I had an abortion when I was nineteen, in my first year at university, in 1991.
Walking down a particular corridor in the building that houses the English Department at the University of Sydney will always remind me of the day when I decided to ask for an extension on the due date on one of my assignments. I didn’t feel good about doing this. But I had just had an abortion that didn’t go very well, that caused a lot of pain and bleeding and I was terrified. I had just ended a brief, disastrous, sexually and physically abusive relationship with a guy who threatened to kill me, send other people to kill me and assaulted me in my own bed. I was in counselling to deal with sexual assault that had taken place much earlier in life and was starting to rear its ugly post-traumatic head. I tried to be a good student. I loved university and all my courses, but it was becoming really difficult to get the work done so I made the humiliating decision to ask for some extra time.
I entered the office of the senior woman academic administrator in charge of these things for the English department, not quite sure what to say. I told her I was here to ask about an extension. ‘Can you read?’ she asked me coolly. It was one of those rhetorical questions that posed as something else; a challenge, a fuck you, a test, a trick, an instrument. She waited for me to answer.
‘Then you will be able to read the department policy that says we don’t give extensions.’
There was a moment when I thought about mentioning the abortion, the rape, the hitting and whatever, but it felt as though the only power I had left was to say no more and leave. (I thought of her a few years later when I was awarded the university medal for my honours work in English. Yes, I can read.)
I could have shouted my abortion at her. I could have said something. But what if she had replied, ‘So what?’ What then? It took a while before it occurred to me that I was projecting outwards the thing that part of me was saying to myself, inside. The long mantra of ‘get over it’. With its undertone, its echo: ‘This is all your fault.’
I went directly to my teachers and this time decided to leave out the other stuff — I still wasn’t sure what to say about the hitting and the rape, and whether to call it that, and what else to call it or to say about it, but the abortion was an objectively real and nameable thing that most people seemed to recognise could be legitimately upsetting or at least treated as deserving of a few days off. One of my lecturers let me have some extra time without requiring an explanation. I told another briefly that I’d had a termination (that was the less confrontational word), and acted like it was nothing to be ashamed of; he said sure, take a few extra days, eager to end the conversation, fair enough. He then changed the subject and took me to the student union, bought me a coffee, and pointed out when I left my cardigan in his office and then again on my chair when we left the cafe. He was kind and sort of bewildered and when I think back on his behaviour, which seemed mysterious at the time, I am able to form some kind of picture of how I might have appeared from the outside, like someone who needed some taking care of or some sympathy. It seemed very important to appear to be under control, to keep emotions about this thing to a minimum. I was so busy focusing on pulling myself together and congratulating myself for achieving it, it didn’t occur to me that my performance might not be very convincing. Except for the forgotten cardigan, which I knew was a sign of something failing in my mind and my attention.
One of the essays was on ‘The Rape of the Lock’. I had lost any capacity for ironic reflection at that stage.
I came to know the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression pretty intimately in the years that followed, although I didn’t know exactly what to call them at the time. With help I figured out that I didn’t need to tell my teachers what was going on, which was embarrassing for both of us, I just needed a form that was called ‘Special Consideration’. I used it and felt every time that I was cheating, using an excuse, hating myself for it. But I cared about getting a good mark, and that won out over the ‘get over it’ mantra voice, in a qualified and partial way.
There was never any question of wanting to continue with the pregnancy. Apart from the whole issue of the abusive relationship with the unstable violent ex, and being nineteen, it turned out that my doctor had prescribed me some medication in the couple of weeks before she thought to do the pregnancy test that would likely have caused serious birth defects. That’s what she told me, and part of me was relieved that I had been given a reason to end it. I was a feminist. I knew I didn’t need a reason. But it was very hard at that time to embrace the idea of doing anything for myself, to ensure my own wellbeing.
I slept badly, wondering whether the unstable ex would decide to go through with his (fairly obviously insane but still scary in the middle of the night) stated intentions of sending his friends after me with knives. It was years before I bought another bed, at the insistence of a kind boyfriend. I think of him when I read about the brave Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who carried around the mattress from her bed that she was raped on to protest the university’s pathetic reaction to her assault. Sleep on the bed, I told myself at the time (the bed you made for yourself, as the saying goes), show yourself that you can do it. Get over it.
In my family I am known as the super-sensitive one, the princess from the story of the princess and the pea hidden under the mattress. This is not a good way to be, making a fuss.
When we went shopping for a new futon it felt like the most crazily indulgent purchase I had ever made; it was certainly the most expensive. A new mattress didn’t really change the fact that I’d been attacked in the supposedly safe space of my own bed, and the distressing moments of PTSD that my boyfriend might have been hoping to alleviate still occasionally happened. But it showed me that it mattered to him, and made me at least act as though it mattered to me, as though I deserved to be free from that fear.
I live in the US now, and watch with a growing sense of fear and horror as women’s rights to reproductive care are gradually, methodically, stripped away by the states. Abortion clinics are closed; women are made to wait unreasonable periods of time and travel impossible distances; women in some states are forced to undergo an ultrasound before they can get an abortion, which is not very different from being raped with a thing they euphemistically call a wand, with its magic powers of showing you your own insides.
