I've never regretted my own abortion, but my postbag shows the trauma can last a lifetime
23:10 GMT, 14 May 2012
Like so many of my peers back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I passionately argued the case for abortion law reform. We knew how our mothers and grandmothers had feared unwanted pregnancies and what horrors were inflicted by illegal abortionists.
No woman, we proclaimed, should be forced to carry and give birth to an unwanted child. Which is precisely why we celebrated the availability of the Pill. Women, we said, should have control over their own bodies. ‘A woman’s right to choose’ was the slogan.
Believe me, I’m not ashamed of those arguments. No one in their right mind would want to go back to the dark age of the back-street abortionist, and there will always be accidents and mistakes.
Carelessness: The NHS is spending 1m a week on repeat abortions
Yet every movement has its backlash — and when I read that the NHS is spending just under 1 million per week on repeat abortions, I found myself plunged into another sort of depression at the sheer carelessness of my own sex. Yes, some of those terminations will have been carried out for sound reasons.
I should know — I had an abortion just over 30 years ago for medical reasons. And, frankly, I’ve no wish to see babies born to schoolgirls. But too many abortions are clearly happening because grown-up women are just too sloppy to take proper control of their own bodies.
When my generation marched with placards asking for ‘Abortion on Demand’, we were not suggesting abortion should be seen as merely another variety of contraception — although that view was held on the wilder shores of the women’s movement.
But, shockingly, today that seems to be how many young women treat a medical procedure which, let us not forget, terminates a life.
The latest figures paint a bleak picture. Around one third of all abortions in England and Wales are repeats, and in a London borough (Croydon) that proportion rises to half.
To put it most neutrally, this means large numbers of young women are not learning any lessons from a first mistake. To be more emotional, it means countless unborn babies are being sacrificed because women are too irresponsible and/or indifferent to treat sex and fertility with the seriousness it deserves.
Indifferent: The evidence suggests some women simply don't learn from their mistakes
Yesterday in the Mail, we read one appalling case study that involved not one but four repeat abortions between the ages of 12 and 16. Lucy Lanelly said: ‘I’ve blanked out my abortions and I have too much self-respect to go through all that again. I just wish other girls would respect their bodies enough not to give them up to anybody.’
It’s interesting that she doesn’t blame anybody but herself. She was given advice on contraception but it had no effect.
There are many issues tangled up within this question — and it would be wrong to point the finger at single women when some 9,564 married women had a repeat abortion in 2010.
But whatever happened to contraception No one nowadays can plead ignorance. When we were young, my married friends and I used to discuss the Pill and the coil, grimace at the messiness of caps and condoms — and take those contraceptive choices for granted. Most of us know somebody who’d had an ‘accident’ but coped when the new baby arrived.
My own shock came at the end of 1980. I’m open about this to demonstrate my understanding of why an abortion can be necessary, as well as my level of disquiet at the new figures.
In the chaos of moving house, I mislaid my contraceptive pills and found myself expecting again — just 11 months after a truly terrible bedridden pregnancy that gave me a very sick baby who needed ongoing hospital treatment.
After suffering septicaemia, I was in no state to face another pregnancy, and my new baby needed special nursing skills. That was why my new GP said: ‘If you were my daughter I’d counsel a termination.’ I knew he was right, thought about it deeply, and went ahead.
And I can honestly say I never once agonised over that decision in the following years, when my daughter’s health lurched from crisis to crisis. I’d made the right choice and felt at peace.
Yet that fortunate outcome is not echoed by my Saturday advice column’s postbag — which shows how the anguish caused by an abortion may lie dormant for years. More than once I have received a desperate letter from a woman traumatised by a termination carried out a long time ago.
This for example: ‘I’m approaching the 20th anniversary of an abortion and the sorrow and guilt do not fade even after all this time. I had very little excuse since I was 38 (no girl), although deeply immature.’
Here’s another married woman: ‘On January 28, 1992, I had an abortion, and since that day I have been on a mission of self-destruction. I had just gone back to work when I found I was pregnant again and knew we couldn’t cope. So I went to the doctors and sorted “it” out.
‘I came home and my life utterly went downhill. I have constantly put my husband through hell with stuff I have done, yet each time he forgives me. Every September (when the child would have been born) I go into such a depression. I killed my child, my daughters’ sibling, my mum and dad’s grandchild. How can anyone forgive me’
This is also typical, after a much more recent abortion: ‘At first I was sure I’d made the right choice, and my fiance was positive it was the right thing to do. As time went on, I started doubting my decision more and more.
‘I’ve always wanted children but he kept telling me it was the right thing, so I stopped listening to my doubts. I had the abortion and it was the most painful, horrible thing I’ve ever endured. Since then I have felt awful.
‘I cry every day. I have so much regret, and whenever I try telling my fiance he just tells me we have to move on.’
How I wish those women who have repeat abortions could see these letters, to understand their actions may be far from a quick fix. Or read journalist Kate Spicer’s account in the Mail last month of being haunted by the abortion she had at the age of 18, especially now that she is childless at 42.
With searing honesty, she wrote: ‘To my mind, the abortion was almost a rite of passage to being a proper woman. Terminating a pregnancy seemed far cleverer than pushing double buggies in small-town Devon, which is what some of my peers were doing.
‘Today, I feel more emotional, guilty almost. In the bitterest of ironies, that terminated pregnancy remains the sum total of my reproductive history.’
The issue of abortion is still a political and/or religious football — and always arouses strong feelings. I heartily dislike all fanaticism, but taking the issue seriously is better than the widespread apathy that (I fear) lies behind the repeat abortion figures.
It seems tragic that so many women seem to have stopped thinking but lurch from mistake to mistake as if they’d never heard of control or choice.
The old feminist battle cry of ‘Right to Choose’ certainly never meant getting caught out because you were too drunk to say No. Nor should the noble aim of freedom for women ever imply that a tiny foetus is as casually disposable as a used condom.