Women speak about abortion experiences

// 1 November 2007

Abortion is a subject that is spoken about at great length, although we rarely hear from the women who are either considering a termination, or have had a termination. This is an aspect of the debate I have been thinking about myself lately. I have not been able to understand why the voice of these women has been so undervalued. Surely they should be the first port of call during a discussion about abortion? It seems unfair that those who have not been in a situation where they have considered abortion or had the procedure should be allowed to cast aspersions on the morality of women who have. But whether right or not, this has had the affect of silencing those who could provide the best insight into this sensitive subject.

Fortunately, in The Guardian today, there is an excellent report by Karen Dugdale about late abortions. Dugdale, who had an abortion at 21 weeks, speaks to six other women, who made the same choice, about their experiences. What is evident from the article is that in addition to the difficulties these women had in deciding to have abortions, be that owing to the poor health of the developing foetus or because the pregnancy was not detected until it was quite advanced, one of the greatest problems they had to contend with was the social stigma and judgement attached to this procedure.

Dugdale provides an exposition of her thought process when discovering that her unborn child had spina bifida:

“Had I chosen to continue with the pregnancy, I was told that, at best, our child would have a range of handicaps that would restrict mobility and cause ongoing bladder and bowel problems, and at worst, the outcome would be paralysis and permanent brain damage – hydrocephalus (water on the brain) was also clearly visible from the scan. In this instance the chances of survival beyond early childhood would be slim and quality of life seriously impaired.

Would it have been easier if we had been told there was no compatibility with life? The short answer is no. This wasn’t about having a “perfect baby”, but about making the right decision for our unborn child, myself and our family. The decision was probably the hardest I will ever make, but one I remain convinced was right.”

Similarly one woman, speaking anonymously as Julie, had a termination at 36 weeks. Although health problems had been identified during a 20-week scan, these were attributed to new equipment, and it wasn’t until her 32-week scan that a serious medical condition was detected.

“Julie overheard medical staff openly discussing her situation before being subjected to a further scan with around half a dozen people in the room, including several students. “It was as if I wasn’t there,” she says. “The consultant was brutal, likening babies in special care units to ‘little rats tied to machines’.” Three weeks later, when the severity of her baby’s condition was eventually confirmed, Julie had a termination.”

That Julie is speaking about this anonymously acts as testament to the fact that late abortions are considered a taboo subject, regardless of the reasons a woman decides to undergo the procedure. But why are people so willing to judge? And why is it that, instead of explaining our thought processes and reasoning behind our decision, that many of us are forced into claiming we had a miscarriage? For some reason having a miscarriage is considered respectable; it’s OK to concede that we had no control over our body, that we expelled our babies prematurely. We are then, and only then, considered worthy of sympathy. But to admit to having an abortion to prevent our unborn children from suffering with painfaul conditions is considered transgressive; if we openly speak about it we are heartless and cruel, lacking femininity and that so-called “mothering instinct.” We are not permitted the opportunity then to talk about our experiences, about the fact that we took control over something that many think is best left to Mother Nature. Is this what this debate is essentially about? About a reluctance to allow women to take control over their bodies, refusing to be locked into a never-ending cycle of birth and gestation, and making choices about the welfare of their unborn children while they are still in the womb, and have not been subject to the prejudice and misery often encountered by those with severe disabilities?

Why is it that it is considered more respectable, more ‘proper,’ for a woman to give birth to a baby knowing that it is going to die? And does this not undermine pro-life arguments, since women are essentially giving birth to a baby that has nothing but death ahead of him or her? It seems that misery and heartache is acceptable, as long as a woman relinquishes all control. To seemingly have control in the face of misery and heartache means we are not worthy of sympathy, because as women we are not allowed to be anything but victims of circumstances rather than people who have made a considered choice about what is best for us.

Dugdale continues, explaining the difficulties she experienced in speaking about her termination:

“Over time, I felt more willing to talk about what I had been through and discuss the decision I had made. It wasn’t always easy, and people’s reactions were not always predictable; someone I had known for a long time, and counted as a friend, was so shocked that our friendship eventually ended, whereas a deeply religious colleague, to whom I had been dreading telling the truth, was incredibly sympathetic and supportive.”

This was a fascinating piece, and hopefully it will provide the pro-life activists with something to think about. It is only when we start speaking about this more openly, reiterating that if a woman has an abortion she has done nothing wrong, that society will have to reconsider their destructive tendency to judge.

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