Don’t let the b******s get you down

by F

November 27, 2019

I had an abortion during my master’s degree in the UK. I was 21, had no money, was living in college, and had a master’s and a PhD on the horizon – there was no choice about it. It was a case of failed contraception: we were sober, I was with my boyfriend of several years visiting from abroad, and we used a condom which showed absolutely no signs of breaking or failing (if that had happened, I would have taken emergency contraception). I was recently off the pill because it was making me depressed to a suicidal degree, and hadn’t had the time to find an alternative.

I firmly believe that anyone should be able to get an abortion in any circumstances. But I don’t think many people are aware of how easy or common it is for contraception to fail even in the best circumstances. I’m still bitter that for all the times when I’d not been so careful or missed a pill etc, it was this one that messed things up. It was completely out of the blue.

I realised at about 10 weeks. Then the faff began. I made an appt at the local GP, which turned out to be with a Christian doctor, who refused to sign my form. (In the UK, you need two doctors to sign a form to get the process started). That’s sort of fair enough. But when I had made that first appt on the phone, the (male) receptionist had asked me what the appt was about, and I had told him it was for a termination – and he must have knowingly put me with a doctor who was very conspicuously religious. So this first doctor made me an appt with another at the same practice, to get the ball rolling; the appt was four days later. This doctor also refused to sign my form on religious (Christian) grounds. I was absolutely devastated, but also furious because I felt like I was being manipulated. I was certainly patronised and infantilised, and spoken down to by both of those doctors, the first of whom kept refraining pitifully, ‘Oh, if you were my daughter…’ I was too scared, sick, and ashamed to challenge it.

I eventually got a third appt, the next Monday, and got the signature a whole week later than I could have done. The delay meant that I had morning sickness for just over a week before the termination, which obviously isn’t the end of the world but could have been avoided. During this time, I had to tell my uni supervisor that I needed an extension for my master’s work. He’s the top person in the field, and I was terrified and ashamed; I also knew that his religion might make him unsympathetic or even actively hostile. It went fine in the end and he was very understanding, but I was still devastated that this hero of mine had to know this about me.

At the hospital, I had to get the second signature. I knew I would have to discuss it all with a doctor a fourth time. I was sick, miserable and crazed from the hormones and the fear that for some reason they wouldn’t let me have it. I was determined to keep it together, and practiced telling the doctor all the ‘good’ reasons I couldn’t have a baby – that I had no money, was at university and planning on a career in academia, no financial support or place of my own outside of uni, and my parents would probably kill me. Funnily enough, despite proudly being a feminist, I don’t remember placing any value in my mind on the fact I just desperately desperately did not want to be pregnant.

I liked this doctor immediately. She was part of the maternity ward, matter-of-fact and professional, and clearly did this all the time. So I gave my spiel, listing off the reasons, trying to seem as mature, rational and, I guess, as grown-up and calm, as possible, so she would take me seriously and see that it was a practical necessity. She stopped me, and told me this was all irrelevant. What she needed to lawfully sign the form was proof that the pregnancy would affect my mental health. And suddenly I fell apart completely. I couldn’t speak, I began sobbing uncontrollably. How could I prove that it was going to affect my mental health? What proof is there? What could I tell her that I hadn’t already – wouldn’t dropping out of uni, ruining my career and my relationship with my parents, potentially becoming homeless, wouldn’t all that count as affecting my mental health? I was absolutely terrified. She let me break down for a few minutes, weeping and shaking. And then she said, ‘Well, that’s ok then, we can put you through’. My head was spinning. All she had wanted – or, I guess, what she needed legally – was for me to break down emotionally. Not for me to present a good reasoned argument, about the practical details of my situation, but for me to cry.

It took a few days before I thought about this, and I was furious. I’m still furious. I’m furious that I was placed in a position of absolute terror. I’m furious that I had to break down, like a child, and that I wasn’t taken seriously until then. And I’m furious that that particular kind of emotional expression is what is necessary, legally, in this country. Women who are professional, mature and serious clearly aren’t in enough trouble to deserve an abortion. You have to express fear and emotional distress in a stereotypically ‘feminine’ way – weeping and hysteria – in order to be believed.

The abortion itself was a medical one, with two pills taken over two days, and I had it in hospital. I went on my own, with different friends visiting me at different times. The hospital was excellent. Because I was far along for a medical termination it took about twelve hours. It was basically like a very heavy period. When the foetus came out I struggled not to look at it. The hormones in your body make you feel very maternal, and mess with your head for weeks afterwards. Seeing the foetus was weird and awful; seeing photos fake or real put around by anti-abortion campaigns feels in equal parts painful and petty. Beyond the guilt I felt at the time – profound but caused by a toxic cocktail of pregnancy hormones and internalised misogyny – I felt a powerful dissociation from myself which lasted many hours. I felt like an animal, like I was breeding something. It’s the familiar dissociation of self-identifying women under patriarchy, who at times feels like ‘one of us’ and at other times are confronted with their otherness. It felt, bizarrely, as though I was just as shocked and horrified at seeing it than a man would be in the same position. I felt betrayed by my body, like it had been conspiring against me, like it wasn’t mine. Later that night, despite the evil hormones, I felt overwhelmingly relieved, clean, whole, like a parasite had been removed, an infected appendix taken out. That’s how it felt for me on the day.

Having an abortion was absolutely the right decision for me. The vast majority of the time, I am extremely extremely happy I had it, and eternally grateful to all those women who fought for my right to have it. The only, rare times I’m not, it’s usually because anti-abortion rhetoric or internalised misogyny is playing tricks in my head, and it’s thoughtless and nothing to do with me. I’m angry and hateful that it affects me even to this small degree, and can only think how much harder it is for younger people or people who are exposed to it more often.

It’s been three years and in that time I’ve done so much and I’ve grown up so much. All that living and learning and knowing myself wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had the abortion. I’m still furious that it was so difficult to get it done in a progressive left-wing university city in the UK, on the NHS, and that the system is built on terrifying and infantilising people.

Remember that our stories are ours to tell. We’d love to hear your story too!