After today’s ruling, upholding Ealing Council’s decision to impose an exclusion zone to protect women visiting an abortion clinic from harassment, Tannice Hemming interviewed five women on their experiences. As a pro-choice feminist, what she heard shocked her and made her wonder, do they have some semblance of a point?
Pregnancy – 9 months of glowing, loving connection with your womanly power to create new life and the gestating potential inside, right? Not for everyone. For some, pregnancy is really damn hard, a drudge and a never-ending slog towards labour, which is agonising hard work, too. The cultural vision of pregnancy is one of barefoot wandering in fields, dressed in long, flowing dresses. You embrace your large abdomen, gazing off into the soft focus, middle distance with the sun highlighting your lustrous, pregnancy hair. You are with child. Meanwhile, the majority of women are dealing with the constant aniseed saliva that comes with heartburn, sciatica that makes them scream at random intervals, vomiting rice out of their noses and, if they’re like me, ending up in the high dependency unit with blood clots in both their lungs a month before they’re due (that’s very rare, though, I like to do things the hard way).
So, given that pregnancy can be far from wonderful for women who do want to have a child, why do some people think that some of us should endure it when we don’t want the child within?
Anti-abortion protestor exclusion zone
Ealing Council, the first in the UK to do so, has won an appeal case to continue to impose an exclusion zone of 100 metres from their Marie Stopes abortion clinic. Before they put the ‘public place protection order’ in place, protestors, some of whom were from the ‘Good Council Network’ were harassing anyone who went near the clinic. Proffering plastic foetuses into the hands of distressed women and shouting ‘murderer’ or even calling them mummy, the protestors were also handing out leaflets that shamefully – and falsely – linked abortion to breast cancer.
Since April 2018, Ealing Council say, the protection order has resulted in a complete elimination of harassment. The protestors, who have already appealed the decision once before, argue that the order is a direct infringement of their right to protest, to free expression and their right of freedom of religion. They also argue the order is an official, legal intolerance to the pro-life stance and feel they are being stopped from giving those seeking abortions the chance to reconsider their choice.
“Give the protestors a space”
One caller to Shelagh Fogarty’s LBC show this afternoon argued passionately in favour of incorporating those protesting into the clinic – instead of excluding them, why not give them an office? The thought that they were giving false information to dissuade the use of the abortion clinic’s services had clearly not crossed her mind.
Those who call themselves ‘pro-life’ seem to think that people providing abortions want to abort babies. They call people who advocate for women’s bodily autonomy ‘pro-abortion’. I have yet to find anyone who is pro-abortion. No one wants to become pregnant and then undergo a termination. It’s not fun and, however much an abortion might be right for the person deciding to undergo the procedure, it is still very hard.
I speak from a position of some ignorance though – sure, I’ve thought long and hard about what I would do in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. I’m sure there aren’t many women who haven’t thought it through or taken a pregnancy test damn sure they don’t want to see those two lines together any time soon.
I have however, spoken to four women who have been through an abortion. What they have told me turned everything I believed about abortion on its head. It’s changed my view, in a way that I didn’t expect.
“I was treated better when I had my tooth extracted”
First I spoke to two women who had their abortions around ten years ago. I was deeply saddened to hear how lonely they felt. One of the women, who is a friend of mine, said the decision to prevent her partner from coming in and supporting her made her felt that the failure of her contraception was her fault. When her coil failed, it was her responsibility alone to terminate the pregnancy that neither of them had wanted. At 21, she was raw and vulnerable and couldn’t go through with it the first time. She was quickly ushered out and told that if she didn’t go through with it next time, she’d have to travel much further away from her local clinic as she’d be too far along to be seen there. She said that she definitely felt under pressure to just get it done and received absolutely zero support.
The second woman, who had her abortion around the same time, told a similar story. She told me her entirely dehumanising experience, where she was forced to view her ultrasound and barely a sentence was spoken to her the entire time she was there. Certainly no comfort, advice nor even a kind word. It was an entirely medical procedure with no recognition that the choice to abort is an emotional one, regardless of the reasons. The way she was treated was no different to a routine dental procedure.
After the shock of hearing about these two women’s experiences, I felt confident there was no way that this could still be the case. After all, the government has, in recent years, made mental health more of a priority, hasn’t it? Ten years on, surely things would be better?
“Barely a word was said to me”
The reality is that, according to the following two women I spoke to, things haven’t changed at all. The most recent experience I heard about was from May this year. Apart from being asked whether there was any coercion to have a termination from anyone in her life, there were no more questions. No counselling was offered whatsoever to any of the four women that I interviewed specifically for this piece.
All of the women I interviewed were certain about their need for an abortion, but all expressed sadness about the lack of adequate support from their GP – or the clinic. All except the final one, who told a vastly different story.
Her abortion took place 3.5 years ago and she found the support was there from the clinic, if not her GP (who just was ‘text book’ rather than human). Having already started her family with one child before the abortion took place, she went on to have another child later. She declined the counselling offered, but told a far better story, noting that the clinic were wonderful and even fitted her in because it was Christmas and they wanted to ensure she got seen before the festive period began. Kind and knowledgeable, they checked she was sure throughout the two appointments and ‘couldn’t have been nicer’. She expressed sadness at the lack of support available to her partner, where she had received so much.
“The support is tantamount to lip service”
The protestors who block entry to abortion clinics are wrong – the last thing these women need is more stress and harassment – they have enough to deal with when undergoing such a difficult procedure, especially when the process and management of abortions leaves them feeling so inhuman and alone.
Yet in many ways, I keep returning to the call to Shelagh on LBC. The woman was so insistent that the support just wasn’t there. I found myself enraged by her call at the time, her ignorance. She said the support offered by medics was tantamount to lip service: some of the reasons women were seeking abortion were essentially solvable. That there wasn’t enough sensitive questioning and problem-solving. She said some of the protestors were happy to help women seek help escaping domestic violence, they were assisting in devising solutions to housing problems. They would happily attend appointments with women to help them apply for benefits they didn’t know they could get.
The protestors have an agenda of course, they want to stop all abortions, regardless of the reason. But they also want to help women with their choices and help facilitate them to give birth to their babies if there is a way they could.
I find myself considering my position. The women I spoke to all knew they couldn’t solve their problem, that they didn’t want their babies. One of them originally sought an abortion because she thought she had to, in 2017, then eventually changed her mind. She then had an abortion in a subsequent pregnancy, this year, since the first labour almost killed her. Her insights were particularly valuable as she received no help whatsoever in changing her mind that first visit.
What about uncertainty?
So what of those women who are unsure, feeling like they have no choice but to abort, but who potentially could change their minds under different circumstances? Can they be supported better to make a decision that might be a different route? How can abortion clinics really do that, without being accused of pressuring women?
It’s not a question I’m that comfortable asking, but are there ways we can reduce abortions, with better support? All of the women I interviewed were still struggling with their experiences to some extent, but one in particular was still feeling huge amounts of guilt, 11 years on.
Compelling women to undergo compulsory talk therapy sessions is too much of a sledgehammer approach, clearly, but how can we offer assistance to those seeking abortions, without appearing judgemental or like we are attempting to dissuade them?
Setting up an office at the local abortion clinic for people who hand out fraudulently misleading information is clearly a misguided notion, but is there scope for some kind of impartial counselling for before and after the procedure, if a woman wants it?
If what I’ve been told (by an admittedly small sample) about the way we deal with abortion reflects the majority of experiences, it needs to change. Now.
Have you had a similar experience? Or was yours far better? Did you receive support? Please let us know @sszeemedia