I had my abortion at age 23. It was 1999; half a lifetime ago. I had been with my now husband, the Pisces, for just three months when I fell pregnant, and I was fitted with an IUD at the time. I had also had my first period in years shortly after meeting him, my cycle having been disrupted by an eating disorder I’d grappled with for the duration of my previous abusive 6-year relationship.
The hardcore birth control (since IUDs are considered to be more than 99 percent effective, I’d read somewhere that this made them the method of choice among female GPs) had felt like overkill; I had doubted whether my womb was even fertile.
When the second blue line showed up on the test, my first feeling was one of elation. I was sat, cramped in the tiny makeshift bathroom in the lower floor of my father’s house, where I was living at the time. I’d broken up with my ex, who I’d been living with, the previous summer, coinciding with my leaving journalism school and interning while I tried to find a job.
I was broke, and while I was grateful to my dad for making space for me in his home, he had a new family now and I was there on borrowed time. My priority was finding work; the last thing I needed was THIS. But still I couldn’t stop smiling; in a fit of magical thinking, it was as if becoming pregnant against all the odds was cosmic confirmation that this new person I’d been seeing was “the one.”
I knew I wouldn’t keep it. For the practical reasons: my income was minimal, I had nowhere to live, and I was barely out of the starting gate in my career. But also because I’d always just known I didn’t want to be a mom. I had been convinced of this since around age five, but now this knowing crystalized in me fully for the first time.
When I told the Pisces, his response was shock; he’d never even considered becoming a dad (would, later in our relationship, share with me the time my father told him: “no man ever wants to have children, it just happens”). After after a brief discussion, he let it be known that he fully supported my choice. We were agreed; whatever our future together, it would not be ethical at this point in our lives to bring a child into the mix.
I made an appointment with Marie Stopes’ Reproductive Choices and was scheduled for a procedure the following month. It was free, covered by the NHS, and not once did I question my choice. In the meantime, I accompanied the Pisces to Paris, where he was DJ’ing at a party on a disused barge.
His set was at 4am, and we went for fatty steak frites at midnight before heading to the club. I couldn’t tell if my belly was swollen from the food. Dancing later, as the sun came up on the Seine, I felt blessed, ecstatic to be alive; I was falling deeper in love with him by the day.
On the day of the abortion, both he and my mom accompanied me to the clinic. I was instructed to put on a robe, go to the bathroom, and place a pessary in my vagina which would help to open my cervix. Then I was led into an operating room, when I dropped like a stone into the anesthetic blackout.
The next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes, as if waking from dream about another life. Becoming aware of my body again, I experienced a pervasive sensation of absolute peace. As the anesthetic ebbed from my limbs, I felt reborn.
Only as I write this now, over two decades later, am I fully aware of how grateful I am for the circumstances of my abortion. For the fact my procedure was paid for in full by the NHS; for the nonjudgmental and loving care I received from the staff at the clinic; for my partner being fully supportive of my choice; and, not least, that ending my pregnancy was a completely non-conflicted choice for me.
To this day, I have never felt so certain of anything in my life—and I also have the fact that in the UK, where I am from, abortion does not carry the stigma that it does in other nations, to thank for this.
We often don’t recognize our own privilege until we become aware of the choices and the resources that are not available to others, and the past 12+ months have shone a light on just how fortunate I was back then. When sensing the visceral fear among women in my circle that Amy Coney-Barrett’s appointment to the supreme court might be one more nail in the coffin for ready abortion access in the US; when watching the nationwide protests in Poland, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to oppose increasingly oppressive abortion laws there; and when soaking in the sheer joy and relief on the faces of the Argentinian women celebrating abortion being made legal in their country.
And all this against the backdrop of working with author Anna Wood on her abortion memoir, I’ve Had One Too. Anna (not her real name, more on this in a bit), was the first person to contact me about publishing her story with us—a story that is very different from mine.
For Anna, electing to end her pregnancy was the hardest thing she ever did—and a decision that led to her questioning everything. What was the “ethical” thing to do? Could she have made it as a single mom? Did her choice make her a monster? And not least, why do women not talk about this?
It was only in the months and years following her abortion, that Anna opened up about it to the women in her life. She was shocked at what she learned: that so many of them—including the Catholic mother of three—had had one too, but had felt too ashamed to talk about it.
The ensuing conversations with these women became an integral part of Anna’s own journey of reconciliation and healing. Eventually, she decided to write about her experience to encourage more women to speak up.
It is estimated that one-in-four women in the US will have an abortion at some point in their lives. Many are mothers already, stretched to capacity when it comes to their child-rearing abilities. And yet, increasingly, any person seeking access to abortion (it’s important to note that this issue relates to trans men and many non-binary individuals, too), will have to leap through numerous hoops—be they financial, legal, geographical, or a combination of all three—in order to receive the care they need.
