Dilemmas: This week: can our relationship survive an abortion?

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When Judy got pregnant her partner insisted that, with two children already, and a new job, he could not cope. Unwillingly she had the abortion done, but now can't forgive him. He is very upset; she is thinking of leaving him. What should she do?

Virginia Ironside

It takes two to get pregnant. This is something that seems to have slipped Judy's mind. Her partner didn't make her pregnant; she didn't just get pregnant. They got pregnant together, and it would be interesting to know how it happened. Did she have a rather naughty "slip"? Was it a case of Pill failure - very rare, it has to be said? If he failed to use a condom, why did she agree to sex? Something went very wrong at the outset and Judy is just as responsible as her partner for getting herself into this fine mess in the first place.

Once the pregnancy has begun, there's no question that only one person can have an abortion: the woman. Judy could have stood her ground and refused point-blank. There is no way, unless she is a complete victim, that she could have been pushed into it by her partner if she'd been adamant that she wanted to keep the child.

So it feels to me as though she's angrier with herself than with her partner, but she's taking her feelings out on this poor man, who made his feelings painfully clear at the outset. He's now faced with a woman whose moods seem to be changing like a chameleon. If she didn't want the abortion, why did she have it? She read her heart wrongly, it's true, but her partner can't be blamed for that.

Many's the time I've thought that I could cope with putting myself through some emotional mill - volunteering to break a death to a close family member, or some such gruelling task - only to find that it was at far greater personal cost than I realised. I just wasn't strong enough. But the fantasy I had about my strength was my problem, not anyone else's. There's no point in getting angry with other people.

And anyway, perhaps Judy's partner was right to insist on an abortion. Perhaps the new baby would have put a greater strain on him that he could have borne, and split them up. Maybe the baby would have found itself born without a father - at a great disadvantage from the word go, in other words. Maybe her other two children would have found their lives constrained by another child; children are extremely expensive and the arrival of each one means there's less for the other two. Personally, with two children and an unwilling partner I would have been dancing in the streets after an abortion, thanking my lucky stars it was legal, rather than moping and seething with resentment and fury.

Judy has to take responsibility for her own actions and accept her role in the whole affair. She got pregnant, as well as him; she was the one who listened to him rather than her own instincts, and she was the one who had the abortion when she needn't have had one. I don't think that if she really hadn't wanted it she would be so angry now; her partner, after his coolly rational attitude to the whole affair, is now full of remorse, so how much more does she want him to suffer? At some point she has to draw a line and put this incident in the past - or he'll do it for her. Bringing it up again and again and tormenting him is far more destructive to the family than the abortion itself.

I don't like to tell anyone to pull their socks up, so I won't. I'll recommend that she hitches up her tights instead, and gets on with living in the presentn

What readers say

Your partner meant well

I think your partner was being sincere when he said he only suggested the abortion to make all of you happier. I am 32, childless, and with MS, but longing for a baby. When my husband finally found a job, I said that now maybe we could try to have one, but he said that he would not be able to cope at the moment with a baby, me possibly with a serious relapse, and the tension of the new job. He did not say this to hurt me, but because he cares for me and understands that something like this at the moment would put both of us in an unnecessarily difficult position. Not that he rejects the idea of a baby, but he simply realises it is not the right moment. I understand my situation and your situation are very different, but I am sure that their assertions both came out of love, even though they are hard to accept for us both.

Carolina Davis

It's time to be responsible

Judy's problem is not abortion-induced. It existed before the accidental pregnancy crisis. For heaven's sake - nearly the millennium and still we're hearing about accidental pregnancies. This is a life, a person, and there should be no accident about it. Still GPs are starting an alarming number of referral letters "This patient finds herself pregnant". Finds herself? Don't couples consult about planning their families? Pregnancy shouldn't be like getting a cold; it should be about a joint decision to accept responsibility for another human being. If Judy wants a third child and her partner doesn't, then either her partner has a vasectomy (NB to male readers: this is the only chance of being sure not to impregnate your partner accidentally), or they end the relationship and Judy finds another partner who does want to have a child. Since there are already two children to be considered I would favour the first option, but if Judy can't manage to balance her need to have another child against the needs of her existing family I suspect that she will opt for separation, with all the horrors that will hold for the children.

Name withheld

Stop bearing a grudge

Recently I thought I faced my third pregnancy after just having had a wonderful baby boy, my second child. My husband said without any second thought that I should have an abortion. It was a shock to me that this man I love could be so - in my eyes - ruthless. I think that he said what he thought was best, especially for the future of my other two children. A third child would have inhibited their own futures financially. Your partner reacted probably too harshly, but maybe with your present children's futures in mind. Men can be very practical with such matters where women will be more willing to take life as it comes. You could argue that you did something under pressure, and you don't agree with it in hindsight. But if you keep on bearing a grudge your whole relationship may end, and that would be terrible for all four of you. I really think that you should make peace with your husband's advice and your actions, and think of the future and the children you have now. Your husband did admit that he was wrong; maybe now you can learn from it, mourn the loss openly if you need to, and go on and make the best of what you have.


Get help from a therapist

Abortions can be very damaging to relationships, but given the right sort of help, it should be possible for Judy's relationship with her partner to be saved. Judy is suffering from post-abortion trauma, a recognised syndrome consisting of a wide range of grief symptoms compounded by the victim's participation in the death (abortion) experience. Therapy can help her work through her anger, bitterness and other crippling emotions such as guilt and loss of self-esteem. Such help will bring her to self- healing which will enable her eventually to forgive her partner and so restore their relationship. Many men, like Judy's partner, genuinely regard abortion as a "sensible" way of dealing with a problem pregnancy and just do not understand the dreadful psychological impact it can have on women.

Jean Payne (Mrs)

Next week's problem: are name-tags OK at a private party?

Dear Virginia,

We are giving a summer party, and because I find it so difficult to talk to strangers at parties I suggested to my husband that we give everyone name-tags.

He was horrified, and said it would be like a convention. I wouldn't mind so much if he introduced people to each other, but I'm left to do that, and never enjoy my own parties, while my husband spends his time chatting, saying that all the guests are adults and they can just get on with it. What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Hilary

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning.

If you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.