This is an anonymous post detailing a personal account of an abortion at 21 weeks. It is a bit longer than our usual posts, I am sure you can understand why I wanted it to remain as written. Many thanks to our anonymous author for sharing her story – it’s so important to hear from people who have actual experience of the stuff that gets bandied about in politics. This piece offers a very personal perspective, which may offer some food for thought in the context of Jeremy Hunt’s desire to reduce the termination limit to 12 weeks.
I looked in my purse – I couldn’t really afford it. I sighed because pregnancy tests are horrifically expensive. I gave my brother and sister everything I had, and they sauntered into Tesco (I was too embarrassed to go myself). It wasn’t a big moment. It was a joke, almost – something different to do that Saturday afternoon. None of us thought it would end up coming to anything, least of all me. I was more annoyed about the money that anything else.
I’d finally been pushed to do it after I’d had a shower that morning. I’d felt bloated for weeks, but because I’d done a pregnancy test a few months before – about two months after my last period – and it was negative, I thought it must be a food allergy or something. Fruit squash, was my bright idea. Apparently the sweeteners in the sugar-free ones can cause digestive reactions in some people.
Anyway, whilst looking at my bloated stomach for the twentieth time in as many days that morning, I noticed that my belly button was sticking out more that it used to. It was the first time I’d noticed it; it wasn’t a complete ‘outie’ but it was definitely more visible than usual. So when I started moaning again about what on earth was going on with my body, my siblings persuaded me to get a test so that I could rule that theory out (again) and then go to the doctor to figure out what it really was.
I’d had other symptoms of course which, when I look back, all blatantly pointed to the first trimester of a pregnancy. I’d suddenly had really oily skin, but I thought this and my periods stopping was to do with the stress regarding my break-up with a boyfriend and residual angst from my parents’ separation. I had felt some unusual nausea when I was on a holiday in India two months previously, but I’d reasoned this was because of the local food and water, and the antihistamines I was taking. It’s easy for people to say ‘You must have known’, but it’s not that simple. One negative test was all it took to become blind to (and make excuses for) a million other signs. That and the fact that the only instance of unprotected sex I’d had in the last six months (a horrific event I was barely aware of) was hastily followed by the morning after pill.
As we pulled back in our driveway after buying a twin pack for £14 (all they had, which annoyed me even more) we encountered my dad packing up the car to go off for the weekend. ‘Don’t leave yet,’ I joked, ‘I could be pregnant, in which case you won’t be able to go!’ He rolled his eyes at me.
I practically skipped to the toilet, so unassuming was I. I read the instructions and carried them out. Because I was so sure it would be negative, it had turned into a kind of game. It was quite exciting really.
I put the lid on and wiped it with a tissue. I threw a cursory glance at the stick.
The word ‘Pregnant’ stared back at me. Barely twenty seconds had passed. I frowned, looked at it again (thank god I hadn’t got one of the one line/two line/crossed line ones, it really had to be spelled out to me). I didn’t understand, that was way too fast – the instructions said wait two and half minutes?
I walked quickly out of the bathroom and into the kitchen where my sister sat swinging her legs, sitting on the Aga. She looked at my face. I thrust the stick into her hands. She continued to look at my face and dismissed my expression, shaking her head. ‘Very funny’, she said. She looked down. I waited for her to read it.
‘It said that after seconds,’ I stressed. ‘That can’t be right, can it?? It’s supposed to be two and a half minutes. It was seconds!!!’ I was beginning to panic now.
My sister finally looked up. Whatever she felt personally was overruled by her maternal soothing instinct (which we’d all developed on overdrive since my mum’s departure). ‘Don’t worry, it’s probably just wrong,’ she said tentatively. ‘It shouldn’t have given you an answer so quickly, should it? It’s wrong. Just do the other one.’
‘I can’t be pregnant, this is crazy…’ I felt a little sick.
‘You’re not! You’re definitely not. Just do the other test; that’ll be negative.’
