This story by journalist & life coach Felicity Morse is titled “I’ve had two abortions: This is what I want you to know about shame,” and it appears in i News.
I have had two abortions. The first was after graduating from uni. The second was just over a year later. I am not the only woman to have had multiple abortions and I am not the first person to make the same mistake twice. Yet for a long time I felt very alone and ashamed about this.
I’m sharing my story because I want women who have had multiple abortions to know that they are not on their own – and so they have a human face to put to the numbers. Almost four in 10 terminations are now carried out on women who have undergone a procedure before. One in three women will have an abortion before they are 45. Yet abortion is so often talked about theoretically in news coverage. Reduced to statistics or fired out as moral polemic. It’s still so taboo that, for many people, the stakes are seen as too high for them to feel they can share their stories.
Shame loves silence
But we need to talk about it because the shame that society heaps upon abortion will only thrive in silence. I want women (and men) to feel more free to share all parts of their experience without fear of shame. Keeping silent about our experiences threatens to hurt not only those affected by abortion, but can undermine how important proper access to contraception is.
When you post about abortion on Facebook or Twitter, someone who has had a termination will see it. Your words, especially if negative or judgmental, can have a visceral effect, but quite often it’s not easy for those affected to explain why they feel those words are hurtful. To tell you they know because they have had an abortion – perhaps they’ve even had two.
I do not want any woman who has had a termination – or more than one termination – to experience shame. If shame is allowed to grow unchecked, it can leak into every part of our person. Clinical psychologist Marilyn J Sorensen describes the difference between shame and guilt, saying: “guilt… is the feeling of doing something wrong. Shame is the feeling of being something wrong. When a person experiences shame, they feel ‘there is something basically wrong with me.’”
Shame makes you feel powerless
Such a belief makes you feel powerless, alone and can stop us accessing the help we need to. Paradoxically, one of the reasons I needed a second abortion was because I was so unkind to myself about the first one. I didn’t ask for support from friends and family because I was afraid they would judge me. Shame shut me down.
Some people associate shame with heat – the warm flush you get when you’re embarrassed. But when shame is really huge, it is freezing cold. It starts in your belly then spreads an icy paralysis up your spine, travelling up to your head where it trickles down over and smothers your body, tightening your throat, hardening your heart and choking up your whole body. Real shame numbs you, until you can feel nothing but shame itself. It is almost as if the intensity of what you are feeling is too great for your body to cope with, so shame steps in, as if to save you. But shame isn’t healing because none of your feelings – of grief, of pain, of disappointment – can emerge from beneath this incredible weight.
I am sharing this because I do not want anyone to feel as ashamed as I did. Sociologist Brené Brown says: “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement.”
What having two abortions doesn’t mean
Six months after my first abortion I was in London, in my first job, lying in bed and unable to get to sleep. It was January and the weather was filthy. The noises of the window frames and the blinds rattling started to spook me. There was a street light right outside our fourth floor window, casting eerie orange light everywhere. I started to become hysterical, shaking and crying. I had become convinced the banging at the window was the ghost of “my dead baby” which had “come back for revenge”.
“It’s trying to fly through the window and kill me,” I screamed at my sleeping boyfriend.
The next morning I got up and went to work as normal. “I am a strong, independent woman,” I told myself. “I got this”.
But that episode should have signalled to me that I wasn’t really OK. Lurking deep down was the belief that something bad was going to happen to me because I chose to have an abortion. I felt that perhaps I even deserved it. That’s in spite of knowing I didn’t want a baby; knowing that it was just the evacuation of a clump of cells; knowing that it was not morally wrong and having a physically pain-free termination. I think I was even ashamed of feeling ashamed.
It helped me when I ditched the labels and looked at what happened in its most basic terms. Having two terminations means I got pregnant twice and both of those times I chose to have a termination instead of following through with the pregnancy. I never intended to get pregnant, so it also means I was not using an effective form of birth control.
What having two terminations doesn’t mean is that I am a stupid person, that I am useless, that I should be shunned by society, suffer punishment or live the rest of my life in a state of trauma. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to be loved.
It was not easy for me to accept that. I have made these judgements about myself, consciously or unconsciously, at one time or another, in the five years following my terminations. I don’t want you to do the same.
To be human is to make mistakes. If making a mistake – or making the same mistake twice – means any of those things, then we all deserve such harsh judgement. Much better to get good at forgiving yourself for your mistakes. Because it only through forgiving ourselves that we can start to really forgive others when they make mistakes too.
