Monday 26 September 2016

Guilt, regret and pragmatism - Irish women and their abortions

Lasting trauma or 'life goes on'? Barbara McCarthy explores whether it's true that most women don't regret having an abortion

Barbara McCarthy

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

‘I was living with my grandmother and I hadn’t a penny. I couldn’t afford an abortion, which cost around €400, so one night
I decided to try it myself’
‘I was living with my grandmother and I hadn’t a penny. I couldn’t afford an abortion, which cost around €400, so one night I decided to try it myself’

A recent US survey suggests that 95pc of women who had abortions didn't regret them three years later. Research shows that the women, who came from diverse backgrounds and were closely monitored by the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, felt they made the right choice.

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In light of these statistics, I asked several women in Ireland who have had abortions in the past, how they felt about them now. Did they still think they had done the right thing or had they ended up making a decision that would affect them for the rest of their lives?

"I don't regret any of my abortions, I had six in total," Cora* informed me. "Its not something I'm proud of. I'm not some kind of an abortion factory, but I feel I had no other choices at those times in my life.

"I already had two children before my first abortion and I didn't have the money to support another child. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and should have walked away, but didn't. Instead, I got pregnant numerous times, because my husband used to hide my pill. It was the 1980s and contraception was a dirty word. You can't compare family planning nowadays to the way it was then," she said. "I had a coil at one stage later on, but it nearly killed me.

Cora says, like many other woman, she had to, "traipse over to England, which makes you feel like a criminal". She says she conducted two abortions herself using saline solutions. "When you don't see any other way out, you have to do what you have to do. Having a child is a huge responsibility. You are putting another human being on the planet and if you're not capable of looking after them, then it's not fair on the child. Children shouldn't have to grow up damaged. The damage only perpetuates over generations. You have to break the cycle."

Cora said that after she split with her husband, she lived in an estate for years where the majority of people were on welfare and crime and anti-social behaviour was rife. "One woman had ten children and she couldn't afford to look after them. What kind of start in life is that?"

Breda* had three abortions before having a child and miscarried on her way to her fourth. "I don't feel any guilt about it. Each time, I was in a situation where it wasn't suitable to have a child. I was 17 the first time, another time I got pregnant with my husband's friend after I split with my husband. I had all my abortions before I was seven weeks gone. I think after 12 weeks, I wouldn't be able to do it. The thing about abortions is that whether people agree with them or not, women will have them at any cost, even if they have to do it themselves," she said.

Mary* says she nearly died trying to abort her own child. "I already had a baby, which I had when I was 19 and I loved being a mother. Then, when I was in my mid 20s, I found myself pregnant again. I was on Lone Parents [Allowance], living with my grandmother and I hadn't a penny. I couldn't afford an abortion, which cost around €400 at the time, plus the trip to the UK, so I decided to try it myself.

One night I sterilised the other side of a calligraphy pen and sat in the bathtub, where I spent two hours conducting a home-made abortion. A few hours later I had severe cramps and ended up in intensive care. I had to have a blood transfusion after a serious infection. I regret how I went about it, but I felt like I had no choice at the time," she says. "I didn't want to be talked into keeping the baby as I would have been kicked out of the house."

Mary says she went on to have two more abortions and two more children. "I never told the fathers of the children because I didn't want it to be a long-term thing. One was married, and I didn't want to be in a relationship with the other father.

"We live in different times now. When I had my first baby as a single mother, the head nurse asked me if I was keeping the child, because I wasn't married. Now women are much more informed and generally those who get pregnant, want to get pregnant."

Last year, around 3,400 women travelled to the UK, which is less than before, but "the figures are deceptive, as a lot of women travel to other countries, or buy pills online, which allow you to abort your child at home up to nine weeks," said Sinead Ahern from the lobbying group Choice Ireland.

Bernadette Goulding, a co-ordinator at Rachel's Vinyard, which offers support and weekend retreats for women and men suffering from post-abortion trauma says that a lot of women suffer a secret, forbidden grief. "Its seen as just a temporary thing, but it can affect you for the rest of your life. I have met so many people who have been damaged by it - both men and women. Sometimes it takes many years for people to acknowledge the pain. As a society we don't understand abortion," she said. "It's a very human thing. You destroy a part of yourself."

Goulding had an abortion when she was 20 and said she went into denial about it for years. "I kept telling myself that I did the right thing at the time, that my family didn't want the baby, that the circumstances were wrong. But then I went into a very dark place. My child is gone forever and will never be replaced, the photo frame on the mantelpiece is empty. I had a little heart beating inside me and I took it away. Once I went through this, I realised there must be other women out there who feel the same way and that's why I decided to reach out. There are some very sad stories, especially from the women who aborted the only baby they would ever have. The effect on men also can't be denied. Its very real."

A Finnish study found that women were six times more likely to commit suicide after abortion, while a study conducted in New Zealand found a small increase in the risk of mental disorder among women who had had abortions.

Musician Sinead O'Connor stated many years ago that people don't necessarily understand, because they haven't had the experience, but to decide to have to terminate a pregnancy is probably the most difficult decision a woman would have to make.

Note: Names marked with * have been changed

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