Shaking, I walked back to the toilet. She advised me to do it the alternative way the instructions described (by peeing into a cup and dipping the stick in, if you must know). I did as I was told. I put the cap on and walked, still in a daze, back to the kitchen.
My sister had gone outside to speak to Dad who had been about to leave. Together they walked in the front door. He clearly didn’t believe what he’d been told. Yeah, sure, his face said. Either they’re having me on or they’re incapable of reading the instructions on one of these things. She showed him the original stick. His face became drained of colour.
‘Oh, shit,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry,’ my sister interrupted, ‘she’s doing the other one and that will be negative. This one gave her the result way too quickly.’ She sounded confident now.
The remaining test burnt my hand as it clenched around it. I was afraid to look at it. About a minute, maybe a minute and a half, had passed.
I looked at it.
‘Oh god.’ I started crying. ‘I can’t be pregnant, I can’t be pregnant, I can’t be pregnant…’ I said over and over again. My sister took the test from my hand. I sank to the floor, staring at nothing. ‘I did a pregnancy test. I did a pregnancy test!! Months ago. It was negative! I can’t be pregnant. I ALWAYS use condoms!’ Now I was shouting.
It was true.
My mind went into hyper-drive, scanning a history of my recent sexual episodes in intimate flash-backs. There had been the incident in December, but I’d got the morning after pill in plenty of time. Yes I’d had the odd occasion here and there since where there had been brief penetration before a condom was resentfully but dutifully sourced – doesn’t everyone?? But while we’ve all heard the scare-stories about ‘pre-come’, but who actually thought it was a real threat? I have friends who have used the pull-out method for years, with no scares at all. Could that really be what got me pregnant?!
If I was pregnant, there was one thing that I immediately knew – I’d been pregnant a while. The symptoms, which I’d tried to blame on everything under the sun, had started before Christmas. It was March. I had to be damn close to the legal abortion limit, I thought. Oh god, was it too late?
And there was also one thing I definitely did not know – whose baby it was. Since there was no notable occasion to pinpoint, and since my ex-boyfriend and recent sexual partner had overlapped, it was a toss-up. I didn’t know whether this was a good or a bad thing.
At some point there was a phone conversation with Marie Stopes abortion clinic. I don’t really remember it, except that I knew I had to make the call to go private, and quickly, because of how far along I knew I must be. I told them this, which meant that I was booked in for a scan in days, rather than weeks. I found out on Saturday; the scan was booked for Tuesday.
I went to London for it, with my sister and my dad. I’d booked the whole week off work by this point. I don’t even remember what excuse was made. It’s the one time my dad’s helped me pull a sickie; he rang them for me. I didn’t trust myself to speak to them.
The whole day was pretty surreal – I felt like we were playing parts in a play. A warning play to others. I told Dad he shouldn’t come to the clinic, thinking it might make other women and girls in the there uncomfortable. So he waited for us in a nearby café. He was really nervous but trying not to show it. He didn’t know what to hope for aloud I don’t think. None of us did I guess. It’s a difficult thing to say ‘Good luck, hope you’re within the legal limit to get an abortion!’ So he just hugged me hard.
We headed over early as I was partly afraid I wouldn’t find it and partly afraid we’d have to fight our way through protesters. I really didn’t know what to think. When we arrived we were directed into a little room. It was exactly as I imagined – everyone was very hush hush; everything was white; there were quite a few young girls there with their mothers. I felt bad being there when I was at an age where I was clearly able to care for a child. We sat down; my sister held my hand. I tried to look anywhere but at the other girls. We all sat there for a while, trying to pretend we didn’t know what everyone else was all doing there.
Then suddenly a new pair came in – a very young oriental girl and her tiny but much older mother. The mother had a number of bulging Sainsbury’s plastic bags. She bustled in quite loudly whilst the girl followed quietly behind and sat down. The mother continued to bustle for a while, until she ripped off a big piece off a baguette sticking out of one of the bags, and proceeded to eat it noisily.
