Addressing the elephant in the room

Emily O’Sullivan is the deputy editor of a Birmingham-based magazine & a writer with an interest in working-class issues. A former Religion, Philosophy and Ethics student at KCL, she aims to represent working-class lives without the middle-class gaze that they are often subjected to.

[Featured Image: After Abortion, Zois Shuttie, 2011. Image shows woman lying topless under a blue blanket in a fetal position.]

TW: Abortion

From a young age, I’ve always known what I wanted. My life plan was written by me, directed by me, and featured – and I cannot stress this enough – exclusively me. And I knew one thing with unwavering certainty: that I was never, ever going to have a baby. 20+ years of making my life solely about somebody else sounded like my own personal hell, and any suggestion that I would eventually change my mind was met with actual offence. I, of all people, would find having an abortion easy. A walk in the park. An in-and-out, what are we going to have for dinner after this? job.

That’s why, when I urinated into a cup and sat there with my pants around my ankles waiting for the all-important negative result, I felt no fear. I messed around on my phone, sent a few texts, and looked back over to the stick. Positive. Ah-hah! I thought. What are the chances that I – me! – would get this messed up test? Having already thrown my certainly-not-positive urine down the sink before I could immerse another test stick, there was no way that I could wee again. I poured a glass of water and began drinking enough of it to bring in a hosepipe ban. Better luck with the next one, eh? I thought.

Round two. I got the cup, peed into it, dipped the stick and put it on the side to wait and see what happened. Reader, you can probably see what’s coming next. Shit, I thought. Just for good measure – and in case the entire scenario up until now had been one sick, ongoing fix – I did the third test. Positive. Three out of three, huh? The odds were increasingly not in my favour. Jesus, I said out loud, not a newcomer to narrating my own madness. I called my boyfriend, he reiterated a similar sentiment, and we came to the conclusion that we would ‘sort this out.’ This is fine, I thought, as everything became, well, not very fine at all.

Liv Pennington, Private View, 2006

The morning after at 7.30am, I called Marie Stopes. The woman who answered told me that British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) was closer to me and put me through to them. I nervously waited, kicking the stones on the train platform. A few minutes later, a woman answered and asked me why I was calling. Pissed off at the world and everybody in it, I wanted to say: ‘Why do you think I’m calling?’ but instead, I tried to tell her what had happened without every other train-goer knowing what I was talking about.

‘Well, I did three tests… and they all had answers that were, you know, the same?’ I said, making my way through the carriages. Thankfully, this was all that she needed to carry on with the conversation. I told her all of my details, she offered me a telephone appointment with a nurse in two weeks’ time and I agreed. Just as she began to regurgitate rote-learned information about what was going to happen next, the train went through a tunnel and the call cut off. At least I have an appointment, I thought, feeling none the wiser about what was ahead of me and being sort of glad that this was the case.

As the reality of the situation dawned on me, though, my relationship with my body began to change dramatically. My heart raced in my chest, and looking down at my stomach was not dissimilar to observing a weird – and unusually intrusive – science experiment. Was this really happening? I placed my hand roughly womb-high, wondering whether my stomach would feel different. I remembered somebody saying once that when you’re pregnant, your stomach will feel hard. That’s how most people know. I prodded at it, thinking that this probably wasn’t true.

Aside from the terror-filled thoughts and body poking, other things began to happen. Feeling as though I would harm the baby – despite knowing that I intended to have an abortion – I quit my 10-a-day (15-on-a-bad-day) smoking habit and rarely drank. I felt bloated and sick, and even the slightest of smells made me totally nauseous. Sometimes it was the particularly potent lunch of a colleague; others it was the musty smell of an old leather jacket. Tiredness overcame all else, and I struggled to keep my eyes open at my desk. Before I ate or drank anything, I thought: will this harm my baby?

