I’m going to tell you a secret. In the whole world only one other person knows this, so don’t tell anyone. When I was 19, I had an abortion. It was a rogue copper coil, an IUD that moved. I didn’t know – in fact when I went for the scan and the doctor couldn’t find it in my womb he said (cynical raised eyebrow) ‘are you sure it didn’t fall out?’ Was I sure that a piece of metal hadn’t fallen out of my vagina? Yes, I told him, I was sure. ‘Men!’ I remember thinking to myself, hysterically.
At the time, I was at university and living with six girls in a sprawling, stinker of a house. Takeaway boxes flowered across the floors like lily pads so that, to traverse the living room without treading in something greying or gross with mould, you needed the dexterity of a prima ballerina. We’d go weeks without any usable plates or cutlery, basing our cleaning rotas on when the smell became too unbearable. We kept a pet milk on the kitchen windowsill, a bottle of semi-skimmed that was so old and had been left out for so long that it had solidified into a cheesy creature. In short: we were filthy, overgrown toddlers. And we were having the times of our lives. Out of those six I was the fourth to have an abortion.
What does this mean? That so many of us had had one. I didn’t think about it at the time, I accepted that we had, each in our way, been careless or unfortunate. Three months before, I had been the shoulder to cry on for a friend who’d had a one night stand with an ex, had the condom break, then the morning-after pill fail. She was outraged more than upset, outraged at the sheer bloody bad luck of it. And outraged at the ex who ignored her when she asked for help. When she came back, pale and wan and miserable, she let out an outraged little breath, a huff of ire, and didn’t mention it again.
Like her, I had a surgical one, because they told me it would be all over much more quickly. What can I remember? Just scenes: like when I came-to from the general anaesthetic and the nurse gave me a clean pair of paper knickers to change into. I got up to put them on but started to bleed so badly that I almost passed out. She came back to find me, pants round my ankles and covered in blood from the waist down. I was mortified, but too dizzy to move. I felt blurry round the edges, shocked in a soapy, bubbling, about to burst kind of way. And, like my friend, I was pissed off. I thought if this is what being a woman is (a grown-up woman, making grown-up decisions) then it isn’t fucking fair. I thought of my boyfriend watching TV at home as I lay in a pool of my own blood being tutted at by a busy NHS nurse. ‘I told you to stand up slowly,’ she said and she put a paper towel over me.
I remember sitting with the other women who were having terminations that day, one of them had been diagnosed with cancer and had to make a choice: her life, or the unborn child’s. She was that matter of fact about it, she said it with just a slight inflection of sadness, a catch of breath in the throat that may have been nothing but that had the other women, myself included, casting our eyes about, wiping away surreptitious little tears. And I remember thinking: now there’s someone who deserves the option of an abortion.
What a fantastically strange thing to think! I am, quite obviously, pro-choice. I believe that what a woman decides to do with her body is no one elses business. And, for the majority of cases, I believe that, if she wants one, denying a woman an abortion is a fundamental violation of her human rights. It is happening though. Governments all over the world politicise the female body, impose rules on wombs and cervixes and ovaries; bloody, disembodied parts become tangled up in laws and legislations, if only my cervix could have it’s own say! But it can’t, only I can, and that poses a problem because when I was released from the hospital, I decided not to talk about it, not to anyone.
At the time it would have been easy to share. Talk was soothing in it’s searing honesty, because it did hurt to ask those questions: ‘Am I a bad person?’ ‘Am I selfish?’ ‘What have I done?’ And it hurt to hear the answers, because yes, in many ways we were irresponsible, and we knew it. But in the course of those painfully honest conversations, guilt was divested. I saw it happening, weepy girls sitting side-by-side comparing notes, a cathartic stripping away of the experience, so that all that was left was one undeniable truth that acted like a balm to the conscience: we’d done the only thing we could. Rightly or wrongly, abortion was the only option, not one of us at 18 and 19 was capable of being a mother, and with that acceptance came a grim camaraderie.
I didn’t tell anyone though. Not because I didn’t want that balm of shared experience, but for the same reason that I didn’t tell you the whole of this secret from the start, because talking about these things takes a steely, don’t-give-a fuck-what-you-think-I’m-standing-up-for-my-rights kind of courage. So, the whole truth: when I was 19, I had an abortion and it was my second one.
The first time was just five months before then. I was 18 and careless with my contraception. So careless in fact that when I took the pregnancy test and it came out positive the feeling was like when you spill red wine on the carpet, move a chair to cover it up then find the stain a few weeks later. It was a dull surprise, ‘oh yeah, that.’
‘You’re so calm about it,’ my friend patted my arm when I told her. And I was calm because ignorance is bliss and I was wholly ignorant. She marvelled because she had got pregnant when she was 16 and had been terrified. Each day, she told me, she would find a new change to a body that had barely finished growing – that was still growing – a change that was so incremental and yet so irrefutable that it scared her into a kind of stasis. She ignored it, she hid it under clothes and cushions at the dinner table, until she worked up enough courage to take herself to the GP. She had the termination at four months, a quiet slipping away for the day and a week off school. She told me about the furtive glances of nurses and doctors, the blank fish-eyed judgement of other people in the hospital: the sixteen-year-old there all by herself, for an abortion. And in the end, despite all of that secrecy, her parents still found out. ‘They thought they’d failed in some way, that was hard.’
I asked her point blank whether, now that she could look back on it, she thought it was her imagination or whether she still thought people had been judging her. Her answer, I remember it crystal clear as if she said it to me days ago rather than years, was not at all what I expected. ‘Well, at one point a nurse told me I should count myself lucky that I had this opportunity.’
I went to the GP with those words rolling around my mind like marbles in a pinball machine. ‘Count yourself lucky’ clanked about my brain and sent tinny, metallic reverberations through my fillings. Those words set my jaw on edged. The GP was quick and quiet, the hospital staff were officious, I felt stupid and juvenile the whole time and I didn’t cry once.
When I found out that I was pregnant the second time, it was a creeping sensation that I was sure couldn’t be true because I had this sorted now. They’d fitted the IUD at the same time as the first abortion, a two-in-one, they said, and 99.9% proof, ‘like being sterilized!’ But, as you know, it moved. I went to the GP, again, and when she said ‘what are you going to do?’ then I cried. She looked at me all concerned, a sympathy that was painful; that look was like having my raw, snotty emotions raked over. ‘There are other options, you know…this isn’t your fault.’ That look was reflecting back a me that was a bit scared and a bit hopeless and ashamed. That wasn’t the me that I wanted her to see. I wanted her to see someone who was strong. I nodded, I assured her that I was sure (‘sure I’m sure, yes, very sure’) and I got the fuck out of there, a referral slip screwed-up in my pocket.
I had the same doctor the second time. The same one who’d fitted the IUD, then, five months later couldn’t find it. ‘You put it in there, now don’t tell me you can’t find it,’ I said urgently, my voice hushed but shrill. He patted my arm, ‘it’ll be fiiine.’ And it was.
My mum doesn’t know about the second time, and not telling her, the one person who could have given me the kind of love and support that I needed right then was probably my biggest mistake. My friends still don’t know, and despite the shared experience, we just don’t speak about it. Partly because we don’t live in a society that is kind to women who have had abortions, there is still a greasy film of disapproval, that filters down even to those who appear to be pro-choice. And partly because, while not one of us feels like we did the wrong thing (not one of us looks wistfully into the distance and imagines the child-that-could-have-been) we all know that it takes braver women than us to be honest and say ‘I’m proud that I didn’t bring an unwanted baby into the world.’