Jeremy Hunt has made his view on abortion clear, sparking a fierce debate among MPs. But Stylist believes it is women’s voices that should shape the future of abortion in the UK
Let’s be clear: abortion is not a process any woman ever wants to endure. Often it’s a decision laden with pain, regret and moral uncertainty. For others, it’s simply an issue that needs a swift solution in order to protect both body, mind and livelihood. And dealing with an unexpected pregnancy requires both rational thought and a leap of faith.
The questions facing women considering the procedure are endless: will I be able to have another baby? What if I never meet a man I wish to have a family with? What if this is the only time I’ll ever conceive? These swirling thoughts are tempered by the realities of here and now: can I afford a baby? Am I in a position to raise a family? How can I take a year out of work? Am I just being selfish? What quality of life can I offer this child? Do I have a right to end a life? It can be a desperate period.
By the time your pregnancy is officially confirmed, you’re forced to make a life-changing decision in just weeks. A decision that could affect many around you and reroute your entire future; a decision you never wanted to have to make.
ABOVE: Stylist reader's views on abortion
Jeremy Hunt, our current health secretary – a man in a powerful position should the law on abortion undergo review – feels the legal limit of abortions should be 12 weeks (the current legal limit is 24 weeks except in extreme medical circumstances). Unsurprisingly his comments have cause a media furore. Dr Kate Guthrie from The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists reacted by saying his comments “do not put women at the centre” of the abortion debate and a 12-week limit would be a huge backwards step. Labour MP Diane Abbott accused Hunt of trying to “appeal to that wing of the Tory right which is obsessed with rolling back women’s rights over their own bodies.” Darinka Aleksic from Abortion Rights vented her outrage by questioning Hunt’s medical knowledge: “If Jeremy Hunt had actually studied the evidence as he claims, he would know there is no scientific basis for reducing the time limit.”
Twelve weeks is very little time. Bearing in mind the NHS believes most women only get an inkling they may be pregnant at five weeks, then consider it takes perhaps another week to take a test, another fortnight to see a GP, and another fortnight to be referred to hospital, it doesn’t leave a huge amount of time for those vital days of deliberation.
“Jeremy Hunt’s comments ‘do not put women at the centre’ of the abortion debate”
The government has tried to soothe angered parties; even PM David Cameron has been forced to say that while Hunt is entitled to his view, “people need to know the government has no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area.” Yet, the uneasiness rumbles on. Equalities minister Maria Miller and home secretary Theresa May have backed a reduction to 20 weeks citing evidence that half of foetuses born at 24 weeks survive, while medical and women’s groups are clamouring for findings in the 1967 Abortion Act to be considered.
The Abortion Act’s upper limit for abortions was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990 because of the improved chances for premature babies. But it’s only at 20 weeks, when a foetus is five months old, that abnormalities can be detected. Those 28 days currently available following a five-month scan are crucial for women facing an agonising decision to choose whether they can cope with a baby who may well suffer from serious mental and physical disabilities, and whether that baby will have any quality of life.
We should also recognise that many women believe on moral grounds that abortion is simply wrong; that a human life begins at fertilisation and cannot be mitigated by environmental circumstances inside or outside the womb.
ABOVE: Abortion rights for women around the world
So, it’s no surprise that only a small number of abortions take place in later stages. A 2007 report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee found that 89% of procedures are carried out before 13 weeks of gestation, while only 2% took place after 20 weeks – the equivalent of 3,000 a year – most of which are due to abnormalities picked up from the anomaly scan.
And yet there’s the other side. While more time lets the foetus develop to a point it has the tiniest chance of life outside the womb, it also allows women to make an incredibly difficult choice. For all the women who aborted late because it took them months to deliberate over the right thing to do, there are just as many, if not more, who don’t turn up for the procedure, having battled long and hard with themselves and chosen to carry on with their pregnancy.
There are wide-ranging and complex reasons women have – or indeed reject – an abortion. And those reasons are peculiar to them and only them. Abortion may have political currency right now, particularly as the topic is the emotive ping-pong ball on the US presidential campaign trail, but it’s the women faced with the decision who should be listened to first. Their experiences should define the debate. Here are their stories.*
“We had to break the law”
Louise O’Dolan*, 39, lives in the Republic of Ireland with her three children and husband
“I knew straight away I couldn’t have another baby. At 39 I felt too old to be a mother again, and we were already struggling on my part-time salary after my husband was made redundant. In the Republic of Ireland abortions are illegal, but lots of women travel abroad to have them.
Thankfully, my GP was understanding and referred us to a family planning clinic who gave us information on private clinics in England. Having found cheap flights, we were confident we could borrow money for the procedure so we booked an appointment and thought we were all set. We needed to borrow a few hundred euros, so when it was turned down we were devastated.
I have never felt so desperate in my life. I needed to not be pregnant. I found the number for The Abortion Support Network. Sobbing down the phone, I explained my situation to a volunteer who reassured me I would have my abortion. She then spoke to the manager of the abortion clinic and arranged to pay for part of the procedure. I couldn’t believe a complete stranger was so willing to help. With a change of underwear, sanitary pads and my passport in my handbag, I started out on one of the most stressful journeys of my life.
Not only did I feel embarrassed at needing to ‘run away’ to get an abortion, my flight was re-directed so I feared I’d miss my appointment and have to start all over again. After several bus journeys and an hour-long wait for a taxi, I finally got to the clinic in England. The staff had hung on for me – thank god. I could have wept.