Louise Bourgeois & Tracey Emin, Deep inside my heart, 2009-2010

My hormones took the emotional wheel, and my head became a dark, hazy mess. Though I kept going, went to work, never (ok, rarely) cried, and just carried on with life as it was before, being pregnant was the only thing that I thought about. Nothing held the same importance to me anymore; nothing seemed bigger than this. Though I sat at my desk, my mind and body were (or may as well have been) elsewhere. In hindsight, I can’t remember having really thought about what I was supposed to do in the suddenly dreary reality of my situation.

Remembering that time is like reflecting on a past life lived in a different body. It is no wonder that, at times, I wanted to escape it altogether. Though on some days I felt like a mother – felt as though I could be a mother – on others I felt anxious and uneasy about what was going on inside my body, and I wished more than anything that I could just feel normal again. I wished that I didn’t have to make this moral decision; a decision that I had only really pondered from a comfortable distance in ethics lectures.

Two weeks later, the call came. I answered all of the same questions as I had before, and then some. In graphic detail – an element of having an abortion that you seemingly can’t avoid – the nurse told me what would happen. You can expect blood clots the size of lemons; it might not work, and if it doesn’t, we’ll have to surgically vacuum it out of you; you might die of blood loss; they may have to remove your womb. Feeling massively cheered up by this conversation I put the phone down, with an appointment booked for another two weeks’ time 55.5 miles away from my house.

If I wasn’t willing to travel, the number of weeks would increase, and my baby would grow to the size of an olive. His or her muscles would begin to get stronger, and a heartbeat would be able to be heard by doctors. The tail of my prawn-like baby would have disappeared, and he or she would be more human-like. Had three more weeks passed from the time of my miles-away appointment, I would need to have a surgical – rather than a medical – abortion. 55.5 miles seemed like a small price to pay for the urgency that the situation required.

As time continued to pass, I continued to find myself consumed by worry. What if those people are outside the clinic, shouting about how I’m a baby murderer with a one-way ticket to hell? I thought. In truth, I probably would have agreed with them. I knew that my baby had fingers and toes; that its eyelashes were beginning to protect its tiny eyes. I knew that he or she was the size of a raspberry. I knew that it wasn’t just a ‘bunch of cells’ like many of my friends had suggested whilst trying to be supportive. In my eyes, it was a baby. It had a heartbeat, it was growing every day, and it was a – it was my – baby.

Louise Bourgeois & Tracey Emin, I wanted to love you more, 2009-2010

Only a few days before my abortion was due to take place, I got into my boyfriend’s car and began to sob. Consoled only by my first cigarette in four weeks, I felt overcome by a myriad of emotions. I didn’t want to have an abortion in many ways, and even before I had actually done it a guilt consumed me that I just couldn’t shake. I knew, deep down, that I was doing the right thing. I didn’t – I don’t – have a house, the career that I’m ultimately aiming for, or the stability that a baby deserves. But I also knew that I was capable of love, and capable of loving my baby as a mother should do.

A few days later, the date that I had been waiting for came around and we took the 55.5-mile journey. I felt anxious as I looked around the alien town that we were driving into. I had never been there before, but the bleakness of it felt pretty apt. The roads were narrow and dotted with potholes, and graffiti covered the cracked walls enclosing overgrown front gardens. There was a dull feeling in the air, as if everybody was incurably bored. Luckily, due to the far-from-ideal circumstances that had taken me there, I had already written it off as a place to revisit.

We parked in the centre of town and walked over to the clinic. It didn’t look like much, and there were no flashing ‘ABORTIONS OVER HERE’ signs exposing me to the disinterested passers-by. As we walked in, I was shocked to find babies and children with big, innocent eyes staring back at me in the waiting room. Jesus, I thought, consoled a little when one of the children began to bang his fists on a filing cabinet. After waiting for a while, my name was finally called out. I entered the treatment room and exchanged pleasantries with the nurse.