I was lucky. I was able to arrange an abortion without too much trouble, without travelling very far, and I was able to afford it. My family and friends supported me. The doctor wasn’t very nice or, it turned out, very caring, and was irritated when I phoned him a couple of days later explaining that I was in so much pain I couldn’t walk. Yes, that sometimes happens when they terminate the pregnancy so early, nothing to worry about, take another pill. Okay. Get over it. I felt anguish and confusion and through it all, although it was hard to admit, enormous relief. My life would no longer be joined to that man, my ex; I could begin to move on.
Those on the extreme right, which include seemingly all the Republican candidates for president, governors and senators from several states, see no problem with making no exception for abortion in cases of incest or rape, no matter the age of the woman or girl. Their argument is that abortion would just add another terrible thing to an already terrible situation and make the victim feel even worse. I can tell them that it wouldn’t.
It wasn’t hard for me to arrange an abortion, but that is purely because of doctors being willing to support women’s reproductive autonomy in an uncertain legal environment: abortion is not fully decriminalised in New South Wales, and several other Australian states. As I write this, conservative Republicans obsessed with controlling women’s bodies are willing to shut down the US government in order to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides healthcare to thousands of women who would otherwise be unable to access services such as breast exams, pap smears and contraception.
Writers Amelia Bonow and Lindy West recently took to social media to counter the stigma and shame that surrounds abortion, encouraging women to tell their own stories with the hashtag #shoutyourabortion. The idea is that we are too afraid of censure to speak openly about it, that instead we feel that we should keep our voices down, or just be silent. Bonow critiques ‘the assumption that abortion is still something to be whispered about’. On twitter, women are now writing with the hashtag about how thankful they are to have had that option, how their abortion helped them begin healing after rape, about their decision to limit the size of their family when they hit terrible economic hardship, about how they are glad that choice is there if they ever need it one day, and refusing to be ashamed.
My first thought when I read about the campaign was, this is awesome. I tell myself I’ve never been ashamed of having an abortion, but the truth is that I am not unaffected by that ideology and that stigma. I feel the need to buttress my decision with factors that seem to mitigate it: I was sexually assaulted; I was young; I had unknowingly taken medicine that would likely have caused defects. But what if none of those things had been true? What if I just didn’t want to be pregnant? The reality is that my decision doesn’t require justification. I decided that my life and my sanity mattered more than that clutch of cells. I had some angst about that decision at the time, but now I understand that as part of the general difficulty I experienced in asserting my own worth, especially in the dark aftermath of an abusive relationship.
When I read about the #shoutyourabortion campaign, I immediately composed a tweet and planned to join in. In 140 characters I described the circumstances in which I had my abortion, how grateful I was that I was able to do that safely, how it helped me to move on and build a life where I was able to have a child later on, when I was ready, who is much loved and much wanted. I tweaked it a bit. I sat with it. I deleted it.
I am right now thirty-three weeks pregnant with what will be my second child, and my fourth pregnancy. There was the abortion, number one, a miscarriage, number two, my son, number three, and now this, a pregnancy achieved with massive interventions after complications following my son’s birth and other factors that rendered me effectively infertile. I announced this pregnancy on social media just a few days ago with a photograph of my enormous belly, not long after I deleted that tweet. I shouted my pregnancy, but I was afraid to shout my abortion.
I spent an hour looking at Lindy West’s twitter feed on the weekend, reflecting on my fear. I didn’t read the hundreds of tweets of abuse she has received since getting the #shoutyourabortion hashtag going, but I read enough of her responses to them to get an idea of what she was dealing with, and what had happened since the hashtag had been highjacked by anti-abortion activists posting graphic images of aborted fetuses and hateful messages, intent on shaming and terrorising women who were brave enough to admit they had had an abortion, or men and women who shared their support for reproductive freedom.
I frequently witness and read about the abuse of women writers and activists on social media, and extreme cases of doxxing and menace against outspoken feminists such as Anita Sarkeesian, who dared to point out some instances of sexism in video games and has endured regular, credible threats to her life. My feminist writer friends on social media often cop a lot of shit and find some way of dealing with it. I don’t know if I am strong enough to handle what they handle. I deleted that tweet about my abortion because I was afraid of what it might expose me to: I don’t want to open my twitter to find hateful messages and pictures of aborted fetuses, especially when I am carrying around a fetus that feels like a very vulnerable part of me and pregnancy hormones have built a huge emotional roller coaster in my body. This is, of course, exactly what those people are counting on who send those trolling messages, hoping that people like me will be frightened and made silent. And shouting my abortion also means exposing myself as a survivor of sexual violence, and a woman who made the mistake of getting involved with a violent man. All these things carry stigma and shame.
It isn’t easy to put myself back in the place of my nineteen-year-old self, not least because of the awful hostility and blame that begins to leak out, the toxic stuff that stigma and shame turns into on the inside of one’s self, however much I aim for compassion and acceptance. I don’t like going back to that time or that self. But when I do try to put myself again in her shoes, in her cardigan, in her pink linen vintage dress I still have and cherish, the one I bought at the Paddington markets that year and that will always be a thing of uncontaminated beauty from that contaminated time, I do want to do something to lessen her suffering. To ameliorate the anguish and shame of the abortion I chose to have, and the violence that I believed I had somehow invited. If the internet had been around back then and if I could have read that #shoutyourabortion hashtag, and stories by Lindy West, Amelia Bonow, Clementine Ford and others, it would have helped me.
So for you, nineteen-year-old self, here is this story. I will shout it. Yes, you can read, and you can speak, and write, and use your voice to say that I chose to have an abortion, and I’m okay with that.