Yes, it is great that in this country we (more or less) have the right to choose. It is a right that more than 200,000 women in the UK make use of every year. And while having such a right can, in my eyes, only be a positive thing, it is not enough to grant women the right to control their bodies and then step back saying ‘job done’. Women want control and autonomy, yes, but they still need support, and they deserve to be treated with respect and care throughout the process.
I had an abortion while studying for my undergraduate degree at Cambridge. Abortion was not a discussion I’d actively participated in before, let alone something I’d expected to come face to face with mid-exam term. Of course, I knew my stance on the matter – it hadn’t changed in the many years since those rudimentary topics for ‘debate’ were first put to us in RE lessons – but theory and practice are sisters, not twins, and the decision to terminate my unplanned pregnancy still involved significant internal struggle.
External factors, sadly, did little to alleviate that struggle. The difficulty of accessing services, the condescending remarks from healthcare professionals, the intense feeling of isolation I experienced throughout the process all made it hard for me at the time to consider just how lucky I am to have the right to choose. This is because having a right and making use of that right are two different things. All women in the UK have the right; not all will be in a position to consider using it. Despite the fact that 1 in 3 UK women will have an abortion by the time they are 45 years old, we still tend to get bogged down in the hypothetical when talking about abortion.
Debates on whether women should or shouldn’t have the right to choose, such as the one held by the Cambridge Union this term, are particularly frustrating. It seems unlikely that anyone left the chamber with a radically different view to the one they held walking in. That’s because abortion is an emotive topic, and people stake themselves to their positions. Personally, I would find it more helpful to hear pro-choice advocates discussing how we can improve women’s experience of abortion, rather than banging their heads against a wall trying to dissuade pro-lifers of deeply ingrained beliefs. I say this because I believe women’s experience of abortion can be made better. The pandemic, by revolutionising access to abortion services, has shown just how much progress there is to be made. But the only way to keep this progress going is to keep the conversation alive.
I understand why it is easy – and important – to consider more abstract concepts when thinking about abortion; there are all sorts of ethical, scientific and legal grounds to cover. But at the end of the day, it is an incredibly physical procedure, and the lived experience should not be discounted.
Something that particularly stuck out during my own experience of abortion was the varying degrees of sensitivity shown by healthcare professionals. Of course, medical staff in England, Scotland and Wales can refuse to offer abortion services because of conscientious objection, which I support. However, I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the health workers who do carry out abortions to refrain from making crass remarks. During one appointment with a male doctor well into his sixties, my unplanned pregnancy was referred to as my ‘little mistake’. My little mistake because, naturally, the pregnancy couldn’t have anything to do with my partner or the method of contraception we were using. Noticing my shocked reaction, and possibly trying to smooth things over, Dr Tact switched to small talk. The topic of my degree seemed innocuous enough but, on hearing what I was studying, he exclaimed, ‘Wow, that sounds like a fascinating subject.’ Then: ‘I doubt you expected there to be two of you studying it!’
Leni Zumas has spoken about the deeply entrenched misogyny in our culture, about assumptions that women can’t be trusted to control their own bodies. These fictions, she says, are so ingrained in our culture that sometimes we don’t realise we’re acting on them. I do not think my clumsy GP – as out of touch as he may have been – was in any way acting on conscious prejudices. He was just being thoughtless, and he probably felt as uncomfortable in the situation as I did. But thoughtlessness can be as harmful as malicious intent, and I often kick myself for not sharing some well-meaning feedback with the surgery about how to better prepare its staff for those situations.
I encountered these sorts of comments from male and female health workers. Even as the shock factor faded, the feelings of extreme discomfort remained. I hadn’t told anyone about my pregnancy, so every nagging comment or passed judgement left a bitter taste I felt unable to wash away with the usual rant to a friend or soothing counsel from my mum. The most difficult part of having an abortion while studying at university was that it was an intensely lonely experience. I was referred to The Rosie Hospital, Addenbrooke’s purpose-built maternity centre, where I attended all my appointments – the scan, the routine tests, the administering of various pills – alone, but surrounded by expectant couples glowing with excitement about the next chapter in their lives. While they were discussing print options for ultrasound scans, I was burying myself in revision notes and trying to drown out conversations about baby names and gender reveals.
On the actual day I spent in hospital, in an integrated ward shared with various obs and gynae procedures, there were five women also undergoing medical terminations. We all received excellent care from the nurses, but while the other women had partners, friends – one girl even had both her parents there – I had flashcards and a growing sense of dread about my ability to sit next week’s exams.
Looking back at the experience, my main regret is not telling more people about what I was going through. Of course there are the feelings of embarrassment, of internalised shame, and the desire to keep private things private. However, the following week, when I was leaving Sidgwick in a teary, post-exam haze, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in months. I was tired and emotional and not in the mood to be consoled by the usual words of reassurance we tell one another in exam term, and the real reason for my distress just slipped out. My friend was completely unfazed, and told me she’d been through the same thing last term. Her words of support and total understanding were exactly what I needed to hear, and gave me the confidence to tell the handful of friends I’d wanted to involve from the very beginning.
Since then, I’ve spoken to a number of women who have faced similar experiences while studying at university. The common theme is that abortion can be an isolating experience, not made easier by the tendency to prioritise academic success over student wellbeing. Still, I think it is helpful for students considering abortion to know they are not alone, and that even if current discourse tends to focus on the hypothetical – ‘should women be able to get an abortion?’ – there are conversations taking place that put women’s experience more at the centre of discussion.
I am grateful to live in a country where I have the right to choose. I did not have to travel abroad or seek abortion services underground, where the level of physical care would be woefully inferior to the excellent service provided by the NHS. However, ingrained misogyny continues to reign: in the consulting room, in public debate, in reactions on social media. And so fighting for the right to control our bodies is only half the battle. Those bodies need care and support – emotional as well as physical – and until the culture of misogyny is stamped out, women will continue to feel ashamed about seeking it out.