The first step was an ultrasound. Do you want to see the screen? the nurse asked me. Do you want to know if it’s twins? Do you want to have a printed version of the scan? I nodded to all of the above as she ticked an endless number of boxes, believing that I should see and know all that I could. After all, it was my baby and it had been growing inside of me. Perhaps I was hoping that I would have a moment of clarity, or that I would see – really see – a baby, rather than an unidentifiable prawn-like dot. As she turned the screen towards me, I made out the rough shape of a tiny being, but that was all.

I went back into the waiting room, anticipating a call back in to take the pill that would mark the beginning of the termination. Around 20 minutes passed, and I was ushered into the treatment room of a different, but equally pleasant, nurse. She took the tablet out of the wrapper and asked me whether I was 100% sure that I wanted to take it. Of course, I wasn’t, but as she passed it over to me I took it with a big gulp of water, knowing that this was the reason I found myself in this unfamiliar place, and that this was, in a sad way, the right thing to do.

After the appointment, I felt numb and agitated. I knew that I had to go home and take four more tablets – I’ll spare the detail here – and that after this, weeks of heavy bleeding would follow, accompanied by those much-anticipated lemon-like clots. And it did. The bleeding was heavy and painful, and I spent four days drugged up on codeine and devoted to a hot water bottle with the same attachment that one would expect from a slowly developing umbilical cord. For weeks afterwards, I couldn’t sleep without the (surprisingly significant) warmth and comfort that it provided.

Paula Rego, Triptych, 1998

As time goes by, and I continue to be reminded of what has happened through blood stains and occasional stomach pains, the weight of my abortion remains heavy. Sometimes I break down and feel sickened by what I’ve done. Though in reality it makes no sense, I am able to vividly picture my could-have-been baby – often a girl – with a chubby face and blonde hair, curled with the innocence of childhood. I think about what could have been; about the love I already had for the tiny raspberry inside of me, and the love I had left still.

In the hope of calming these exhausting feelings, I looked online one day for abortion support. One site mentioned that most women don’t require post-abortion therapy. I felt, as I had many times before, a mental and emotional confusion. Was I not supposed to feel like this? After all, I had made the decision myself. I nodded when asked whether I was 100% sure I wanted to do it. I was the one who booked the appointment and went 55.5 miles to attend it. Whilst all of this may be true, I’m slowly learning to accept that doing the ‘right thing’ and feeling great about it are rarely mutually exclusive.

Paula Rego, Untitled: The Abortion Pastels, 1998

Whilst every woman deserves the right to choose, abortion isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t come without its physical, mental and social repercussions. It often carries with it shame and guilt, though there are other women who – I’m sure – find it much easier than I did. No matter how you feel, though, who amongst us wants to call up their boss and say, sorry, I can’t come into work for three days because I’m actually having an abortion? Stigma is still a major issue for many women terminating pregnancies, and the procedure is often considered something that should remain behind the veil of a faux excuse.

What I want to say to a woman with an unplanned pregnancy; who isn’t sure; who has an appointment in what feels like a millennia; who is torn between what’s right for her and the feelings that she has for what’s growing inside of her; who is subjected to everybody else’s thoughts on the issue and can’t find clarity in her mind, is that you don’t have to feel as though it’s just a bunch of cells. You don’t have to see the issue as simple. You don’t have to account for everybody else’s feelings. And you certainly don’t have to feel weird about being upset, or conversely, not being upset at all.

For me, the right thing to do feels like talking about my abortion, my body, and what’s hiding out in the darkest corners of my mind. Talking about the guilt, how I hope to deal with what’s happened, and how I feel about the future. I’ve learnt a lot from my abortion. I’ve learnt that I’m not an awful person; I’m just a person who had to make a decision. I hope that by talking about it and reiterating that it’s not something to be ashamed of – and yes, it’s not something to be ashamed of even if you feel like the world’s worst ever person – another woman feels a little bit better about exercising her right to choose.

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