Of all of the women Jane Hooker has seen obtain an abortion over the course of her nursing career, one stands out – a former colleague who was already a mother. “She had long ago completed her family only to find herself unexpectedly pregnant,” explains Hooker, a manager at Marie Stopes Australia, which offers reproductive health services.
“After the abortion, as if the poor woman hadn’t gone through enough already, she was subjected to months of bullying by her peers – and we’re talking healthcare professionals here – because they just couldn’t understand how a woman who already had children could do such a thing.”
There is no standardised national data collection on unplanned pregnancy and abortion in Australia, but it’s estimated that almost half of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned, and that half of those are terminated.
And while Hooker has certainly seen her fair share of young, frightened girls who are pregnant for the first time, the reality is that many more of her patients are mothers who have been unwilling or unable to continue with their pregnancies.
“Some terminate because their relationships are breaking down, they’ve already completed their families or because they fell pregnant straight after the birth of their last one,” she says. “Others have come in mourning the loss of a child; they’re not psychologically ready to embark on another pregnancy, or they’re feeling traumatised from a history of frequent miscarriages.”
Almost all within this group will be secretive about their abortion. “Younger women are more likely to talk openly and reach out to one another for support, but the stigma for mums still feels far too great, unfortunately,” says Hooker. “It goes to show that we still have a long way to go.
“I STILL CELEBRATE OUR BABY’S WOULD-BE BIRTHDAY”
Gina*, a 36-year-old mother of two, was forced to abort her longed-for third baby after medical tests revealed genetic abnormalities.
Nothing prepares you for the moment they pull you into a tiny room away from the other pregnant women to give you the speech all expectant mothers dread. I don’t remember much about what happened next – only that the room was bare with the exception of a few boxes of tissues, and that it smelled very strongly of ammonia. The doctor must have spoken for 20 minutes, but all I heard was, ‘I’m so sorry, but your baby is incompatible with life.’ And then I heard the sound of my screaming – almost as though I’d left my own body and was watching it from above.
It sounds ridiculous, but up until that point, I always thought abortion was for young women who found themselves pregnant unexpectedly, not for married women like me who already had children – and certainly not for women who had planned their babies and endured countless miscarriages to get there.
But well into my second trimester, this is the position I suddenly found myself in. I was told I could either terminate within the next couple of days or continue with the pregnancy and let nature take its course after the birth. I begged and pleaded with the doctors to test and retest, hoping it had just been some kind of horrible mistake, but it wasn’t.
The last thing I remember is my husband crying over me as he leant down to kiss me goodbye.
Waking up from the procedure and realising my baby was gone was probably the most hellish experience I’ve ever had. To help me come to terms with our baby’s death, we had a small service and brought the baby’s ashes home, but I refused to let the urn go.
I took it with me everywhere, feeling like a new mother yet having no baby to speak of. I slept with the ashes, I went for walks with them and I stopped leaving the house because I didn’t want to leave ‘the baby’ alone.
In the end, my husband convinced me to see a psychologist but it took me a long time to accept that the baby I’d been so eagerly preparing for was really gone. It’s been a couple of years now, but our baby is still very much a part of our lives. The due date is celebrated with a candle on a cake and the day of the termination mourned, but I’m still glad that option was available to me.
The other alternative [of giving birth to a baby that would die] was far worse, and this already feels painful enough.”
“I KNEW IMMEDIATELY THAT ANOTHER BABY WOULD BREAK US”
Imogen*, 30, was suffering severe postnatal depression after the birth of her second child when she discovered she was pregnant again.
“It’s hard to articulate exactly what goes through your mind when you’re staring at a positive pregnancy test and wishing desperately for it to be negative.
There’s shock, horror, frustration and anger, of course, but mostly I remember thinking just how different things felt compared to when I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter, and then, a couple of years later, with my son. In hindsight, I think I knew before I left the bathroom that evening where this fork in the road was going to lead. There really was no other way it could have gone.
I had been diagnosed with severe postnatal depression after my son was born, and when he was four months old the team who were monitoring me tried to hospitalise me for my own health. Refusing to leave my son, or my daughter who was then two years old, I insisted on staying at home, agreeing to see a psychiatrist once a week and stay on the medication they prescribed.
My son was only 10 months old when I saw the two lines appear on the pregnancy test, and we all knew I simply didn’t have enough fuel in the tank to look after another baby.
Not only did no one in my immediate circle question my decision to terminate, but my obstetrician, psychiatrist, mother and close girlfriends all told me I was making the right choice. My husband wasn’t quite as sure as I was. Right up until the moment we walked through the clinic doors a week later, he pressed me to reconsider. But I couldn’t be swayed.
I told him [the termination] had nothing to do with him or our relationship and everything to do with the fact that I was already drowning. He seemed to accept this, and we haven’t spoken about the baby since. I don’t really think about the baby or what could have been had the pregnancy continued … should I? Getting pregnant accidentally was a huge lesson learnt for me; it helped me take stock of what’s important in my life and realise that I’m far stronger than I thought.
Yes, I felt a sadness immediately afterwards, but even then – as I do now – I knew I’d made the right decision for my family. Today, I’m in a much better place emotionally, and I’m all too aware that our reality now would be very different had I not had an abortion. It’s almost too frightening to think about.”
“IF I COULD GO BACK, I’D DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY”
Eloise*, a 48-year-old mother of three, regrets being pressured into abortion.
“I thought I was done with having children when I met Tim* at a concert one night. Having put everyone through the ringer with a toxic marriage and an even worse divorce, I felt like things were finally getting back on track.
The kids were all at school, work was picking back up and after 18 months with Tim, everything seemed complete.
But although Tim was great with the kids and was keen on creating a future with me, he made it clear to me from day dot that he wasn’t signing up to have any children of his own. Having felt like I’d completed my family, I didn’t think anything of it … until I discovered I was pregnant.
To say Tim took the news pretty badly is an understatement. The term ‘betrayal’ came up over and over again. I was surprised to find that I was happy about being pregnant again and I wanted to have the baby, but Tim wasn’t having any of it.
Just like in the movies, he sat me down and told me it would be a choice between him and the baby – something like, ‘If you terminate, I will support you and we will get through this together, but if you do this against my wishes, I will leave and I will never forgive you for tearing our family apart.’
I despised him at that moment but when I thought it over, I could see I wasn’t in any position – financially, emotionally or logistically – to enter motherhood all over again with no one by my side. With a heavy heart, I made the appointment and I cried every day in the lead-up to the procedure. It still didn’t prepare me for what I felt afterwards; it felt like the grief would swallow me whole.
It would have been easy to hate Tim for giving me that ultimatum, but instead I chose to focus on the fact that he had always been straight up with me about not wanting children, and that I had given him my word. We eventually married, and today we have a lovely life we’ve created together, but things aren’t always perfect.
I still have days when I’m filled with resentment and regret, when more than anything I wish I’d just gone with my heart and had the baby. I thought I was choosing us as we were back then, but those people never came back from the clinic. We just make do with who we are today.”
*Names have been changed.
You can contact Marie Stopes Australia for confidential advice and support by visiting mariestopes.org.au or calling 1300 323 197.