I thought this was rather insensitive since some of the girls there would have most likely been nil by mouth for the morning, but she surpassed herself the next minute by pulling out a steaming bag of hot chicken. The smell filled the room! She took out a wing and started gnawing at it. Her daughter looked at her reproachfully, and she sharply defended herself by shouting: ‘What? I hungry!’
(Why she spoke in broken English to her daughter who presumably spoke Chinese I don’t know.)
This made my sister and I burst out laughing, and we spent the next few minutes until I was called sitting there with barely controlled grins on our faces, which was quite unexpected but split the tension in two. So I really need to thank that woman.
When we got upstairs, however, nothing seemed funny any more. The only thing I could hear was the question ‘Less than 24 weeks or more than 24 weeks?’ going round and round my head like a broken record. In a few minutes I was going to find out whether my world was about to seriously change forever. I’m ashamed to say that at this point I was only worried about myself: my life. Not the one that I was praying I would be able to end.
We went into a little room. They asked if I wanted my sister to come in with me; I was adamant that she must. I was starting to shake. It was too overwhelming. The nurse asked me some questions, I don’t remember what. She did a prick test on my finger to test my blood type. She was a nice gentle lady – quite old and small. She knew I thought I was close to the legal limit for termination. It was probably in the file, but I also must have mentioned it eight times in 10 minutes. She explained that if the scan implied I was close she would need to call a second physician in, as legally two of them need to agree and sign off that it was within 24 weeks in such circumstances.
She asked me to lie down on the bed. Gurney, whatever. She asked me to pull my trousers and underwear down – I was surprised on how far down she needed them to be. Kind of like when you’re surprised by how low down a woman’s caesarean scar is. She squeezed some clear gel onto my stomach. I started crying – I had seen this happen a million times in films and TV this was not the scenario I imagined it happening to me for the first time.
She started moving the wand from side to side, looking intently at the screen – which was luckily was by my head, so I couldn’t see it. My sister could, though. She was sitting at the foot of the bed, and I was watching her. She was looking at the screen; she clearly couldn’t help it. She squeezed my foot, hard – for her benefit as much as mine I suspect. I was really crying now; I couldn’t look at her face any more, sickened by trying to read what it was she could see whilst at the same time not wanting to know. I had an overwhelming urge to ask the nurse if she could tell if it was a boy or a girl. I don’t think I said it out loud.
I lay back and put my hands over my eyes. I was shaking so much now the nurse had to ask me to calm down, Calm down dear, I can’t get a good reading.
Finally she stopped. She said ‘I’m just going to get my colleague to have a look’. I knew that wasn’t good. She left the room. ‘Please’ I whispered aloud through tears. ‘Please, please, please, please.’ I’m not ready for this baby. Five days ago I hadn’t even been pregnant – now I might be past the legal limit for abortion? It can’t be, it can’t be. I had the self-awareness to feel guilty about my pleas but I meant them as much as I’ve ever meant anything.
The nurse came back in with another more senior looking physician. They both looked at the screen. The nurse looked at her colleague. I looked at both of them. ‘Yes, you’re about 21 weeks,’ the new guy said. ‘Maybe a little over.’
‘So I can have it?’ I said, I didn’t want to say the word. ‘I can have an abortion?’
I burst out crying again, out of guilt and relief.
Because I was so close they booked me in to have the ‘procedure’ in the next few days. I had to be there early. So early, in fact, that I decided to go to my friend’s the night before, as she lived relatively close to the clinic. Also, if I’m honest, I hadn’t seen any friends since I found out I was pregnant and I kind of wanted to.
That sounds weird; let me explain. After the test said positive I suddenly felt and, I thought, looked very pregnant. I was convinced people were wondering whether to offer me a seat on the tube, or scorning me for having a cigarette in the street. Or maybe I just wanted to look as pregnant as I suddenly felt? The feelings were quite overpowering. My centre of gravity seemed to change all of a sudden and I felt I needed to get out of chairs hips first. As I walked I held my arms around my belly, protectively. But mostly I felt fiercely maternal for the first time, a time when I was about to do the least maternal thing imaginable.
