This story by Lucy Cavendish is titled Why I chose abortion twice and appears in The Telegraph.
Abortion is back in the news yet, understandably, many women still find it difficult to talk about. Here Lucy Cavendish – who has been through it twice – offers a candid view.
Virtually every woman I know of my generation has had an abortion. The problem is that no one talks about it. It is hidden away as if it were a dirty secret. This week, however, every time I've opened a newspaper or turned on the radio, abortion has been the topic du jour.
First, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries called for the legal limit for terminations to be pushed back from 24 to 20 weeks, in preparation for a crucial Commons vote on the issue on May 20, when the Government introduces the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Then the Department of Health announced that it was considering allowing more women to have early abortions using pills at local family planning centres. On Tuesday, BBC2 airs a much-hyped documentary, Abortion: The Choice and, to top it all, Britain is on its way to becoming the abortion capital of Europe, second only to Ukraine.
Yet women still don't talk about it.
There are 200,000 of us who have abortions each year, of whom only 1 per cent opt to terminate their pregnancies after 22 weeks. How many of the other 99 per cent's stories do we hear? I have rarely talked about my own experiences. I have had two abortions, both when I was in my early twenties and contraception – condom first, cap second – failed.
The first was just before I was due to sit my finals and in an on-off relationship. I told the man responsible. He wasn't interested. My next pregnancy happened a few years later when I was starting up the career ladder. I was 25 and in a serious relationship. My boyfriend at the time made it pretty clear that he didn't want a baby and I didn't want one either.
That is as far as our conversation went, and I will be honest, it never seriously occurred to me not to terminate those pregnancies. Both times, I found out I was pregnant early on and, like 90 per cent of women who have abortions, I was in hospital before 12 weeks was up to have the foetus removed. I went on my own for the first one. My boyfriend came with me for the second.
The operation then involved either a D and C (dilation and curettage), commonly known as "a scrape", or having the foetus vacuumed out. You went into hospital, signed a form and were then given a general anaesthetic, which meant that, whatever happened, you were blissfully unaware of it. One minute you were pregnant, the next you weren't. That's how simple it all felt. You woke up, went home, put some hot damp towels by the bed and waited for the bleeding. It was almost Dickensian.
This operation took place day in, day out. That was what the doctor told me as I sat, surrounded by other women who also didn't want to be pregnant, in a silent waiting-room. We all trooped in, one after the other and then we all woke up together, not mentioning a word of what we had just been through.
After the second operation, though, as I tried to avoid the gaze of other women in the recovery room, I saw an older woman crying in the corner and I wish now I'd asked her why. At the time, I imagined we all felt the same way; that having a baby was something we didn't want. Why, then, did none of us feel able to talk to anyone else in the room?
There seems to be no coming together of women in solidarity over abortion. Women unite to help when a battered wife leaves a husband or a wife and mother is abandoned by a husband or lover, but on the issue of abortion there is a resounding silence. We don't swap stories over the dinner table. We do not nod in sympathy.
This may be because the underlying assumptions about women who have abortions are uncomplimentary. All any woman has to do is pick up a women's magazine or a newspaper to read endless stories of how X regretted her abortion or Y nearly died from complications.
We are sometimes made to feel that we are murdering our unborn babies and acting immorally. We are snubbing life – not just life, a baby's life. And, these days, babies in the womb have been given faces, names and characteristics through sophisticated technologies such as 3-D scanning. The implication is that a woman has got pregnant because she is an irresponsible, selfish slut who doesn't care about the life of her unborn child and cares only for herself.
Abortion is also something that seemingly has nothing to do with men. Once the woman is pregnant, it is her decision alone as to what to do with that pregnancy. The only exception to this general lack of involvement was in 1987 when Richard Carver, a 24-year-old student at Magdalene College, Oxford, took his 21-year-old former girlfriend to court to stop her from having the abortion she wanted. The girlfriend was 21 weeks pregnant and the court upheld her right not to have the baby. In the end, though, she was so traumatised by the case that she went into hiding, had the baby, and handed it to Carver, who brought up the child.
From my own experience, even my committed boyfriend looked surprised when I asked him what he thought we ought to do about my being pregnant. Still, I wasn't asked about the feelings of my partners. Counselling was offered to me, not them.
But the other issue is that, when you are young, no one actually explains to you what the opposite of having an abortion means. Since I have had children (I have four), I think about this more often. Back then, I had no concept of what having a baby meant. I merely saw these potential babies as things I just could not have; as drawbacks, inanimate objects that were somehow going to ruin my life. I realise now that maybe I could have had them. Would it have been a disaster? I don't know. But I made the same choice twice and I believe I had the right to do so. And I do not regret it. I don't lie awake wondering what these foetuses would have grown into or how old they would be now or any of that stuff. For a while afterwards, on the odd occasion, I did. It would have helped, I think, to have been able to speak to someone about it.