Asking for the right birth control
Another reason judgement was unhelpful for me was because it was half the reason I had fallen pregnant in the first place.
The pill – combined or otherwise, exacerbated feelings of sadness, made me feel heavy, foggy and tired. I tried about five different types before giving up trying to get it right. I figured there must be something wrong with me – all my friends were on the pill and it seemed to work for them, so maybe I should just put up with it and hope it got better?
I had unrealistic expectations of myself. I couldn’t really put up with it. I was already recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and struggling with anxiety and depression. Taking a pill that added to these feelings wasn’t ever going to be tolerable for me. Instead I tried to “game it” – taking the pill on the months when I thought I would have sex. Needless to say, this is not an effective way to use contraception.
I used condoms too. Sometimes. But I was so afraid of judgment that when boyfriends would ask “aren’t you on the pill?”, sometimes I would lie and say no, and other times I would say yes, but then feel too ashamed to explain. There were other times where I said nothing because I was so afraid of being judged. Fear of judgement stopped me from feeling strong enough to stand up for myself and ask for what I needed – either with boyfriends or at the GPs. Fear and judgement didn’t help me get what I needed. They certainly didn’t help me recover.
What I wished I’d known
I’d wish I’d been stronger in standing up for myself. I wish I’d been less afraid and less ashamed of my first abortion. I wish I had less expectation about how I should feel. I wish I felt I could have talked about it without it being all in whispers and discomfort and worry. I wish I’d known that if I felt less shame, then other people would have followed my lead. I couldn’t bear the aftermath. I felt like no one was there to catch me if I was to fall apart, so I swept it under the carpet, ignored it and carried on.
But that didn’t let me address the issue that had led to it happening in the first place. I couldn’t bear to think about sex or men at all and I couldn’t bear to go back to family planning clinic because it would mean confronting all the judgements I made about being an idiot or not looking after myself in the past. When you have an abortion they talk to you about contraception and I remember telling the nurse, “I won’t need any because I am never going to have sex again”. But sex has a way of happening. And it did. And I got pregnant again.
Take responsibility – but don’t blame yourself
I’m on the contraceptive coil now. It’s long lasting and effective and I wish I’d known (asked, or been told) that this was an option – and not just for women who have given birth. I’m not blaming GPs but neither will I blame myself. Blame pushes you down until you are small and pitifully weak – you turn yourself into a victim. Taking responsibility is about stepping up and feeling empowered. I take responsibility for the fact I didn’t look after my body and my health and wellbeing in the way I needed to.
Fool me once, shame on you
The phrase goes “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” It was the only phrase that repeated itself in my head for months after the second one. In the two weeks following my second abortion, I quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, moved house and then proceeded to put on about three stone in six months. I finally lost that weight this year. Through therapy, through meditation, through forgiving myself for feeling awful and for not coping, I finally let go of that shame.
Keep in mind
Analysis, assumptions, statistics or moral posturing are removed from the reality of having a termination. My abortions were, in a practical sense, easy. They were on the NHS and carried out close to where I live. I felt very lucky to be able to get one in the time that I needed it. In the immediate aftermath I felt relief. The thing that I struggled with was feelings that I was somehow a terrible human and I think talking about it and having more of a sense of how unremarkable my experience was, would have helped. That’s my story.
Some women face a different kind of struggle. Women from Northern Ireland have to travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of pounds whilst going through this process. I can only imagine how much harder that makes it. Meanwhile Donald Trump has, in the first days of his presidency, signed a so called “global-gagging” rule on abortion – an executive order barring the US from giving foreign aid to any nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that helps women access abortion or even discusses the option of abortion with their patients.
US foreign aid is already banned from paying for abortions directly – this just stops international organisations from helping women with their own money. This measure won’t stop women having abortions – it will just make it that much harder for them to access safe ones.
This is just one way that shows how we view and cover abortion in the media here impacts reproductive rights across the world. It is 50 years since the Abortion Act was passed in England and Wales. It was inspiring to see so many women march on Saturday, but we need to keep talking. Especially about reproductive rights – to make sure they are maintained here and brought into place for women across the world. Women are not statistics and every woman will have a different story. Let’s make it so she doesn’t feel too ashamed to share it.
I have no regrets other than the nastiness I directed towards myself for a long time, which was both unhelpful and unnecessary. It’s taken me a while, but I am OK. Brené Brown also says the one thing shame cannot survive is empathy.
So I want to thank you for reading this, because by sharing this with you, I am finally able to come out from beneath that last lingering shadow of shame.