Women are being asked to #SmashAbortionStigma, because we’ve been silenced for too long.
Last month, abortion was finally made legal in Northern Ireland. It was a major step forward for women’s reproductive rights in the UK. But, despite being a pro-choice nation, there is still a long way to go in destigmatising abortion.
This needs to start with the law around abortion, because it is technically still a criminal offence in England, Scotland and Wales. The 1967 Abortion Act is underpinned by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which means that a termination is only permitted in certain circumstances.
This current law means that a woman can only have an abortion within 24 weeks of pregnancy. Two doctors must agree that having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman than a termination. An abortion beyond 24 weeks can only happen if the woman’s life is in danger, she’s at risk of grave physical or mental injury or there’s a severe fetal abnormality.
Beyond this (literally Victorian) law, we also need to break the stigma by having open conversations. Because despite 206,000 women getting an abortion in 2018, research has found that we still don’t talk about them enough.
Marie Stopes UK, a leading provider of sexual and reproductive services, has launched a new campaign to get people talking about abortion. #SmashAbortionStigma aims to shine a light on the widespread stigma faced by women who access safe abortion care and break the harmful wall of silence around abortion.
The organisation started the campaign after sharing the news that only one in three women would tell their family and friends if they were considering an abortion. The same YouGov survey from 2019 also found that only 62% would tell their sexual partner about an abortion. And 6% would choose to talk to speak to nobody except a medical expert about it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly 80% of the 2,684 women surveyed agreed that abortion needs to be talked about more openly in order to increase understanding and reduce stigma.
To help start the conversation, women have shared their own stories as part of the campaign.
Holly, 26 from London had an abortion whilst in a controlling and emotionally volatile relationship
“I got pregnant whilst on the pill. Pregnancy always felt alien to me so an unplanned one really rocked me.
“I was in a controlling and emotionally volatile relationship at the time and I knew instinctively that I was not in an emotional or financial situation that would provide the right environment for a child.
“I told my partner, my boss and my parents immediately. I told my partner because I wanted it to be a joint decision. I told my parents because I lived at home at the time and I am lucky that they are the best support, and I told my boss because I knew him personally and I needed to take time off.
“My partner projected his insecurities and shame onto me by demanding I didn’t tell anyone – he thought people would gossip. Because of this, I felt guilty for speaking to anyone about it and between finding out I was pregnant and having the termination, I felt really trapped.
“I think it’s really important that we are able to talk about abortion more openly. Abortion is not shameful, an embarrassment, or wrong. It should be every woman’s right.”
Amy Allum is 28 and had an abortion when she was 17
“I found out I was pregnant when I was at college - my contraception had failed. I knew straight away that I wanted to have an abortion, I wanted to go on to university and travel the world.
“Even though I was completely confident in my choice, I only told a few people at the time. In hindsight, I felt silenced because it wasn’t something people spoke about.
“I was lucky because my Mum was a GP. She supported my choice and encouraged me to go to the doctors with my then boyfriend. Unfortunately, my boyfriend wasn’t supportive as he wanted to continue with the pregnancy. Even though he came to all my appointments, he verbally abused me the whole time.
“I will never forget telling the doctor I wanted to have an abortion. He told me that it was not something he agreed with and left the room – I was mortified.
“The day after my abortion, I went back to college. My teacher asked if I was feeling better and I remember nodding, trying not to cry. It wasn’t the abortion that upset me, I was upset that I couldn’t tell the truth - I felt as though I had a dirty little secret that I couldn’t share with anyone.
“As I grew older, I started to realise that I wasn’t ashamed of my abortion. For me it was the responsible thing to do for my own happiness. But I know if I’d heard my friends, family or teachers talk more openly about abortion, I would have felt less alone in my choice.”
Dr Caroline Gazet, Clinical Director for Marie Stopes UK, said:
“In the UK, one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, yet we know that abortion stigma can make women feel judged, shamed and silenced.
“Women want to talk, and our research shows that open and honest conversations about abortion help women and girls feel informed, educated and supported when it comes to making their own choices about their own bodies.
“The UK is a pro-choice nation, but with a small minority of anti-choice voices threatening abortion rights worldwide, it is more important than ever that we smash abortion stigma and champion the right of women to access abortion care.”
And women have already started responding to the campaign with their own stories online.
You can join the #SmashAbortionStigma conversation by finding out more on the Marie Stopes UK website.
Images: Getty, provided by individuals