Since the ratification of Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion access has been subject to obstruction after obstruction (as discussed succinctly in this episode of The Cut podcast). In short, abortion access in the United States is hanging on a thread. And at a time where a reckoning with systemic racism along with structural gender and economic inequalities—issues which Anna’s book reveals to be at the heart of the fight for reproductive justice—is tearing the nation apart.
When I agreed to work with Anna on her book, I was unaware of much of the above. All I knew, was that my own abortion had played an integral role in me being free to live my life on my own terms—and that this was something I wanted for every person who found themselves in mine or Anna’s position.
Having sat in countless healing circles over the years, where I had offered deep listening to people seeking both solace and solidarity, I had also come to a deep appreciation for the importance of sharing our stories as a way to make peace with our pasts, to know that we are not alone, and to heal.
Since we began working on the project in the fall of 2019, my eyes have been opened to just how damaging the silencing of stories of abortion is. Until we can openly claim our right to this essential, ethical, and deeply personal part of our reproductive lives, it will remain inaccessible to those who need it most. Now consider this: roughly half of pregnancies in the US are unintended.
Many of these, undoubtedly, are “happy accidents.” But how many children are being born into economic instability (currently, 38 million US families are living in poverty) and to mothers who do not have the material and emotional support they need, because of lack of access to and enduring stigma around abortion?
This is not to presume anything about whether or not these children will be happy or loved. Whether or not their lives will be worth living. But as bell hooks writes in All About Love; “An overwhelming majority of us come from dysfunctional families in which we were taught we were not okay, where we were shamed, verbally and/or physically abused, and emotionally neglected, even as we were also taught to believe that we were loved … Too many of us cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.”
Meanwhile, in The Body Keeps the Score, trauma specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk claims he believes that child abuse is: “our nation’s largest public health problem”—given that childhood trauma (including physical and psychological abuse and emotional neglect) is linked to higher rates of obesity, heart and liver disease and cancer, as well as higher incidences of depression, alcoholism and IV drug use, suicide, and domestic violence.
We have the awareness and the science to end these toxic cycles. We are also tasked, as a priority, with addressing wider issues of economic inequality (not to mention environmental degradation). Don’t we owe it to future generations to ensure they are arriving here under the most supportive circumstances possible?
Perhaps most importantly of all, Anna’s book brings to light the fact that binary thinking about abortion—you are either “pro-choice” or “pro-life”—flattens the nuance that colors both the debate about and people’s experiences of abortion. After all, the term “pro-choice” includes the right to opt to carry a pregnancy to term, even when it makes little logical sense.
Meanwhile, “pro-life” was originally coined by progressive educator A.S. Neill, who wrote in his 1960 book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Parenting: “no pro-life citizen would tolerate our penal code, our hangings, our punishment of homosexuals, our attitudes to bastardry.”
And I am certainly pro every individual having access to a quality of life that includes material security and agency over their own bodily sovereignty, not to mention where “life” does not refer to a sentence in the white supremacist prison industrial complex.
When this phrase becomes co-opted to apply to an unborn fetus in its mother’s womb however, as Sally Rooney, quoted by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker, notes, this collection of cells is being extended “a vastly expanded set of legal rights, rights available to no other class of citizen.”
That is, the right to “make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body.” In the relationship between woman and fetus, Rooney writes, the woman is “granted fewer rights than a corpse.”
Does agreeing with this make me a “monster,” a label Anna finds herself confronted with so often in her book? Her work has helped remind me that abortion is not a question of morality, it is a question of humanity—the humane choice, always, being not to cause or perpetuate further suffering.
Also, that being human is nothing if not a treacherous slog through the murky waters of cognitive dissonance. Part of finding our way, so often, means embracing the fact that it is possible for many conflicting “truths” to exist alongside one another, both in our hearts and in the world, and making hard choices that it is on us to live with.
I have written about my spiritual beliefs about abortion before, here, and while working on this book has found me questioning the deeper karmic consequences of my choice, not once have I regretted it.
It is with hardcore admiration that I am helping Anna publish her book. And, yes, under a pseudonym. The fear women feel about sharing their abortion stories is justified, and I am steeling myself for the inevitable abuse and harassment—often, ironic coming from those claiming to be “pro-life,” including death threats—that is pelted at those who speak up. But these attempts to silence us from speaking our truths are only more evidence that we must.
This essay originally appeared in my newsletter, Like Nobody’s Watching. Subscribe HERE.
I’ve Had One Too: A Story of Abortion and Healing, is out now. Get your copy HERE.