These were possibly reasonable thoughts and feelings considering my hormones– I was five months gone after all, more than halfway through a full term – but because I had gone until the week before not having a clue, and because of what I was about to do, I felt like a fraud feeling physically and mentally pregnant all of a sudden. I certainly didn’t think I deserved to have these feelings which seemed so precious and private.
All I knew was that they were feelings I wasn’t ready to lose as quickly as the baby I knew I couldn’t have. I hadn’t fully processed what was going on yet, but I thought that if I saw a friend before I had the abortion, someone other than family who could later say ‘Yes, she was definitely pregnant’, then it would be a way of helping me process them later. I sensed that in the future I’d need to have proof it was real, as it was sure to seem like a dream after the reality of it would only last 4 days and nights. I wanted to make sure I had some tangible connection to it later. I find it difficult to explain why.
My sister and I got the tube to my friends’ the night before. Poor thing hadn’t a clue what to do or say, or what food to get, or whether it was an occasion for booze or not. I had wanted to go the 24 hours before ‘clean’ – to somehow give something good to this piece of me that I was betraying so badly – but I couldn’t even manage that. I smoked and drank, just as I had done for the past five months, selfishly and desperately.
It was only a matter of time before polite questions of how I was feeling turned into a morbid curiosity. I would have been exactly the same. My friend and sister, who hadn’t dared be so personal thus far, watched as I pulled up my top to reveal my swollen stomach, half scared, half – dare I say it – proud. They placed their hands on it. They were incredulous. ‘I can’t believe none of us noticed,’ they said. It seemed huge.
They wanted the money as soon as we got there. Incredibly, we hadn’t thought about this part. I had nothing, so my sister paid, which added to the surrealism. She paid with her student fees money which wasn’t due to be paid for another few days. My dad would pay her back, it was arranged. That made me feel quite sick. I couldn’t even pay for this awful thing I was doing. It was £1,600.
Another waiting room, another group of young girls. We weren’t allowed to eat anything, so I thought the smell of toast wafting through the window from the staff kitchen was quite insensitive. There was some rubbish morning television show on. I prayed some tacky coverage of abortion hadn’t been scheduled.
Eventually I got called through. Considering we were told to get there about 7am, I was physically and emotionally exhausted by the time I was called in after 10am. It turned out it was because they’d lost my blood work. After being shown upstairs (and given a sheet to wrap round myself – I hadn’t been told I should bring my own nightie in) I waited another hour while they did some more and had it read.
After spending no small amount of time trying to figure out how to lie in my kind of hammock chair daintily, trying not to disturb the other girls who were lying down staring at the walls, I was eventually led through to what looked exactly like a hospital room. That’s when I realised where the money goes – there were about six nurses led by a doctor. I don’t need all these people, I thought. The doctor wasn’t very friendly; gentle but firm I guess you might say. Not sure what I expected. He told me to lie down and put my legs in the stirrups. He told me that he was going to insert a pessary, and that when he did that I would experience ‘some discomfort’. He said that I would then go back to my hammock chair where I would wait for a few hours until the pessary had done it’s work and my womb had contracted, and then I’d come back in for the ‘procedure’ where the ‘contents’ would be disposed of. I felt sick at his use of words, and then guilty for being such a hypocrite.
‘Some discomfort’ turned out to be the closest thing I hope I ever come to what I imagine being sexually assaulted feels like. He unceremoniously stuffed a plastic speculum inside me, followed by what felt like his entire fist, and jammed around until he seemed satisfied. I choked back tears – I refused to allow myself the luxury of crying. He left the room. One of the nurses was obviously aware of my reaction. She soothingly placed her hand on my arm and said ‘That’s the worst of it, later you won’t be conscious. We’ll just take you in to sit down and relax now.’ She put me in a wheelchair – my legs didn’t seem to work very well – but I pulled myself together enough to insist quite strongly that I not be taken in to the other room before I composed myself. I didn’t want to scare the other girls by letting them see me so upset.