Within an hour, I was recovering from my procedure. My life could go on.” Louise was helped by The Abortion Support Network, an all-volunteer run charity based in England that helps women in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
For more information visit abortionsupport.org.uk
“I was in denial For over a month”
Lucy Barker*, 21, lives in Harrogate
“When I went to university at 18, I saw it as the start of a new life. I craved excitement and so when I met Luke*, a local drug dealer, I was seduced by his edgy lifestyle. Then, I missed a period. We’d always been lax about using condoms, and yet week after week went by and I kept telling myself I must just be late, and that my constant nausea and vomiting was somehow normal. Four weeks after I should have come on, Luke said I must be pregnant.
A test proved he was right. In shock and incredibly nervous, my thoughts were all over the place – one day I’d think about keeping the baby, another about adoption. In the end, it was obvious an abortion was for the best. I had no home or money and had barely started my degree – I wanted a career, and had no intention of raising a child around drugs. Luke said everything would be all right, promising to get a job. But seeing he felt the complete opposite to me made it easier to decide on an abortion.
I still needed support though, so a family friend put me in touch with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. That helped me have confidence in my decision. Twelve weeks into the pregnancy, I had the operation. My life is good now, and Luke is a distant memory.”
For the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, visit bpas.org
“Abortion just wasn’t an option”
Reanne Jarvis, 25, lives in London with her 19-month-old son, Dylan
“When I was 23, I was working over in Australia and fell pregnant. I wasn’t in a relationship with the father and was utterly shocked when I found out, especially as I was on the Pill. I thought about abortion for a couple of days but after I had to go to hospital with a suspected ectopic pregnancy, I realised I was worried about losing my baby. After that, abortion just wasn’t an option. Plus, I was told at the age 16 it was likely I might have problems getting pregnant due to suspected cysts in my womb – so I didn’t want to risk one day not being able to have children after giving one up. I don’t mind [the idea of] abortion, and I understand why some women choose to have the procedure, but it just isn’t for me. My son changed my life for the better. I am so much more focused and driven now. I have no regrets at all.”
“I never wanted children”
Carolynne Henshaw*, 41, lives in Brighton
“Having a child has never appealed. So when I found myself pregnant at 36, it was clear-cut. The pregnancy was a problem that needed solving fast. As soon as I noticed my missed period I bought a test. For a moment, I looked at the blue lines on the stick and thought, ‘Phew, it’s fine’, then I looked again. And stared. No, I was pregnant. There was a flash of panic – then action stations. I chose to go private to have the procedure quickly. I booked a Marie Stopes clinic, which saw me in three days. It was a weird time. I hated the weight of the responsibility but I needed to do what was right for me.”
Marie Stopes International runs a helpline on 0845 300 8090 or visit mariestopes.org.uk
“The timing just wasn’t right”
Susie Corfield*, 33, lives with her partner of 12 years in London
“Richard and I met at uni and had been a couple for two years when we decided to move in together. We’d just started our careers. Life was good, but not so great that we could see a baby in the picture. So I went to my GP, who fitted a diaphragm, saying I’d be covered. So when I woke up one day feeling nauseous, I put it down to a night of heavy drinking.
I did a pregnancy test just to rule it out, so when it came up positive it was a complete shock. There were no big tears – I knew immediately I wanted to terminate the pregnancy. Richard felt the same way. Unfortunately, my GP was less supportive – she flippantly told me I couldn’t “have it to order”. I just wanted to get the referral letter – so another doctor could give the required second opinion. Three days later I saw the second doctor, and a week later I made my way to an NHS hospital for the procedure. Richard and I are still together – stronger than ever – and hope to have children when we’re ready.”
“I just didn’t have the strength for another baby”
Frankie Webber*, 36, lives in London with her son Charlie*, five
“Charlie was only two when I walked out on his dad. We hadn’t been getting on for a while when, one afternoon, I came home from work to find him drunk in charge of Charlie and flipped. Life as a single mum took a while to get used to, made more difficult by my job as a restaurant manager that meant some late nights. But I enjoyed life with Charlie in our new flat.
Me and his dad gradually rebuilt a friendship and divorced a year after I left. Around the same time, I started dating Simon* and I began to feel I was getting some of myself back – we had fun together, and the relationship quickly became physical. So quick, in fact, that I hadn’t considered contraception. I don’t know why I thought it would be fine. When I missed a period I told myself I’d got my dates wrong or that stress has messed with my cycle, but I knew that if I was pregnant I wanted as many options as possible. When I saw the test was positive, I was overwhelmed with disappointment.
I felt stupid for being so careless and sad I’d made my life 100% more complicated. Having an abortion wasn’t my first thought – that was ‘what have I done to deserve this’ – but it was always there, and as I faced up to my situation – having Charlie, needing to work to support us, not really knowing Simon – it became the only option.
As it turned out, Simon was supportive when I told him, but once I decided that an abortion was best I did feel relieved. The whole experience was exhausting – the emotions, hormones and worrying about whether I was doing the right thing. Even now, I wonder, and every year, we remember the baby we could have had.”
Now we want to hear from you. Please share your thoughts on abortion and leave your own stories in the comments below. Comments may be posted anonymously.
Picture credits: Rex Features