It is estimated that almost one in three women in the UK have had an abortion. However, when you think about the statistics in terms of your family or friends, this might not match up.
This is because although it has been legal in almost all of the UK for 50 years there is still a huge amount of stigma attached to abortion and, with that, a woman’s right to choose.
This stigma and shame is perpetuated by society and the attitudes and outdated laws which still exist in supposedly advanced, liberal countries when it comes to abortion. The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of women who have had a termination do not regret their choice. In 2015, a study found that 95 per cent of women who had abortions did not regret them.
Over the past six months there have been renewed attacks on reproductive rights in the US after President Donald Trump voiced his anti-abortion stance and has signed laws aimed at cutting funding for services which help women access safe abortions.
The matter is also closer to home too. In March, thousands of women went on strike in Northern Ireland and the Republic to protest against the countries’ abortion ban. Just last year, legislators in the Northern Irish parliament voted to keep the ban in place even in the cases of rape or incest.
Thousands march in Dublin for Irish abortion rights
While these arguments may be heard back and forth in the media, rarely is the voice of women who have had them heard. The Independent spoke to 41-year-old Sarah* who had an abortion around 15 years ago, something she describes as "a complete non-event" in her life.
“I think that’s many women’s experience but we are forced to question that experience. People feel guilty for not feeling guilty," she explains.
Sarah says it was such a non-event that she cannot even pinpoint the year in which she had an abortion but estimates it was in her mid-twenties (“not remembering is not trauma, it’s because your twenties are chaos”). She was on the pill and got pregnant. Whether that was the result of “too much alcohol, probably a bit of vomiting,” she does not know but she was on the pill and got pregnant.
She did not have a “life that was ready for children”, nor enough money, was not stable enough in many ways and although was in a “lovely relationship” with a good man, neither of them had discussed the future.
“I didn’t plan to get pregnant, was pregnant. I was running restaurants, that’s not a life you can have with children. He was lovely but there was no sense it was forever. Why would I have a baby? Why would I tie to myself to even a lovely person forever even when it was not a thing?”
The “minor procedure” was trauma-free for Sarah and it was actually at the abortion clinic she realised just how many women, of all different backgrounds, ages, family status’ and financial abilities, choose to terminate a pregnancy for a whole host of reasons
In a stark contrast to the misconception that women end up regretting their abortion, Sarah says her own experience – and witnessing just how many different women have them – made her more pro-choice.
However, despite being pro-choice, a feminist and not in the least bit regretful about her decision, Sarah says she is “not immune to the shame and stigma”. But this is not her shame or stigma but proof of how pervasive the judgement of women who have them is.
During the 15 years since her abortion, she says she has come to know “many women who have had abortions” - even guessing it to be most of her friends – yet knows "no one who has regretted it”.
“People confess having abortions when they work out it is a safe space,” she says. “That tells you everything you need to know about the status of abortion.”
She recalls getting “some sh*t from people” when a colleague she had told gossiped which she was surprised at after believing those in her surroundings would have been “pretty reasonable”.
Katherine O’Brien, head of media and policy research for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, told The Independent that “while all the best evidence shows that the vast majority of women do not regret their abortion” shame and secrecy continue to shroud it.
“We know that other women speaking openly about their terminations can make a real difference. We also know that the current legal framework which, unlike any other medical procedure, requires women to seek the approval of two doctors before being granted an abortion stigmatises the procedure and those who have one. No woman should feel ashamed of making the decision to end a pregnancy they felt unable to continue."
Sarah remains proud of her decision as it enabled her to start university the next year, later going on to complete a masters then get funding to do a PhD. She also has two children: a seven year old and four year old. And even when Sarah struggled to get pregnant, she still did not regret her earlier decision and was angry when anti-choice articles suggested there was a link.
“I’ve had that experience of not wanting a baby, getting pregnant and having an abortion and then being desperate to have children later on and then the reality of having them.”
She says one of the strangest paradoxes when it comes to abortion rights is that women are judged and stigmatised when they have abortions but at the same time are “constantly policed” when they are a parent.
“It’s such an insight into what it is like to be a woman today. It’s disgusting. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she says.
*Names have been changed for the piece. Our case study asked to be anonymous not because she is ashamed of her decision but because of the vitriol so often targeted at women online and on social media.Reuse content