I believe that women should be encouraged to be open about it. Maybe this would reduce the number who opt for a late (20 weeks-plus) termination. Of my friends who have had an abortion, only one had a 20-week-plus termination. She was 15 and had acted stupidly with a boy from her local school; they had lost their heads and didn't use contraception. She crossed her fingers and hoped it wouldn't happen. But it did – and she reacted by not telling anyone. She says now that she couldn't bear the thought of telling her parents. Five months later, the waist band of her school skirt was getting tight.
Eventually, her mother noticed and my friend confessed. Her parents, as she had expected, hit the roof, but then promptly booked her into hospital. She was told she would have to be induced and then to "pass" the child. By 24 weeks, it's no longer a simple operation. My friend has been scarred for life by this experience.
Oddly enough, I have another friend who became pregnant when she was in her early twenties and, once again, somehow didn't notice. One day, while working as a ski rep, she fell down with pain and an hour later a baby came out. That baby is now going to university. But my point is that women do get pregnant when they don't want to and, sometimes, they are incapable of dealing with it. Some of them – bright university graduates – get pregnant and don't realise until it's too late. Still, choosing to terminate a pregnancy that late on is a serious decision, and I don't believe anyone takes it lightly. The baby will have kicked. It is alive in the way that an eight-week-old blob is not.
I also know women who, at my age (40) and having had children, have gone on to abort further pregnancies. For some mothers that is shocking. The journalist Miranda Sawyer once wrote that she couldn't cope with the idea of aborting a baby now that she had children of her own. Yet, in The Times, Caitlin Moran stated precisely the opposite, that after two children she didn't want a third and an abortion was "one of the least difficult decisions of my life".
But neither of these women is pushing to change the legality of this difficult issue. Some mothers take the decision that they don't want any more children and that, even though they are more aware of what it involves than any teenager or woman who hasn't had a baby, they still choose not to go down that path. All the women I know who have taken this option have done so quickly, but as early abortions are now carried out under local anaesthetic, they have also been made aware of the doctor's disapproval.
There are many who say that having an abortion these days is too easy, that it is just a default mechanism for people who have not taken enough responsibility for themselves in the first place. Arguments rage over whether a foetus is a "person" from the moment it is conceived, or whether that process happens later. Some hard-line anti-abortionists will tell you that there is no real difference between getting rid of an unwanted pregnancy at eight weeks and at 24.
For most people, however, there is a difference. Babies born at 24 weeks can survive. As one caller to Radio 5 Live said, on the Victoria Derbyshire show on Tuesday morning: "What is the difference between aborting a baby at 24 weeks to someone giving birth to a live baby at 24 weeks and then killing it? That would be counted as murder." Another caller, a man in his fifties, rang to say that he had been born at 24 weeks and had miraculously survived. Also, his wife had had part of a bone missing in her skull and, had she been scanned in the womb, her parents would also have been encouraged to have a termination. "My wife's fine," he said. "She's a successful woman but neither of us would be here in this day and age."
However, there were many other poignant calls for women who opt for late terminations to be treated with sympathy. An anonymous male caller told of how his mother hadn't wanted him, but also hadn't wanted a termination. As soon as he was born, he was put into foster care and grew up going from one home to another. "Sometimes," he said, "I wish I hadn't been born, I feel that unwanted."
The conclusion is that, in an ideal society, we would all be ultra-responsible about contraception, both men and women, and that this contraception would be foolproof. Yet life doesn't work like that.
Young girls don't expect to get pregnant. Married women with children don't expect to get pregnant, either. How many times do you hear the words "I can't believe it. It was just once"? Yes, of course we should all be aware that having sex potentially leads to having a baby, but who seriously thinks about this in the throes of passion?
Some married-with-children couples are so overawed by the fact that they've managed to find the time and energy to make love, thoughts of super-gluing a condom on go out of the window. Another friend of mine swears she got pregnant by "leakage and seepage", so even the withdrawal method, so favoured by the long-time married, is not a safe option.
Should a family already battered and torn and on the breadline be forced into having another child when they really don't want one?
As a society we can't close our eyes to this. It is not a perfect world. Our abortion laws have to reflect this. Think about it. When you are sitting on the Tube, a woman near you has had an abortion, ditto in the office, in the supermarket queue, the cinema, the art gallery, the museum, at the bus stop, everywhere.
We are ubiquitous and yet unknown, unseen. We do not have to wear a badge of shame because we all made the choice not to have a child. It is an everyday event and, as a society, we need to learn to understand that.