I lay down on my strange chair, much less concerned now about how I might manage it with grace. The nurse told me I’d be there for between three and five hours, depending on how long it took for me to become contracted enough for them to finish. Contracted, I thought? I’m going to have contractions?? I hadn’t been prepared for that. She gave me a heat pad and told me that I would be given some ibuprofen if I needed it. I didn’t really understand what she might mean.
It’s hard to explain the next few hours – they passed in a blur. At times, the pain became so unbearable I didn’t know what to do with myself. It came and went in waves, as I presume contractions do. At one point one of my closest friends rang. I didn’t know if I was allowed to but I answered. Unfortunately at that moment I was suffering particularly badly, and I didn’t seem to be able to get any words out. My friend immediately went into panic mode – I don’t think she expected me to be consciously going through so much pain, either – and within the next 10 minutes I received phone calls from the three other girls. Each had had a worried phone call from the last. I felt incredibly touched at their concern, but was physically quite incapable of reassuring them in any way.
Eventually – after what seemed like days – I was wheelchaired back into the hospital room. They gave me a general anaesthetic. They asked me if I had any questions – I asked where they put the baby after they’d taken it out. They looked at me like I’d just emitted a bad smell. It was a distasteful question, I realise, but I had to know. The ‘contents’ were disposed of safely, they said. Then everything started to fade out, and the last thing I can remember saying is ‘Please don’t hurt her…’
When I came to, I felt almost euphoric. General anaesthetic has that affect on me, I now know. I felt like I was floating on a cloud. When I got back into the room, they gave me a biscuit and a cup of tea. I was told I could collect myself for 30 minutes. I looked around the room, wistfully. It was quite late in the day by that point, and there were only a few girls left. ‘I think we’ve all done really well,’ I said in my fuzzy, disconnected state. They smiled weakly at me. I have no idea what I expected.
When the time came I slowly made my way outside to where my sisters and mum were waiting in a car. Mum had insisted on picking me up, saying I wouldn’t be able to get the tube. I had had no idea what she meant, but now it was only too clear. I could barely walk, and certainly couldn’t bend in any way. The pain is hard to explain. It was like my whole body was centred around this very potent but dulled ache in the centre of my body. I was also still druggy from the anaesthetic.
I was also, of course, incredibly grateful to see their faces. I hadn’t realised quite how lonely and distressing the last six or seven hours had been until I was in their bosom.
They had clearly spent a long few hours pottering around, not sure how to prepare to see me, or what, if anything, to get me. In the end they gave me a pulse and lavender filled bear, which you warm in the microwave and then hold against ‘aches and pains’. Even now the smell reminds me.
I don’t regret what I did – I wasn’t ready, I had no idea who the father was, and I had so abused my body with drink and drugs during those five months due to emotional distresses of the time that I can’t imagine the child would have been healthy. It would not have been the best start in life. When I compare how I looked after myself then with the rare glasses of red wine, multiple pregnancy vitamins, and soft cheese bans that wilfully pregnant women around me endure today, I feel physically sick.
But can’t quite let it go either. I can’t count the number of times since that I’ve Googled ‘foetus at 21 weeks’. It’s kind of like when you unwittingly find evidence of betrayal, and you find yourself looking at it over and over again. You purposefully put yourself through the pain as you develop something of an unhealthy fascination. These periods comes in ebbs and flows, perhaps triggered by some mention of abortion by friends or the news, perhaps not.
Maybe it’s because I was so far along that my body has experienced how strong the hormones can get – maybe it’s because I had to make the decision so quickly – maybe it’s because I’m self-indulgent – but every pregnancy of those close to me since has been that much more interesting to me. I find myself looking at those who are at a similar term and yelling to myself, ‘How could you not have noticed??’ But that, along with exactly how and when I became pregnant, why that first pregnancy test failed, and who the father was, will remain things I will never know the answer to. Sometimes I imagine the afterlife as being sat in a room while someone gives you the answer to every one of those mysteries that have built up in your life. I guess that’s something I’ll find out.
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