Sue and Joy Axon: 'If my daughter wants an abortion, I should be the first to be told'

A crusading mother aims to lift the lid on unwanted teen pregnancies. By Sophie Goodchild
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The Independent Online

Like most mothers, Sue Axon admits that she has found it a challenge at times coping with being a parent. But tomorrow the housewife will face a different test when she learns the outcome of her landmark legal case, which could change the relationship between parents and their children.

Mrs Axon, 51, a mother of five, wants the law overturned so that doctors are forced to inform parents if an underage girl asks for an abortion.

The fact that she has received hate mail since launching her court challenge highlights the strength of opinion on the issue of teenagers and their right to keep their sex lives confidential.

Yet the crusading mother argues that she is acting in the best interests of young girls who are really still children and need the protection and support of their parents.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday from her home in Manchester, Mrs Axon says she decided to take her battle to the High Court after she aborted a pregnancy, which had been unintentional, at the age of 30.

The experience was, she says, "devastating". Too embarrassed to tell her parents, with whom she was still living, Mrs Axon chose instead to terminate the pregnancy in secret. It is a decision she has regretted ever since.

"I know all about secrecy and keeping secrets for years and years but the long-term emotional effects can be horrendous," says Mrs Axon. "As parents we need to know what is going on with our children."

There is little doubt in her mind that she will lose her case. But if the judges rule against her, she is determined to take her case to appeal, demonstrating her strong commitment to her cause.

However, there has been a price to pay for her belief in her campaign. The poison pen letters started arriving soon after the case attracted national publicity and there have been verbal threats, too.

The threats and the hate letters do not bother her, though. Eager not to be seen as a right-wing zealot bent on interfering in other people's lives, she also denies that she has an anti-abortion agenda.

"In all fairness I would not have brought the case if it had not been for my own abortion, and I can only talk about my own experiences but from my point of view it was the worst decision of my life," she says.

"I'm not calling for a blanket ban on young people keeping their abortions secret. In exceptional circumstances I do believe that perhaps it may not be appropriate for them to tell their parents. But even if a child has abusive parents, then keeping a pregnancy secret only serves to protect those parents, not the girl. And clinics make a lot of money from carrying out abortions."

So how did she react when her daughter, Joy, 16, announced that she was going to have a baby girl, who is due in March on Joy's 17th birthday?

"I'm not going to turn round and say I'm unhappy," Mrs Axon says. "I don't believe any mother wants her child to be pregnant at 16, but I believe that if she had an abortion it would have had a significant mental impact on her."

However, she faces opposition to her campaign. Clinics are already warning that a change in current government guidelines, which give under-16s the same right to patient privacy as adults, would lead to a rise in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Another catalyst for Mrs Axon was the case of Melissa Smith, the 14-year-old from Mansfield whose school arranged an abortion without her mother's knowledge.

"My dentist would not be allowed to do a filling on my daughter under 16 without my consent - it would be classed as assault. So why are clinics allowed to carry out abortions without telling parents?" asks Mrs Axon.

Although Joy respects her mother's campaign, the 16-year-old has mixed views on the rights of teenagers to protect their privacy.

"My relationship with my mum is good and it's up to her if she wants to take this case but if it had been the other way round and she [Joy's mother] had told me I had to get rid of the baby then I would not have listened to her. I always thought parents shouldn't know because it was confidential," says the teenager, who plans to name her daughter Morgan.

"But then there is the thought, what about if something happens to you? When I got pregnant I was lucky because I wasn't worried about telling my parents. But it does depend on the situation. I knew I wasn't going to get rid of my baby but if you are only 12 or something that is very young."

The UK has the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe and ministers are desperate to tackle the issue. But despite spending more than £60m on education programmes, figures are still at record levels. Pregnancies among under-18s rose from just over 38,000 in 2001 to more than 39,000 in 2002. Just under half of these pregnancies were aborted. In 2004, there were 3,756 abortions carried out among girls aged 15 and under, official figures show.

This has led to a growing controversy over the issue of teenagers and underage sex. Some experts argue that children should be warned against having sex and that giving them confidential advice about contraception and abortion encourages them to experiment.

Ministers are even considering forcing doctors to breach confidentiality if they believe that their young patients are having underage sex.

Nor is Mrs Axon phased by statistics. Research published by Marie Stopes International shows that more than two thirds of 13- to 15-year-olds who have undergone terminations are opposed to a change in the law.

In one case, a pregnant girl said that she would wait three weeks until she was 16 and opt for a late abortion in an attempt to keep the truth from her parents. Another teenager said that she would harm herself or her foetus rather than tell her mother. Others told researchers that they would continue with the pregnancy and give up the baby for adoption.

Although more than seven out of 10 pregnant teenagers had told their parents, just under a third said they could not, because they feared their mothers and fathers would be angry or disappointed.

Marie Stopes says that confidentiality is vital for a minority of young, vulnerable children who are unable to confide in their parents and that a change in the law would lead to do-it-yourself abortions and children running away from home.

It is now in the hands of judges to decide who is right: clinics such as Marie Stopes or parents such as Sue Axon.

Mrs Axon insists that her only motivation for launching the case was to protect young girls like her daughters from what she sees as a risky operation.

"I know you have young girls leaving clinics without any support or care who have just had an abortion," she says. "These young girls walk away on their own and that is just wrong."

BIOGRAPHY

Name: Sue Axon

Born: 19 January 1954, Miles Platting, north Manchester. Father a merchant seaman and later a policeman; mother a housewife. Has three brothers and a sister.

Education/Career: Left Brookway High School aged 16 and completed her O-levels at West Wythenshawe College. Worked as an administrator for an insurance company until she had her first child, Sonia, at 25.

Family: Married three times. Lost a baby girl in a cot death. Shortly afterwards, became pregnant with Mark, now 26. At 30, had an abortion and at 33gave birth to Joshua, now 19. Also has two daughters: Joy, 16, and Amber, 13. Single for past eight years.

Campaign: Her experience of having a secret abortion was one of the reasons she is seeking to force doctors to tell parents if underage girls ask for abortions. Justice Hughes, a High Court judge, told Mrs Axon she had a good chance of winning her case.

Believes in: "I'm a survivor. I believe in the family unit even though it's gone very, very wrong for me. Tough times don't last but tough people do. Never lose hope."

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