It feels like everyone is talking about abortions at the moment, and for good reasons. But nearly everyone, except for some very brave individuals, are talking about abortions in the abstract. They’re talking about their opinions of abortions not their experiences of abortions. So I am going to tell you my story, and try to explain to you why I think it is so important that we share these stories, warts and all, and to ask you to share yours if you can. I’m also going to ask you to be much braver than me and not do it anonymously, if it is safe for you to do so, while I in my cowardice hide.
I had an abortion in 2019. I was in the third year of my PhD. I used a period tracker and noticed my period was late by about a week, but I was having cramps. Cramps but no period. I waited a little longer, thinking surely it was coming, but it didn’t. I started to wonder if I should see a doctor. I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and have had largeish cysts on my ovaries before, so I thought perhaps a cyst meant I wasn’t having a period. I was having occasional pains in my abdomen, and starting to feel a little off.
I imagined going to the doctor and explaining all of this and realised that their first question would probably be: “Could you be pregnant?”. No… no, of course not, in fact I’m pretty sure I’m infertile. But I should probably take a test, just to rule it out. And what if I actually am pregnant? I figure I’ll get an abortion, I guess.
I didn’t take a test for another few days. I waited a bit longer, hoping I would get a period. But if I was pregnant, I would have to have an abortion. I had played this out in my head hundreds of times over the years, asking myself “If I became pregnant what would I do?” the answer had always come back fast and easy: “Abort. Definitely abort”. It would be the obvious decision, the correct one to make. I do not want children, I personally cannot justify bringing children into this world, not least because I don’t think I would make a good parent. As the days passed it started to sink in, there was a very real possibility that I was pregnant.
After a weekend out with friends, on my way home I picked up a pregnancy test. It was time to bite the bullet. I took the test. Two lines. Too many lines.
It was a strange feeling in that bathroom. To see my life splitting so decisively into two parallel futures. We all make decisions that change the course of our lives. Sometimes little decisions we don’t even notice ourselves making have knock on effects that can only be seen clearly in hindsight. Here I was facing a huge decision. The path is splitting, you have to choose a direction, and there is no going back.
I knew I didn’t want children. I had known for a long time that I did not want children. But the weight of that decision was still unimaginable. Practically it was the right decision: I was a PhD student with very little money coming in and a thesis to write. Morally it was the right decision: I would not make a good parent, having a child is a huge ongoing commitment that I was unwilling to make. Having a child would ruin my life, and it would ruin my mental health.
Despite all of this, it was still a weighty decision. Inside me was a cluster of cells made up of a combination of genes, a specific assortment of DNA that had never existed in this universe before and never will again. Something thoroughly mundane yet utterly profound was happening inside me and I was choosing to end it. To never meet that unique potential person that had started to develop in my body. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about who it would become, who it would eventually grow into if I let it. A long unbroken chain of creatures, stretching from the first living being to now have survived and reproduced and here I was about to stop the forging of a new and unique link. I couldn’t help but feel a cosmic guilt.
I stood in my bathroom staring at those two lines. But what if I decided not to abort? I imagined what it would be like to carry a pregnancy to term. I pictured myself in hospital being handed a brand-new human that I had made, and I felt nothing but sorrow. A deep feeling of grief. The sort of sorrow you feel when you think about the fact that the people you love and everyone you care about are all going to die someday. Just grief. I couldn’t do it.
Sometimes doing the right thing, even when you are absolutely certain it is the right thing still hurts. I had asked myself hundreds of times what I’d do if I got pregnant, and concluded that I’d have an abortion, but it had always felt so much easier when it was only hypothetical. Just an abstract cluster of cells. But now it was this specific cluster of cells.
After standing in my bathroom contemplating the whole of natural history, the nature of life, the mundane profundity of a chemical reaction that occurs when sperm meets egg, and my personal hopes, dreams and expectations of the future – all over a small cup of piss and a plastic stick – I gathered myself and googled abortion clinics near me.
A phone call later and I had an appointment booked in two weeks’ time for a chemical abortion.
I told a couple of friends, and I told my partner. They all respected and supported my decision, but I still felt isolated and scared. I had no idea what to expect. The friends I had told had never had an abortion. I suddenly realised that I had no idea who I knew who had definitely had one.
I googled statistics: an estimated one in four women have abortions, but who were they? I scrolled through my list of Facebook friends looking at the names and faces of people I knew, hoping it would spark a memory, and I would have someone to talk to who had been through this. Someone who just might be able to answer my questions. But nothing. No one. I was alone. Utterly alone. Not a single friend to message and say, “Hey… what was it like for you? What should I expect?”.
And that’s when I really started to feel like a fuck up. That maybe people like me just don’t get abortions. That I was unusual in my recklessness and stupidity. That there must be something wrong with me if I was in this situation and none of my peers had been. How am I the only person I know who has been in this situation? I must be stupid. How could I be so stupid?
I started looking on Reddit to read other people’s stories. I started to see stories from people kind of like me – people who were pregnant but for various reasons didn’t want to be. I started to feel a little bit less of disaster. But I still had no one to really talk to and I still felt alone.
And I still didn’t know what to expect. The NHS website was very matter of fact about the procedure options. A dilation and curettage under general anaesthetic, or take some pills and have a medically-induced miscarriage at home. I opted for the latter, I thought that sounded the least dramatic. I read some more stories on reddit, it sounded like it was going to be unpleasant but basically just a very heavy period.
I watched the episode of BoJack Horseman where Dianne has an abortion, and towards the end of the episode she is sat on a couch with Princess Carolyn, who asks, “How are you feeling?” Dianne answers, “I feel shitty. I mean physically – I’m glad I did it…” It’s an excellent episode and at that time, reassuring.
