A vertiginous experience

Last week, I had an abortion.

I had always wanted children, but knew my partner was against the idea, having reiterated many a time, ‘Do it all after you’re thirty’. Neither of us was in any position to support a child financially; he’s a full-time student on the way to a PhD. I didn’t want to take that dream away from him – but I hadn’t realised that what I wanted for myself was also important.

A few weeks ago, I sat outside a café in North Melbourne, laying on my belly and sipping a latte that made me want to be sick. I smoked a cigarette. I felt a little pulsation inside my stomach and realised, then, that I was porous. That my body was no longer soley mine. That it was being shared with something. I began to cry, because I felt like neither the pregnancy (as I shall refer to it here) nor my body belonged to me.

He was angry that I didn’t share the news with him immediately, of course, and I think that often our partners can feel a sense of a loss of control, too. I acknowledged his feelings and apologised, but told him I needed to let the pregnancy develop (like dunking a photograph into chemicals, hanging it up to dry and watching what happens, the artist in me explained).

I wanted to make a decision for myself, I said. I was cooking him dinner while he packed his bags. He said that he was going to his parents. He didn’t come back for days.

During those days, I was at home, calling family and friends, asking for support, looking for someone to tell me that I could make this decision on my own. The cramps and morning sickness made it hard to move. In a fit of rage, I packed up all his books. Our collection of alphabetised books had been the most intimate and important signification of commitment we had shared. I gathered all my Judith Butler, my Simone de Beauvoir, my crappy sentimental classics from high school, women’s lib magazines from the 1970s, all my folios, and made my own bookshelf. When I was done, his books lay in piles on the ground. I started to feel my breathing quicken and fail, like my chest had something stuck in it – the feeling sunk into my belly and I opened the door and rested on my back on the carpet of our loungeroom. I felt split in two. The cramps went away. The sobbing did, too. My pregnancy hurt, and I was only a few weeks in.

I soon realised that my grief was about losing something that I will never know. I wrote Clotilde, this being I would never know, a letter, thinking it would be the best way for me to sort out how I felt, and perhaps my only chance to communicate with her. I read it to a friend. She thought the letter suggested that I had made up my mind, and that maybe Clotilde was planting seeds for me to move on.

I thought about the idea of seeds and possibilities, and it felt positive. I made the decision to have a ‘termination’. I appreciated the objectivity of language used by counsellors and doctors, and the gentleman who conducted my ultrasound. He informed me that sometimes exposure to internal images can leave you feeling like you don’t have a choice, or that it can induce grieving. I insisted I see it: I want to be in touch with myself and as least alienated from the decision-making as possible.

And it was kind of cool to see my ovaries. Weird things. My best friend attended the ultrasound with me. We took the elevator down, and my stomach copied the sensation, as it dawned on me just how little control I had over the process: how young the being was would determine when I could have an abortion, what kind of procedure I would need, how long I would have to wait and a variety of other questions.

I want to stress that my experience was not one of letting go, but rather holding onto Clotilde, of thanking her for all I experienced when she was here – a sublime connection with my body, a shitload of morning sickness shared between us (not a beautiful thing), and for giving me the physical and emotional space of my body back to me. I saw that my future dreams, pried from desires I never knew existed, had been clashing against a little belly full of her.

While everyone’s bodies are different, I think I’ve discovered all these new spaces, in my body and my relationships. I will never forget the sensation of being pregnant, or the friends who supported me (even when I felt like I was wrapped up in a cocoon of the opinions of others, but just wanted solace). I will never forget Clotilde, or the doctors that have been so kind to me.

I might need counselling, I’m not sure. But I do know that I have a future that I can be grateful for, thanks to hard-won abortion rights. For any woman (one in three, I read), who will encounter the vertiginous experience of an ‘unplanned pregnancy’ and who will consider abortion (or already has), I feel for you. I want you to know that there is a large community of women who have suffered the same problems, and that we live in a world that makes it hard to exercise autonomy over our bodies.

During my pregnancy, I spoke with two Catholic doctors who would not help, and a qualified abortion clinician unable to help (due to holiday leave). I spoke to male doctors who offered me the ‘you’re almost thirty, why don’t you want a baby?’ talk, as though maternal instincts (if there’s such a thing) are intrinsic to functioning ovaries, a vagina and the rest of the bits. I attended ultrasounds and blood tests; I stared too hard at the posters of pregnant bellies on the walls of women’s hospitals and watched many prams pass me by. If there is anything I have learned from the bureaucratic nature of the way women’s bodies are treated, it is that there are not enough resources to help women in time – that we do not have abortion on demand.

The only public hospital in Victoria to regularly provide surgical terminations has a two-week waiting list; even then, the numbers of abortions they can perform is limited. Then there are timeframes and legal issues which can affect whether or not the service is even an option. Moreover, many women do not know where to turn for abortion, or have the financial resources available to pay for one. The cheapest abortion available for healthcare card holders in Victoria is around 300 dollars. Private clinic fees can be thousands of dollars, depending on the stage of the pregnancy.

In Victoria, women might have a right to abortion, but it’s curious to consider how limited these spaces and options are. If abortion is a health issue – and unplanned pregnancies can cause distress, depression, anxiety and a range of other physical health issues – why do Catholic hospitals refuse women this right? While I respect religious values, I find it concerning that women’s bodies are shunted to small, discreet clinics overwhelmed with bookings.

I am not ashamed of my abortion, my body, or my choices. I know many other women feel differently, but after Clotilde, I will remember the wars waged to fight for my own future. We lose some wars and win others, but we should never stop trying – and I hope that in the future, we can have a more ethical and affordable system, where women truly control their bodies without all the clichés, confusion, shame or regret.

I will bury Clotilde under a giant thistle tree and every time I see a dandelion turned to seed, I will think of her.

I want to thank everyone, particularly all the women I have spoken to who supported me through this time in my life. I feel lucky and free.

Celeste Elizabeth

Celeste Elizabeth is an established photographer, writer and delinquent, with a focus on the body, space and identity politics. She is also a on the Women's Legal Service Board.

More by Celeste Elizabeth ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays