14 the first time we talked about it and were really sympathetic and supportive when they listened to my story. They said it helped them understand more about abortion, and they were proud of me and how brave I was. I had never thought of myself as being brave to have a termination. To frame it in that positive way was quite a conceptual flip. To be forgiven by the sisters of the baby I terminated was a powerful thing for me.
Other women are not so fortunate. I’m guessing it must be pretty hard to choose to abort a baby for whatever good reason, but then find out years later when you are ready to have a child, perhaps when you are desperate to have one, that you can’t.
I am sharing my story publicly not because I want anyone to forgive me, feel sorry for me, or even approve/disapprove of the choices I made. I am sharing my story in response to the recent new laws in American states, and the ongoing laws in Northern Ireland that criminalise women who wish to have control over their bodies. I think one explanation for those laws is that not enough people, men and women, understand and talk enough about this stuff. I hope that me talking about my experience might give someone somewhere a little information, insight or comfort. Women’s experiences of sex, of abortion, of pregnancy and birth, of childlessness, of having to give babies away, are often silenced or distorted under the cloak of shame and fear of judgement. As a result, the lawmakers who criminalise women and the society who shame them do not fully understand what it is they are judging.
So, for a moment, let’s think about some facts.
Almost every adult on earth will have sex, whether they are married, or not.
Humans vary in how responsible and skilled they are at having safe sex. We all make mistakes sometimes. Life is a messy business.
Women are much less likely to be in a powerful enough position to control how ‘safe’ their sexual experiences are. Stealthing, the act of removing a condom without consent, is very common despite it being technically illegal in many countries. Read more about stealthing here.
On the mainland UK we have free and easy access to birth control. Women in many other countries including the USA do not.
So, bearing all these facts in mind, we have to accept that sometimes a woman will get pregnant when she does not want to be. Why would we punish her for this? Do we punish the man who impregnated her? Do we shame and threaten him? Do we control what happens to his body? Read more about this here.
Let me be really clear. I am not looking at my experience through the lens of tragedy. I was not raped, or under-age, or a victim of incest. My pregnancy was not going to threaten my life. I was just a normal woman who was lucky enough to have the freedom to choose whether or not to keep an unplanned pregnancy, and took what was for me the difficult decision to abort the baby at 8 weeks. Whilst I struggled somewhat to come to terms with it, other women may not. They may be comfortable with their decision. Other women make the choice not to abort, and their lives take a different path. My point is that no woman would really choose to have an abortion. She would rather not be in the situation in the first place. She did not get there on her own.
Whatever she chooses, she will have to live with her decision forever. Please show her support and solidarity. Please try not to judge her, and educate those around you who might judge her. Please speak out against those who would punish her. Please vote against those who would criminalise her. Equality will never be achieved whilst these injustices exist.
Claire is a singer songwriter and a mother based in North East England.
Lizzy Humber would like to invite you to help her create a platform of stories and artistic responses to invisible aspects of motherhood. This can live on the Mothers Who Make website as a resource and to support visibility for motherhood experiences . If you would like to share something or start a conversation about something you would like to make please get in touch lizzy[at]motherswhomake.org