From what I had read on the internet and seen in the media, abortions didn’t really seem all that bad. I told my partner not to come to the clinic with me, reasoning that he wouldn’t be able to do anything and there was no point in us both having a bad day, he may as well go to work and earn money. I could handle this alone. It really didn’t seem that bad. He could check in on me later. I’d be fine.
The day of the abortion itself came. I got an Uber to the clinic with a friend. I went into the treatment room where I was met by three women. I was asked a few questions and had some blood taken to check for sexually transmitted diseases. I had an ultrasound (non-vaginal) to check that there was definitely something there to abort. I didn’t have to look at the screen or listen to anything. It was just confirmed with a nod that there was something there to abort.
I was given some pills to take orally and given some to take into the bathroom with me to put in my vagina. As I sat on the loo inserting them I whispered, “Sorry, little dude”. I took myself by surprise with that one.
It was now time to go home. I had been told to try and get comfortable, maybe eat some ice cream and watch Friends or something. My friend and I got an Uber back to my house-share. She asked how I felt. I told her I felt relieved. And I did. I felt a huge weight had been lifted. The deed was done. I had picked my direction and there was no going back.
I got into bed, had a nap and waited. And then it hit me. The most incredible pain I had ever felt in my life. I felt like I was turning inside out. And I had no one. I thought it was going to be uncomfortable, but nothing like this. At one point I remember lying on the floor, in child’s pose, ironically. The pain was so intense it was like having an out of body experience. I knew I was in pain, but I wasn’t really feeling it anymore. I heard these noises coming out of me. This moaning. I knew it was me making the noise, but it didn’t feel like I was making them. I felt like the noise was happening through me, like they were escaping from the depths of my very being. And I was so utterly alone. I half wished I had someone, to hold my hand, or rub my back, or make me a cup of tea, but to some extent I was glad that there was no one to witness this. This was so much worse than I had expected.
The amount of blood was astonishing. It wasn’t just a heavy period. It soaked through everything and quickly. It plopped and splashed as it hit the toilet water. It wasn’t just a heavy flow, it was clots too, lumps of insides and would-be child. I felt disgusting. I felt like a trapped animal. I pictured Dianne on the sofa, drinking tea with Princess Carolyn, a blanket over her knee, nonchalantly saying, “I feel shitty”. This was not that. I was not prepared for this. And I was alone. And I didn’t know who I could talk to and ask, “Hey… Was it like this for you? How long will this last?”
With the physical pain and emotional isolation came some real psychological suffering. Becoming pregnant results in some pretty big hormonal changes. So does becoming un-pregnant, and that can cause one hell of an emotional crash. Those feelings of being an absolute fuck-up came flooding back. I felt like a failure. An idiot. How could I be so stupid. How could I do this. How could I let myself get into this situation. My family would be so ashamed if they knew. What would anyone think of me of they knew? What have I done? What have I done to myself? How can I ever justify this to anyone? This could have been so easily avoided. Would my family ever forgive me if they found out? What have I done?
I had no one to talk me down. No one to ask, “Hey… did you feel this way? How did you stop that voice?”
Why wasn’t I shrugging this off? This was an unwanted pregnancy, so why was this hitting me so hard? The rhetoric around abortion in pro-choice circles, and my opinion had always been. “it’s a medical procedure like any other”, “it’s not a baby, just a clump of cells”. No big deal. Meaningless. Why was it so different now? It was completely different when it was this specific clump of cells. Why was I so surprised how completely different it was, when it was really happening?
Eventually, in one of the many long hours I spent crying on my bedroom floor, it came to me like an epiphany: “What you have done is completely consistent with your moral convictions.” And with that I started to forgive myself and started to recover.
Several days after the abortion, my partner came to visit me. I cooked him dinner. He didn’t really make any effort to look after me. I guess he had assumed it was easy too, after all, it was just a clump of cells.
Since my abortion I have spoken to a few friends and found out they too have had abortions, and that they too found the decision to abort obvious but not easy, and that they too do not regret the decision they made but regret having had to make it. That they too felt isolated, frightened, and unsure about what to expect. Every time a friend shares an abortion story with me, I feel a little lighter. And I am so grateful to Lindsey Osterman for writing and talking about her abortion. A woman who is very much not a fuck-up had an abortion too. Maybe I’m not a fuck-up, either.
I wonder why abortions don’t get spoken about more openly and more frequently. Why we don’t discuss how hard it is, even when it is clearly the right thing to do? Maybe because of the feeling that individuals who seek elective abortions feel they don’t deserve sympathy – after all, it is just the consequences of a decision we made, maybe we feel like the suffering is self-inflicted and so to some extent deserved? Or maybe it’s the fear that being honest about the process could be weaponised by those who seek to stop people from accessing abortion. Or maybe it’s the disgust and the stigma that accompanies a body equipped with a uterus and vagina. But the silence around abortion and sanitisation of abortion stories just leaves people utterly alone, unable to make an informed choice between abortion options, and totally unprepared for the realities of what can be a physically and emotionally difficult experience. The more we talk about it, the less secrecy there is around abortion, the more we can support each other.
And it is ok to struggle with, or even be heartbroken over a decision you have made, even when it is absolutely the right decision to make. My abortion was physically and emotionally hard, one of the hardest things I have been through. But it was still the right decision, and I still don’t regret it.
So please, talk about your abortion, publicly and not anonymously if you can. Let other people know they are not alone and be the person your friend can talk to when they are on the floor, crying and feeling desperately alone. I wish I could speak up, but my family still don’t know, and I still don’t know how to tell them.